Why Did Henry VIII Re-Paint The Round Table at Winchester?


So we know a few facts about the Round Table that today hangs in Winchester's Great Hall. 

The Round Table, at Winchester's Great Hall. Photo by Jo Romero.

The first thing we know is that it's not Arthur's original Round Table where he'd sit with his knights, as they believed, hundreds of years ago. The table is Medieval in origin, and dates to the thirteenth-century, placing it at the time of King Edward I. It turns out that Edward was rather the fan of King Arthur, even referring to the legend in an official, state letter to Pope Boniface VIII.

The wooden slats that make up the table top have been archaeologically dated to the thirteenth century, and researchers think that it was probably made to form part of a lavish celebration at a feast held in Winchester, celebrating the marriage of his daughter in the late 1200s. In fact, people even believed that Winchester was actually the site of Arthur's court at Camelot, so it's probably significant that Edward celebrated the marriage here.

The Round Table symbolises equality. It's shaped in a circle, so no one sits at the 'head' of it, and so no one's views are more or less important than anyone else's. It's a statement of a perfect balance of power. It was a beautifully-crafted and decorated piece of Medieval furniture, and it's incredible, when you think that there's very little else like it, and that it has survived for centuries afterwards. 

Fast forward to 1522. Henry VIII is on the throne and has not long been back from his big show-off event, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, at Calais, in 1520. The event was designed to show the French king how powerful he was, in a show of not only wealth but skill and influence. As it was for Francis, too, no doubt. Henry was keen to make an impression at Calais. He even exuberantly challenged the king of France to a wrestling match to show off his strength, which was probably not the wisest diplomatic move to make with your on-off enemy. 

And so it was in 1522, Henry awaited the arrival, on a state visit, of his wife's nephew, the wealthy and powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. 

The pressure was on.

Henry ordered that the ancient table top be re-painted with fresh, vivid colours and had a portrait of King Arthur (looking a little bit Henry-esque in the face, to be fair) painted, and seated on top of a central, flourishing Tudor Rose. 

Detail of the Round Table at Winchester, photo by Jo Romero

The Tudors, with their dynasty built on admittedly shaky foundations, seem to have been preoccupied throughout the years with using vast displays and exaggerations of influence to indicate that they were the rightful owners of the crown. 

Weddings, coronations and christenings took place with hugely elaborate pageants, displays and ceremony. Sources tell us that wine-dispensing fountains lined the streets in London before the coronation of Anne Boleyn, along with dancers, actors and beautifully crafted sculptures that were carried ahead of her procession. Henry VIII owned not one or two palaces, but a staggering 55, in a show of elegance and power. 

The Tudors kept strict dress codes, and these rules were further tightened during their reigns. Commoners were not allowed to wear certain fabrics or colours and Elizabeth I's dresses became more and more elaborate as she aged, with large, hoop-like attachments that held on fine cloaks, that presumably bobbed behind her, as she walked. Tracy Borman, in her book The Private Lives of the Tudors, has made the point that whenever the Tudors felt under pressure or risk (from rebellion or political failures), they increased their expenditure that year on luxurious clothing. 

Henry's expensive, gold-threaded tapestries of The Story of Abraham that hang in Hampton Court Palace glittered in the light of the Great Hall and it was said that Elizabeth I had the richest and most expensive tapestries hung up when she expected important foreign visitors. Elizabeth wore thick makeup and wigs to hide her ageing skin and thinning hair. Her paintings were full of allegory, celebrating her Queenly qualities and diplomatic skills.

All these displays - not only of wealth, but opulence, and power - mean that the Tudors made their mark on the world's stage. They were dismantling their foundations - that at the time of Henry VII coming to the throne there were in fact other families with more direct claims to it than him. The Tudors were building a myth of kingship and natural, born leadership. Rebel leaders, foreign adversaries and plotters should think twice before challenging them. 

By repainting the mystical Round Table with the first king of the Britons seated on top of a vibrant Tudor Rose, Henry sought to associate the respected legend of King Arthur directly with the Tudor dynasty. He was implying that their dynasties were linked not just with the red paint of the rose, but with royal blood. To Charles, and anyone else watching, the link cemented his status as a just and rightful king, and it was as if Arthur, looking out from the ancient timbers of his own Round Table, approved. That Charles V met Henry here in Winchester, the presumed site of the famous Camelot back then, has even further significance. 

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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