Many different stories account for its origin: everything from an enchantment by Merlin to a gift from some unknown duke.
There is no "head of the table" at a round table, and so no one person is at a privileged position. Thus the several knights were all peers and there was no "leader" as there were at so many other medieval tables. There are indications of other circular seating arrangements to avoid conflicts among early Celtic groups. However, one could infer importance on the basis of the number of seats each knight was removed from the king. Perhaps at each meeting King Arthur let his knights be seated at random without knowing where he might sit that day. The siège périlleux ("dangerous chair") was reserved to knights of pure heart.
There are many different estimates of the total number of the knights of the round table. If there were 25 knights, then the diameter of the table would have been around 25 feet, which is a rather large separation across which to maintain a polite conversation. If there were 100 knights, knights sitting across the table from each other would have been around 100 feet apart. Some students of this arcane subject say that the table was constructed in segments and had a hollow center. Such a construction would have saved greatly on raw materials, and could have facilitated serving food to the knights. Since not even a picture of the round table remains from the time that Arthur is said to have reigned, the whole matter is one of total speculation.
Inspired by this legend, some nobles in the 15th century ordered round tables for their meetings with other chivalrous knights. One round table exists in England today, the Winchester Round Table, which has been alleged to be King Arthur's original Round Table, but careful examination has revealed it to date from the 1270s, rather than the 6th century.
The name "Round Table" is not drawn from Arthurian Legend; rather both its title and its maxim comes from a speech made to the British Industries Fair in 1927 by the then Prince of Wales - 'The young business and professional men of this country must get together round the table, adopt methods that have proved so sound in the past, adapt them to the changing needs of the times and wherever possible, improve them'. The phrase "adopt, adapt, improve" is a key facet of the organisation, and is often seen on Round Table literature and regalia.
The design of the Round Table emblem is, however, an adaptation of the table which hangs in the Great Hall in Winchester. Although this is claimed to be the Round Table of the mythical court of King Arthur, it is in fact a representation which was made in the 13th century.
The founder, Louis Marchesi, was a young member of Norwich Rotary Club who felt a need existed for a club where the young business men of the town could gather on a regular basis. At their meetings they could exchange ideas, learn from the experiences of their colleagues and play a collective part in the civic life of Norwich. Within a year of inception the membership of this Round Table had grown to 85 and interest was being shown in establishing Round Tables elsewhere.
A second Round Table was established in Portsmouth and subsequent growth was rapid, with 125 Tables and a membership of 4,600 by 1939. Round Table proved it had international appeal with the first overseas Table formed in Copenhagen in 1936. During the war years Round Table continued to expand in Denmark although in the British Isles activity was restricted and was in the nature of a 'holding operation'.
After 1945 the pattern of growth was rapidly re-established with Tables being 'chartered' all over the UK. Today there are about 900 Tables with a membership of around 10,000. Round Table now flourishes in the majority of European countries, throughout Africa, the Middle East, India, Hong Kong, New Zealand and America. From a very early stage it was agreed that Round Table would be a non-religious, non-political club and this has continued to this day.
The focal point of Round Table is its regular meetings. Normally, most Tables meet twice a month, usually in the evening and often with a meal. The regular meeting is the forum for speakers and many other forms of activity and entertainment. Visitors and potential members are always made particularly welcome as Round Table provides an ideal opportunity to establish new friendships. Another opportunity of the Round Table, rarely acknowledged by its members, is that it allows its members to socialize and form lasting friendships.
Round Table is frequently associated with its charitable fund raising activities and community service projects. In the UK many Round Tables operate these activities through charitable trusts which are registered with, and regulated by, the Charities Commission.