If the Knights of the Round Table ever existed in real life, it wasn't in the time of King Arthur. Medieval knights as characterised in Arthurian Legend belong to a period running from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries - the historical King Arthur is placed much earlier, around the fifth century. Nonetheless, the image of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table appeals to the imagination and has become an accepted one, if only in literature and legend.
Knights, as such, were real enough - and still are: people become knighted in Britain even today. Medieval knights were usually of noble birth: kings, princes, dukes, earls, and barons, who formed the backbone of any army of the time. They could afford armour and weapons, and the cost of training and maintaining their war-horse: in medieval times, the armoured warrior on horseback was the equivalent to the modern tank. Glory in war spilled over into peacetime, with attitude and status and knightly pursuits like jousting and heraldry, hunting and hawking, and a chivalrous way of life (especially towards the ladies, as the knight became the archetypal hero of high romance). Knights were also formed into religious or other 'Orders of Chivalry' - like the Round Table - and made an oath to protect the distressed, maintain the right, and live a stainless existence.
The consensus is that Merlin the Wizard created the legendary Round Table - in a shape symbolising the roundness of the universe - for Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father. When Uther died, it passed to Guinevere's father, King Laudegraunce, and then to King Arthur when he married Guinevere. Real or symbolic, the Round Table for the fellowship of knights has remained a powerful and appealing concept for several hundreds of years.
The Round Table was first mentioned by the French poet, Wace, in 1155 and in that account was made round so that all the knights seated around it would have the same stature - a table with no head to sqabble over. In Arthurian legend it wasn't just an actual table but represented the highest Order of Chivalry at King Arthur's court. The Knights of the Round Table were the cream of British nobility, who followed a strict code of honour and service.
There is a big Round Table hanging on the wall of Winchester Castle, which names 25 shields. Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d'Arthur identifies Camelot as the English town of Winchester (disputed by William Caxton, Malory's own publisher, who asserts that Camelot was in Wales) and there has been a long and popular association between King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and the actual Winchester Round Table, but its origin has been dated to around 1270, the start of the reign of King Edward I - like the knights, well after Arthur's time.
In literature, the Round Table varies in size according to which author is decribing it. The consensus is that it seated 150, with one chair - the Siège Perilous ('danger-seat') - which no-one could occupy safely except for the true Grail-Knight: the knight destined to achieve the Holy Grail, or Sangreal, a symbolism sometimes linked to the Last Supper, which had one place for Judas of ill-omen. The Grail-Knight - it was said that the Siège Perilous was reserved for Sir Perceval, then later, Sir Galahad - was required to be a hero with the purest heart, who was chaste and a virgin without sins (which disqualified Sir Lancelot from the start).
The breakdown of the seating arrangements is this: King Laudegraunce brought 100 when he gave the table to King Arthur, Merlin filled up 28 of the vacant seats, and King Arthur elected Sir Gawain and Sir Tor - the remaining 20 seats, including the danger-seat, were left for those who might prove worthy.
Arthurian legend also contains reference to lesser Orders: the Queen's Knights, the Knights of the Watch, the Table of Errant Companions, and the Table of Less-Valued Knights, which could explain, in a literary sense, why the Round Table would be so large, though it must have been ring-shaped rather than a round normal table, otherwise most of its surface would have been unreachable.
The names of the 25 knights inscribed on the Winchester Round Table are given as:
• King Arthur, Sir Galahad, Sir Lancelot du Lac, Sir Gawain, Sir Percivale, Sir Lionell, Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Kay, Sir Tristram de Lyones, Sir Gareth, Sir Bedivere, Sir Bleoberis, La Cote Male Taile, Sir Lucan, Sir Palomedes, Sir Lamorak, Sir Safer, Sir Pelleas, Sir Ector de Maris, Sir Dagonet, Sir Degore, Sir Brunor le Noir, Le Bel Desconneu, Sir Alymere, and Sir Mordred.
In Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory refers to a much more impressive force:
• Sir Aglovale, Sir Agravaine, Sir Aliduke (Book 6, Chapter 9), King Anguish,of Ireland, Earl Aristause, Sir Arrok de Grevaunt (the epiphet only occurs in the Caxton edition), King Arthur, Sir Astamor.
• King Bagdemagus (Book 13, Chapter 9), Sir Barant le Apres (also called the King with the hundred knights), Sir Baudwin (Book 18, Chapter 12), Sir Bedivere, Sir Bellangere le Beuse, Sir Bellangere le Orgulous, Sir Belleus (Book 6, Chapter 18), Sir Blamore de Ganis, Sir Bleoberis de Ganis, Sir Bohart le Cure Hardy (the son of King Arthur, also called Sir Borre), Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Brandiles, Sir Bruine le Noire (also called La Cote Male Taile), Sir Brian de Listinoise.
• King Carados of Scotland, Sir Cardok, Duke Chaleins of Clarance, King Clarance of Northumberland, Sir Clarrus of Cleremont, Sir Clegis, Sir Cloddrus, Sir Colgrevance, Sir Constantine, Sir Crosselm, Sir Curselaine (Book 20, Chapter 2).
• Sir Darras, Sir Degrane Saunce Velany, Sir Degrevaunt (in Eugène Vinaver's Winchester manuscript only), Sir Dinadan, Sir Dinas, Sir Dinas le Seneschal of Cornwall, Sir Dodinas le Savage, Sir Durnore, Sir Driant.
• Sir Ector de Maris, Sir Edward of Carnarvon, Sir Edward of Orkney, Sir Epinogris, Sir Erminide (also called Sir Hermine).
• Sir Fergus, Sir Florence.
• Sir Gahalantine, Sir Gaheris, Sir Galagars (Book 4, Chapter 4), Sir Galahad (Book 13, Chapter 4), Duke Galahad the haut prince, Sir Galihodin, Sir Galihud (Book 18, Chapter 3), Sir Galleron of Galway, Sir Gareth, Sir Gautere, Sir Gawaine, Sir Gillemere, Sir Gingalin, Sir Griflet le Fise de Dieu, Sir Gromere Grommor's son, Sir Guyart le Petite, Sir Gromore Somir Joure (Book 20, Chapter 2).
• Sir Harry le Fise Lake, Sir Hebes, Sir Hebes le Renoumes, Sir Hectimere, Sir Helaine le Blank, Sir Hervise de la Forest Savage, Sir Hervise le Revel (Book 4, Chapter 4).
• Sir Ironside (also called the noble Red Knight of the Red Launds).
• Sir Kay le Seneschal, Sir Kay de Stranges.
• Sir Ladinas of the Forest Savage (Book 19, Chapter 1), the King of the Lake (Book 4, Chapter 4), Earl Lambaile, Sir Lambegus, Sir Lamiel of Cardiff, Sir Launcelot du Lake, Sir Lavaine (Book 19, Chapter 13), Sir Lionel, Sir Lovel, Sir Lucan the Butler.
• Sir Mador de la Porte, Sir Marhaus (Book 6, Chapter 9), Sir Marrok, Sir Melleaus de Lile, Sir Melion of the Mountain, Sir Meliot de Logris, Sir Meliagaunce (Book 19, Chapter 2), Sir Menaduke, Sir Mordred, Sir Morganore.
• Sir King Nentres of Garloth, Sir Nerovens.
• Sir Ozanna le Cure Hardy.
• Sir Palomides (Book 10, Chapter 62), Sir Patrise of Ireland (Book 18, Chapter 3), Sir Pelleas, Sir Percivale (Book 10, Chapter 23), Sir Perimones (also called the Red Knight), Sir Persaunt, Sir Persides (Book 11, Chapter 12), Sir Pertilope (also called the Green Knight), Sir Petipase of Winchelsea, Sir Pinel le Savage (Book 18, Chapter 3), Sir Plaine de Fors, Sir Plenorius, Sir Priamus.
• Sir Reynold, the Duke de la Rowse (Book 7, Chapter 35).
• Sir Sadok, Sir Sagramore le Desirous, Sir Safere (Book 18, Chapter 3), Sir Selises of the Dolorous Tower, Sir Sentraile, Sir Servause le Breuse, Sir Suppinabilis.
• Sir Tor, Sir Tristram (Book 10, Chapter 6).
• Earl Ulbause, King Uriens of the land of Gore, Sir Urre (Book 19, Chapter 19), Sir Uwaine le Blanche Mains (also called Sir Uwaine le Fise de Roy Ureine - Book 9, Chapter 37), Sir Uwaine les Avoutres.
• Sir Villiars the Valiant.
Since the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are all fictitious characters, there's no right and wrong answer to the question "How many Knights did the Round Table have?" It's purely a comparison between different pieces of Arthurian myth and legend - Malory's was simply a much bigger table than the Winchester Table.
More interesting are their deeds, exploits, and their social significance at the time the best and most comprehensive Arthurian legend works were written, most notably Le Morte d'Arthur, completed in the year 1470.
Regarding the origins of the Holy Grail and its relationship with the Round Table, there are three especially interesting works of Arthurian legend - a trilogy of poems by Robert de Boron (a Burgundian knight who wrote not too long after Chrétien de Troyes c.1191): 'Joseph of Arimathea', 'Merlin', and 'Perceval', and which describe the 'First Table and the Origin of the Grail', 'The Grail Dynasty', 'The Construction of the Third Table', and 'The Round Table and Perceval'. The last one provides a particularly interesting insight into the Holy Grail and the motivations behind the exploits of the Knights of the Round Table:
After Arthur is crowned king, Merlin informs the court about origins of the Round Table made by Joseph of Arimathea, and of the Grail family, and the attainment of the Grail. Perceval, the son of Alain le Gros, comes to Arthur's court and is knighted, but he is not made a member of the Round Table. At Pentecost, King Arthur proclaims a festival at which twelve knights will sit at the Round Table, leaving the thirteenth seat empty to symbolise the seat occupied by Judas at the Last Supper. Perceval asks if he may sit there, and when Arthur attempts to discourage him, the other twelve knights plead on Perceval's behalf and he is allowed to occupy the vacant seat.
But the seat cracks beneath him and a voice remontrates against King Arthur, and says that Perceval has only been saved from a terrible death by the goodness of his father and his grandfather, Bron. The voice goes on to predict that there will now be great suffering for those seated at the Round Table as they pursue the quest that Perceval has precipitated - the quest for the Holy Grail. The achievement of the quest will require one of the Round Table knights to become the 'finest knight in the world' by performing 'feats of arms and goodness and prowess'. This knight will be guided by God to the house of the Rich Fisher King (Bron), where he will achieve the Grail, and understand its purpose. The Rich Fisher King will be then healed and the cracked seat at the Round Table will be restored.
These predictions are to be fulfilled by Sir Perceval, who becomes the new custodian of the Grail after the death of Bron. But the successful quest marks the beginning of the end of the fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table, now undermined by a lack of common-purpose, and the knights plan to go overseas to seek new challenges. Sir Kay persuades King Arthur that only an invasion of continental Europe will hold the Knights of the Round Table together in his service.
France (then Gaul) is duly conquered and the army of the emperor of Rome is defeated, but before he can march on Rome, King Arthur is forced to return to Britain to supress the treachery of Mordred, who has usurped the throne of Britain and is cohabiting with Arthur's wife, Guinevere. He overcomes Mordred in Cornwall, then pursues him to Ireland where the traitor is finally killed, but Arthur is also fatally wounded, and is taken to Avalon for his wounds to be healed, but he never returns.
On King Arthur's conquest of Gaul, his forced return to Britain, and his consequent death, note Robert de Boron's consistency with the writer Geoffrey of Monmouth in the origins of King Arthur .
See also Arthurian Legend homepage.
Copyright © 2004-2014