Close Analysis: King Arthur’s round table at Winchester Castle

The object is King Arthur’s Round Table which is on display at Winchester Cathedral. The wood of the table dates back to the 1200s and was originally used at court for roundtable festivals. Edward I enjoyed Arthurian legends and the chivalric ideals they epitomised, and Martin Biddle argues that the table was created to celebrate the engagement of Edward’s daughter Joan. Biddle also notes that by 1463, the table was hanging in the Cathedral without its legs. The table was revitalised for the visit of Emperor Charles V in 1522, in which a Tudor rose was painted in the centre, as well as Henry VII sitting on Arthur’s throne. The Arthurian legends enjoyed renewed popularity during Henry’s reign, and for him, they presented a link to Wales, where Henry first landed to fight in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry’s portrait on the table tells us that he wanted to be associated with Arthur directly, and the peaceful reign Arthur presided over. This helped Henry cover up his somewhat dubious claim to the throne, as he descended from the illegitimate children of John of Gaunt. This links to the wider theme of dynasty, and the securing of it which was done with the help of propaganda.

Henry wanted to be associated with table, and Arthurian legend, to bolster the legitimacy of the Tudor family’s claim to the throne. Biddle notes that Henry’s naming his son Arthur, and baptising of him at Winchester was a ‘political tool’ to achieve this. This made the Tudors appear as if they had descended from a prestigious, ancient family. This enhanced their ‘Englishness,’ and also would have increased support for them and patriotism throughout the country. John Guy agrees, and notes that Henry prioritised the ‘security and stability’ of the dynasty, as demonstrated by his desire to be associated with Arthur. This was also demonstrated by his fiscal policies, as he wanted to ensure that he left a financially stable kingdom to his son. Henry VII’s desire to maintain the dynasty can also be recognised in Henry VIII.

Henry VIII’s obsession with primogeniture greatly influenced the Break with Rome, as Henry sought a divorce so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, after Catherine of Aragon failed to birth a male heir. Henry VIII’s obsession with dynasty, and the securing of it is demonstrated in one of his portraits by Holbein in 1536. The original painting was destroyed, but many copies exist. Henry’s pose is one that demonstrates militaristic power and strength, his stance accentuates his leg muscles and his broad shoulders show has the strength to rule England. The painting demonstrates the security, and physical strength of Henry VIII as well as the security and strength of the dynasty. Tatiana String aligns the presence of the large codpiece, the focal point of the painting, with the idea of primogeniture, as Henry is demonstrating his success as the male courtly lover, as he is virile and fertile. This also shows the future security of the dynasty. Patricia Simons calls the codpiece a ‘surrogate political weapon,’ one that confirms Henry VIII’s potency.

Another painting, the 1545 family portrait thought to be by Holbein, reasserted Henry VIII’s claim to the throne by depicting him with his children. The painting resembles ‘The Donne triptych.’ This image shows the Virgin Mary holding Christ at its centre. Henry is at the centre of his painting, which relays the sacred nature of the monarch, and reinforces the idea that they were chosen to rule by God. This piece of artistic propaganda further secures the Tudor dynasty. A copy of the painting was reissued in 1572, following Elizabeth’s accession to the throne. This further asserted her claim, as it presents how she came to the throne, a link that Henry VII tried to root in King Arthur by aligning himself with the table at Winchester.

Other activities were also undertaken to cement the power of the dynasty, such as tournaments, which Henry organised upon the birth of Edward. These conveyed wealth and power, as did progresses. Progresses allowed the monarch to appear directly to the people, with the intention to impress and intimidate.

The Tudors used propaganda to assert the security and validity of their rule in England, but also on the global stage. Biddle noted that Henry VII’s desire to link his ancestry back to King Arthur placed him amongst the monarchs of Europe that traced their ancestry to Charlemagne. These links with British legends and physical displays of power in paintings and in person sought to affirm the security of the Tudor dynasty.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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