Friday, 7 December 2012

In The Footsteps of Arthur, Part Four: Camelot

  Aspects of the Arthur legend have achieved autonomy, have become legends in their own right: the Sword in the Stone, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin, Excalibur, Tristan and Iseult, the Isle of Avalon. Stories have been written that focus on these aspects, reducing Arthur to a background figure. Such is the scale of the Matter of Britain that, even in the medieval epics, peripheral figures have been granted their own stories. As well as introducing Arthur to a wide audience with his Historia Regum Brittaniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth also produced Vita Merlini. An anonymous scribe gave us Gawain and the Green Knight, and Malory's Morte D'Arthur owes its considerable length to vignettes of various individual knights undertaking quests and adventures.

  Another iconic aspect of the Arthurian sources is his home, his base, variably a 'many-tower'd' castle (1), a shining city, an emblem of high civilisation. This utopia epitomises Arthur's ideal of chivalry. It was first named by the Breton author Chretien de Troyes in his poem Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart. Written in the 1170's, this poem also contains the first reference to an affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. However, the name is mentioned in passing, giving no hint of its importance to later works (a fact that holds true for much of the Arthurian mythos). It is, of course, Camelot.

Engraving by Gustave Dore

  Earlier works refer to Arthur's base, but they have different names. Some are obscure, one is known. Let us take a look at a couple of these pre-Camelot sites.


  A tale in the Mabinogion called Culhwch and Olwen may date to the 11th century. It tells the tale of Culhwch, a cousin of Arthur, and his attempts to woo a giant's daughter named Olwen. It also mentions 'Celli Wig' which can be translated as 'forest grove'; first as a site with a view: 'Drem son of Dremidydd... saw from Celli Wig in Cornwall as far as Pen Blathaon in Prydein' [a stupendous feat considering that 'Prydein' here means 'Pictland' - the Scottish Highlands!], and later as a destination: 'Arthur and his host went to Celli Wig in Cornwall', 'Arthur went thence to Celli Wig'.

  The site is also named in a collection of medieval manuscripts which preserve older Welsh folklore. Due to their rhetorical method of grouping places and people together in threes, these are known as the Welsh Triads/ Triads of the Isle of Britain/ Trioedd Ynys Prydein. Of Arthur's strongholds (three of them, of course) they have this to say:

'Arthur as Chief Prince in Mynyw...
Arthur as Chief Prince in Celliwig in Cerniw...
Arthur as Chief Prince in Pen Rhionydd in the North...'

  The location of 'Mynyw' is up for debate. It may be Aberffraw, a settlement on the Isle of Anglesey. Today a small village, it was the royal capital of Gwynedd between the 9th and 13th centuries. Its importance declined after the conquests of Edward I, when the buildings were dismantled to provide materials for the nearby Beaumaris castle. Caerleon and St. Davids have also been suggested as the site of Mynyw.

  'Pen Rhionydd' is even more obscure, and has been tentatively identified as Penrith in Cumbria, due to its modern Welsh name of 'Penrhudd'.

  These two sites fail to appear in subsequent material... but what of Celliwig? It appears to be sited with more certainty, as 'Cerniw' is the Welsh for Cornwall, but scholars have pointed out that variations also exist in Wales, e.g. Coedkernew near Newport, and a site called Gelliweg in Gwynedd. However, a Cornish legal document from 1302 mentions a 'Thomas de Kellewik', inferring that such a place did exist in Cornwall at least until the 13th century.

  With this in mind, the site has been sought out at various points in Cornwall. Callington, Gweek, Callywith and various promontories along the North Cornish coast have been mooted... but since Regency times, the focus has turned to a small Iron Age defended enclosure in the parish of Egloshayle, close to the A39 Atlantic Highway and just north of the town of Wadebridge. This site is known locally as 'Kelly Rounds', and more officially as 'Castle Killibury'.

'Kelly Rounds', covered in scrub

    It is a circular, bivallate (two defensive banks and ditches) enclosure which survives well on its northern side, but not so well on its southern due to ploughing and the presence of Sandylands Farm. Its diameter is between 220-250 metres, and traces exist of one and possibly two adjoining annexes. Archaeological exploration has shown that it was occupied as far back as 1250 B.C.E., the Bronze Age, although the defences probably date to the Iron Age, when the site was occupied between 400-100 B.C.E.

Castle Killibury (c) Google Earth

  And what has archaeology to show regarding the Arthurian period? Shards of pottery dating from the dark Ages have been found at Killibury, but not in any great quantity. They suggest settlement, but not on a large scale and not for a long period. Interestingly, though, the pottery is Tintagel-ware, found in great quantites at the site that has been proposed as Arthur's birthplace.

  Others have cast doubt on the idea that Kelliwic existed at all... pointing out that the 'forest grove' translation indicates an origin in the Celtic otherworld, a mythological context. In the absence of proof, let us turn to a site, much connected with Arthur, that most certainly exists.


  Caerleon-Upon-Usk, the Fortress of the Legion, was founded in 75 C.E., although the presence of the nearby hillfort at Lodge Hill shows that the area was already settled by the Silures tribe. It was the principle headquarters of the Second Legion Augusta, and was known by the names ISCA SILVRVM or ISCA AVGVSTA. The Legion was based here for over two centuries, until being moved to the Saxon Shore fort of RVTVPIAE at Richborough in Kent. After the Roman withdrawal, Caerleon may have become an important ecclesiastical centre, possibly due to the usefulness of remaining Roman buildings plus the association with two early Christian martyrs, Julius and Aaron. Its importance continued into medieval times with the construction of a Castle, and a pub next to the castle's only remaining tower played host to Alfred Lord Tennyson, who wrote his 'Idylls Of The King' while staying here. This work seriously revitalised the Arthur legend in the Victorian period.

Roman Caerleon

 The presence of Caerleon in Arthurian literature is an old one. It may be the 'Mynyw' mentioned in the Welsh Triads as one of Arthur's courts. The Mabinogion stories known as the Three Romances - Countess of the Fountain, Peredur Son of Efrawg and Gereint Son of Erbin all mention Arthur as being at Caerleon, as does Chretien de Troyes. The ninth-century Historia Brittonum lists Caerleon as the 11th most important city in Britain, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential Historia Regum Brittaniae certainly claims it as the King's main base.

Caerleon: Recent excavations have revealed a Roman quayside on the River Usk
  Modern Caerleon still has plenty of outstanding Roman remains. The ramparts can be followed for a distance, the sites of several barracks are available for public view and, protected by the Museum built around it, an excellent baths complex has been excavated. The most impressive remains, however, are those of the Amphitheatre. This has been known in the past as 'Arthur's Table', the place where the King and his advisors sat. There may well be a trace of historical truth in this. If Caerleon was indeed a major ecclesiastical centre in sub-Roman Britain, it would be a logical place for important meetings between leaders. If this be the case, the Amphitheatre at Caerleon could be the origin of the Round Table.

Roman Fortress wall at Caerleon

  It is certainly an inspirational site to visit. Other amphitheatres have survived to the modern age, the ones at Silchester and Cirencester being especially worthy of mention...  but there seems something a little special about the Caerleon site. Perhaps it's all the literary associations, stretching across legend as well as fact, perhaps it is merely imagination running riot. Or, perhaps, it's the Round Table.

Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre - the Round Table?

Others have claimed that the 'Caerleon' of the old stories may be referring to the Lodge Hill enclosure which dates back to the Iron Age and overlooks the town. Recent archaeological work has shown that late Roman and post-Roman activity took place at Lodge Hill, but not to a significant degree - certainly not to the degree that the site can be posited as the base of a major Dark Age chieftain.

Lodge Hill, Caerleon

 Other problems interfere with the identification of Caerleon as Camelot... the earliest being the first mention of Camelot by Chretien de Troyes, in his Lancelot Knight Of The Cart: 'Upon a certain Ascension Day King Arthur had come from Caerleon, and had held a very magnificent court at Camelot as was fitting on such a day.'

  As can plainly be seen, this very first historic mention of Camelot quite clearly states that it is NOT Caerleon! However, it may provide an indirect clue to another impressive site, only a few miles away... and now we turn to the first of two sites which I believe have the best claim upon Camelot.


  Troyes' passage seems to suggest that 'Camelot' was within easy travelling distance from Caerleon. This leads us naturally to the village of Caerwent, about eight miles to the east along the A48.

  Modern Caerwent is today a quiet village in the Welsh countryside, with views across to the older Severn Bridge... yet at one time it was important enough to provide the name for the surrounding county - Gwent. It originates in the second half of the first century, when the Romans built a town here in an attempt to 'Romanise' the local tribe, the somewhat bellicose Silures. The town was called VENTA SILVRVM, the 'Market Of The Silures', and may have been intended to replace a major Silures hillfort at Llanmelin (indeed, this hillfort has been suggested by some modern scholars as perhaps providing Troyes with the name 'Camelot', derived from Caer-Melin).

Llanmelin (c) David Ford Nash

  Although it was one of the smallest of Roman Britain's tribal capitals, Caerwent contained townhouses, shops, a basilica and forum constructed during the reign of Hadrian, a temple possibly dedicated to Mars-Ocelus, and in the mid-fourth century was surrounded by a defensive wall. The wall stands today around the perimeter of the village and is easily one of the most impressive survivals from Roman Britain.

Caerwent Roman Wall

   For those with an interest in history or archaeology, Caerwent is a joy to explore. Its walls stand to a height of several metres in places, and many other ruins are visible on ground level. A Norman motte stands in one corner of the defences. Laid out to public view are the foundations of several townhouses, the Romano-Celtic temple, and the Forum and Basilica. In the porch of the village church stands the Civitates Silurum stone, inscribed with Latin text that reads: 'For Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, legate of the Second Legion Augusta, proconsul of (Gallia) Narbonensis, imperial propraetorian legate of (Gallia) Lugdunensis. By decree of the ordines for public works on the tribal council of the Silures.' Another stone records a dedication to Mars-Ocelus and probably originates from the Temple.

The Civitates Silurum Stone

  And what of Caerwent's sub-Roman history, leading into the Arthurian age? It seems that the town continued in use following the Romans' departure in 410. Archaeological finds include jewellery that dates from the fifth to seventh centuries, and burials of the period have been found outside the East Gate and around the church.

Caerwent's Forum then...
...and now!
 Tradition associates Caerwent with a King of Gwent called Caradog Freichfras ('Strong Arm'), who was named as one of Arthur's Chief Elders in the Welsh Triads. At some point after 500 C.E., Caradog moved his court to Portskewett and donated Caerwent to the holy man St. Tathyw, who built an Abbey there. The modern dedication of Caerwent's church is to St. Stephen, a later corruption of Tathyw, and the age of the aforementioned burials would seem to back up this part of the tradition.

  So what else in the stories of Arthur might suggest Caerwent is Camelot? The biggest clue actually lies in the most famous of all Arthurian histories, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur of c.1470. This describes Camelot as being the city of Winchester, and today the Great Hall of that venerable Hampshire town does indeed boast a medieval 'Round Table'.

Created in medieval times, decorated in Tudor times, the 'Round Table' hangs in the Great Hall at Winchester.
  However, this association with the Hampshire town is an error. In his Introduction to Le Morte D'Arthur, its publisher William Caxton describes it as being in Wales, and Malory's words actually read 'Camelot which is (called) in English, Winchester', thus suggesting that the name is not English. If this particular Winchester is in Wales, it would be known by its Welsh name, and the Welsh translation of Winchester (another VENTA in Roman times) is... Caerwent!

  Furthermore, Malory writes of a chapel at Camelot. Twelve rebellious Kings were buried there, and it also hosted the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere. The chapel, just like the church at Caerwent, was dedicated to St. Stephen. Could some of the Dark Age graves unearthed around the church be those of these rebellious Kings?

An aerial view of Caerwent clearly shows the circuit of the Walls. The Forum can be seen above the centre, with the Temple to its lower right. In the upper left quadrant can be found the bases of townhouses. St Stephen's Church can be seen across the road from the Temple.

  Caerwent, the Roman VENTA SILVRVM, is one of the jewels of Roman Britain, and has never been less than breathtaking on my various visits. It is easy, very easy, to stroll the circuit of its mighty walls and imagine oneself patrolling the ramparts of Camelot, and if Arthur's mighty fortress was indeed in Wales, this noble village must surely be a major contender.

  Others, however, would prefer the site of Camelot to be somewhere in the southwest of what is now England, and one site in particular has a serious claim to the title...

South Cadbury Castle

  One of the mightiest Iron Age hillforts in the Southwest lies a short distance from the A303 in Somerset, a few miles from Ilchester (the Roman LINDINIS). Occupation on the site goes back as far as Neolithic times, when a 'causewayed camp' (usually interpreted as a seasonal meeting-place for ritual and trading purposes) was constructed on the summit of the hill.

Cadbury's mighty ramparts from the air
  In the period preceding the Roman Conquest, the Durotriges tribe threw up mighty ramparts to protect their hillforts. Maiden Castle near Dorchester is the most impressive example, and Hod Hill, Hambledon Hill, and Badbury Rings (see previous essay on Badon Hill) also display this tribe's determination to resist the invaders. It did not work, of course; the Durotriges were subdued by the Second Legion Augusta, who even built a small fort within the ramparts of Hod Hill. In later centuries, the Durotriges became the chief providers of Black Burnished Ware pottery to the Roman Army and were provided with important towns at Dorchester (DURNOVARIA) and Ilchester (the aforementioned LINDINIS).

  So why would this particular site be associated with Camelot? The proximity of the villages Queen Camel and West Camel, plus the river Cam (a minor tributary of the Yeo) probably have much to do with it, but the association was first recorded in Tudor times by Henry VIII's favourite historian, John Leland.

Bust of Leland, probably by Roubilliac; engraving by Grignion (1772)

  While travelling around the country in 1542, looking for historic sites, Leland happened upon Cadbury. He had this to say about it:

'Right at the South end of South Cadbury Church stands Camalatte. This was once a noted town or castle, set on a real peak of a hill, and with marvellously strong natural defences to which are two enterings up by a very steep way: one by the North and one by the South West. The root of this hill is over a mile in cumpace. In the upper part of the hill there are 4 diches or and wooden trenches to make them stronger. At the top of the hill above alle trenches there is a great area of 20 acres (est.), where in diverse places foundations of walls can still be seen. There was a lot of blue stone which the people of the village have used again and taken away.
  'Roman coins of gold, silver and copper have been turned up in large quantities during ploughing there, and also in the fields at the foot of the hill, especially on the East side. Many other antiquities have also been found, including at Camelot, within memory, a silver horseshoe. The only information local people can offer is that they have heard that Arthur frequently came to Camalatte.'

  Inspired by Leland, the Camelot Research Group was set up in 1965 and the hillfort was subsequently excavated by the noted archaeologist Leslie Alcock, whose previous exavation at the hillfort Dinas Powys in Glamorgan rendered him eminently suitable for the task. What he uncovered at South Cadbury stunned the archaeological world...

A plan of Alcock's excavations

   Alcock discovered that the site had, indeed, undergone major refortification in Arthurian times. Roman masonry was imported, probably from ruined buildings in Ilchester, to strengthen the ramparts in stone and provide the base for a wooden walkway. A cobbled road led to the southwest entrance through the rampart, protected by a wooden gatehouse. On the summit itself, on a flat plateau known locally as 'Arthur's Palace', was uncovered the remains of a large feasting hall, measuring sixty-three by thirty-four feet. Associated with this was a quantity of the pottery known as Tintagel-ware, a distinctive relic from the Dark Ages. Smaller buildings clustered nearby. The site went out of use early in the seventh century but came back into use during the tenth, when a Mint and an (unfinished) church were built here during the reign of Aethelred II.

Artist's reconstruction of the gatehouse at South Cadbury

      The scale of the site indicates that a high-status individual from Arthurian times held sway at this spot. Some have argued that it might have been Cadwy, in literature a relative of Arthur whose main seat was at Dunster, about twenty miles to the west. The name Cadbury, 'Cadwy's Burgh' has been cited in defence of this theory. Nevertheless, no other hillfort in the country has revealed Dark Age construction on this scale, although similar Halls at the Roman town of Wroxeter (VIROCONIVM) and the Hadrian's Wall fort of Vindolanda (BANNA) have been associated speculatively with Arthur. It seems a remarkable coincidence that the only hillfort to reveal this sort of activity, dated to the right timeframe, would also be the only hillfort known as 'Camelot' to the locals, and have a large building on a spot known as Arthur's Palace!

South Cadbury Castle

  Those seeking an Arthur in the Southwest have struggled to identify prospective Camelots that come as close to South Cadbury as being the ideal site. From the ramparts, lofty views can be had across the Somerset countryside, stones from the Arthurian defences lay scattered here and there and, on a clear day, one can gaze across the Somerset Levels and see the unmistakeable bulk of Glastonbury Tor, since medieval times associated with Arthur's last resting-place... the Isle of Avalon.

Soon: Part Five, Avalon.

(1) Tennyson, The Lady Of Shalott 

Further Reading

Cornovia Weatherhill, Craig (1985) Cornwall Books, Tiverton
A Guide To The Roman Remains In Britain Wilson, Roger JA (1975) Constable, London
Arthur's Britain Alcock, Leslie (1971) Penguin, London
The Mabinogion trans: Jones & Jones (1949) Everyman, London
Early British Kingdoms Ford, David Nash
Brittania: King Arthur various

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

In the Footsteps of Arthur, Part Three: Badon Hill

Bardon Hill, Leics: one of the lesser candidates for Badon

'...After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might in this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Bath-hill, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity'.

  So wrote the holy man Gildas, in his 'On The Ruin And Conquest of Britain', composed in the first half of the sixth century. It is our earliest reference to a battle which, embellished by the legends of centuries, has come down to the modern age as Arthur's greatest triumph, the strife in which he beat back the Saxon hordes for generations and thus established (relative) peace in his time.

  Our earliest reference... yet it fails to mention the leader of  'our countrymen' during this engagement. It fails to mention which army was under seige. And, crucially, it fails to provide any context for the location of 'Bath-hill', in Gildas' original Latin 'Mons Badonicus'.

  Many claim that the leader of the Britons is named. The passage above is derived from Chapter 26 of Gildas. The closing paragraph of the preceding chapter has this... 'Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory'.
  Ambrosius, descended from parents of significance in Romano-British society, united the Britons to fight the encroaching Anglo-Saxon menace. Many have concluded that the juxtaposition of these passages means that Ambrosius was the war-leader at Mons Badonicus, others have pointed out one of the many frustrating problems with Gildas' vague text: the gap between chapters, indicating a passage of time, and the more direct 'After this' that opens Chapter 26. Scholars are also undecided on the date of the battle, although many agree that it took place in the years around 500 C.E.

Statue of Gildas

  Not until the ninth century do we find further pertinent references to the battle, now known as Badon or Baddon. In the Annales Cambriae we find this mention accompanying the year 516: 'The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors'. Rendered a secondary source by the passage of centuries, this nevertheless gives us a leader... although no clue as to who was beseiging whom. In the Historia Brittonum, part of the British Historical Miscellany, we find 'The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor'. Here, Badon is the culmination of a dozen victories, although the Historia's bombastic description makes it rather difficult to take seriously.

  What of the claim in the Annales that Arthur carried a cross? This cannot be taken literally, as it would be physically impossible. It is the first reference to Arthur being a Christian, perhaps following on from various 'Lives Of Saints' that often portrayed him as something of a brigand who was not beyond raiding monasteries to finance the war effort... although in some cases the piety of the holy men made an impression on him. The 'cross' reference is also made in the Historia, although on that occasion it is attributed to Arthur's eighth battle. It is now assumed that 'shoulders' was a mistranslation of a word meaning 'shield'. It would certainly make more sense for a cross to be painted on a shield rather than carried into battle on shoulders.

A page from the Annales Cambriae

  Later, in the first great flowering of the Arthurian romances during the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Brittaniae claims the city of Bath as the site of the siege, and Arthur as the attacker. However, the definitive collection of Arthurian legends, Thomas Mallory's Morte D'Arthur of c.1470, fails to mention Badon - although he has Arthur fighting eleven Kings, as opposed to twelve battles. Modern versions of the tale make little mention of Badon - it is referenced once in the satirical 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', and used as the setpiece battle in the 2004 movie 'King Arthur' although, curiously, it is set at Hadrian's Wall - the location usually proposed for the later Battle of Camlann.

  To sum up: the pre-Galfridian sources initially make reference to a victory over the encroaching Anglo-Saxons by an unknown British warrior... that later becomes a Christian called Arthur who kills everyone with his own hands.

  Regardless of fanciful mythological embellishments, it remains almost certain that the Battle/Siege of Badon was a historical event. The dating of various archaeological digs has shown that the gradual westward advance of Anglo-Saxon culture was checked at some point during the sixth century, that for a period of about two generations they did not proceed any further from the lands they had already settled. This could certainly be explained as the result of a British victory that was decisive enough to create a demographic status quo. It wasn't until the Battle of Dyrham in 577 that the Saxons pierced Gloucestershire and drove a permanent wedge between the Britons of Wales and the Britons of the South-West. The Annales even mention a Second Battle of Badon, taking place during the busy year of 665 during which the Anglo Saxons converted to Christianity and a figure called 'Morgan' died. Once again, unfortunately, they fail to specify a location (or even the participants), but calling it the second battle, they may add weight to the tradition that there was a first.

  So what of the location? In the absence of historical or archaeological proof, many sites have been posited, often as a result of linguistic or toponymic investigations. This has proven something of an investigative minefield, as many scholars cannot agree even if the word Gildas used was derived from English or British. Three sites in the south of England, however, continually top the lists of most likely suspects, and we shall take a closer look at them: Liddington Castle, a hillfort in Wiltshire; Little Solsbury Hill, a hillfort to the east of Bath in Somerset; and Badbury Rings, a hillfort in Dorset. I have driven past the first on many occasions, seen the second from a train window, and physically visited the third.

Liddington Castle

  Regular travellers along the M4 through Wiltshire will be familiar with this landmark, even if they do not know its name. It stands just south-east of  Junction 15, the Swindon/ Marlborough exit, and stands 277 metres above sea-level. The Ridgeway, the long-distance footpath between Bedfordshire and Salisbury Plain, passes over the site.

Evocative: Liddington Castle

  It is not a castle in the conventional medieval sense, of course. Liddington is a hillfort, a hilltop site surrounded by a defensive ditch and rampart. Most hillforts date to the Iron Age, and Liddington is an early example - first traces of occupation on this elevated spot have been dated to about 700 B.C.E. It does not seem to have achieved the longevity of most hillforts, being abandoned after about two hundred years, although traces have been located of Romano-British activity a few hundred years later. No occupation has been traced dating to c.500 C.E., and no relics of ancient battles. Its heightened position makes it the highest point in the Borough of Swindon, and as such it commands views north to the Cotswolds and south toward the Marlborough Downs. It is unsure which tribe used the site, as it stands in a borderland area beween the Dobunni and the Durotriges.

Liddington Castle (aerial) (c) Google Maps

  Three reasons exist for suspecting Liddington to be Badon Hill. It stands close to the strategically important area that was later lost in the Battle of Dyrham, an area which provided the link between British tribes of Wales and the South-West, and we can therefore assume that it would have been hotly contested. It stands close to the important Roman roads between CORINIVM (Cirencester), VENTA (Winchester), CVNETIO (Mildenhall) and CALLEVA (Silchester), and those arteries would have been the routes used by travelling armies. Thirdly, the toponymic argument: a hamlet at the foot of the hill is called 'Badbury'.

  Although Ridgeway ramblers may be familiar with the site, the lack of a carpark means that Liddington is not much frequented by the casual visitor, and as such can be a lonely yet evocative site. Its prominence in the landscape certainly promotes flights of historic imagination.

Liddington: Ditch and Rampart

Little Solsbury Hill

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night 

  So wrote - and sang - the musical artist Peter Gabriel, about his visit to a place that clearly had an effect on him. The 'city' overlooked by Solsbury is Bath. One would certainly imagine that it is windy, and no great leap of ther imagination is needed for time to stand still at any remote historic site. As for the eagle... well, we'll leave that for others to ponder.

(c)Ordnance Survey

  Solsbury is a popular contender for Badon, and the reasons are clear. Agreements/disagreements continue to be expressed regarding the linguistic connections between Bath/Baddon ('Bath-on')/Badon. Indeed, the Historia Brittonum makes mention of the 'baths of Badon'. Like the other serious contenders, it stands close to major Roman roads; from the east came the road from LONDINIVM, still followed in places by the modern A4, the old Great West Road. From the SW came the Foss Way, starting at ISCA (Exeter) and passing through Bath on its way to LINDVM (Lincoln). It is easy to imagine an invading Saxon horde approaching from the east and being checked by a British force from the Southwest at this spot. Bath still existed around 500 C.E., the approximate date of the battle, and one can evoke the army of Arthur bivouacking in the crumbling city of AQVAE SVLIS while the defiant Saxons roared derision from the hillfort above. Even today, the ruins of the Roman springs at Bath, the Waters of Sulis, are remarkable.


Solsbury probably derived its name from Sulis, the Celtic goddess of the spring. She was being venerated at the hot springs as far back as the Iron Age, and the Romans conflated her with their goddess Minerva. Her name may possibly have left traces further along the road to London, at the Wiltshire sites of Silbury Hill and Swallowhead Spring, both of which are also associated with waters rising from the ground.

  The hill became a fort, almost certainly of the Durotriges tribe, around 300 B.C.E when a single ditch and rampart, with drystone facing both inside and out, was thrown up to protect a triangular plateau on the peak. It was abandoned about two centuries later. At its peak it contained wattle-and-daub roundhouses, but many seem to have been destroyed during a period of disturbance which may have coincided with a Belgic invasion about a century before the Romans arrived. This destruction seems to have signalled the end of Solsbury as an occupation site; the only other evidence of later activity lies in two small, abandoned quarries on the W and NW of the hill.

  The author Bernard Cornwell, in his Warlord Chronicles, used this site as Mynydd Baddon, and had Arthur scoring a major victory against the forces of Aelle the Saxon. This follows from Geoffrey of Monmouth's supposition that the battle took place here. In Cornwell's version, however, it was the Britons who were beseiged behind the rampart (eschewing the ambiguity of earlier references).

  The case for Solsbury being the site of Badon seems quite strong on etymological grounds, yet some linguists have argued otherwise. Gildas was the first to mention 'Badon', yet others point out that this is an English word - and why would Gildas, writing in Latin but with a British background, use an English word for a place that was not yet in England? The argument goes that, if 'Badon' is derived from a Celtic word, it probably has a completely different - and now lost - meaning from 'Bath'.

View of Bath from Solsbury Hill

  Still, the possibility exists that Gildas, for reasons unknown, may have opted to use an English word... and if Badon Hill was indeed an imposing hillfort near a crux of roads, then Little Solsbury Hill is as good a contender as any. For those - like me - who have never got around to climbing it, good views can be had from the A4 as it heads from Bath toward Chippenham, and also from the Great Western Railway on the east of the city.

Solsbury from the SE

Vindocladia/Badbury Rings

  There are several hillforts known as Badbury Rings, but the best-known - and the one with which we are concerned here - lies in Dorset, almost equidistant between Bournemouth and Blandford Forum. It is the only one of our three prospective sites which I have personally visited.

  Thanks mostly to Roman activity in the area, more is known of the history of this site than our previous two contenders. There was activity here in the Bronze Age, as evidenced by the presence outside the complex of several 'round barrows', burial mounds of the period. There are multiple defences dating from the subsequent Iron Age. Originally, a triple rampart-ditch defence (known as trivallate) was thrown up surrounding an area of 18 acres. This occurred in about 800 B.C.E. At a later date, possibly in anticipation of Belgic or Roman invasion and in common with other forts held by the Durotriges tribe, the defences were enlarged. A single ditch and rampart (known as univallate) was thrown around the existing area, enclosing some 41 acres.

Badbury Rings (c) National Trust

  Of our three contenders, this is the site that almost certainly saw a battle. Four and a half centuries prior to the Battle of Badon, in 43 C.E., the Romans invaded under the orders of Emperor Claudius. One of the invading legions, Legio II Augusta, was commanded to sweep across the south and pacify the hostile tribes they might encounter. The Durotriges had constructed the mightiest hillforts in the country - Maiden Castle, Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill standing as magnificent examples - so it may be assumed that the Durotriges were hostile. The legion, under the command of the future emperor Vespasian, is recorded in Roman sources as having subdued twenty hostile settlements. It can be safely assumed that Badbury Rings was one of them.

  Two Roman forts were established in the area - a large vexallation fortress at Lake Farm to the south-east, and a smaller fort at Shapwick to the southwest. The displaced residents of the hillfort seem to have been settled in a new community outside the ramparts, a site known as Vindocladia. It would have been a convenient place for passing trade, as a Roman road network met here. From the south came a road from Poole Harbour, from the north a road leading possibly to stone quarries at modern Lady Down. From the southwest came Ackling Dyke, the road from DVRNOVARIA (Dorchester) to CALLEVA (Silchester).

Badbury Rings information board

  By the year 500 Vindocladia was gone, but the road network and the impressive defences of the abandoned hillfort remained. The Saxons approached, and evidence remains of attempts to stem the tide; an earthwork named Bokerley Dyke, built right across the Ackling Dyke between Old Sarum and Badbury, may be evidence of this resistance. Alternatively, a Saxon fleet could dock at Poole Harbour and head north. Either way, they would have followed the Roman roads and come upon Badbury Rings.

  In these circumstances, it would be tactically reasonable to assume that a British force would station itself at Badbury to guard the Ackling Dyke threats from both directions. In this instance, it would be the British under seige.

The approach to Badbury Rings

  Badbury is an evocative site, its plateau now wooded, its ramparts still mighty, traces of the Roman roads still visible on the ground. When I visited in 1995, I was with a 'sensitive' companion who could feel vibes of foreboding from the site, the fearful sense of approaching conflict. Whether this harks back to the Roman invasion, the Battle of Badon or the briefly recorded Second Battle of Badon in 655, is a matter of conjecture.

  We do, however, have evidence of a later military use of Badbury Rings. In the year 899, King Edward the Elder - son of Alfred the Great - was challenged by his cousin Athelwold. As the would-be usurper was based at nearby Wimborne Minster, Edward stationed troops at Badbury to counter this threat.

Barrows outside Badbury Rings. The track behind the hedgerow is a Roman road. Image (c) Hamish Fenton at 'The Megalithic Portal'


  Very few conclusions can be reached, on the basis of available evidence. We have three main contenders for Badon Hill. Liddington and Solsbury are lofty plateaus defended by a single ditch and rampart. Badbury is not so lofty, but its defences are far mightier. All of them stand in strategically important areas, and all of them stand near the junctions of Roman roads.

  I am inclined to favour Badbury, not just because I've seen it up close (which I can't deny affects objectivity), but because the activity in the area during Roman times shows its importance. That same importance would have been pertinent in the Dark Ages, with another invading army coming from the same direction, and we have evidence from that period of defensive works being commissioned along at least one of Badbury's approaches. In the absence of 'smoking gun' evidence, nothing can be claimed with any degree of certainty - yet one thing remains true. It is the search that matters. It is the slow, gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience, the awakening to the rich tapestry of British history, the interwoven web of history and folklore, and the chance - when following Arthur - to visit some of the most evocative places in these Isles.

Soon: In The Footsteps of Arthur, Part Four: Camelot

Further Reading

Liddington Castle:
Megalithic Portal
The Modern Antiquarian

Little Solsbury Hill:
Megalithic Portal
The Modern Antiquarian

Badbury Rings:
Heritage Trail
The Modern Antiquarian

Badon Hill:
Gildas: On The Ruin And Conquest of Britain
Bath as Badon?
12 Battles


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

In The Footsteps of Arthur, Part Two: Tintagel

  The village of Tintagel, on the North Cornwall coast between Boscastle and Trebarwith Strand, has been a popular visitor destination since the rise of tourism during the Victorian period. It is an area which, despite the trappings of the modern tourist industry, still retains a landscape of outstanding natural beauty and an atmosphere of impenetrable mystery. Various historical and archaeological investigations over the decades have attempted to shed light upon its allure, yet almost every conclusion reached has been ambiguous or refutable. Even the origins of its name cannot be traced definitively. A Cornish scholar named Henry Jenner, writing in 1924, suggested that the name was Norman-French, pointing out the similarity to a rock on the island of Sark that was known to the locals as 'Tente d'Ageu'. However, a Mr Oliver Padel of the Institute of Cornish Studies has more recently suggested 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.

  Moreover, it was not the original name of the present village. Tintagel was the name of the headland beyond the village, where the ruins of the castle now stand. The name of the village was, until comparitively recently, Trevena, meaning 'farm on the hill'. This too changed in Victorian times, for the sake of the burgeoning tourist trade.

O.S Map of Tintagel

So what caused this sudden, nineteenth-century eruption of interest in a remote Cornish settlement? The answer can be found in a combination of three factors: the connection with an important part of the King Arthur legend, an explosion of interest in that legend, and a rise in mobility.

  The arrival of Tintagel as part of the Arthur legend occurred circa 1138, with Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential work Historia Regum Brittaniae. This work laid the foundations of the network of interwoven legends known collectively as the Matter Of Britain.
  According to Monmouth, during the 'Dark Ages', Tintagel was the home of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Igraine. The High King, Uther Pendragon, became infatuated with Igraine and was determined to claim her. Gorlois responded, not surprisingly, by shutting her in their Tintagel fortress which, connected to the mainland by a narrow and easily defended strip of land, was virtually impregnable.
  Uther then devised a plan with his wizard, Merlin. One night, when Gorlois sallied forth on a sortie against Uther's camp, Merlin used his powers to transform Uther into the Duke's double. Using this subterfuge, Uther was able to enter the fortress and spend the night with Igraine, leading to Arthur's conception. The unfortunate Gorlois was killed during the sortie, and King Uther went on to marry his widow.
  Somewhat amusingly considering the Arthurian industry that has developed around modern Tintagel, Geoffrey of Monmouth fails to actually mention his birthplace. He names Tintagel as the location of Arthur's conception, but the subsequent passage regarding his birth does not site it anywhere. It has simply been assumed that, ipso facto, the omission is because the two events took place at the same location and Monmouth felt no need to repeat himself.

Fore Street, Tintagel

  Despite the huge swelling of Arthurian literature that followed Monmouth, the village of Trevena and its neighbouring medieval castle on the Tintagel headland (the construction of which probably provided Monmouth's inspiration) remained a backwater. Mobility was scant in those days, with most people being born, living and dying in their own neighbourhoods. The Victorian period changed all that.
  The railway came to Cornwall. Bank Holidays came into being, giving the populace increased leisure time. Coastal resorts and Romantic ideals of wild landscape became fashionable. As well as this, the arts of the period re-discovered Arthur, thanks to Tennyson's epic 1859 poem 'Idylls Of The King' and the efforts of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Burne-Jones painting
  The influx of tourists - and their funds - led to the name of the village fading into history, as Trevena adopted the more famous monicker of the nearby coastal promontory, and became the modern Tintagel. In the 1930's, the eccentric millionaire Frederick Thomas Glasscock (a custard tycoon!) fell in love with the village and its legends. He built the fanciful, yet colourful and imaginative King Arthur's Hall in the village and set up an organisation called the Fellowship of the Order of the Knights of the Round Table. Its Hall of Chivalry was constructed from fifty types of Cornish stone and contains seventy-three stained glass windows. The entire edifice is a tribute to the Romantic ideals which have driven the Arthurian mythos since Monmouth took an obscure post-Roman figure and turned him into an Emperor.

Hall Of Chivalry, Tintagel
  I found Tintagel in 1993 and have returned on countless occasions. When I take my children to Cornwall, we follow a ritual that we set up years ago. Our first port of call when we arrive in Cornwall is always Tintagel. We park, usually at the eastern end of the village close to the hamlet of Bossiney, take lunch at the small and intimate Primrose Cottage, then start walking. Usually, we perambulate the length of the village then take the Coastal Path north toward Rocky Valley. On return visits we tend to drive along the main street, passing King Arthur's Hall, King Arthur's bookshop, Pendragon Gifts etc., before turning left onto a narrow, tangential lane that curls its way to the cliffs, and the National Trust parking area adjacent to the Tintagel Parish Church of St Materiana. From here. it is a short but spectacular walk along the cliffs to the protruding headland that is the original Tintagel.

St Materiana's Church

  The church itself is a building steeped in mystery, much in keeping with its locale. Its origins are obscure.  Its saint, who has been proposed as Madryn the great-aunt of St David, is supposed to have set up both this foundation and the church at Minster near Boscastle, where her bones are said to lie. The building dates to the early 12th century, although its north-east chapel (once thought to be a later addition) may be a survival from an older, 11th century building. In the south transept may be found a Roman milestone, 1.5m tall, with the inscription (I)MP C G VAL LICIN (To the Emperor Caeser Gaius Valerius Licinius), dating from the year 313 or shortly after. It was discovered in 1989 at the south-east entrance to the churchyard, used as a lych stone upon which coffins were rested. There have only been five Roman milestones discovered in Cornwall, and one of the others lies at the neighbouring hamlet of Trethevy. This, plus the purported remains of a Roman camp adjacent to the church, adds weight to the possibilty that Tintagel was the mysterious 'Durocornavis', mentioned by Roman geographers but never satisfactorily identified.

Illustration of milestone in St Materiana's

St Materiana's, SE entrance to churchyard
  The church is adjoined by a churchyard surrounded by a low bank which dates back as far as the Age of Arthur, and burials in slate-lined cists have been discovered from the same period, although it is unknown whether these relate to an earlier site of worship in the compound or a contemporary chapel on the headland itself (of which more later). A curious monument near the churchyard's south-east entrance contains a lifebuoy from an 1893 shipwreck, commemorating both disaster and heroism.

  At 5pm on December 20th 1893, during a gale-force snowstorm, the Italian barque 'Iota', en route to trinidad with a cargo of coal, struck Lye Rock, a coastal promontory north of Tintagel. She had a crew of eleven. Nine of the crew managed to reach Lye Rock where they clung desperately, trying not to be swept away by the storm. Three Tintagel men on the scene, Thomas Brown, Charles Hambley and a blacksmith named Glanvill, clambered down the cliffs with a rope and, at considerable personal risk, managed to get the survivors to safety.
  One crewman and the cabin-boy perished. The grave in the churchyard is that of the cabin-boy, Domenico Catanese, aged 14. In acknowledgement of his courage, Charles Hambley was awarded the silver medal for bravery from the King of Italy.

  From St. Materiana, we strike north along the Coastal Path. The bulky headland is immediately visible ahead. At its base can be discerned a cave, a sea-worn passage that pierces through the rock, emerging onto the small, sandy Castle Beach. This is Merlin's Cave, part of the legend, site of an alternative version of Arthur's birth, where he is washed onto the beach from the bosom of the ocean. A gift from the gods, deposited below the great headland to be found by his future mentor.

Merlin discovers Arthur
  As we approach the headland, we discern traces of the great castle that was constructed by Earl Richard of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, in the 13th century. For many years, the general belief was that the medieval fortress had been constructed in two phases: first by Earl Reginald, illegitimate son of Henry I, in the 12th century, then elaborated by Earl Richard later. The Reginald theory has, in recent years, been seriously questioned.
  The Outer Ward of Tintagel Castle actually sits on the mainland, guarding the narrow neck that leads to the headland. The eastern approach to this Ward is protected by a ditch, hewn from the very rock - but this ditch is not contemporary with the Ward. It is, in fact, much older...

Tintagel headland, showing features on the plateau
Merlin's Cave
  As it draws level with the Outer Ward, the Coastal Path dips into the narrow, stream-fed valley that connects the village to the Castle Beach. Local tourism demands have led, inevitably, to this valley being dubbed 'The Vale Of Avalon'. Its attractive stream, babbling and rolling down the gradient, reaches the beach as one of the many small and attractive waterfalls that dot the North Cornwall coast.

Castle Beach and Waterfall
  At the bottom of the valley, close to the head of the waterfall, is a slate building used by English Heritage as a Visitor Centre and Gift Shop. Almost oppsite sits another building, a cafe and ice cream parlour. This cottage was, in late Victorian times, the home of one Florence Nightingale Richards, whose father ran a Mill the remains of which can be found further up the valley. Florence '...continued for many years until extreme old age to escort parties of visitors around the island, faithfully pointing out King Arthur's Footstep, a mark impressed on the rock when the legendary hero placed one foot on the island and the other on the church tower! There were also King Arthur's cups and saucers and the Duke of Wellington's rock - a natural rock formation said to resemble the features of the Iron Duke. But perhaps the most impressive of all was the person of Florence herself, whose strange and rugged appearance made her seem like some character straight out of the Arthurian tale.' (1)

Florence Nightingale Richards

  A path swerves left just beyond the Visitor Centre. From here we could descend to the Beach, step tentatively into the darkness and rumbling resonance of Merlin's Cave, gaze up at the waterfall or pick out the traces of late-Victorian lead-silver works. Or we could ascend, past a small wooden hut where the English Heritage gatekeeper sells tickets, up the winding, seemingly infinite steps that hug the side of the slate cliff and carry the hardy visitor upward onto the headland, the almost-Island at the heart of the Arthurian mythos.

Not for the faint of heart!
  Before actually reaching the plateau, a broad terrace is guarded by a crenellated slate wall, the entrance to Earl Richard's Island Ward. Beyond, the remnants of a Great Hall with antechambers. Beyond these, the path splits again; upward leads to the plateau, downward to a series of smaller terraces on the northern face of the headland.

Entrance to the Island Ward
  Along these smaller terraces lie a series of small rectangular structures, the foundations of ancient cells. They are far older than the castle buildings and, indeed, are contemporary with the Age of Arthur. Because the remains of a chapel of the same date exist upon the plateau, it has long been thought that these cells formed a monastery during the Dark Ages. It has been associated by some with 'Rosnat', an unidentified monastic centre mentioned in a few Irish sources (the word 'ros-nant' meaning 'promontory of the valley').
  However, more recent archaeological work has demolished these long-held beliefs regarding the 'monastic' cells... in principle, due to the huge amounts of imported Mediterranean pottery now known as Tintagel-ware. Although this pottery has been found at a numbert of coastal sites in the West Country, at Tintagel it has been found in unprecedented quantites. It is now clear that these buildings are connected with a high-status, probably seasonal trading centre, controlled by a powerful local figure. The rock-hewn ditch on the mainland, behind the Outer Ward, dates from this period.
  Only one inscription has come to light, however; investigation of these terraces in 1998 led to the discovery of part of an inscribed stone, being used as a drain cover. The nature of the inscription, with different styles of overlapping wording, has led to the conclusion that it was either a 'practice' dedicatory slate, or merely graffiti.

Dark Ages cells on the terraces
  It has become known as the Arthur or Artognou Stone, and has been securely dated to the 5th/6th centuries by its stratified context and the typography of its inscriptions.
  At the top of the stone is a deeply incised, incomplete inscription that may represent an Early Christian motif. To its left and slightly overlapping it, is the lighter inscription that caused much excitement when first revealed: PATERN [--] COLI AVI FICIT ARTOGNOU, meaning 'Artognou descendant of Patern[us] Colus made [this].
  Much was made of the root Art-, sometimes Arth-, the Celtic word for Bear, and naturally it was seized upon by some as evidence that perhaps Geoffrey of Monmouth had not been merely exercising his imagination. Sadly, most serious scholars have rejected the idea, pointing out that the Art- prefix was popular at the time (which in itself suggests that there existed a well-known figure whose name included that element!) and that Artognou was merely one of many variations.
  It remains, however, an amusing coincidence and one which serves only to strengthen the mysterious and inspirational nature of Tintagel.

The Artognou Stone
Inscriptions on the Artognou Stone
  The alternative path from the Great Hall climbs upward onto the plateau. From this windswept zenith, commanding views of the rocky coast can be enjoyed in two directions. Here can be found another plethora of time-worn remains; a medieval garden, a tunnel carved into the rock (its age and purpose unknown), and the remains of a chapel.
  The chapel originates not with the medieval castle but with the Dark Ages, and may be more or less contemporary with the high-status trading settlement. It was built from the remnants of what may have been a late Romano-British farmstead, and formed the nucleus of a small monastic settlement. Perhaps the occupants took care of the buildings of the trading centre during its dormant wintry periods, in return for being allowed to reside in such a remote and well-fortified location? Its existence probably prompted the eccentric archaeologist Ralegh Radford, digging in the 1930's, to associate the entire site with monastic purposes. This erroneous belief, only recently overturned in favour of the secular trading station, only started to be seriously challenged in the 1980's after a grass fire swept the headland. This loosened the topsoil and revealed the presence of dozens of hitherto unknown buildings, leading to the more recent investigations that have redefined the whole site.
  This small monastic concern, the possible 'Rosnat', was created by the holy man St. Julitta, who arrived shortly before the year 500 with a group of disciples. They probably originated from Wales,
 and Ralegh Radford believed that Julitta was 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. Whatever his identity, his foundation lasted for three centuries and outlived the secular trading centre.

St Julitta's Chapel
  Slightly to the north of the chapel ruins, a rocky outcrop stands above a sheer slope that marks the eastern edge of the headland. One can stand on this outcrop and gaze across at the mainland cliff, to the dots of people walking the Coastal Path, to the squat tower of St. Materiana's church.
  What this imaginary viewer almost certainly will not know is that a recess exists in the base of this outcrop, a couple of metres below his feet. It is possible to carefully approach from the side and sit snugly in this recess, the castle visitors above blissfully unaware of your presence. I have done it myself, about a decade ago, on a hot Summer day. Armed only with a bottle of water and a historical illustrated gazateer called 'Cornovia' (£7.95 from King Arthur's bookshop!), I sat in the shade, enjoyed the view, enjoyed the ambience, enjoyed the book, enjoyed the thought of the pasty from Tintagel's Pengella bakery that I would scoff on my way home, and felt as close as I've ever felt to being immured in the Arthurian mythos. In this spot, you can happily cast aside all objectivity and hope, even believe, that the great man rose from this rocky prominence. Tintagel, regardless of Durocornavis, Rosnat, Arthur and other unproven theories, is still a place of possibilites, an island of imagination, a living evocation of history and legend, a palimpsest of enigma. It is the resonant, beating heart of the British imagination.

Island Ward (foreground), Outer Ward (background)

Soon: Part Three, The Battle of Badon

(1) Canner, A.C. The Parish Of Tintagel: Some Historical Notes, Russell Press 1982 (reprinted 1992)

Further Reading

Anne Berthelot King Arthur, Chivalry and Legend Thames & Hudson 1997
Craig Weatherhill Cornovia, Ancient Sites of Cornwall and Scilly Cornwall Books 1997
Leslie Alcock Arthur's Britain Penguin Books 1971
A.C.Canner The Parish of Tintagel, Some Historical Notes Russell Press 1982
R.J.Hutchings The King Arthur Illustrated Guide Dyllansow Truran 1983
Duxbury, Williams, Wilson King Arthur Country in Cornwall Bossiney Books 1979