Books To Read Beforehand:
Le Mort d’Arthur by Thomas Malory | Purchase from Indie Bound
When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman | Purchase from Indie Bound
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While researching Winchester, the city of Jane Austen’s final resting place, I came across a sentence that completely put Austen out of my mind:
“King Arthur’s Round Table hangs on the wall of Winchester Great Hall.”
Sorry, what?? I had so many questions! How did a fictional king have a real table? Why was it in Winchester? And finally, what was it doing on a wall??
Hunched under an umbrella, leaning into the wet British weather, I made my way along the cobble stoned main street. Ducking under the alcove of a Pret A Manger during a particularly heavy downpour, I briefly wondered what this place had looked like when William the Conqueror victoriously marched into town, taking over the treasury and using the funds to build Winchester Castle. While I couldn’t quite imagine, I bet he could never have imagined the tourist-shop lined street it is today.
Continuing up the main street following signs that promised to end at Winchester Castle’s Great Hall, I kept peeking out from under the umbrella for any sign of something that looked like a castle. It wasn’t until I rounded a corner that what’s left of the former castle came into view.
Today all that remains is the castle’s Great Hall and escape tunnels built in the 1200’s, the remains of which can be seen out front of the hall.
The Great Hall as it stands today, was built by King Henry III (son of King John of Robin Hood fame, for reference). After closing my umbrella and giving it a good shake, I hurried through the doorway into the Great Hall. Glancing around the interior, my first impression was that nothing made sense. Every piece of decor came from a different time period, and changes in the stonework were blatantly obvious. A differently colored line of stones denoted an old doorway that had been filled in and higher up one could see where a second story chamber once attached to the hall.
One wall contained a mural showing the names of members of Parliament from Winchester dating from Queen Victoria back to Edward I.
A statue of Queen Victoria sat in a corner. Funny story- It had been installed outside the hall for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, but had to be moved inside when it was determined to be in the way of carriages, and pigeons. After all this, Victoria never even visited the city because the head of the college rejected her marriage to Albert!
On a wall behind Victoria, a bronze relief honors the current Queen Elizabeth II. Finally, on the wall opposite the mural, above what once was the King’s dias, which has been left as a sad pile of rubble, was the large, round table top painted in a manner that reminded me of a dartboard. This was King Arthur’s Round Table! Or was it?
I joined a tour to find out. As we were led around the room by a guide I began to understand that the decor of the walls is meant to tell a story of the continued use of the building, each item representing a story in itself and sometimes even multiple stories. “King Arthur’s Round Table” is one such item, and clearly was the largest draw today for both children and adults to the Great Hall. I regret to tell you, the table is not old enough to be Arthur’s table. It was tested in the 1970’s. It was built between 1250-1290 AD, most likely for Edward I, a huge fan of Arthurian legend. He even held an Arthurian Festival. The table may have been built for that festival. Although its origins are not “real” its size is still impressive at 5.5 meters in diameter.
Interestingly, while Edward I based the table on legends, Thomas Malory later wrote the now most-famous version of the Arthurian tales, Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), and may have based Camelot on Winchester because of Edward I’s imitation of Arthur’s court. So the table definitely counts as a literary destination.
As I promised, this artifact had more than one story due to its long history. Many generations later, King Henry VIII had the table “restored”, by which I mean painted. The most tell-tale sign that it was Henry who had it painted is that his family emblem, the huge Tudor Rose is in the center. Then at the top of the table he had King Arthur depicted, painted in his likeness! The names of Arthur’s knights are painted around the rest of the table. Perhaps Henry wanted to portray the idea that he had descended from King Arthur. Humble guy, Henry VIII…
Earlier in the trip while touring Windsor Castle, I had been told that the highest order of knighthood in Britain today, The Order of the Garter, was based on the legends of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. It seems that the British Monarchy has really been live action role playing at Arthurian legends this whole time!
Traveling through England I had learned over and over again that it’s so hard to tell just one story about a place because such much has happened in these places with long histories. It seemed to me that all of my favorite tales of British monarchs converged here at Winchester Great Hall. I was surprised to learn that Winchester Castle was a focal point during an early civil war, one that became known as the time “Christ and His Saints slept.” If this sounds familiar, it may be because this is also the name of my favorite historical novel by author Sharon Kay Penman (Who gave me a cupcake!). I’ve reread this book about Stephen and Matilda fighting for the crown several times. Matilda, Maud in Penman’s book, believed that a woman could rule just as well as a man while Stephen believed that England wasn’t ready for a female monarch. I was thrilled, to say the least, to be standing in the same place this badass woman once inhabited, at least until she was forced to retreat because Stephen starved her out.
There are so many other details about Winchester Great Hall I just couldn’t fit into this post, so if you’re a medieval history fanatic like I am, this is a must visit. If you visit Winchester during your Jane Austen pilgrimage you should also visit the Great Hall. You’d forgotten about Jane Austen, hadn’t you? You see? Winchester has too many stories to tell, and that one is for another day.