A Moorland Enigma
The mystery of the well known monument of King Arthur's Hall on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall has been noted since it was first recorded by John Norden in 1584. The site is shown on a map of 1610 as “Arthurshall”. Debate continues whether the provenance of this moorland monument belongs to Prehistoric or Medieval times. King Arthur's Hall is a rectangular enclosure, a rare 'un-British' monument, as Burl calls it and sees similarities to the rectilinear enclosures of Brittany. It's closest relation in Britain is the rectangle of the Stonehenge Station Stones. King Arthur's Hall is an enigma. Isolated and remote, its purpose and date remain shrouded in the moorland mist.
This listed ancient monument has been damaged by livestock in the past and is now fenced for its own protection. The bank has dropped over the years and excavation may uncover further fallen stones. The interior appears to have been lined by a continuous row of large facing slabs, most now either recumbent, leaning or buried. In the centre of the south side one of the stones has been set at right angles to the bank, seemingly deliberately marking a significant feature but unfortunately the opposite position on the north bank has been disturbed. A RCHME survey in 1986 discovered traces of cobbling in the north-west corner.
King Arthur’s Hall, also known as Arthur’s Hunting Lodge, is situated in an area of open moorland, Arthur’s Downs, that extends north towards the settlements and ritual monuments of Louden Hill, eastwards towards Garrow Tor and south to Hawkstor.
The name of King Arthur is attached to a variety of landscape features; the original myth now lost to us, but it is clearly ancient and in existence in the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend as shown in the Historia Brittonum. This 9th century document is our earliest account of a historical Arthur, the dux bellorum, the leader of battles, who fought twelve successful campaigns. Yet contained within the same manuscript (Harlian 3859) and attached to the Historia Brittonum is the Mirabila, The Wonders of Britain, which includes a folkloric Arthur who's dog Cabal is as big as a horse and left his footprint in a rock. Another wonder mentions the ever-changing size of the tomb of Arthur's son Amr. The concept of Arthur throughout British folklore as a figure who hunted in the wild, untamed, remote parts of the landscape is apparent in Cornwall and clearly very different to Geoffrey of Monmouth's creation of an Emperor or a sub-Roman warlord. Whether there ever was such a man is open to debate but his legend endures across the wild moorlands.
There is another Cornish site known as Arthur’s Hunting Lodge at Castle-an-Dinas, near St Columb, from which Arthur rode in the hunt on Tregoss Moor; a stone in St Columb bears the four footprints that his horse made whilst he was out hunting. Nearby on Bodmin Moor, in the parish of North-Hill, are other prehistoric sites bearing the names Arthur’s Bed, and near Trewortha Farm, Arthur’s Troughs, said to be where Arthur fed his hunting dogs as recorded by the 18th Century Cornish antiquarian, Dr William Borlase, who, in 1754, said of the site:
'Round Arthur's Bed, on a rocky Tor in the parish of North-hill, there are many [rock-basins], which the country people call Arthur's Troughs, in which he us'd to feed his Dogs.'
King Arthur's Hall is a rectangular enclosure measuring 47m by 20m, constructed of banked earth and rough stones, of which 14 remain upright, with 25 leaning, 13 fallen and possibly another 5 visible. Modern estimates suggest there may have been as many as 138-140 stones, many of which may now lie beneath parts of the collapsed bank. An inturned stone in the south bank is set at right angles to the rest of the stones.
The earth banks are about a metre high and over 5m wide. The enclosure is aligned north-south with a gap, that may have formed an entrance, in the south-west corner. The reed-covered interior is a poorly drained, boggy rectangular hollow which usually contains a pool of water in a depression at the centre, 60cm lower than the surrounding moorland, from which the interior has been scooped out with the earth used to form the banks. The subsequent depression allows water to collect which has led to the suggestion that the gap in the south-west corner may not be ancient having been made for drainage; notably Norden's 16th century plan fails to show the gap in the south-west corner.
The enclosure is positioned on a slight ridge below the crest of the moorland plateau on King Arthur's Downs, being visible from about a mile distant but from the north only. Nearby to the south-east are a pair of ruined stone circles, 400m beyond these is the Leaze stone circle. About a mile and a half to the north are the Prehistoric settlements of Rough Tor and Louden Hill, with three further stone circles to the south.
There is evidence of substantial medieval settlement on Louden Hill with King Arthur's Hall situated near the boundary between the manors of Hamatethy and Blisland. Indeed, the Hall appears to have been present in the establishment of the manorial boundaries, which does not exclude an earlier date. On the contrary, boundaries tend to be 'one of the most permanent and ancient features of the English landscape' with Prehistoric monuments frequently used to establish boundaries in the early Medieval period.
Prehistoric Monument or Medieval Pound?
Many suggestions have been put forward for the origin and function of the Hall, ranging from a Neolithic mortuary house or enclosure, a Bronze Age ceremonial or ritual monument, a cock fighting pit to a medieval pound for stray animals. It is worth noting that a long cairn on Louden Hill was originally said to be a medieval structure and only correctly identified as prehistoric as late as 1984.
The very name 'King Arthur's Hall' is suggestive of a meeting place; thus it has been suggested that the upright granite slabs look like chairs, perhaps the place where King Arthur held counsel with his Knights? But according to a well-known website on ancient sites King Arthur's Hall has nothing to do with King Arthur. So there you have it, but they fail to come up with an alternative explanation.
The size of the construction of the monument and lack of original entrance tends to suggest it may be sepulchral in purpose, possibly a mortuary enclosure. Many long barrow sites started off as small rectangular enclosures of earthen banks topped by a timber palisade, constituting a mortuary enclosure. British Neolithic mortuary enclosures were typically sub-rectangular banks with external ditches and raised platforms of stone or wood within them, thought to be used for the exposure of corpses prior to burial elsewhere. Remains of mortuary enclosures of this period are often found under long barrows. Long barrows are relatively rare in this part of the country with no more than a handful known in Cornwall. If King Arthur's Hall is a mortuary enclosure where is the sepulchre?
Prehistoric enclosures of rectangular construction are relatively rare but a similar enclosure exists in Brittany, which has been identified as a Bronze Age cremation site, and a similar ramparted construction at Lough gur in Ireland has been dated to the Neolithic. Without excavation and the absence of any archaeological finds the date and purpose of the monument must remain speculative. Recent work has shed some light on the monument but essentially King Arthur's Hall retains its mystery.
Clearance work at King Arthur's Hall conducted by members of The Heritage Trust in 2013-14 revealed a revetment wall was constructed to retain the inner bank. This brief investigation concluded that over time the earth had covered over the top of the revetment wall suggesting that the structure was originally a rectangular enclosure from which the earth was extracted and banked up on four sides, forming a sub-level receptacle with an apron between the excavated area and the banks. By removing some turf it revealed the depth of the excavated area appeared to be shallower at the perimeters and deeper in the middle. This false receptacle would have filled with water, either rising or from rainfall. Was this simply a medieval dew pond constructed for watering livestock? The continuous bank would make that seem unlikely. So we are back to the possibility of a prehistoric enclosure for ritualistic use.
King Arthur's Hall may have experienced several construction sequences over time; Burl suggests the enclosure may have started life as a 'megalithic rectangle' similar in appearance to the monument at Lanveoc, Finistere on the Crozon peninsula in Brittany, also aligned to the cardinal points but with the longer sides arranged east-west.
The banks of King Arthur's Hall may have been added later in the medieval period and the enclosure adapted to form a pound for stray animals. But the apparent lack of any portal arrangement considered with the 'awkward' siting of the entrance in the south-west corner of the enclosure argues against King Arthur's Hall being originally conceived and constructed as an animal pound, which, from the prehistoric period onwards, were commonly constructed using drystone walling techniques – not megalithic stones.
The construction at King Arthur's Hall is unusual in that typical prehistoric earthen enclosures tend to have the bank created from the spoil of the ditch. There is no evidence of a ditch here, as noted above the earth banks have been created by scooping out the centre to a depth of 60cm. This technique of scooping material out for the banks was widely used in the construction of henges in Ireland, but almost unknown in Britain. Mayburgh henge in Cumbria is another rare example in Britain.
In parts of King Arthur's Hall were the neighbouring stones remain in place, presumably in their original position, they appear to have been arranged alternately low flat-topped slabs and taller pillars 'like the parapet of a disjointed battlement'; an arrangement that would be pointless in an animal pound. Burl considers the stones are embellishments and notes a similar observation in the West Kennett Avenue at Avebury where paired yet contrasting stones (male and female?) are used in prehistoric ritual monuments. The stones at King Arthur's Hall rest against the bank rather than revetting it as in the Grange henge in Co. Limerick, Ireland.
It would appear King Arthur's Hall is not typical of British prehistoric construction and therefore we do not recognise it as such. Instead of assigning the monument to the medieval period as an animal pound we need to recognise it as a Neolithic monument constructed using a conglomeration of prehistoric methods taken from Ireland and Brittany.
Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson
Notes & References
John Norden, A Topographical and Historical Description of Cornwall, 2nd edition, 1728.
Diana Coles, 'King Arthur's Hall; Megalithic Monument or Mediaeval Pound', 3rd Stone magazine issue 39.
Aubrey Burl, Great Stone Circles, Yale, 1999.
Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale, 2000.
The De Lank to Lowermoor water main, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, commissioned by South West Water and English Heritage and carried out by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit (now Historic Environment Projects), Cornwall Council. Draft October 1994, revised March 2011
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