Were the Knights of the Round Table real figures?

A 19th century painting of the knights leaving Camelot

King Arthur's heroic adventures, his castle at Camelot and his magical sword Excalibur are very well-known and they have even entered popular culture. The Arthurian legends and stories have inspired countless books, play, tv series and of course movies. One of the most fascinating stories in the Arthurian cycle of legends are those on the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table. They are among the best-known characters in the Arthurian cycle of stories, including memorable figures as Lancelot, Gawain, and Perceval. The knights who gathered around the circular table are regarded as the paragons of knightly virtue.

They inspired many nobles during the Middle Ages to abide by the code of chivalry. However, did the Knights of the Round Table exist and are they based on historical figures. This article examines if the fabled knights have some basis in fact. It argues that the story of the Round Table probably has no real basis in fact, but that the chivalrous warriors were likely based on stories of elite fighters who fought for early medieval warlords and possible some historical figures whose memory survived in folklore.

The Arthurian Legend

Sir Lancelot slaying a dragon

King Arthur was once believed to have lived in the Dark Ages, in Britain and had fought the invading pagan Anglo-Saxons and he brought peace and plenty to the land. It was once widely accepted that he was a historical figure but later he came to be regarded as only a myth or a figure out of folklore. Today, many believe that Arthur was a composite figure and he was based on a number of the many Romano-Britain warlords that fought against Germanic invaders in the wake of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.[1]

The source of the Arthurian legend is in a number of Welsh chronicles and epic poems. In these Arthur is a ‘king’ who fights many battles against the Anglo-Saxons. His story was well-known and became popular and it was later taken up by French writers. These added to the Welsh tales and added many of the characters and the details that we are all now familiar with. The first reference to the Knights of the Round Table was in the work of a Breton poet in the 11th century.

Later poets added details to the Knights and created characters such as Gawain. Chrétien de Troyes is widely credited with weaving the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail into the tale of the Knights of the Round Table.[2] de Troyes had the knights search for the Grail, which was the cup used by Jesus and the Apostles during the Last Supper. Since then the Knights of the Round Table have become an integral part of the much-loved Arthurian cycle of stories. However, there are practically no other references to the knights and the Round Table in any other medieval sources, other than those associated with the Arthurian legends. Although there are some place names in Wales and England that are called after the site of the Table, all of these are probably later inventions.

The Knights of the Round Table

A medieval depiction of the Round Table

The Round Table was according to the sources a large circular table and was so big that up to 150 knights could be seated at it. The table was round, unlike the typical rectangular version because there was to be no knight who sat at the head of the table. It was a symbol of equality and represented the fellowship of all the knights. According to the Arthurian cycle, the table was a gift to Arthur and his Queen Guinevere from her father, who was also a monarch.[3] There were 100 knights in attendance on Arthur but there was room at the table for up to fifty more.

As was his custom the ruler of Camelot asked the advice of the magician Merlin, with regard to selecting more knights who would serve him and protect his realm. The wizard was to select the knights based on their nobility and their record of chivalry. Merlin assembled the required number and he ordained that they should treat each as brothers. Each knight had their own particular place at the table. One chair was left unfilled and that was to be destined for a great knight, this was ultimately revealed to be Sir Galahad. The number of knights varied from story to story. The group of noble warriors is charged by Arthur with keeping peace in the land, protecting the weak, and they were expected to abide by a stern code of chivalry.[4]

After their formation they slay may dragons and monsters making the land safe and also subdue the enemies of Arthur. The adventures of the heroes inspired some great literature such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The knights vow to go on a quest to retrieve the Holy Grail, the cup from the Last Supper, and their subsequent adventures are portrayed in many medieval works. The works vary but several of the knights, including Galahad, secured the grail. Despite their chivalrous code, the majority of the knights were killed on a variety of battlefields or searching for the grail. The dead were replaced by new members but some sources present them as inferior in character and bravery to the original band. Only a handful of knights survived the terrible Battle of Camlann, which left Arthur mortally wounded. The brotherhood of warriors effectively ended after the battle and the handful of survivors became monks or wanders.[5] There is no more mention of the Round Table, but it was presumably destroyed when Camelot was sacked and razed to the ground by the treacherous King of Cornwall. The stories of the Knights of the Round Table have proven enormously influential and helped to spread ideas of chivalry and courtly-love in the Medieval period.

Winchester Round Table

Winchester Castle is one of the greatest castles in England and it played a very important part in English history. It was originally built by William the Conqueror and later rebuilt by Henry II, the ruler of the Angevin Empire. In the Great Hall, there is a round oaken table hanging on the wall, which is brightly painted. This was reputed to be the original Round Table, of the loyal warriors of Arthur, and around which they agreed to search for the Holy Grail.

In fact, this table is not from the period when the ruler of Camelot reigned. It was probably built as part of one of the many ‘round table’ tournaments that occurred in Europe during the Middle Ages. These were tournaments with jousting, ceremonies, and festivities and were based on Arthurian legend. This Round table was probably made on the orders of King Edward I during one such celebration.[6]

The Amphitheater theory

The Romans had occupied much of modern-day Britain from the 1st to the early 5th century. They transformed British society and they built roads and cities throughout the island. During their centuries of rule, the local people were often Romanized, especially those who lived in towns and cities. They adopted Roman norms and customs and one of the most popular of these was the games, especially gladiatorial games.[7] Many Romano-British cities and towns had amphitheaters and based on the remaining evidence they hosted Roman style games. Many of these can still be seen and at one time there were a great many in Britain. In 2010 a theory emerged that was widely reported in the media and on the internet. A historian claimed that the amphitheaters inspired the legend of the Round Table. He claimed that the buildings which are circular formed the basis for the round table legend.

His argument was as follows, after the withdrawal of the Romans, the local people continued to live in the cities at least in the fifth and sixth centuries. Local Brythonic warlords led the fight against the Anglo-Saxons and others used these declining urban centers as strongholds. The amphitheaters were perfect assembly points and presumably, a local leader would gather his fighting men in these buildings, for meetings. From this practice there emerged the story of a group of Christian knights. However, the theory that abandoned Roman amphitheaters inspired the stories of the Knights of the Round Table is a controversial one. There is no archaeological or documentary evidence that these Roman constructions, had been used in the Dark Ages or by Romano-British warriors.

Arthur and his warband

The origin of the Arthurian legend is in the Dark Ages, when as we have seen warlords carved out their own kingdoms and fought endless wars. Now an examination of Romano-British and Celtic culture can help us to understand the inspiration for the story about the gallant knights. Arthur was based on one or more Brythonic warlords, who would have had an elite group of fighters.[8]

They would typically be high-born warriors who had been trained since childhood in the art of war. These may have been sub-kings or chieftains and they often helped him to administer his territory. These elite warriors would have been similar to the ‘sworn swords’ who had pledged to fight for their lord or king and often acted as his personal bodyguard. They were the companions of the monarch and expected to die for their ruler.

Furthermore, they were expected to abide by a good of honor. There are definite similarities between these Dark Age warriors and the Knights of the Round Table. The noble swordsmen who fought for Arthur can be considered to be a Christianised version of an older warrior tradition [9].

Warriors from folklore?

Lancelot and the other heroes are all possibly derived from stories about brave companions to the warlords and kings. It seems highly likely that many of the knights who served Arthur were originally based on figures from Folklore. One of the best-known characters among the knights of the Round Table is Sir Lancelot was ultimately derived from a folktale. Many scholars suggest that he was originally based on a Welsh hero. This is also the case with many others who served Arthur. Another example of this is Sir Cardoc who appears to have been based on the ancestors of the Welsh kings of Gwent. , It is accepted by many that some of the knights, mentioned in the Arthurian story-cycle are based on Celtic heroes. [10]

It has been suggested that Arthur’s band of loyal men were based on very ancient warrior fellowships from Celtic myths. There are also those who believe that some of the heroes such as Sir Gawain and his adventures are based on European myths and lore.</ref>W. P. Ker. “The Roman Dumézilvan Walewein (Gawain)”, Folklore 5, no. 2 [1894], 121-8 </ref> It is also entirely possible that the emblematic Round Table was also sourced from a now lost folk tale.

Conclusion

There are so many great legends involving the heroic band who served King Arthur. Modern media has popularized these stories all over the globe. The story of the fellowship of the Round Table was most likely an invention but it may have been based on some historical precedent, but we do not simply know. The story that it is held in Winchester Castle is a charming fabrication, while the theory that the Round Table was based on a Roman Amphitheatre, is not credible. The Knights of the Round Table are not modeled on historical figures but are likely composite figures, drawn from several sources.

The story of the knights, their heroism and chivalry are probably based on some ancient folktales, from the early Medieval period. The French writers who introduced the Round Table into the Arthurian cycle of tales also drew on contemporary notions of a Christian warrior and the emerging chivalrous code, to create the world of the Knights of the Round Table. They also added distinctively Christian motifs such as the Holy Grail to the story of Arthur’s companions. This led them to produce the memorable tales of the Knights of the Round Table.

Further Reading

The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. Strahan and Company, 1868

Wright, Thomas, ed. La Mort D'Arthure: The History of King Arthur and of the Knights of the Round Table. Vol. 3. JR Smith, 1858

Biddle, Martin, and Sally Badham. King Arthur's Round Table: an archaeological investigation. Boydell & Brewer, 2000.

References

  1. Littleton, C. Scott, and Linda A. Malcor. From Scythia to Camelot (London, Routledge, 2013), p 134
  2. Littleton, p 123
  3. Sutcliff, Rosemary. The sword and the circle: King Arthur and the knights of the round table (London, Random House, 2013), p 167
  4. Sutcliffe, p 145
  5. Syr Gawayne; a collection of ancient romance-poems, by Scottish and English authors: relating to that celebrated knight of the Round Table (London, J. R. and JE Taylor, 1839)
  6. Morris, Mark. "Edward I and the Knights of the Round Table." Foundations of Medieval Scholarship: Records edited in Honour of David Crook (2009)
  7. Zienkiewicz, J. David. The legionary fortress baths at Caerleon: The buildings. Vol. 1 (Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, 1986
  8. Sutcliffe, p 17
  9. Sutcliffe, p 101
  10. Frank A. Milne, A. Nutt. “Arthur and Gorlagon”, Folklore 15, no. 1 [1904], 40-67
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