Who were the Knights of the Round Table in Arthurian legend, and where does the Holy Grail fit in?

The Knights of Round Table, the Holy Grail, the tryst between Lancelot and Guinevere – many of these famous episodes in Arthurian legend are familiar. But where do those legends come from? Professor Ad Putter of the University of Bristol explains...

The Knights of the Round Table are that the heart of many Arthurian legends

Professor Ad Putter was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, alongside Professor Ronald Hutton, answering questions about Arthurian legends submitted by our readers and the top online search queries. A selection of his answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…

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Q: When did stories about King Arthur become popular?

A: During the 12th century, the two big names that I should mention are Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was a schoolmaster in Oxford and wrote a hugely influential history of the kings of Britain [Historia Regum Britanniae], in which he gave a very prominent part to King Arthur.

Then there is Chrétien de Troyes, the inventor of Arthurian romance. These are the stories of the Knights of the Round Table, riding out on adventure. Chrétien was from the Champagne area in France, and his romances, again, were hugely influential. These two writers helped popularise the Arthurian stories, though it might be mentioned that there was a lively oral tradition of stories too.

Q: When does the idea of the Round Table appear?

A: It is not in the chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but in a French translation by a writer called Wace, who was from Jersey. He says that Arthur founded a Round Table to avoid problems and quarrels about precedence and who could sit at the seat of honour. If you have a round table, everyone is equal.

Later writers elaborate on the idea. There is an English translation of Wace by a writer, Layamon, who tells us that the Round Table was built by a Cornish carpenter and could seat more than 1,600 men. Later traditions then ascribed the invention to Merlin.

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King Arthur addresses his knights in a 12th-century Arthurian manuscript now held in Rennes, France. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

Q: What does the Holy Grail have to do with the Knights of the Round Table?

A: It depends on which romance you read. In the first romance that mentions the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes, the Grail is simply a serving platter – which is what the word originally meant. It’s a flat dish that he later reveals contains the Eucharistic wafer.

Those religious associations of the Grail were taken up and developed by later writers. In later Arthurian literature, it is usually described as the cup with which Joseph of Arimathea, one of Christ’s disciples, collected the blood of Christ after he’d been crucified. And it becomes, in 13th-century Arthurian prose romances, a kind of mystical object that you try and find in a search for perfection.

It’s really important in Arthurian romance, because it signals a shift towards a more spiritual drive in which being a knight is not just about being brave and powerful or being courtly: it also becomes a matter of being spiritually pure and sometimes chaste. So you have a new generation of knights who become associated with the Grail and who achieve the quest of the Holy Grail.

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King Arthur and his knights return to Camelot (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Q: When does Sir Lancelot appear in the stories, and what is his role?

A: Lancelot first appears in the romance of The Knight of the Cart written by Chrétien de Troyes in about 1175. He has a very important role there: he is the lover of Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur.

Chrétien de Troyes, as far as we know, is the inventor of this love triangle involving King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and Lancelot. It does appear that there was another tradition of Lancelot where he is just one of King Arthur’s knights, because there is a 13th-century romance by a German writer Ulrich von Zatzikhoven. And in this romance, he doesn’t have an affair with Guinevere at all.

The reason why this love element is so important is that the essence of romance tries to reconcile an interest in martial prowess with an interest in a kind of romantic element – and how do you combine those two? Well, one way in which you can combine the two is by suggesting that knights become braver if they are inspired by the love of ladies. And that really is how Lancelot takes off, because it is Lancelot’s love for the queen that leads him to do the marvellous deeds ascribed to him in the romances.

Q: Who was the ‘best knight’ in the Arthurian stories?

A: What tends to happen as you go through literary history is that once-famous heroes undergo a process that we call epic degeneration; they decline, and this you see throughout Arthurian literature.

For instance, we might think of Sir Gawain as one of the great knights. And he is certainly an exemplar of heroism in the earliest romances by Chrétien de Troyes. He becomes, in the later romances, something of a womaniser and a traitor.

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The Green Knight shows his severed – and still talking – head to King Arthur in this illustration of the beginning of the 14th century legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

It is the same with Lancelot. I have mentioned Lancelot as being one of the great knights, being driven to greatness by love of Guinevere. But in the quest of the Holy Grail, he is the person who cannot achieve the grail quest. And he is eclipsed by his son, Galahad, who is spiritually pure. Galahad is the only knight in the Arthurian legends who cannot be said to decline in any way, because he is taken up to heaven and that’s the end of him.

Epic degeneration applies to King Arthur as well. I think you could well say that in the chronicle tradition, he is the great conquering king. What you see in the later romances is that his role is much more passive and in Chrétien de Troyes’ late and unfinished romance, which is the story of the Grail, Arthur is even shown as nodding off; he falls asleep as he presides over the Round Table.


Professor Ad Putter was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast about Arthurian legends, alongside Professor Ronald Hutton, as part of our ‘Everything You Wanted To Know’ podcast series. They were speaking with HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove. Listen below, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

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This content was first published on HistoryExtra in 2020