Sunday, 11 March 2018

Madoc and the Discovery of America

Horn Gwennan, brought to the Gele,
To be given a square mast,
Was turned back to Afon Ganol’s quay
For Madog’s famous voyage

Madoc's Lost Harbour
Odstone House, Rhos on Sea, was designed and built by Manchester architect, Henry Goldsmith in 1912. Odstone had stood empty for the last ten years and became derelict with no interest from potential buyers for this colonial style house at Penrhyn Bay on the North Wales coast. Sadly the only interest came from a property developer Madock Development Ltd who planned to demolish Odstone and replace it with a dozen luxury apartments situated next to the golf course.

Odstone House
The driveway at Odstone is said to be formed from an old pier wall where legend has it that Prince Madoc set sail in 1170 and landed in Mobile, Alabama. Madoc's legendary voyage was commemorated on a bronze plaque outside the house.

Madoc plaque at Odstone House
The Afon Conwy did not always follow its current course and the present day estuary is a more recent development; thousands of years ago the Conwy flowed through the site of the Rhos on Sea golf course and into the sea at Penrhyn Bay, possibly the old river delta. It is thought the prehistoric Conwy flowed through the course of the Afon Ganol down the Mochdre valley and discharged at Penrhyn Bay.

The course of the Conwy abandoned the Mochdre valley when it became blocked at its northern end by Irish Sea Ice. During the glacial retreat the valley remained in a state of constant saturation for a long period forming a boggy, marsh environment. Subsequent silting blocked off most of the Conwy’s old course with the much reduced flow following the ancient course which survives as Afon Ganol. For a long period the mouth of this river formed a navigable inlet; ancient documents record it use by ships of between “20 or 30 tun”.

Old maps of Penrhyn Bay show a large meandering marshy area across Morfa Rhyd with a stream forking towards Rhos on Sea. The main flow continued over the present golf links, passed through the grounds of Odstone House and out to sea.

When a new sewer was being constructed opposite Odstone House in 1907, a stone wall about 12 foot thick, with holes said to be for iron stanchions, was discovered about 700 yards from the shore. Then during rebuilding of the sea wall in 1954 stone blocks were unearthed in the form of two walls about seven feet apart splaying to nine feet apart; 30 yards of the ancient quay formed part of rockery in the Odstone House garden, with the drive passing over the top of it. The former owner of Odstone House that had lived there for some 50 years said that her father had told her that Prince Madoc had set sail for America from an old stone pier in the garden.

A 15th century poem by Cynric ap Gronow records how Madoc's legendary ship Gwennan Gorn set sail from Gele (Abergele) but turned back to Afon Ganal's quay after being caught in a storm. However, another account claims Madoc sailed from the Glaslyn estuary on the west coast of Wales. Before William Madocks damned the outflow and the estuary silted up there was an island there called Ynys Fadog which it is claimed was named after Prince Madoc who set sail from this point. William Madocks built a village on the land he reclaimed from the sea and called it Tremadog, not after himself as many thought, but after the Prince who sailed for America. More than one departure point for Prince Madoc does not contradict the legend which claims that he returned from his initial voyage, gathered a larger fleet then left Wales, this time never to be seen again.

The Legend
This well known persistent Welsh legend claims that America had been discovered by Prince Madoc ap Gwain Gwynedd some 300 years before Columbus. Prince Madoc, a son of Owain 12th century ruler of Gwynedd, sailed out of Rhos on Sea on the North Wales Coast, in 1170 to find a new place to live across the western ocean. Some years later he returned with news of a 'new abundant country', gathered a fleet of ships and hundreds of expectant settlers and sailed west again, never to return.

Legend tells that they landed somewhere in the area of what is now Alabama, and settled with a native American tribe known as the Mandans. In the 17th century as America was colonised reports filtered back to Britain of contact with Welsh speaking American Indians. In 1669 Reverend Morgan Jones reported that his life was spared by a tribe of North American Indians because they were Welsh speaking; in 1810, Major Amos Stoddard, first Governor of Tennessee, discovered that Indian history believed that ancient forts close to the Alabama River were built by the Welsh whose leader was called “Modok”. However, on their expeditions across North America during 1804-1806, Lewis and Clark reported that they had not found any evidence of Welsh speaking Indians. The Mandan tribe are said to have been wiped out by a smallpox epidemic introduced by traders in 1837.

Back in the late 16th century John Dee, occult philosopher and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I of England, used the story of Prince Madoc's discovery of America prior to Columbus to assert British claims to “all the Coasts and Islands beginning at or about Terra Florida......unto Atlantis going Northerly.” Dee claimed to have drawn his information from an 'ancient Welsh chronicle'. Without doubt Madoc's story had been in oral circulation for some years but it wasn't until Sir George Peckham's 'True Reporte of the late Discoveries of the Newfound Landes' of 1583 that the tale appeared in print for the first time. Peckham also pointed to the 'ancient Welsh chronicles' as his source. Dee had also cited King Arthur as conqueror of Frisland in the north polar regions and therefore his heir Queen Elizabeth had a legitimate claim there.

However, there is just the faintest hint that knowledge of Madoc's discovery was known before Columbus 'discovered' the New World when he landed in the West Indies in 1492.

Richard Hakluyt in his 'Principal Navigations' (1600) cites a poem by Maredudd ap Rhys, dated to around 1440, which suggests there was a Welsh tradition extant in the 15th century of a seafarer by the name of Madoc, although the poem does not specifically mention the discovery of America. David Powel published an edition of Humphrey Llwyd's 1599 translation of the ancient Welsh Chronicles (Cronica Walliae) to which Powel added details of Madoc's second voyage, referring to Gutyn Owain who wrote between 1470 and 1490 that Madoc “went thither againe with ten sailes”. This now appears to be a lost source as Madoc is not mentioned in any of Gutyn Owain's surviving manuscripts.

John Cabot discovers Newfoundland
Yet, Columbus was certainly aware of the discovery of Newfoundland off the North American coast by the Men of Bristol in 1480 who had claimed to be searching for the legendary island of Hy-Brasil. Later in 1497 the Venetian explorer John Cabot made the 'official discovery' of the coast of North America under the commission of King Henry VII of England.

Odstone House Demolished
In 2016, some 800 years after Madoc set sail from Penrhyn Bay, more than 2,000 signatures were gathered in an attempt to save Odstone House after a planning application was submitted by agent Cadnant Planning on behalf of Madock Development to demolish the property and build 12 apartments. Campaigners argued the landmark property was built in the “Arts and Crafts” style and an important part of local heritage.

Odstone House, derelict just prior to demolition in 2016
Later that year, Madock Developments withdrew the application to permit Cadw to assess the historic value of the building. Following a review and site visit, Cadw, the Welsh Government’s department to conserve Wales’s heritage, confirmed Odstone did not represent a building of any special architectural interest and presumably there was no evidence of the ancient quay.

Subsequently, Madock Developments resubmitted their planning application and by September 2017 Odstone House had been demolished and Madoc's quay with it. But they couldn't demolish the legend of Prince Madoc's discovery of America.

On the other side of the Atlantic the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a plaque at Mobile Bay in 1953:

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Thursday, 1 March 2018

Concept of a Legend

Read a book for World Book Day, 1st March 2018.

Concepts of Arthur
Thomas Green 
Tempus, 2007 (The History Press, 2008)
ISBN: 978-0752444611

This is a detailed study of the origins of Arthur and the nature and development of the early Arthurian legend under the former nom de plume of Caitlin R. Green.

Here Green argues for a concept of Arthur as a figure of legend, not history.

Green asserts that the case for a historical Arthur rests entirely on two sources; the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons) and the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals). These two texts are the starting point for any argument presented for a historical Arthur.

At first glance both texts appear to present a concept of Arthur that is historical. The History of the Britons contains a complete section (usually referred to as Chapter 56) which presents Arthur as a leader of battles, not a king, and lists twelve successful conflicts culminating in the Battle of Badon, also referenced in a contemporary source, De Excidio Britanniae of AD 540 (although Gildas does not mention Arthur by name). Green sees the History of the Britons as presenting a concept of Arthur as a warrior who fought against Germanic invaders in the late 5th century.

Green suggests the History of the Britons could simply represent a mythical or folkloric figure drawn into history and far from being a 'heap', as descibed in the prologue of Nennius, sees the text as a carefully constructed work in ‘Biblical style’ with explicit political aims expressly written for Merfyn, King of Gwynedd 829-30 AD.

The Badon entry in the Welsh Annals is clearly influenced by Arthur's eighth battle at Guinnon in chapter 56 of the The History of the Britons. Whereas, the battle of Camlann, Green sees as a creation of the mid to late 10th century, and treated very differently by the ‘guardians of Welsh tradition’ possessing an 'Otherworldy' context and just one of several legendary versions of Arthur’s demise circulating in early medieval Wales.

Green concludes that the The History of the Britons is of dubious historical value and questions the confidence we can hold in its Arthurian reference, seeing the text as part of the process of historicizing a legend.

This an important work in the search for Arthur in which Green examines the earliest level of the Arthurian legend prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth, unravelling the world of a superhero battling monstrous supernatural beasts, witches and giants.

Concepts of Arthur
Table of Contents:

Chapter 1 The Arthur of History: The Evidence and Its Critics
Chapter 2 The Earliest Stratum of the Arthurian Legend
Chapter 3 The Nature of Arthur: ‘A Mighty Defender'?
Chapter 4 The Nature of Arthur's War-Band and Family
Chapter 5 The Origins of ‘Arthur'
Chapter 6 The Historicization of Arthur
Chapter 7 The Arthur of the British: A Maximum View

From May 2017, Concepts of Arthur has been unavailable in all editions for well over a year and the rights have now reverted to the author who has made the original 2007 version of the book available as a free PDF download on her website: Dr Caitlin R. Green Arthuriana: Studies in Early Medieval History & Legend

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Saturday, 10 February 2018

Top Ten Arthurian Locations

" hold opinion that there was no such Arthur and that all such books as been made of him been but feigned and fables...[yet] there were many evidences of the contrary.

First, ye may see his sepulture in the monastery of Glastonbury; and also in Polychronicon, in the fifth book, the sixth chapter, and in the seventh book, the twenty-third chapter, where his body was buried, and after founden and translated into the said monastery. Ye shall see also in th’istory of Bochas, in his book De Casu Principum, part of his noble acts, and also of his fall. Also Galfridus, in his British book, recounteth his life. And in divers places of England many remembrances been yet of him and shall remain perpetually, and also of his knights: first, in the abbey of Westminster, at Saint Edward’s shrine, remaineth the print of his seal in red wax, closed in beryl, in which is written patricius arthurus britannie gallie germanie dacie imperator; item, in the castle of Dover ye may see Gawain’s skull and Cradok’s mantle; at Winchester, the Round Table; in other places Lancelot’s sword and many other things." [William Caxton, Preface to Malory's Morte d'Arthur]

1. Glastonbury: Ancient Avalon
    The site of the tomb of King Arthur

2. Tintagel: Arthur's Castle?
    Was there a Dark Age fortress here?

3. King Arthur lives in Merrie Carlisle
    Arthurian sites in Northern Cumbria

4. The Winchester Round Table
    The wooden table at Winchester that was once believed to King Arthur's Round Table

5. On the Trail of the Dragons of Emrys
    The beginnings of the Merlin legend on a hill in Snowdonia

6. Arthur and the  Dogheads of Eidin
    An ancient Welsh poem recounts Arthur fighting dogheads 

7. Cadbury Castle: Visions of Camelot
    Was this Dark Age hillfort in Somerset King Arthur's fortress?

8. Arthur, Stonehenge and the Solstice
    Was King Arthur buried within the Giants Dance along with his relatives?

9. Dover Castle: Gawain's Skull
    Gawain, the greatest knight, is said to be interred at the castle

10. Dozmary Pool: Nothing but Waves.....
      Is this isolated pool on Bodmin Moor the home of the Lady of the Lake?

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Saturday, 3 February 2018

Glastonbury: Ancient Avalon

Top Ten Arthurian Locations: No 1

"It was there we took Arthur after the battle of Camlan, where he had been wounded. Barinthus was the steersman because of his knowledge of the seas and the stars of heaven. With him at the tiller of the ship, we arrived there with the prince; and Morgen received us with due honour. She put the king in her chamber on a golden bed, uncovered his wound with her noble hand and looked long at it. At length she said he could be cured if only he stayed with her a long while and accepted her treatment. We therefore happily committed the king to her care and spread our sails to favourable winds on our return journey." - Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1148) 

Ancient Avalon
Number One in the Top Ten Arthurian locations just has to be Glastonbury and the Abbey that played such a significant role in the development of Arthurian legend; where else can you visit the site where the monks actually dug for King Arthur's grave in the 12th century? Considered by many today as a hoax the legend of Arthur's burial at Glastonbury has endured for over 800 years.

Unlike most monasteries which are located in remote places of solitude, the Somerset town of Glastonbury grew up around the abbey precinct. Where else can you walk through a high street with shops with an abundance of books on the Abbey and the legendary King Arthur, shops selling crystals and gemstones, delights for vegans and Glastonbury pasties from Burns the Bread for those who are not, shops selling pagan artefacts galore next door to the Christian church of St John custodian of the fabled tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

The 'JA' tomb in St John's church
From the top of the High Street turn right and walk along Chilkwell Street. Soon you arrive at the gateway to Abbey House, a later construction in the 19th century set within the abbey walls. Take a step inside the gateway here, and looking back at the carvings on the masonry we see the shield of Joseph of Arimathea sporting the two cruets from Melkin's Prophecy.

Inside the gateway with Dod Lane opposite
Opposite this gateway is Dod Lane leading to a footpath to the Tor, this lane is on the same alignment as the axis of the Abbey church and said to continue all the way to Stonehenge in Wiltshire which John Michell considered to link the two sites through the sacred geography of the ancients.

Continuing along Chilkwell Street you soon arrive at Chalice Well gardens, home to the Red Spring of Glastonbury where the water is said to be so coloured as this is the site where Joseph of Arimathea hide the Holy Grail which he used to collect the blood of Jesus at the Crucifixion. This is a fascinating place with themed gardens and the famous cover to the Chalice Well sporting the vesica pisces design by Frederick Bligh Bond.

Chalice Well Gardens
Leaving Chalice Well you cross Wellhouse Lane to join a footpath to the Tor, but before climbing the hill walk a few yards up the lane to see Glastonbury's White Spring. This is a healing well with the waters often collected by people seen queuing with containers of all makes and sizes. The two springs is one of Glastonbury's greatest mysteries; two different healing springs, one red, the other white, rising within a few yards of each other from the caves below the Tor.

The Chalice Well
The journey to the top of this enigmatic hill is a steep climb but worth the effort. Rising up from the Somerset Levels the Tor with its distinctive St Michael's tower is a landmark for miles around, the terraces indicate the hand of man has been instrumental in shaping this mound. The Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe sees the terraces as part of a ritual labyrinth. John Michell discovered the St Michael line from here, an alignment that stretches across the widest point of Southern England, linking the high places of St Michael from Cornwall to Norfolk along the path of the Beltane sunrise.

The Tor
Legends talk of this being a hollow hill containing a crystal cave; on midwinter night Arthur will ride out from the Tor along an ancient trackway toward South Cadbury Castle; this is the abode of Gwyn ap Nudd the King of the Fairies and gateway to Avalon, The Land Of The Dead. And not forgetting that the Tor was the site of the vile execution of the Abbey's last Abbot Richard Whiting.

St Michael's Tower
From the Tor there are magnificent views as you would expect; Brent Knoll and the Bristol Channel, The Mendips forming a backdrop to Wells Cathedral, nearer is the dome of Chalice Hill and Wearyall Hill where Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground and it grew into the Holy Thorn, sadly vandalised in 2010. Return to the Abbey, claimed to be the earliest Christian monastic site in Britain established by Joseph of Arimathea and the disciples of Jesus.

Shortly before the Dissolution in 1539 seven monks are said the have left Glastonbury Abbey with the Holy Grail and made their way into Wales, however, the myth of the Welsh Grail, or the Nanteos Cup as it is known, is another story.

Perhaps the real history of the Abbey commences with King Ine of Wessex who is said to have constructed the first stone church there, the base of which forms the west end of the nave. In the 10th century this church was enlarged by St  Dunstan, then Abbot of Glastonbury, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 960.

With the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century the Abbey was expanded and improved so that by the time of the Domesday Book Glastonbury Abbey was recorded as the richest monastery in the country. These great Norman structures were destroyed by the fire on St Urban's Day in 1184. The fire left the Abbey in desperate need of funds for reconstruction which sceptics claim led to the discovery of the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere between two pillars in the monks cemetery on the south side of the Lady Chapel in 1191. There can be no doubt the discovery did bring enormous wealth in to the Abbey, but that does not necessarily qualify it as a faked event.

William of Malmesbury had been invited to write the history of the Abbey around 1125 by the Abbot Henry of Blois. Wiilliam had unhindered access to the entire Abbey library but made no mention of Arthur being buried here.

Caradoc of Llancarfan's Life of St Gildas, written around 1120, contains the earliest known tale of the abduction of Guinevere. In the tale Gildas is the abbot of Glastonia who brokers peace between Arthur and Melvas, abductor and king of the summer country. The tale becomes a significant episode of later Arthurian Romance and plays a key part in Arthur's downfall. Caradoc tells us that Glastonia of old was called Ynisgutrin meaning 'The Isle of Glass'. Before the Somerset levels were extensively drained for agriculture Glastonbury would have appeared as an island during seasonal floods. The Isle of Glass interpretation suggests Glastonbury was at one time known as the Celtic Otherworld realm of Caer Wydyr (Fortress of Glass).

Writing around 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Arthur is mortally wounded at the battle of Camlann then taken to the Isle of Avalon without hinting at a location or linking it to Glastonbury. However, any doubt regarding Glastonbury's association with the Celtic Otherworld was removed in 1191 when the Glastonbury monks discovered the grave of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere containing a leaden burial cross. The cross was inscribed:

"Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon" 

The inscription varies slightly among the early sources but the version above is that given by John Leland who is said to have handled the cross on a visit to the Abbey between 1535 and 1539. William Camden provided a sketch of the cross bearing the same inscription in his 1607 edition of “Britannia”. The cross confirmed that Glastonbury was indeed the ancient Avalon.

The site of Arthur's tomb before the High Altar
King Richard I had reduced funding to Abbey as he poured his finances into the Crusades, yet the increase in pilgrims following the discovery of Arthur's grave very quickly restored its wealth. The Glastonbury Legend was enhanced with the addition of Joseph of Arimathea in the 14th century and the Abbey became the second wealthiest in the land.

Arthur's bones were reburied in 1278 in a black marble tomb before the High Altar within the Abbey Church in the presence of King Edward I. Here they remained until the Dissolution in 1539 when it appears the tomb was smashed and the remains of Arthur and Guinevere scattered to the four winds.

Copyright © 2018 Edward Watson

Photographs copyright © Edward Watson

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Tintagel: Arthur's Castle?

Top Ten Arthurian Locations: No 2

"Now feast and festival in Arthur's hall:
Hark! stern Dundagel softens into song!
They meet for solemn severance, knight and king,
Where gate and bulwark darken o'er the sea."
- R S Hawker (1864)

Where History meets Legend
A ruined medieval castle on the Cornish coast, surrounded on three sides by azure blue sea, white sea-water spray crashing against the rocks, the birthplace of King Arthur: with such a dramatic setting how can one fail to be impressed with Tintagel?

No, English Heritage have not ruined the island – yet! Under immense financial pressure to become self sufficient as government (tax payers) money is withdrawn English Heritage must increase revenue from top draw attractions such as Tintagel. The so-called guardians of this rare piece of Cornish heritage have been accused of 'Disneyfication' of the site with the so-called Merlin carving on the rocks by the entrance to Merlin's Cave in The Haven and the bronze sculpture named Gallos, inspired by the Arthurian legend.

The face of Merlin causes the biggest concern, as a rock carving, at once it became a permanent feature. But it is unobtrusive and can't be found unless one gets down to Merlin's Cave. Whereas Gallos is clearly a modern sculpture and surprisingly does not feel out of place. Indeed, tourists queue up here to get their photograph taken by the bronze warlord. Only time will tell how this rare piece of Cornish heritage fares in the hands of its trusted guardians.

But next year (2019), English Heritage intend to build a bridge from the mainland to the island. This could be just too much; yes there are many steps to climb to the island but the effort is worthwhile and gives the feeling of remoteness. On achieving the climb you have left behind the mainland and the modern world and enter through a doorway into another realm; you have arrived at Arthur's Castle.

Arthur's Castle?
Geoffrey of Monmouth introduces Tintagel to the Arthurian legend in in his History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136, as the place of Arthur's conception after his father Uther Pendragon takes the form of Gorlois Duke of Cornwall by taking Merlin's potion. That night Uther enters Tintagel Castle and spends the night with Ugraine. In the 15th century William of Worcester toured Cornwall and recorded that King Arthur was born at Tintagel.

The ascent on to the island
The myth of King Arthur and his Tintagel castle has been firmly embedded in the public’s consciousness by successive generations of writers since Geoffrey, including Sir Thomas Malory, Lord Tennyson, and R S Hawker.

The eccentric clergyman, poet and antiquarian, Robert Stephen Hawker (1803 – 1875), known as the vicar of Morwenstow, was inspired to write The Quest of the Sangraal after spending his honeymoon at Tintagel in 1823. Twenty five years later in 1848 Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, visited Hawker at Morwenstow, and sharing a deep fascination with Arthurian legend, the two travelled to the ruined castle at Tintagel. On completion of The Quest for the Sangraal, Tennyson is said to have declared that “Hawker has beaten me on my own ground.

The curtain wall of the 13th century Castle
Geoffrey Ashe (1997) mentions another legend of Tintagel, possibly no older than Tennyson, that recounts that when Arthur was mortally wounded at Slaughter Bridge (a contender for the site of the battle of Camlann), he was taken to Tintagel and died there. Ashe writes of strange wind-sighings and sea moanings that were said the have been heard around the headland, and continued while his body was conveyed to Glastonbury for burial. Not until his body was laid in the grave did the eerie noises cease.

The birth of modern tourism in the Victorian period arrived in north Cornwall with the railway in Camelford and construction of the hotel overlooking the ruins of the medieval castle; Tintagel met the visitors' criteria of romantic wild landscape and fashionable coastal resort. The guide Florence Nightingale Richards, Keeper of the Castle Keys, would take visitors around the island pointing out such features as King Arthur's Seat, King Arthur's Cup and Saucers, King Arthur's Footprint. Tennyson's epic poem 'Idylls Of The King' (1859) inspired the Pre-Raphaelites leading to a re-discovery in the arts and crafts movement of the period and the Arthurian Revival.

The Arthurian association with Tintagel was accepted dogma until the 1920's when Henry Jenner the Grand Bard of Cornwall presented a paper in which he dismissed the Arthurian connections to Tintagel as a fraud. Jenner demolished the Arthurian connection and concluded that “historically and romantically, Tintagel Castle is rather a fraud” and argued for a religious function on the island. Jenner, who was responsible for the revival of the Cornish language, suggested that the name of the promontory was Norman-French, highlighting the similarity to a rock on the island of Sark which was known to the locals as “Tente d'Ageu”.

Tintagel was originally just the name of the headland promontory, where the curtain wall stands, connected to the mainland by a thin isthmus now greatly eroded by the sea. The village was known, until comparatively recently, as Trevena, meaning 'farm on the hill'. Oliver Padel of the Institute of Cornish Studies has argued that the name may originate from the older Cornish language: 'Din', meaning a fort, and 'tagell', meaning a place where two currents of water meet.

Jenner argued that Geoffrey introduced Tintagel Castle into the Arthurian canon because of its dramatic setting high upon the cliffs of the north Cornish coast. Jenner asserted that the medieval castle was not built until about 1230, nearly a hundred years after Geoffrey wrote his story and therefore could not possibly be an Arthurian site and therefore all subsequent accounts relating to Tintagel as Arthur's birthplace were derived from Geoffrey. He considered the Arthurian association was pure invention by Geoffrey as his own research found no such connection. Jenner's theory that Tintagel was a religious establishment, rather than secular, influenced archaeological interpretations of the site for the next 50 years.

In 1930, C. A. Raleigh Radford was commissioned by the British Ministry of Works to investigate the Arthurian history of the Tintagel site. He carried out excavations at the site, on and off, for thirty years. Yet, Radford's interpretation of the site concurred with Jenner's earlier suggestion that Tintagel was indeed the site of a Celtic monastery.

Radford envisaged Tintagel as Rosnat, created by the holy man St. Julitta, who arrived shortly before the year 500 with a group of disciples. A small group of Irish Saints Lives  make reference to a place called “Rosnat” (or “Rostat”) where early saints received an education. Radford believed that Julitta equated with St. Juliana, one of the 'children of Brychan', a large family of siblings who became Celtic saints and have left their names in church dedications all over Cornwall. Today the low walls of the chapel still stand on the highest part of the island.

Henry VIII's antiquary John Leland visited Tintagel twice, in the late 1530's and early 1540's, following an itinerary similar to that of William of Worcester. Leland records that the chapel of “Ulette or Ulaine still stands within the dungeon”, while the remainder of the castle is in ruins. But Arthur is notably absent from Leland's record of his two visits to Tintagel.

The Chapel
If we can believe Arthurian Romance as being based on fact then a chapel was standing here before Richard Earl of Cornwall constructed his castle in the 13th century. "Perlesvaus or The High History Of The Holy Graal" was originally written in Old French in the first decade of the 13th Century A.D., as a continuation of Chretien DeTroyes' unfinished work "Perceval, or the Knight of the Grail". The unknown author is rumoured to have been a monk of Glastonbury and may have possessed first hand knowledge of the site. The account of Tintagel therein would appear to be adhering to Geoffrey's account in which Uther is transformed into the shape of Gorlois by Merlin:

“[Lancelot and Gawain] ….. rode right busily on their journeys until they came into a very different land, scarce inhabited of any folk, and found a little castle in a combe. They came thitherward and saw that the enclosure of the castle was fallen down into an abysm, so that none might approach it on that side, but it had a right fair gateway and a door tall and wide whereby one entered. They beheld a chapel that was right fair and rich, and below was a great ancient hall. They saw a priest appear in the midst of the castle, bald and old, that had come forth of the chapel. They are come thither and alighted, and asked the priest what the castle was, and he told them that it was the great Tintagel.

"And how is this ground all caved in about the castle?"

"Sir," saith the priest, "I will tell you. Sir," saith he, "King Uther Pendragon, that was father of King Arthur, held a great court and summoned all his barons. The King of this castle that then was here was named Gorlois. He went to the court and took his wife with him, that was named Ygerne, and she was the fairest dame in any kingdom. King Uther sought acquaintance of her for her great beauty, and regarded her and honoured her more than all the others of his court. King Gorlois departed thence and made the Queen come back to this castle for the dread that he had of King Uther Pendragon. King Uther was very wroth with him, and commanded him to send back the Queen his wife. King Gorlois said that he would not. Thereupon King Uther Pendragon defied him, and then laid siege about this castle where the Queen was. King Gorlois was gone to seek for succour. King Uther Pendragon had Merlin with him of whom you have heard tell, that was so crafty. He made him be changed into the semblance of King Gorlois, so that he entered there within by Merlin's art and lay that night with the Queen, and so begat King Arthur in a great hall that was next to the enclosure there where this abysm is. And for this sin hath the ground sunken in on this wise."

He cometh with them toward the chapel that was right fair, and had a right rich sepulchre therein.

"Lords, in this sepulchre was placed the body of Merlin, but never mought it be set inside the chapel, wherefore perforce it remained outside. And know of a very truth that the body lieth not within the sepulchre, for, so soon as it was set therein, it was taken out and snatched away, either on God's behalf or the Enemy's, but which we know not." [Trans. Sebastian Evans, 1898]

However, the account of Tintagel in The High History diverges from Geoffrey in recording a chapel standing in the ruins of a castle in much the same as that of Leland. Yet, The High History was written down at least three hundred years before Leland's account and thirty years before the medieval castle of Richard Earl of Cornwall was constructed; does The High History contain evidence of an Early Medieval stronghold on the island of which the remains were present in Geoffrey's day?

The island courtyard
A Royal Palace
A grass fire swept across the island in 1983 revealing many small dwellings which lead to the questioning of Radford's monastic interpretation. Subsequently, more recent interpretations of the Tintagel site have come to a very different conclusion and favour a secular trading post.

A re-evaluation of the site was carried out by the Cornish archaeologist Charles Thomas who closely studied the pottery sherds uncovered by Radford. Thomas noted that the pottery, mainly amphorae used to transport wine and oil, represented material evidence of imported luxury goods and concluded that the site had been used by high status or royal individuals and dismissed the monastic interpretation of the site.

In medieval literature Tintagel was always referred to as a 'royal palace' and a dwelling of the rulers of Cornwall, notably the palace of King Mark in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. In the earliest Arthurian tales (such as Culhwch and Olwen) Arthur's camp, Celliwig, is always in Cornwall. However, this does not qualify as providing any sort of evidence for proof of Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of the conception of King Arthur at Tintagel Castle.

The history of Tintagel, as with much of Britain, starts in the Roman period. Two Roman honorific markers from the area, one now in Tintagel church and one at Trethevy, a mile and a half to the east, suggest an Imperial presence in the area in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Small amounts of pottery and some Roman coins found on the island appear to confirm limited Roman activity.

In 1998 English Heritage announced the find was of a piece of slate which swung the pendulum firmly back in Arthur's favour. Known as The Artognou Stone, the slate found at Site C on the Eastern terrace, bears the inscription:


The name “Artognou” was proposed as a variant of Arthur and immediately led to speculation that it was confirmation of King Arthur's presence at Tintagel. English Heritage's chief archaeologist at the time, Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, seemingly carried away in the euphoria, described the discovery as "the find of a lifetime".

A display replica of the Artognou Slate
Charles Thomas translated this as "Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built". This inscription has been dated to a 6th century hand, found in a sealed layer containing fragments of 6th century Mediterranean pottery. However, it is often ignored that the slate bears two inscriptions in different hands from different periods. The letters 'AXE' appears to be the tailend of a Classical Roman inscription from the Late 4th century, which Thomas suggests may be an inscription to the Emperor Honorius, Augustus from 393 to 423 AD. The slate appears to have been re-used later for some 6th century graffiti, such as a practise inscription. Thomas speculated that the slate may originally have hung on the wall of a public building, perhaps a tax office, in the late 4th century before being used as a drain cover in the 6th century at the post-Roman buildings at Site C. The Romans could have used Tintagel as a trading post, exchanging Mediterranean goods for Cornish tin.

Further archaeological investigations, sponsored by English Heritage, confirmed Tintagel was indeed a post-Roman palace, possibly the seasonal seat of the kings of ancient Dumnonia (modern Cornwall and Devon). Sceptics may argue that archaeologists always seem to find what they want to find, especially when English Heritage are hoping to raise the Arthurian profile of Tintagel.

2017 excavations on the island
A new program of archaeological investigations at Tintagel has already declared the discovery of a 'Dark Age' high status building on the Headland in July 2016. The media circus that followed declared it as the discovery of King Arthur's palace. However, as with the inscribed 'Artognou' slate, this is not evidence for Arthur. The excavations go on.

"I yearn that men I know not, men unborn,
Should find, amid these fields, King Arthur's fame!
Here let them say, by proud Dundagel's walls--
'They brought the Sangraal back by his command,
They touched these rugged rocks with hues of God:'
So shall my name have worship, and my land."
- R S Hawker (1864)

Copyright © 2018 Edward Watson

Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image, 1997.
Robert Stephen Hawker, The Quest of the Sangraal, 1864.
The High History Of The Holy Graal - Branch XX, Translation by Sebastian Evans, 1898.
Charles Thomas, Tintagel - Arthur and Archaeology, Batsford, 1993.
Rachel C. Barrowman and Colleen E. Batey, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London), Society of Antiquaries of London, 2007.
C A Ralegh Radford, Tintagel Castle, Cornwall : Official Guide, HMSO, Reprint edition, 1969.
Ronald Youlton, King Arthur. Tintagel Castle and Celtic Monastery, Tintagel Parish Council, 13th Edition edition, 1976.
Henry Jenner & J.Hambley Rowe, Tintagel Castle: Its History and Romance (1926), Oakmagic Publications edition 1999.

Photographs copyright © Edward Watson

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Monday, 1 January 2018

King Arthur lives in Merry Carlisle

Top Ten Arthurian Locations: No 3

“King Arthur lives in merry Carlisle,
And seemly is to see;
And there with him Queen Guenever,
That bride so bright of blee.”

Lug's Town: Carlisle Castle
Experiencing quieter days now, Carlisle has been caught between the wars of rival kingdoms for centuries. This is the land of Urien Rheged but Cumbria is also rich in Arthurian legend and well worth a visit.

Carlisle was formerly a major Roman town called Luguvallium (Carvettiorum), thought to mean the "wall[ed town] of Lugus". The large Roman fort was built of turf and timber in 72 AD, supplying support for the garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman fort and town are now located under present day Carlisle. After the Romans, Carlisle may have been used as the administrative centre of the Romano-British kingdom of Rheged and possibly the citadel of Urien Rheged; the exact boundaries of Rheged and Urien's stronghold have eluded historians. The city regained its importance at the end of the 13th century when Edward I used it as a base for his invasion of Scotland.

Carlisle Castle
Founded by by William II (William Rufus) in 1092, the Castle we see at Carlisle today was mainly constructed in the late 12th century, occupying the northern end of the historic city. On the second floor of the keep is a remarkable set of well known graffiti scratched into the masonry; the “Prisoners' Carvings” is dated to about 1480, based on the inclusion of the white rose of the house of York and the the boar badge of Richard III.

Being the principal fortress of England’s north-western border with Scotland, Carlisle Castle witnessed frequent conflict between the two countries. Edward I (Longshanks) made Carlisle his headquarters in the early stages of his war against the Scots in 1296. His relentless campaign earned him the epithet “the Hammer of the Scots”.

Between 1173 and 1461 The Scots besieged Carlisle no less than seven times. Robert the Bruce carried out perhaps the most determined siege in 1315 following his victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn the previous year. However, the Scots failed to take the castle. The next century Carlisle witnessed one of the bloodiest episodes of the Wars of the Roses during the siege of 1461 when a combined army of Lancastrians and Scots succeeded in taking the castle from the Yorkists.

During the second Jacobite rising of 1745–6 the city was besieged in November 1745 but surrendered after just 5 days. Having found little support further south the Jacobite army retreated over the border back into Scotland in December, leaving a garrison of 400 soldiers at Carlisle Castle to hold off the pursuing English. The castle then endured its tenth and final siege, but fell after being battered by the English artillery of the Duke of Cumberland. Several Jacobite prisoners were taken, 31 given public executions.

Opposite Carlisle Castle is the Tullie House Museum with a collection consisting of over 12,000 man-made objects that date from Prehistory to the end of the Tudor period. The Roman influence here is reflected in the large collection of Roman artefacts housed by the museum, including objects from excavations of the fort and town in addition to a large collection of altars, inscribed and sculptured stones originating from the Cumbrian sections of Hadrian’s Wall, today a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Is This Camelot?
Named as “Caer-Ligualid” in the list of Britain's 28 cities in the Historia Brittonum, the earliest record of the place in English is as “Luel” (c. 1050); combined with the Latin prefix of “Caer” it was known as “Carleol” by the 12th century, which led to later medieval forms including “Cardeol” or "Carduel". In Arthurian Romance references to Carduel are generally considered to represent Carlisle, and is first specifically named as the location of Arthur's court in Landavall (an English version of Marie de Frane's Lanval). Historian Michael Wood has suggested that Carlisle is the most likely base for the legendary King Arthur.

Cardoel (Carduel, or sometimes Cardeuil), which may have some basis in memories of a Northern Arthur to French writers of the Romances, is often confused with "Carlion" (Caerleon) which was known to the French story writers as being in Wales. Indeed, Welsh adaptions of Chretien's Romances always substitute "Caerleon" for "Carduel".

Chrétien de Troyes was the first to mention Arthur's court at "Camelot" in the poem Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, although Chrétien does not say where it is, but Arthur had travelled from Carlion to get there. In Yvain, or the Knight of the Lion, Chrétien places Cardoel in the kingdom of Gales (Wales).

Chrétien then follows Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and places Arthur's principal court in Carlion in Wales. Chrétien has Arthur holding court at a number of cities and castles. Cardoel, then appears to be one of the three principal residences of King Arthur, along with Camelot and Carlion. In later Romances, from the 13th century, Camelot came to be the prominent residence.

Surprisingly, in his Le Morte d'Arthur (1469), a text based mainly on the French romances, Sir Thomas Malory identified Camelot with Winchester. Malory was almost certainly influenced by the presence of the Round Table hanging on the wall of the Great Hall at Winchester Castle in his own day. Although Malory saw this as a genuine Arthurian relic his editor, William Caxton, preferred a Welsh location and appeared to lean towards Caerleon or perhaps the Roman ruins at Caerwent.

According to Malory, Guinevere and Lancelot's affair was exposed by Mordred at Carlisle. After fighting his way out of her bed chamber Lancelot fled while Guinevere was sentenced to burn at the stake outside the city walls. Lancelot returns to rescue her just in time of course but he kills several Knights. The ensuing war enabled Mordred to seize the throne while Arthur pursued Lancelot in Gaul, culminating in the battle of Camlann and the demise of the Order of the Round Table.

No doubt because of its association with Cardoel, Carlisle features in many Arthurian Romances, such as the Awntyrs off Arthure which may have been composed in Carlisle in the late 14th century; the  Middle English  texts Sir Landevale and Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, c.1400, the latter, in turn seems to have inspired The Carle of Carlisle found in the 17th century Percy Folio.

Arthur's Round Table, Eamont Bridge
The presence of Carlisle (Cardoel) in the Arthurian Romances may have influenced the naming of several landscape features in Cumbria. South of Penrith we find 'Arthur's Round Table'. This Bronze Age earthwork with a central round platform is situated at the junction of the A6 and the B5320 at Eamont Bridge. This is another of those prehistoric sites where the connection with Arthur is not understood.

Sir Walter Scott wrote part of The Bridal of Triermain while staying at the Royal Oak in Keswick, clearly inspired by the legend:

“He pass’d red Penrith’s Table Round,
for feats of chivalry renown’d
left Mayburgh’s mound and stones of power,
by druids raised in magic hour,
and traced the Eamont’s winding way…”

Nearby is the Giant's Cave, a place associated with two giants called Tarquin and Isir, which may, or may not, have some connection to the Giant's Grave in Penrith.

Pendragon Castle
At around 50 miles south of Carlisle is the ruins of Pendragon Castle, the legendary stronghold of Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, at Mallerstang, near Kirkby Stephen. The only connection to Arthur is the name and the local tale that Uther attempted to divert the River Eden for the moat. The castle was built in the 12th century and owned by the Lord of Westmorland, a certain Sir Hugh de Morville, who was one of four knights who murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. You can see Morville's sword in Carlisle cathedral.

Carlisle Cathedral
Talking of swords, follow the A595 from Carlisle toward Cockermouth and turn off for Bassenthwaite Lake. This stretch of water is said to have provided the inspiration for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s description of the lake into which Excalibur is thrown after the battle of Camlann, where King Arthur is mortally wounded, while he wrote Morte d’Arthur while vacating at Mirehouse, overlooking the lake:

“So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.”

Ullswater is another with an Excalibur story.

Travelling in the opposite direction on the A689 toward Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall, after 10 miles one soon arrives at St Martin’s Church at Brampton. This church is famous as being the only church designed by the Pre-Raphaelite architect Philip Webb. Inspired by Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the Pre-Raphaelite's are famous for their artwork depicting Arthurian scenes which adorn the covers of many of our Arthurian books today. But sadly Brampton church has no Arthuriana on display, the stained glass windows, many designed by Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris, depict biblical scenes but is still well worth a visit.

Lanercost Priory & Bewcastle
Of all the Cumbrian monasteries Lanercost Priory is the best-preserved. The east end of the 13th-century church survives to its full height, with its triple tier of arches. The Nave is still used as the parish church.

Lanercost Priory
The Priory was founded about 1166 by Henry II on land granted “between the ancient wall and the Irthing” and remained in use for some 370 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. It is evident that stones were robbed from Hadrian's Wall in the construction, in part, for some of the Priory buildings; a number of Roman inscriptions can be seen among the walls, of note is an inscription to Legio VI Victrix which took part in the construction of the Wall.

Roman altars at Lanercost Priory
Lanercost Priory suffered badly during the long Anglo-Scottish wars, one offensive lead by Robert Bruce himself. The sickly King Edward I is said to have stayed here for five months in 1306-7 shortly before his death on his final campaign.

Bewcastle Cross
Now you've made it this far, it is just a few miles on to Bewcastle. At St Cuthbert's churchyard stands the famous 7th Century Bewcastle Anglo Saxon Cross said to still stand in its original position. Bewcastle is also known for its unusual hexagonal Roman fort, which has been identified as Fanum Cocidi; the earthen ramparts can still be seen by St Cuthbert's churchyard. The fort was built as a northern outpost to Hadrian's Wall, originally garrisoned by the First Cohort of Nervians. It was linked direct by road to the Roman fort of Birdoswald  on the Wall.

Bew Castle (Fanum Cocidi)
Birdoswald is one of the best preserved Roman forts on Hadrian’s Wall, and joined to the longest continuous stretch of the Wall still standing. Nearby can be seen remnants of the original turf wall. The Roman fort here has been identified as the site of Arthur's last battle at Camlann based on the etymology of the Roman name Camboglanna. Here, the Roman granaries were replaced by a chieftain's hall in the early 6th century which has added to the speculation of this being the residence of a Post-Roman warlord. I have discussed the mis-identification of Birdoswald with Camboglanna at length in a previous post The Hunters of Banna - Camlann at Castlestead

Roman remains at Birdoswald (Banna)
The prospect of Camlann being fought on Hadrian's Wall fits comfortably with the theory of Lucius Artorious Castus as a contender for a historical Arthur. In reconstructing the career of Castus in Britain, based on epigraphic evidence and the account of the Caledonian revolt in the 180s AD from Dio Cassius, Linda Malcor presents a serious contender for Arthur, stationed at York, the City of the Legions, recovering much of the north. Malcor's theory was the inspiration behind Antoine Fuqua's 2004 film 'King Arthur' starring Clive Owen, for which both Malcor and John Matthews were historical advisors. Matthews expands this theory in the opening chapter to his latest work The Complete King Arthur ( John Matthews and Caitlín Matthews, 2017).  It must be said that the Castus theory gets closer to a historical Arthur than many other proposals. However, there are weaknesses in this theory which I have noted in a previous post; The Road to Camlann, Part I The North.

Hadrian's Wall at Birdoswald
Following the B6318 further along the Wall for about a mile and a half mile east of Housesteads Roman Fort, we cross into Northumberland and the site of SewingShields. It is a well known legend that King Arthur and his Knights lie sleeping in some cave under a hollow hill somewhere and will return in Britain’s hour of greatest need. There are many sites across the country claiming to possess the 'Sleeping King' in the hollow hill such as South Cadbury in Somerset, Snowdon in Wales, Alderley Edge, Cheshire, Eildon Hills on the Scottish Borders, and here on the Wall we find another.

Sewingshields Castle, probably a tower made from masonry robbed from the Wall, once stood in a marshy area known as Fozy Moss beyond the wind-swept Whin Sill ridge. Here the landscape bears such names as the King’s Crags, Queen’s Crags (said to be named after Guinevere), King Arthur’s Well and King Arthur’s Chair.

A popular local tale recalls a shepherd who was sitting by the ruins of Sewingshields Castle knitting. He dropped his ball of wool and ran after it, when he came across a hidden passageway which he followed. At the end of the passage, now well underground, was a great hall. Here was King Arthur, Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table sat around a large table, all in deep sleep.

Hadrian's Wall
On the table was a bugle, a garter and the sword Excalibur. The shepherd's instinct was to pick up Excalibur and cut the garter; at that moment Arthur, Guinevere and the Knights all awoke. Surprised by the awakening Knights, the shepherd quickly returned Excalibur to its sheath when Arthur muttered in anger: “O, woe betide the evil day, On which this witless wight was born, Who drew the sword, the garter cut, But never blew the bugle horn.” Arthur and the Knights returned to their slumber and the shepherd fled safe in the knowledge that should the country need Arthur and his Knights he was but a bugle call away.

If you have time it is worth travelling a few further miles east along the B6318 toward the village named Wall. Before arriving at the village, just east of Chollerford, you will notice a large wooden cross set in a walled enclosure by the roadside. This is the Heavenfield Cross erected, near the presumed site of the original cross erected by Oswald, to commemorate the battle of Hefenfelth fought between Cadwallon of Gwynedd and his ally Penda of Mercia against Oswald of Northumbia in 633, or 634 AD. On the eve of battle Oswald claimed to have seen a vision of St Columba, who promised him victory. Bede tells us that Oswald erected a large wooden cross where he prayed before the battle which resulted in a decisive victory for the Northumbrians and the death of Cadwallon. A Saxon church was erected on the site of the battle, which has been rebuilt in the Norman period and again during the 19th century. On leaving Hadrian's Wall we now head for the village of Arthuret to complete our tour.

The Birth of the Merlin Legend
The 9th century Historia Brittonum tells us that Arthur's “seventh battle was in the Caledonian Forest, that is, the Battle of Celidon Coit”.

The site of this battle has been (almost) unanimously identified as the Caledonian Forest in modern Scotland,Coed Celyddon, by Arthurian scholars. At one time this forest probably extended from the Solway to the Highlands, but Welsh tradition tends to favour the area of the Scottish border.

North-east Cumbria retains a memory of one of the bloodiest battles of Early Medieval Period Britain. The 10th century Welsh Annals (Annals Cambriae) record the Battle of Arfderydd in the year 573 as “Bellum armterid”. This is too late for Arthur of course if he was present at the battle of Badon c.500, although Thomas Green (2008) argues for the interesting possibility of Arthur's seventh battle as a mythical 'Battle of the Trees' (Cad Goddeu) as recorded in the Book of Taliesin in which animated trees form an army.

Arfderydd has been identified as Arthuret, lying between the rivers Esk, Lyne, and Liddel, near Longtown, north-east of Carlisle near the Scottish border. However, it must be said, this is based on an uncertain etymology. An alternative suggestion is that the site was once known as “Arthurs Head” which has become corrupted over time to “Arthuret”.

The Parish Church at Arthuret, St Michael and All Angels, was constructed in 1609, yet a church is said to have stood on the site since the 6th Century AD. A local tradition claims Arthur was buried here after the battle of Camlann on Hadrians Wall, thought to be Castlesteads (Camboglanna), in 537. Today a plaque at the church reinforces the claim of its most famous intern.

The Triads record the Battle of Arfderydd as one of the Three Futile Battles of Britain, fought over a “Lark's Nest.” This has been interpreted by historians as a particularly bloody event during the conflict of the Northern British kings Gwendoleu of Caer-Winley and Peredyr of Ebrauc, with much slaughter on both sides. The “Lark's Nest” was apparently the disputed territory at fort at Caer-Laverock.

A later addition to the Annal entry noted that “Merlin went mad.” This is supported by a series of Welsh poems found in the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Red Book of Hergest which tell the story of Myrddin's (Merlin) madness after the carnage of the battle, who then fled into the Celidon Forest where he spent the rest of his days. In Scottish texts he is named as Lailoken. Tim Clarkson (2016) sees the Battle of Arfderydd as the one single event that sparked the Merlin legend.

Copyright © 2018 Edward Watson

John Matthews and Caitlín Matthews, The Complete King Arthur: Many Faces, One Hero, Inner Traditions, 2017. Chapter 1: Arthur of Rome: Commander of Legions, pp.5-40.
Tim Clarkson, Scotland's Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, John Donald (Birlinn), 2016.
Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2008,

Photographs copyright © Edward Watson

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Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Winchester Round Table

Top Ten Arthurian Locations: No 4

King Arthur's Round Table
In The Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain (Gothic Image, 1997), Geoffrey Ashe lists five landscape features known as 'Round Tables':

Caerleon, Gwent (Monmouthshire), claimed as the true 'Round Table' in reference to the ancient Roman amphitheatre of the Legionary fortress of Isca Silurum; an obvious candidate for the site of Arthur's 9th battle at the City of the Legion. Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur hold court here.

Mayburgh, in Cumbria, is another site bearing the name 'Arthur's Round Table'. Situated at the junction of the A6 and the B5320 south of Penrith is an earthwork with a central round platform. Said to date from the Bronze Age the connection with Arthur is unknown.

Stirling Castle is visible for many miles in every direction, sitting on a high volcanic rock it rivals even Edinburgh Castle's for sheer grandness. Beneath the castle is King’s Park, once a royal hunting forest, now open space. Within the Park is an ancient grassy mound known as the King’s Knot, shaped into its current form around 1620. Tradition claims that King Arthur's Round Table was located in this vicinity. In 2011 archaeologists from Glasgow University located remains of a circular ditch and other earth works beneath the mound of the King's Knot.

Bwrdd Arthur (Arthur's Table), Anglesey, is an prehistoric hillfort with drystone wall ramparts, on a flat topped hill not far from the coast at Beaumaris, east of Red Wharf Bay. An atmospheric site but, again, the connection with Arthur is not known.

Bwrdd Arthur in Clwyd, Denbighshire, north-east Wales, is another 'Arthur's Table'. It is basically a rough circle of indentations in a rocky hillside. John Leland recorded 24 holes which a man could sit in.

In addition, there are many prehistoric megalithic sites, such as the cromlechs in Wales, where the capstone is often known as 'Arthur's Table'. The connection is unknown, however some believe it is evidence of a Bronze Age Arthur.

The Winchester Round Table

The Winchester Table
However, for all these 'landscape' Round Tables there is only one actual wooden table claiming to be such; for over 600 years an 18 foot diameter, legless table top known as King Arthur's Round Table has hung in the Great Hall of Winchester castle. Made of solid oak and painted into 24 green and white segments, each labelled with the name of a knight, the table is perhaps the most impressive piece of Arthuriana to be seen today.

Not that the table dates to Arthur's time of Post-Roman Britain, but it is witness to the belief in the legend over the centuries; from the late Middle Ages the table was accepted as the authentic original. Indeed Caxton promoted the table as such in his Preface to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and no doubt the table's presence influenced Malory who placed Arthur's court, Camelot, at Winchester.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to mention King Arthur founding an order of knighthood but he does not mention the Round Table. Expanding Geoffrey's 'chronicle' the Norman poet Robert Wace introduced the Round Table writing around 1155, claiming a Breton source. The English cleric Layamon then expanded on Wace's work, being the first to present the tales of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in English poetry.

Later, in Arthurian Romance, the Round Table develops a mystical meaning. The table is the successor to two tables that precede it; the Table of the Last Supper and the Table of the Holy Grail. Merlin has the table made for Uthyr, it is modelled on the world and the heavens. One seat always remains empty in the memory of Judas, the Perilous Seat, which can only be occupied by the knight who attains the Grail. The Table passed to Guinevere's father which comes to Arthur as her dowry. After Arthur's passing the Table is destroyed when Mark captures Camelot.

In 1976 the Round Table was taken down from the hall at Winchester and examined by a team of historians and scientists assembled by Martin Biddle. They determined that the history of the Table began during the reign of Edward I as the centrepiece of a tournament held at Winchester in 1290.

In 1344 Edward III announced he would re-found an Order of the Round Table for 300 knights. Yet following victory at Crécy in 1346 Edward abandoned the idea and announced he would form a more exclusive Order of the Garter, rewarding his loyal commanders at the battle. This Order, like the Table, has persisted through the centuries and today membership is limited to the Sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and no more than 24 members, or Companions.

The Great Hall, Winchester

In 1348 the legs of the Round Table where knocked off and the top hung on the wall at Winchester as a symbol of Edward III's interest in the chivalric idea of the Fellowship of the Round Table.

Nearly 200 years later Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, exploited the Arthurian legend and accepted Malory's identification of Camelot with Winchester. He named his first son Arthur and had him baptised at Winchester. He was to reign as Arthur II but the Prince died young and his brother came to the throne as King Henry VIII, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Henry VIII had the Winchester table painted in segments of white and green, the Tudor colours, with places assigned to the principal knights and the king. A Tudor rose was painted in the middle of the table and an image of Henry himself inserted into King Arthur's position to reinforce his claim to a British imperium. Henry made further use of the figure of Arthur at Calais in 1520 and Winchester in 1522 to support his claim as arbiter of European power.

Henry's design was repainted in the 18th century, the scheme which we see at Winchester today.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image, 1997.
Norris J Lacey, et al (editors), The Arthurian Handbook, Garland, Second Edition, 1997.
Martin Biddle, King Arthur's Round Table, Boydell Press, 2000.

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