The Future of History

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Round Table

When a question was raised in an online King Arthur forum about whether "England has the original Round Table", I read a few of the replies and felt moved to respond.

Back in August, this blog mentioned the news that researchers from Glasgow University, working alongside local historians and archaeologists, had surveyed the King's Knot near Stirling Castle ("Stop Press: Round Table Discovery").  A "circular feature" under the turf of the central mound - see above - was revealed by geophysicists.

I added that to the online discussion about the existence of the Round Table.  The exchange of ideas, views and information continued, but only one person referred, in passing, to what I had written:

"there is the recent news about the Stirling 'circular feature' tho I'm not convinced."

So that's that, then.  Another minor distraction safely buried.

Except that this wasn't "recent news".  I'd pointed out in my post that the French poet Beroul, writing his romance of Tristan in about 1200, had located the Round Table firmly at Stirling.  The Fair Yseut sends her squire with a message for King Arthur and is told that Arthur "is seated on his throne.  You will see the Round Table which turns like the world; his household sits upon it."  The squire makes his way to Stirling, where he finds Arthur "on the dais where all the knights were seated."

That was written 800 years ago.  Hardly recent news.

In the fourteenth century, the Scottish poet John Barbour composed his poem The Brus about the Battle of Bannockburn, fought a short distance south of Stirling in 1314.  The defeated English king Edward II rode desperately to Stirling, seeking shelter in the castle, but he was turned away by the castle's governor.  Edward and his followers galloped off; as John Barbour wrote:

And besouth the Castle went they thone,
Rychte by the Round Tabill away.

In 1478, one William of Worcester wrote that "King Arthur kept the Round Table at Stirling Castle".  A generation later, Sir David Lindsay bade a fond farewell to Stirling's Castle Rock:

Adew, fair Snawdoun, with thy towris hie,
Thy Chapell-royal, park, and Tabyll Round ...

As late as the sixteenth century, it was reported that the thousand-year old traditions were still being honoured at Stirling: "in a sport called 'Knights of the Round Table', the Institutions of King Arthur were commemorated."

King James VI of Scotland was christened at Stirling Castle in December 1566.  He was heralded as the new Arthur who would one day unite the thrones of England and Scotland, thereby recreating the Britain which had been divided by the Anglo-Saxon conquest.  Intriguingly, when he acceded to the throne of England in 1603, King James insisted on having exactly 24 counsellors to advise him.  Twenty-four was also the number of the 'horsemen' of Arthur's Court - the legendary Knights of the Round Table.

The stepped earthworks surrounding the central mound of the King's Knot were added for the benefit of King James's son, Charles I.  It is the central mound itself, which is about fifteen metres in diameter, which appears to have been the original "dais" upon which Arthur and his noble war-band met.  And it is this central mound which, as the archaelogical surveys carried out this summer showed, was topped by a "circular feature".

The relevance of the mound was partly strategic.  The River Forth, which curls round the Castle Rock at Stirling, was effectively the boundary of Britain.  Just two safe crossing places, the Fords of Frew, immediately to the west of Stirling, allowed Pictish warriors from the north cross into Britain.  The defence of those fords was integral to the security of North Britain.  For a while, that task was entrusted to Arthur's father Aedan, the 'Prince of the Forth'.  For several years, from about 575 until 584, the task fell to the "emperor" Arthur.  He fought at least one of his battles at the Fords of Frew on the River Forth.

But I also suspect that the Round Table mound was important to Arthur and his close-knit war-band for another reason.  It was the burial mound of their mutual ancestor, Brychan of Manau.

Manau Gododdin was the contemporary name for Stirling, the Gododdin people being the tribesmen of Lothian.  Brychan of Manau almost certainly had his own version of the Round Table - a "family" of twenty-four "sons" - which was replicated by Arthur.  After his death, according to a manuscript in the British Library (Cognatio de Brachan), the mighty Brychan was buried "in the island which is called Ynysbrachan and which is next to Manau".

The Welsh word ynys can refer to an island or a river-meadow.  The meadow on which the King's Knot stands, beside the River Forth, was next to Manau - that is, it lay immediately beneath the volcanic crag-and-tail rock of Stirling.

Brychan's remains might not have stayed in the King's Knot burial mound.  There is some evidence that one of Arthur's companions, St Cadog, exhumed them and carried them to the site of his new monastery, a little further to the north, near Doune (St Cadog is commemorated at Kilmadock).  But prior to that, it seems likely that Arthur's legendary band of inter-related warrior-princes met at the grave of their forefather, Brychan of Manau, and held their councils of war in the field beside the Castle Rock, on the very edge of Britain.

Not convinced?  That's up to you.  But you can't call it "recent news".

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