Thursday, March 28, 2013

Edward III’s Round Table

A mediaeval miniature of Edward III of England. The king is wearing a blue garter, of the Order of the Garter, over his plate armour.
By Richard Barber | Published in History Today Volume: 57 Issue: 8 2007 Richard Barber describes the discoveries he made when Channel Four’s Time Team uncovered Edward III’s huge circular building at the heart of Windsor Castle.
A mediaeval miniature of Edward III of England. The king is wearing a blue garter, of the Order of the Garter, over his plate armour.When Channel Four’s ‘Time Team’ obtained permission to dig simultaneously at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyrood House on the bank holiday weekend of 2006, to mark the Queen’s 80th birthday, there were high hopes that these sites, largely unexplored by archaeologists, might produce valuable new information about the royal palaces. On the advice of Oxford Archaeology, Time Team chose one of Windsor’s most mysterious structures, for their investigation. It was a building that was probably never completed, and was generally believed to have been abandoned when it was only partly built, because it was hopelessly over-ambitious. No trace of it remained, and there had been various theories as to where it had been sited. This was the House of the Round Table, which Edward III was supposed to have built in 1344. The only physical description of it was so extraordinary that it was difficult to believe: Thomas Walsingham, a usually reliable chronicler, tells us that it was 200 feet in diameter, larger than any circular medieval building, and larger than such wonders of the world as the Pantheon at Rome, and other sources indicated that it was to seat the 300 knights of Edward’s proposed Order of the Round Table. There was evidence, in the royal accounts, that work on this remarkable project had been undertaken on a massive scale, but what and where it was were unknown.
The chances that a building on this scale existed, and that it could be found, seemed fairly unlikely, so the investigation was broadened to cover a large area of the Upper Ward, a section of the castle which is usually seen by the public only from the windows of the state apartments and the path skirting the base of the Round Tower. The actual area for excavation was at the eastern end of the lawn in the Upper Ward, below the Queen’s private apartments, and the first operation was to carry out a ground radar survey, to highlight any features which might look promising. This was done at the beginning of August, and when Richard Brown of Oxford Archaeology sent the results, they proved dramatic. Across the corner of the Upper Ward, part of a huge circle appeared, and the question everyone immediately asked was: ‘What is the diameter of the circle?’ Careful measurement showed that it was around 198 feet. I had been asked to go to Windsor to comment on any possible finds relating to Edward III during the filming, and when the subject of the Round Table came up I looked at Walsingham’s description. My initial reaction was that it must be fictional, some kind of artificial calculation worked back from the space needed to seat the knights. If the survey was right, his figure was almost exactly accurate.
But seeing a line on a survey did not necessarily mean that we would find what we expected, and the first stages of the excavation seemed to progress at snail’s pace, as the careful observance of archaeological protocols was carried out. It was only after a day of preparation and a morning of excavator work that  Richard Brown and his team began the dig proper. When they had worked down some three feet, they came across a mass of rubble, consisting entirely of stone fragments. There was no brick, little sign of mortar, and very few actual objects or fragments of objects. As the edges of the rubble deposit were uncovered, it was clear that this was a trench, some two metres wide, which had been backfilled with the remains of a substantial building once the stone foundations had been ‘robbed  out’ and taken away to be used elsewhere.
Working on a television programme over three days, particularly as a minor bit player in the scheme of things, is often tedious; at Windsor we were fortunate to have the Chapter Library in the Lower Ward, which had a good collection of books on the castle. The discovery of the foundation trench led to long discussions on the nature of the building and what could be gleaned from the records to help us reconstruct it. The two huge volumes of Sir William St John Hope’s massive work Windsor Castle: an Architectural History published in 1913 were the obvious starting point. He had printed large extracts from the accounts which described the work on the Round Table building, and when Julian Munby and I started to look at these, we quickly turned to architectural historian Tim Tatton-Brown, who was working in the Lower Ward outside St George’s Chapel in search of Henry III’s great hall, to help us on the identification of the stones bought for the building. It was his comment that Stapleton stone was often used for plinths or capitals that really fired my enthusiasm for further research, because the quantity purchased indicated that the building could have had fifty-six pillars; only an assumption, of course, but it led to the idea that we might be able to make a plausible attempt at a reconstruction if we went through the material in detail.
There were other things besides accounts to be taken into consideration once we started. Perhaps the most enigmatic of these was a romance which had probably been written for Edward III’s father-in-law a few years earlier. Perceforest is the equivalent of a Hollywood prequel to the main Arthurian stories, an elaborate, long-winded but often entertaining account of how Britain was conquered by refugees from Troy, who were Arthur’s predecessors. After the death of Brutus, the first king of Britain, Perceforest succeeds him. His court is a glittering showcase of chivalry, but he falls ill, and as a result becomes lethargic and uninterested in deeds of arms. In due course Perceforest recovers, and during the feast in the palace garden to celebrate his return to health, strange noises come from the hall of the castle. The steward finds that the doors are bolted fast and it is only when the feast is ended that the king is able to gain access:

Then torches were lit and they set out towards the hall. But when they came to the doorway at the foot of the stairs, the king stepped forward and found the two doors shut tight; then he looked up and saw written on the arch above, in great and elegant letters of gold, the following: 

‘Let all men know that from this day
This is the door to the Franc Palais [Noble Palace]
Where honour on the worthy shall be bestowed
And the worthless shall dishonour know.’
When the king had read these letters he showed them to the ladies and knights in his company. They were astonished: several knew for certain that before sunset no inscription had been there, which made the king wonder who could possibly have written the letters so quickly ...
Then the king stepped forward and told the castellan to let them in, which he did, commanding a boy to open the doors. As soon as they were open, the king and all his company entered; and once the torches had been placed in the middle they could see the whole hall clearly. Now, so that you may better understand what we shall tell you in due course, you need to know what the great hall was like. Know, then, that it was on the first floor of a round tower of an amazing size: the diameter of the hall was more than two hundred feet. In the centre stood an enormous pillar that supported the vaulted ceiling; inside this pillar was a pipe running from a beautiful spring, and around it were twelve taps supplying water whenever it was needed.
Right around the hall curved a marble table, most beautifully made, standing quite high off the ground on pillars; and it ran so close to the windows that anyone sitting at the table would be resting his back against the tower wall. The two ends of the table finished in front of the hall’s main door, and such was its circumference that it could seat fully three hundred knights abreast  You cannot believe how beautiful this table was to behold, and it was smoother than any ivory. It was impossible to move it, but a good many more tables were set up in the hall on trestles, so that twelve hundred knights could dine there without impeding the servants.
The knights who sit at the round table in this hall are chosen mysteriously when their shields appear on the hooks around the wall, and one knight who attempts to sit at the table and to hang up his shield himself is killed by a thunderbolt. The king addresses the knights after this dramatic death and explains the principles behind the Order of the Noble Palace:

And because I wish it to be revealed without dispute which knights shall be worthy to sit at the table of the Franc Palais, I command all who wish to compete in the tournament and attain this high honour to have one of their shields brought here to the hall, as I shall bring my own, and then the hall shall be locked; for such is my faith in the power of the Sovereign God that I believe that, at the dinner after the tournament, those who are worthy will find their shields hung on the hooks, and thereby know where they are to sit.

The knights of Edward’s Order of the Round Table were not going to be selected on such magical principles, but the number of knights and the diameter of the hall for the Order of the Noble Palace are identical to Thomas Walsingham’s description of what Edward was proposing. Is it the model for the Windsor plans? Could it perhaps have been written immediately afterwards? All we can say is that there is a very strong connection.
Coming back to the real world, there was a mass of other material in the accounts which enabled us to make certain deductions about the nature of the House of the Round Table. The workers who were hastily assembled at Windsor in February 1344 were mostly masons, and large numbers of quarrymen and ‘banker masons’ (who would have roughly shaped the raw blocks before they were shipped) were employed in the quarries themselves. By contrast, there were relatively few carpenters, even if the master carpenter was the most distinguished of his craft, William Hurley, who had built the great lantern at Ely. The structure must therefore have been largely of stone. Other purchases indicate that it had a pair of doors, probably a great ceremonial entrance like the doors of a medieval college at Oxford or Cambridge.
The only circular building which offered an immediate parallel for something on this scale was Edward III’s fort at Queenborough, which has sadly left very little trace except for a drawing by Wenceslas Hollar now in the British Museum. But Julian Munby soon came up with an intriguing castle which was remarkably like the first attempts at reconstructing the House of the Round Table. This was Castell Bellver, at Palma in Majorca. It was built forty years earlier for Jaime II, King of Majorca,  and is slightly smaller, but more substantial, in that it is on two floors; the arcaded gallery on the ground floor is repeated on the first floor. Like the House of the Round Table, full accounts (in Catalan) for the building costs survive, and it would be interesting, if time-consuming, to compare the two sets of figures. Whether the designers of Edward’s building knew of Bellver, it is hard to say. There are connections between England and Majorca in the 1340s; Majorca was an independent kingdom struggling for survival, and the king of Majorca was attempting to form an alliance with Edward at this period, so it is far from impossible that eye-witness accounts of Bellver could have reached England.
Yet even here the House of the Round Table stands out as a unique creation: it is not a castle in itself, and has no defensive function. It is closer to the amphitheatre that Duke Theseus builds for the tournament between Palamon and Arcite for the hand of the lady Emily in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. And it is possible to argue that it was indeed an amphitheatre, in the theatrical sense.
At this point, we moved from archaeology and architecture to literature and history. Literature is of course the key to the idea of the chivalric round table, but the details and the exact concept behind this have rarely been explored by scholars. There is good work on the ideas of the poets who created Arthur’s original round table, and the Winchester Round Table has been thoroughly explored. But between the two, the imaginary and the actual object, there is another element: the ‘round table’ tournament. These date back to the kingdom of Cyprus in the 1220s, about the time when the fashion for Arthurian romances  was at its height and when new additions to the stories of Arthur and his knights were appearing at an extraordinary rate. We can trace round table tournaments through the next century-and-a-half until they peter out at the end of the fourteenth century.
In their simplest form, they seem to have consisted of a group of knights who sat at the round table, who were the defenders: that is, they announced a tournament at which they would hold the lists against all challengers. In historical terms, there are only casual mentions in chronicles of these, but there are a number of semi-historical poems which describe such festivals in more detail, and when these are put side by side – they occur from Austria to France to England – a picture of a kind of dramatic presentation linked to a tournament emerges. The Winchester round table could well have be a theatrical prop for this kind of occasion, for the use of the defenders. And there is a poem which might just possibly be a description of the scenario for the tournament there. It is by a Dutch author, writing around 1300, and either because it is half-imaginary or because his grasp of English events is not very certain, it is difficult to place it alongside real events. The poet tells that Edward acted the part of Arthur, and insisted – as in the romances – that he would not sit down to table until an adventure had occurred. Sure enough, a squire appears, covered in blood, and accuses the king of idleness while his men are fighting: the Welsh have rebelled, and he has been wounded in a skirmish. The king promises that he will avenge him; and the scene is repeated twice more, with reports of uprisings in Ireland, Cornwall and Leicester, which knights playing Lancelot,  Gawain and Perceval undertake to put down.
Other occasions were less political in their scenarios, and were generally based on the romances, with the knights vying for the attention of the ladies; this was the case at Le Hem in 1278, where Robert, Count of Artois played Yvain, the knight who befriends a lion. The entertainment includes a knight who has to be released from a cage, and maidens who have been taken prisoner while carrying messages summoning visitors to the tournament. For most ‘round tables’, however, we are lucky to get a bare mention of the characters, and for the monks who wrote the chronicles of the day, they are sinful and boastful occasions which ‘vanish away like the morning dew’. Edward III’s insistence at Windsor that he would revive the Round Table as it had been in the days of King Arthur needs to be set against this tradition of acting out the Arthurian romances, and goes far to explain the possible use of the round table building. The large central space was not big enough for actual tournaments – Chaucer makes his imaginary amphitheatre in The Knight’s Tale a mile across – but would be ideal for enacting these scenes, with the knights seated round the outside of the circle on the ground floor, and possibly an upper tier for ladies and other spectators. This must be speculation, of course, but I believe it is plausible speculation. The opening scene of the greatest of English medieval Arthurian poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, contains just such a dramatic scene at court, with the arrival of the Green Knight offering to take a blow with his own axe from any of the knights, if they would take a return blow from him in a year and a day. Gawain beheads the challenger, but before the horrified court, the Green Knight picks up his head and warns Gawain that he must present himself as he has promised before riding off. We know from other evidence of play-acting at feasts that theatrical techniques were well advanced, and the skills to act out the scene and create an illusion of beheading were almost certainly available. This, I would argue, is the kind of thing that Edward had in mind for the House of the Round Table.
But there was also a more serious purpose behind the pomp and ceremony and lavish expenditure. Edward III was attempting to make good his claim to the French throne. His early efforts had ended in virtual bankruptcy for almost no results. He had assembled a grand alliance, and had invaded France from Flanders; but his allies were more interested in their pay than in fighting, and Edward had had to weather not only the disappointment of a hugely expensive stalemate and truce, but also a real crisis in England over the taxation that had been needed to fund the expedition. This was in 1341; less than three years later, he saw an opportunity to invade once more, this time in league with ­dissident Norman and Breton nobles. But he was reluctant to go back to Parliament for money, and ­waged a steady campaign to bring the great lords and the knights who had opposed him in 1341 round to his side. He embarked on a series of tournaments, trading on an already well-established chivalric reputation, of which the Windsor festival was the culmination; and the object was to recruit as many of the nobility, as well as knights from overseas, to join him in search of the lucrative spoils of war. The chroniclers noted that Philip VI of France (r.1328-50) was proposing to start a Round Table in competition with Edward for just this reason, though there is no real evidence to support this. Edward succeeded in raising his army, but in order to do so had to put a stop to the work on the House of the Round Table. It was two years before the campaign that culminated in the battle of Crécy (1346) began, and more than three years before the king was back at Windsor at the end of the siege of Calais (1347). He had won a victory that was all he could have hoped for, and he no longer saw the huge expense of the proposed order of the Round Table as the best way forward. Instead, he created the Order of the Garter, to reward his companions in arms who had led the army. It is the oldest and most distinguished of the orders of knighthood, and owes its longevity to the tightly limited number of its members. Its forerunner, the House of the Round Table and the order which was to use it as its headquarters were an ambitious dream; this spectacular building, almost without parallel in the Middle Ages, was demolished by William of Wykeham when Windsor Castle was rebuilt in the 1360s. All that was left for us to find was a trench filled with fragments of stone, which we could identify as the stones whose purchase was so carefully recorded in the royal accounts.
Further reading
  • Julian Munby, Richard Barber and Richard Brown, Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor (The Boydell Press, 2007)
  • Juliet Vale, Edward III and Chivalry, (Boydell Press, 1972)
  • Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War: I. Trial by Battle (Faber & Faber, 1990)
  • W.H.St John Hope, Windsor Castle: an Architectural History (Country Life, 1913)
  • Ian Mortimer, The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III Father of the English Nation(Jonathan Cape, 2006)
  • Martin Biddle, King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation (Boydell Press, 2000)
Richard Barber is the author of Legends of Arthur (The Boydell Press, 2001).

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