Legend, Magic And Myth - In Search Of King Arthur - Stories From The South

By Penelope Parkin
Shows a photograph of Glastonbury Abbey. The Abbey is a ruin today but windows and doors and whole walls remain in tact.

Photo: Glastonbury Abbey. Courtesy of Glastonbury Abbey

Somerset

The English town most associated with King Arthur is probably Glastonbury in Somerset, especially considering its connection with King Arthur’s tomb and the Isle of Avalon.

However, the legend looks to be on shaky ground here. Thomas Malory’s tale had proved so popular during the 15th Century it is thought that the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed that Arthur’s body was buried there in order to raise money for fire damage.

Glastonbury Tor towers 580ft above the town and would certainly seem a fitting burial place for King Arthur and Lady Guinevere although many believe that this was a shrewd PR exercise by the Abbey monks who realized the significance of the legend in the early 12th century and composed the myth accordingly.

Shows a photograph of a plaque to mark the site of Arthur's tomb. It reads 'Site of King Arthur's tomb. In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his Queen were said to have been found on the south side of the lady chapel. On 10th April 1278 their remains were removed in the presence of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor to a black marble tomb on this site. This tomb survived until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.'

Photo: Arthur's tomb at Glastonbury Abbey. Courtesy of Glastonbury Abbey

Whether Arthur lies there or not, Glastonbury is an impressive historical and spiritual site. The Abbey itself is thought to have been planned on a similar basis to Stonehenge and the Pyramids and the seven levels of the Tor are said to be cut in a spiritual labyrinth pattern thought to have been beneficial to crop growth and spiritual healing.

The town’s spiritual history is also appealing as it was the home of the sages, magicians and morrigans who constituted the centre of power in what could have been Arthurian times. Today it is still a place of pilgrimage and a centre for druid traditions, which are associated with early magic. It is said that the town is based on a magnetic energy centre and forms a triangle with Avebury and Stonehenge.

Glastonbury used to be an island and remains surrounded by moorland marshes. A damp stretch of marsh, which often gives rise to mists and fog, known as the Isle of Avalon or the Isle of the Dead, is where Arthur was reputedly taken after his last battle.

Shows an aerial photograph of Cadbury Castle. The hill top is ringed with trees.

Photo: Cadbury Castle © Devon County Council

Another Arthurian site based in Somerset is Cadbury Castle. Before you head off in search of some ramparts to run around take note that today Caer Myrddin, or Cadbury Castle, is in fact the largest hillfort in Somerset, standing some 500m above sea level.

Fortified by earthwork walls the hill could have been a castle in the latter part of the 5th century AD when Arthur is supposed to have reigned. John Leland, Henry VIII’s chief antiquarian said that Arthur came here often.

Indeed excavations at the hilltop during 1966-1970 have confirmed that the refortifications that took place during this period must have been ordered by an important leader. Whether this was Arthur or not may never be established.

Shows a photograph of Tintagel. There are the remains of walls and ruined buildings on the side of a cliff with the sea at the bottom.

Photo: Tintagel © English Heritage

Cornwall

Tintagel Castle in Cornwall is said to be the birthplace of King Arthur. Built in the 12th/13th century by the Earls of Cornwall it sits high above the sea on the northwest Cornish coast. It is home to the recently discovered stone tablet, the 1400 year old inscribed Arthnou stone which gives credence to the belief that the name Arthur existed on the site as far back as 600AD, around the time of Arthur’s supposed reign.

In Tintagel itself are King Arthur’s Great Halls, which claim to be the only building in the world dedicated to the Arthurian legend. Built by a philanthropist millionaire in the 1930's, some of the highlights on show include round tables and granite thrones as well as 72 stained glass windows depicting the Arthurian legend designed by a pupil of William Morris.

Shows a photograph of Clive Owen as King Arthur in the film King Arthur. He is sat on a brown horse in full armour including a helmet. He is brandishing a sword above his head and looks like he is shouting. He looks like he is riding full pelt towards the camera.

Photo: Jonathan Hession © Touchstone Pictures & Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Inc.

Down the road from Tintagel is Slaughterbridge, just off the B3314, where a 6th century inscribed stone on the streambed is said to mark the site of Arthur’s last battle, the Battle of Camlann.

Not far from Slaughterbridge is another Cornish site of interest, Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor. Legend claims that Arthur threw his sword into the pool as he lay dying.

So what do Tintagel historians make of the legend?

As Arthurian expert Roger Auton explains: "Generally the Arthur legend in connection with Tintagel was conceived and born here. It was a site of great importance in the Dark Ages and we know that someone very powerful lived here in 550AD and traded wine and oil, perhaps a Cornish King if not Arthur himself. "

To allegations that Arthur may have hailed from Cumbria Auton says, "in general our view is that to keep Arthur in the public eye like this is good for us all".

Shows a photograph of the exterior of the Great Hall at Winchester Castle. It is a stone building with a red roof and a paved courtyard.

Photo: The Great Hall at Winchester Castle © Hampshire County Council

Bath

The battle of Badon took place at Mount Badon, near Gloucester the site of an old hillfort, around 520AD. It is probably the most famous of Arthur's battles, largely because it is recorded by Gildas in his De Excidio Britanniae.

British troops, heading East to meet up with Arthur, are said to have been intercepted by a large party of Saxons and retreated to the fort.

Raising Arthur’s standard to give the impression that he was already amongst them, his followers defended the hill. Convinced they had Arthur trapped the Saxon’s fought back in an attempt to prevent his escape.

When Arthur and his knights finally arrived, after a false start where they attacked from the wrong side of the hill, the Saxons were defeated.

photograph of the interior of the Great Hall at Winchester Castle with tall stone pillars and a stone paved floor On the back wall is a round table

Photo: Interior of the Great Hall at Winchester Castle where Edward I's Round Table hangs © Hampshire County Council

Winchester

Edward I had a round table made for his knights of the garter, in imitation of the Arthurian legend. The table now hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, no doubt confounding many visitors.

Constructed in the 14th century, the table was repainted to its current state by Henry VIII. There is no doubt however that it is a replica rather than the real thing.

Perhaps of more interest is that Winchester appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as the site of Arthur’s victory over Medrod before the Battle of Camlann. The city is also identified by Malory in the Morte D’Arthur as being the site of Camelot after Balin’s death:

'Also Merlin let make by his subtlety that Balin's sword was put in a marble stone standing upright as great as a mill stone, and the stone hoved always above the water and did many years, and so by adventure it swamm down the stream to the City of Camelot, that is in English Winchester.'

INTRODUCTION/WALES/THE NORTH

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