Normally I try to keep to facts and dates, but today I am venturing into myth and legend. Recently I read a novel King Arthur’s Bones, which led me along this path. Imagine the mist rising from the Somerset Levels when you see a band of warriors, perhaps twenty in number, led by one who was taller and more muscular than the rest. They disappear as quietly as they came into sight.
There is no historical or archaeological evidence that King Arthur existed and yet the legend persists. It is undoubtedly a West Country story and Arthur a local man. When the Romans left Britain in about AD 410 the country was left open to invasion by the Saxons, and no doubt many indigenous Britons took up arms against them around 500 AD. One leader more successful has been given the name Arthur in folk-lore and many stories have been written, or told orally since. The earliest reference is by a Welsh monk called Nennius in the 9th century, but his Arthur is expanded into a great champion by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 1130s.
One legend tells that Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, so the Cornish claim him. The castle is now a ruin, but built several hundred years after he would have existed. The Welsh also claim him and suggest that Caerleon twenty miles from Monmouth was his stronghold, but this was a Roman encampment and far too large for 20 men. Nearer home just into Somerset is South Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort taken over by the Romans. It was also occupied between AD 400 to 600 and archaeologists have discovered finds from all these times. This brings the fort into the Arthurian period and it has been suggested it could have been Arthur’s Camelot, referred to in subsequent stories.
One of the most interesting stories is based at Glastonbury Abbey which suffered a fire in 1184, burning down the original wooden church and damaging more recent stone buildings. Old relics such as St Patrick and the “Great Sapphire of St David” were exhumed from the old church and housed in new shrines. The Abbot Henry de Sully instigated a search for the bones of King Arthur and surprisingly at a depth of sixteen feet a large coffin made from the split trunk of an oak tree was found. This contained bones of an exceptionally tall man and a woman, thought to be his Queen Guinevere. To prevent any doubt a leaden cross was found a few feet above, inscribed in Latin with “here lies the famous King Arthur in the island of Avalon”. Thus Glastonbury was identified as being Avalon. The relics were housed in a marble mausoleum and displayed at a time when people were willing to give gifts for relics. The mausoleum was seen by John Leland in the sixteenth century who went on to write that at “South Cadbyri standith Camallate—there was found a horse shoe of sylver—people say that Arthur much resorted to Camalat” (Camelot). The bones were lost or stolen, probably soon after they were found.
Another general myth is that Arthur and his men are only sleeping and will arise to fight if Wales or Britain are threatened. Subsequently the Arthurian story was expanded and romanticised by several authors, for example Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur published in 1485 and Tennyson in 1856. These include Arthur’s sword Excalibur being held fast in a stone or thrown into a lake. Another addition is the Round Table, around which sat his knights. A Round Table is hung on a wall in Winchester, but is believed to be much later than his time. Arthur is depicted looking similar to Henry VIII, so it may be from Tudor times.
The American author John Steinbeck (1902 – 68) was fascinated after reading Mallory’s book when 9 years old. His 1935 novel Tortilla Flat contains ironic caricatures of Arthurian knights. He came to Britain in the 1950s to research the legends, resulting in The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, published posthumously.
Louise Hodgson in More Secret Places of West Dorset suggests that Excalibur might have been tossed into the pool at Trent Barrow, part of a small range of hills culminating at Cadbury Castle.
The small group of warriors close around their leader and recede into the mists again. Perhaps they will appear at the next Glastonbury Festival! However we still have the church of St Candida and the Holy Cross at Whitchurch Canonicorum in West Dorset with its shrine of St Wite, even if Glastonbury has lost its bones.
I must thank Guinevere for help in finding the references to Glastonbury.
On February 9th Bridport History Society will learn of “Three Tudor Manors – The Dorset Manors of Sir Thomas Kitson” from Dr Mark Forrest of Dorset History Centre, at 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall, East Street. All welcome. Non members entry £ 2 – 50.
Cecil Amor, President Bridport History Society.