Sunday 22 November 2015

King Arthur's Round Table, Eamont Bridge

“He pass’d red Penrith’s Table Round,
for feats of chivalry renown’d
left Mayburgh’s mound and stones of power,
by druids raised in magic hour,
and traced the Eamont’s winding way…”1

Arthurian Cumbria
There are many Arthurian connections with Cumbria, not least Chrétien de Troyes' who mentions Camelot for the first time in his Arthurian romances, said to be a northern city based on Carlisle. Later writers came to identify Carlisle with "Carduel" the Arthurian capital of the French romances.

Pendragon Castle in the Vale of Mallerstang was traditionally the abode of Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, who attempted to divert the river Eden for his moat.

Tennyson is said to have been inspired by Bassenthwaite when he was writing his poem “Morte d’Arthur,” the lake into which Arthur's sword Excalibur is thrown in the poem. Others argue that Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake at Ullswater, the second largest lake in the English Lake District.

The outflow from Ullswater is the  River Eamont at Pooley Bridge, to its confluence with the Lowther where it crosses the A66 at Brougham Castle, the site of the Roman fort Brocavum. For much of its length the modern road follows the course of the Roman road from Scotch Corner to Penrith. From Brougham the Roman road journeyed onto Carlisle, or Roman Luguvallium, the City of Lug.

The narrow bridge at Eamont Bridge dates from the 1400's, lying on the  historic route of the A6 road, running from its junction with the Great North Road south of Luton, northward to Carlisle. Until 1974 this was the border between Cumberland and Westmorland; over a thousand years ago on 12 July 927 it was the meeting place of five kings. Eamont Bridge (‘aet eamotum’) is the traditional location where King Athelstan of England held conference with the Kings of Scotland, Wales, Northumbria and Cumbria.

Antiquarians and Arthurians
At Eamont Bridge, barely a mile south of Penrith near the crossing of the River Eamont by the A6 trunk road, is a complex of henge monuments said to date from the Neolithic period. Charles Dymond (1832 – 1915), Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, states that Eamont is locally pronounced as “Yammon” and speculates that, perhaps, “Yeoman's bridge” may have been the old form of the name.

At the junction of the A6 and the B5320 road to Yanwath is King Arthur's Round Table, the northern end now obliterated by the minor road and the Crown Hotel. The Round Table is part of a complex of monuments, including Mayburgh henge 400 yards northwest and the now completely obliterated Little Round Table, a couple of hundred yards southward. Both the Little Round Table and Mayburgh are visible from Arthur's Round Table, indeed Mayburgh's single entrance looks directly toward it suggesting that this henge complex may have formed the centre of an ancient ritual landscape.

Pennant's plan of 1769
The antiquarian William Stukeley (1687 - 1765) records that the Scots army that accompanied King Charles II on his way to Worcester for the final battle of the English Civil War camped here for some time, the marks of the tents could still be seen on the ground in his time. He adds that they drew a small line across part of the southern circle.

In 1725 Stukeley described the monument as“On this plain stands the antiquity commonly called King Arthur's Round Table : . . . . it is a circle inclosed with a ditch, and that with a vallum.” However, John Leland, antiquary to King Henry VIII, was the first to record this earthwork nearly two hundred years earlier in 1538 stating “The Ruine is of sum caullid the Round Table, and of summe Arture's Castel.

In 1769 the traveller Thomas Pennant (1726 –  1798) wrote; “At a small distance beyond the bridge, near the road side, is a circle called Arthur's round table, consisting of a high dike of earth, and a deep foss within, surrounding an area twenty-nine yards in diameter. There are two entrances exactly opposite to each other ; which interrupt the ditch in those parts filled to a level with the middle.”

A comprehensive account of this monument complex which is readily accessible is “Mayburgh and King Arthur's Round Table” by C. W. Dymond, FSA, from surveys he carried out in October, 1889,  which I will refer to throughout this post.2

King Arthur's Round Table
Arthur's Round Table consists of a circular earth work with a flat inner platform surrounded by a ditch enclosed by an earthen bank, exhibiting the characteristic layout of a prehistoric henge. I find it immediately reminds me of Arbor Low in the Peak District, but without the stones.

This Class II henge monument at Eamont was thought to have been constructed between 2000 - 1000 BC by digging out a ditch around an oval area forming a circular platform with the excavated material forming an enclosing embankment. The continuity of the ditch was broken at two opposite points,  by leaving causeways to the interior of the work; in line with which were two passages through the embankment. The northern of these two entrances was all but completely destroyed during construction of the Yanwath road.

The enclosed area is about 50 metres across, with a 16m wide ditch, and bank of 13 metres. Within the enclosed area is a low circular platform about 24 metres across. Geoffrey Ashe writes that this would be the appropriate size to seat the full complement of 150 knights.3

Others believed this to be a jousting arena frequented by King Arthur and his knights, others still suggested a cock pit or a ring to wrestle, but according to Celia Fiennes 1698 Travel book, a Record of Journeys through England including parts of the Lake District, it was the dining table of a giant.

Stukeley states that “one end of the Round Table is enclosed in a neighbouring pasture,” presumably here he is referring to the northern end now under the present road constructed toward the late 18th century, some years after Stukeley's visit. A further slice was taken off from the eastern side of the embankment by straightening and widening the Clifton road around the same time.

The inner platform is nearly level which reflects the general appearance of the whole earthwork; it looks too tidy, too clean cut to be ancient. Stukeley tells us that the composition of the bank is “coggles and gravel, dug out of the ditch” and adds that the local people “carry it away to mend the highways.” Today it is very grassed over and kept trim by some Friesian cattle.

Arthur's Round Table – after Dymond
Dymond recalls that the owner of the Crown Inn (as it was known then), a man called Bushby, either the same who built it in 1770, or his son, deepened the ditch, and threw the earth on the banks. Dymond adds that in the inn-yard, is a circular tank of red sandstone, 38 ins. in diameter, and about 36 ins. in depth, which serves as a water-butt, has been called “King Arthur's Drinking-cup” said to have been dug up at the centre of the Round Table. However, his informant admitted it had been in the yard of the inn as long as he could remember and he had lived in the village for the last 60 years. Dymond admits that some antiquaries have been misled by confiding too easily in statements made to them, and such baseless stories, by repetition, can quickly become fixed tradition.

Parts of the earthwork were "enhanced" in the late 18th to early 19th century, apparently with a view to using the site as a tea garden by the Inn opposite the road. Around 1820 the innkeeeper William Bushby raised the central platform by adding several tons of sand and gravel on it from the inner bank of the henge. It is claimed he also deepened the ditch. Today the central platform does look flat and round and perhaps too neat to be of ancient appearance and may not represent its original form although it is recorded by antiquarians from the 16th century.

A sketch by William Dugdale in 1664 apparently showed two large standing stones either side of the north-western entrance. When Stukeley visited the site some sixty years later in 1725 he failed to record the stones, presumably by then taken away for building materials like those at Mayburgh.

In 1937 RG Collingwood excavated the monument uncovering a long, shallow trench near the centre of the circular platform, laying on the axis of the monument, considered a cremation trench. He also identified several postholes indicating the presence of timber structures and what he considered to be evidence for two standing stones at one entrance. However, two years later, excavations by Bersu refuted Collingwood's interpretations arguing that the postholes had no archaeological significance and there was no evidence of standing stones or burning in the so called cremation ditch although he did concede it could have been a shallow grave. No datable prehistoric objects were found during these excavations although a Roman coin of Gallienus (253-68 AD) was found a foot below the surface in the central platform. In 1988 a geophysical survey was carried out but the results were inconclusive, no doubt owing to disturbance caused by the extensive landscaping of the  site during the 18th - 19th centuries.

Aubrey Burl describes Mayburgh as having more in common with monuments across the Irish Sea. However, he calls King Arthur's Round Table an “English henge” that can be matched with sites in Yorkshire to which many Langdale axes were transported. A ritually deposited Langdale axe was found at Mayburgh and in 1875 an unpolished stone axe was found at Castlerigg stonecircle near Keswick leading to the notion that stone circles and enclosures were trading places. Burl names “kindred earthworks” at Cana, Castle Dykes and Nunwick. The similarity is strengthened by the presence of a cremation trench, a feature often found in the long barrows of the Yorkshire Wolds. If Mayburgh seems close to an Irish enclosure and Arthur's Round Table a typical henge from Yorkshire, the Little Round Table resembles neither.4

The Little Round Table
About 200 yards due south from Arthur's Round Table, near Lowther Bridge, there formerly existed a slight annular embankment, known as the “Little Round Table.”

Stukeley's engraving of the Little Round Table to the right
 and Arthur's Round Table, left.
The Beauties of England and Wales” (1814) describe this smaller enclosure as a ring with low ramparts, and perhaps a series of rings, as scarcely visible. A few years later the last traces were obliterated in widening the approaches to the new lodge-gates of Lowther park in 1878.The Little Round Table was described as a low circular ridge, no more than 6 to 9 inches above the level of the surrounding ground, and from 3 to 5 feet broad at the base. Stukeley describes the monument as having a small vallum with the ditch outermost, about 100 yards across. This is the reverse arrangement to a true henge monument which has the bank on the outside with the ditch innermost, as Stukeley said it was “made contrariwise to the former” (i.e. Arthur's Round Table). Stonehenge has the same arrangement; an outer ditch with a small inner bank. It is a misnomer that England's most well-known ancient monument is not a true henge, the ditch and bank arrangement having more in common with the early Neolithic causewayed enclosures.

According to the Pastscape entry on the northern side of the monument there is a bank barely discernible bank and faint traces of a low earthen bank with some stone visible on the south side. These remains suggest that the size of the monument corresponds well to Stukeley's sketch of 1725 showing a roughly circular enclosure with a bank with outer ditch.5

From scaling the illustration from Pennant's First Tour in Scotland, 1769, Dymond suggests the diameter of the Little Round Table is nearer 80 yards, with a gap, presumably an entrance a little to the east of the north point (not shown on Stukeley's sketch) out of line with  Arthur's Round Table which is sited slightly west of north to the Little Round Table.

High Street Roman Road
The damage to the north end of Arthur's Round Table is perplexing; on first thoughts it is usual to blame the construction of the B5320 road and the Crown Hotel in the 18th century. In these times ancient monuments had no legal protection and were there for the pickings as witnessed by Stukeley's record of the systematic destruction of Avebury in Wiltshire.

The course of the Roman road known as High Street travels across mountain and moor from  Ambleside (Galava) through Yanwath and Eamont Bridge to the Roman fort at Brougham (Brocavum) and its impact on these Round Table monuments is problematic yet may have implications for the date of their construction. Much of High Street can still be seen on the ground today, but it has not been traced between Yanwath and Brougham. In a map within the Lapidarium Septentrionale (Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-on-Tyne, 1875) the Roman road is shown as taking a north-easterly direction from Yanwath, and terminating at Brougham (Brocavum), a mile east of Eamont Bridge.

However, there appears to be some difference of opinion as to its course between Yanwath and Eaumont Bridge, yet it is certain that if the Roman road came in this direction and it must have passed either to the north or to the south of Arthur's Round Table.

Bishop Gibson, in his 1695 edited issue of Camden's Britannia, makes the Roman way leave Brougham and head “directly to Lowther-bridge, and so over Emot into Cumberland.” Collingwood agrees with Gibson stating “... we can hardly be wrong in assuming that it crossed the Lowther where Lowther Bridge now stands, traversed Brougham Park much as the modern road does, and so reached the Roman fort of Brocavum.”6

Yet, if it travelled directly to Lowther Bridge it surely would have impacted on the Little Round Table but according to Stukeley's sketch of 1725 and Pennant's plan of 1769, both monuments are shown complete with no impact by any trackway, Roman or otherwise.

Dymond suggests the Roman Road may run along the line of the existing Tirril to Eamont Bridge road, through Yanwath, the line of the modern B5320 that today truncates the monument. Dymond suggests the line of the Roman road was lost between Yanwath and Eamont Bridge and grassed over. Later the B5320 was constructed along the same line and therefore, he argues, Arthur's Round Table must be post-Roman, i,e. built between the two phases of construction of the two roads.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson 

Notes & References
1. - Sir Walter Scott, The Bridal of Triermain. Scott wrote part of The Bridal of Triermain while staying at the Royal Oak in Keswick, Cumbria.
2. C. W. Dymond, FSA, Mayburgh and King Arthur's Round Table, 1889.
3. Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller's Guid eto Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image, 1997.
4. Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland & Brittany, Yale, 2000.
5. The Little Round Table - Pastscape, Historic England, National Record (NRHE).
6. R. G. Collingwood, Two Roman Mountain-Roads, 1937.

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