Legend, Magic And Myth - In Search Of King Arthur - Northern Narratives

By Penelope Parkin
Shows a photograph of a section of Hadrian's Wall.

Photo: Hadrian's Wall near Birdoswald Fort. Courtesy of Hadrian's Wall Tourism Partnership


Carlisle is a good place to begin a tour of Cumbria’s Roman history. The city features in many early Arthurian ballads and, if the Cumbrian basis for the legend is to be believed, is claimed to have been the central base for King Arthur’s headquarters.

The fort of Camboglanna or Camlann, which means 'the crooked glen' is thought to have been built on the site of either Birdoswald Roman Fort or Castlesteads Roman Fort, both of which are part of Hadrian’s Wall.

Birdoswald is also believed to have been the site of Arthur’s last battle, the Battle of Camlann where he is said to have died in 537AD.

Shows a photograph of Pendragon Castle as it is today - a ruin.

Photo: Pendragon Castle © English Heritage

The Eden Valley

There is a neolithic henge close to Eamont Bridge near Penrith which is known in local folklore as King Arthur's Round Table. However, according to Dr Richard Newman, County Archaeologist at Cumbria County Council, if there was even such a man as King Arthur (which Dr Newman very much doubts) he is believed to have lived during the Dark Ages and not in pre-historic times.

What Dr Newman believes is of more interest is nearby Mayburgh henge, which can be traced back to the medieval leader Aethelfrith, who took on the Vikings in the 10th century, some four or five centuries after Arthur's time.

Kirkby-Stephen, about 20 miles southeast of Penrith, is believed to have been the castle home of Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and Arthur himself is thought to have lived in the castle with Merlin.

A local legend apparently tells how Uther tried to divert the River Eden to fill a moat around his castle, which stood on a hill, spawning the rhyme:

'Let Arthur Pendragon do what he can
Eden will run where Eden ran'.

Hugh de Morville, one of the knights who killed Thomas of Canterbury, is said to have built Pendragon Castle in the 12th century. However remains relating to what could be an earlier, possibly Arthurian, settlement lie beneath.

Shows a photograph of part of Pendragon Castle as it is today. What can be seen is the remains of a wall with an arched doorway.

Photo: Pendragon Castle © English Heritage

Keswick and the Western Lakes

It is supposed that Castlerigg and Long Meg Stone Circles near Keswick, not far from Pendragon Castle, would naturally have been sources of Merlin’s magic had he lived in the castle, as is believed, with Arthur.

Overlooking the stone circles is Blencathra or Devil’s Peak, a mountain said to be where Arthur and his men lie sleeping awaiting an English 'call to arms' in replication of the Welsh myth about Caerleon. If true, their presence is somehow reassuring.

Naturally there must be a lake to go with the Cumbrian legend. Bassenthwaite Lake, just west of Keswick, fits the bill for the resting place of Excalibur after King Arthur’s death. The lake is also thought to have inspired Tennyson’s poems Morte d’Arthur and Idylls of the King which he wrote whilst staying at Mirehouse, which overlooks the lake.

Shows a photograph of Castlerigg Stone Circle. There are a series of stones in a circle. There is a patchy covering of snow on the ground and two hills covered in snow in the background.

Photo: Castlerigg © English Heritage


In nearby Northumberland, northwest of Hexham, on Haughton Common, are King's Crag and Queen’s Crag. These two sandstone strata, supposedly named after Arthur and Gwinevere, are said to have sparked the following legend.

King Arthur seated on the farthest rock, was talking with his queen, who was arranging her hair. Having offended his majesty, he seized a rock, which lay near him, and threw it at her, a distance of about a quarter of a mile. The queen caught it on her comb, and thus warded off the blow.

Consequently, the stone fell about midway between them, where it lies to this very day, with the marks of the comb upon it, to attest the truth of the story. The stone probably weighs about twenty tons!

However far fetched this may seem it is yet another tale to add to an increasingly long list of myths, legends and wild stories.

Personally, whether it’s real, fake or a combination of half-truths the Legend of King Arthur is a hell of a tale and I’ll certainly be going to see the film.

Britain’s Arthurian landmarks also hold a fascination for visitors that cannot be denied and all have to some extent become a part of UK folklore that it would be difficult and somewhat heartrending to extinguish.



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