A fascinating study of a fantastical building

Edward III's tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey
Edward III’s tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey (Wikipedia Commons)

Julian Munby, Richard Barber, Richard Brown
Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor:
the House of the Round Table and
the Windsor Festival of 1344

Boydell Press 2007

Historical re-enactments have always been popular, especially in the late 20th century, from the Society for Creative Anachronism in America, through English Civil War society The Sealed Knot and Dark Age re-enactment group Britannia in more recent years, to the 500th anniversary of the last great tournament in Wales (which was celebrated at Carew Castle in West Wales in May 2007). Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a supporter of Henry Tudor before he became king, marked his admission to the Order of the Garter with what became known as the Great Carew Tournament of 1507, and appropriately enough his family’s poet, Rhys Nanmor, compared Carew Castle to King Arthur’s palace.

But the enthusiasm for historical re-enactment goes back much further back than this, as this book (volume 68 in Boydell’s excellent Arthurian Studies series) based on detailed documentary analysis and recent archaeological excavation shows. This fascinating study of a fantastical building takes a suitably multi-disciplinary approach, with contributors including both the head of Buildings Archaeology and a Senior Project Manager at Oxford Archaeology, plus two experienced historians with overlapping expertise on the Middle Ages, Windsor Castle and the Arthurian legends, all spurred on by a Time Team investigation.

That building was the ‘House of the Round Table’ at Windsor, built in 1344 and then abandoned for plausible reasons explored fully and very clearly in the text. This short-lived yet extraordinary circular wooden structure, at least two hundred feet across, was intended to inaugurate a Round Table Order, with tournaments recreating imagined Arthurian ideals in a fusion of literary, political, architectural and social engineering. Sadly this never-completed British Coliseum was effectively forgotten after victory at Crecy in 1346, the mammoth Round Table Order it was meant to celebrate jettisoned in favour of a slimmed-down Order of the Garter, which of course has survived more than six centuries down to the present day.

Supplemented with documentary appendices and splendid illustrations, this in-depth study explores the historical background to a modern archaeological discovery, detailing its analogues and inspirations and ultimately revealing that role-playing games are nothing new. Despite its very scholarly approach this study still retains some excitement for the layman, with hints at what might have been if circumstances had been different. As a result I find I can’t praise it enough.

Windsor Castle, from an old print
Windsor Castle, from an old print

2007 review revised May 2014

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6 thoughts on “A fascinating study of a fantastical building

    1. Sadly, Col, I suspect there’s a novel out there already just a scenario. There’s even a graphic novel (which I may review sometime) called Camelot 3000 envisaging an idea not too dissimilar set, well, in 3000 AD.

  1. The Round Table Order… what an interesting idea! Oh that we could create a space in which the ideal world of Camelot is explored. I would support such an endeavor.

    1. I’m unfortunately cynical, Sari, in assuming that anything utopian like that will be soon corrupted or diverted away from good intentions. Back in Edward’s day it would only have been for 300 loyal battle-scarred knights; today its successor Order of the Garter is not for hoi polloi like you and me.

      There is a philanthropic Round Table organisation, isn’t there, similar to other do-gooding groups like the Rotarians; but I get the impression, for all their excellent charitable work, that they’re run by local worthies seen as the great and the good in their communities, benefactors with a membership only by invitation, Freemasons without the secret rituals. Or is this a grossly unfair assessment?

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