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To try to unravel the mystery surrounding him, I felt I had to visit some of the places which lay claim to this "Once and Future King." The West Country, Cornwall and Somerset in particular, abounds with more sites linked to Arthur than any other part of England.

I began my quest in Winchester, the old Roman city of Venta Belgarum, site of the Great Hall, depository of the most famous of all Arthurian relics, the Round Table.

Eighteen feet in diameter, made of solid oak and weighing approximately one and a quarter tons, it hangs a table top without legs. It resembles an enormous dartboard, painted in green and white segments, indicating the places where the king and his knights once sat. In Malory's day, many considered it to be the genuine article, and historians believed Winchester Castle to be the site of Arthur's fortress, Camelot.

Unfortunately, the existing castle isn't nearly old enough to be of the Arthurian period. Tests prove Edward III constructed the table, probably in 1344, when he conceived the notion of an order of chivalry based on the Knights of the Round Table as depicted in the popular romances. It was possibly used for celebrating the then popular Arthurian festivals in which noblemen indulged.

King Henry VIII ordered the table painted in 1522 to honor a visit by Charles V. The image of Arthur is actually modeled on a very youthful Henry VIII seated in full royal regalia. A Tudor rose marks its center.

Legend says that Merlin, the magician, conjured the table for Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father. On his father's death, Merlin gave the table to Arthur.

However, the idea of a table where all were equal, where no man sat in state above his peers appealed to the romantic idealism which, especially in Victorian times, surrounded the knightly legend. In fact, any leader of the time would have had to impose a fierce discipline or risk being deposed.

Next: Camelot

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