The Round Table stands as a popular addition to most accounts of King Arthur and his noble order of knights. Though technically an eccentric variation on the traditional furniture table, its mythological importance merits the rare use of capital letters when naming the object. This puts the Round Table in league with other hallmarks of the Arthurian legend, like the sword Excalibur and the Holy Grail.
The Round Table seated between 25 and 150 people, depending on the account. Some writers describe it as a flat round disc, while others reference a number of curved pieces joining to form a round outer edge with a circular hole in the middle.
By and large, the Round Table was used to host a series of banquets at Camelot, taking place each year at Pentecost. The knights and their king would discuss business, feasting on lavish foods and generally making merry. The Table's clever design ensured the king was able to sit where he liked while remaining equally visible to everyone seated.
Despite the king's careful preparations, the Round Table nevertheless became a place of open dissent. After witnessing infidelity between Arthur's wife, Queen Guinevere, and the king's most favoured knight, Sir Lancelot, the knights gathered at the Table to decide on the proper course of action. In some versions of the story, Lancelot voluntarily quits the order. He retreats to France to protect his dignity, and those knights who argued on his behalf go with him. This strikes a severe blow to King Arthur's court and subsequently, the kingdom is never quite the same.
The remaining members of the order reconvene at the Round Table for the last time in response to news of King Arthur's illness and impending death. Miraculously, an image of the Holy Grail appears above the Round Table during this all-important meeting - and so, a quest to find the Grail, in the hope of saving the king, is born. In many versions of the story, Arthur is sitting at the Round Table in despair at the state of his kingdom when the Grail finally arrives in time to save him.
Why was the Round Table Round?
To be honest, a circle is not the most economical shape for a table hosting a large number of people. It leaves a great deal of unusable space in the middle. It also takes up far more room than a rectangular table seating the same number of people.
Indeed, factual historians now tell us that a Round Table seating 125 would have been architecturally impractical. Since the table's footprint would have precluded the use of periodically-spaced supportive pillars, nobody in medieval times could have built a room to house the table without the ceiling collapsing on them. So perhaps some accounts of the table's seating number are exaggerated. However, even assuming the table seated only 25, why go to the trouble of making it?
The answer lies in the beauty of equidistance. The Round Table's egalitarian shape can be contrasted with the traditional banquet table of yore, where the king sat at the head1 of the table. With a rectangular banquet table, knights and courtiers frequently fought - sometimes verbally, sometimes violently - over who would sit closest to or directly opposite the king. The Round Table visually represents equality amongst peers, even at the sacrifice of placing the king in no greater a position than his subjects.
This noble deference is remembered well, even today. The phrase 'Round Table discussion' has been coined to describe a meeting where all participants are treated equally regardless of their status. A person who fears they will be discounted can expect their thoughts, opinions, and ideas to be heard and fairly evaluated during such a discussion.
Who Made the Round Table?
The creator of the Table varies by account. In some versions, Arthur himself designs the Table. In others, the architect is Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon. In cases where Uther made the Table, he then gives it magnanimously to the neighbouring King Leodegrance. When Leodegrance's daughter marries Arthur, the Round Table is given back as a special wedding present. Arthur is keen to use the Table right away, so he calls for all the greatest knights of the land to meet at the table to form an order.
In some cases, the Round Table is a descendant of the Grail Table created by Joseph of Arimathea to house the Holy Grail, in which the blood of Christ was collected. The first and second Grail Tables were variously reported as being capable of miraculously feeding large quantities of people or supernaturally sorting the just from the unjust. The Round Table is created in this same tradition, usually by Merlin, but it is noticeably missing the Grail itself.
In many versions of the story, Merlin paints the name of each knight on the Table with gold letters. With his typical sense of humour, he also marks an otherwise empty chair with the words 'Siege Perilous.' He then says that 'no man should sit in it but he only that shall surpass all other knights.' With this, the egalitarian intentions behind the Table's design are once again called into question.
After the knights begin, predictably, to argue over who gets the special chair, Merlin sits a visiting noble, King Pellinore, into it. Following the general outcry at this breach of diplomacy, the chair's letters are craftily covered over to leave no trace of the words. Much later, King Pellinore's son, Percival, unknowingly sits in Siege Perilous when he joins the order. Merlin removes the covering, and the coincidence causes much astonishment. Of course, Percival retrieves the Holy Grail.
In another version of the story, the empty chair that Percival sits in is completely unmarked. It is carefully left empty until there were finally no more seats left to take. It is the thirteenth chair from King Arthur on either side. By one account, the seat is left empty to remind the knights of Jesus' sacrifice at the Last Supper. In another, the seat is superstitiously equated with the seat at the Last Supper of the thirteenth disciple, Judas Iscariot, who infamously betrayed Jesus to the Romans. When Percival retrieves the grail, the legacy of Judas's weakness is lifted from mankind.
In a final account, Siege Perilous is filled by Lancelot's son, Galahad. Shortly after Galahad arrives, the servants announce the arrival of King Uriens, the Fisher-King. Though responsible for guarding the Grail, Uriens laments that it has been lost. He claims that the king and his land will suffer until it is found again. The knights refuse to take up the old man's cause until a vision of the Grail appears over the Table. By eventually completing the quest, Galahad heals both king and kingdom, also reuniting the order from the sundering that occurred when Lancelot left for France.
The Winchester Forgery
The myth of the Round Table was used to clever political advantage in Winchester for generations. King Edward I coincidentally built a round oak table to house the combatants at a tournament and feast meant to celebrate his children's recently-negotiated marriage plans. King Edward III later recovered this table in an aged condition. He cleverly placed it conspicuously in Winchester Castle on a wall with no further explanation.2
It was finally King Henry VIII who put the Winchester table in its current state. In an attempt to further his ambitions to become the pre-eminent nobility of Europe, King Henry claimed that Winchester Castle was indeed Camelot. His Round Table redecoration included alternating coloured panels with gold paint marking the name of each knight at their assumed seat, along with a terrific painting of an Arthur figure bearing a striking resemblance to King Henry himself.
It must be one of the most successful forgeries ever. The full history of the Winchester table wasn't discovered until 1976, when it was finally taken off the wall long enough for examination by various scientific devices and historical experts. To this day, it is unclear to what extent the table was crafted to match the legend and to what extent some variations of the myth were crafted to match the forgery.