In 1112 a party of canons set out from Laon cathedral carrying relics of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a fund raising tour of central France for the rebuilding of Laon Cathedral. The year after the canons crossed the Chanel and continued the tour throughout the south of England. Herman of Laon, wrote an account of the canons tour soon after 1145, certainly within living memory of the event.
When the canon's party left Exeter and moved into Dartmoor they were told they were entering ‘Arthur's Country’ where landscape features such as the ‘seat’ and the ‘oven’ of King Arthur were pointed out to them. When they arrived at Bodmin and the visiting canons dared to suggest that Arthur might no longer be alive a near riot broke out.
No one can be certain how long these features had been associated with Arthur but it is certain that a strong Arthurian tradition existed in the South-west of England, a 170 mile tract of land stretching from Bath to the Land's End, long before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Arthurian epic in the 12th century. Herman's account of the tour of south-western England by the canons of Laon demonstrates just how strong that belief was.
However, although the Arthurian tradition was certainly alive in south-west England before Geoffrey he was the first to locate the Battle of Camlann in Cornwall. Prior to this, the earliest reference to Camlann found in the 10th century Welsh Annals, fails to mention a location and merely tells us “The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell”.
Medraut is portrayed throughout the Arthurian legend as Arthur's nemesis, the infamous traitor who brought down the king at Camlann, thus bringing to an end the Fellowship of the Round Table. Significantly, Geoffrey refers to the villain as Modred, the Cornish rendering of Medraut, suggesting he may have been drawing on an ancient south-western source.
The negative view of Modred follows Geoffrey's account in the Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136, of a traitor who usurped the throne while the king (his uncle) was on campaign in mainland Europe and persists throughout the romances up to Malory's culmination of the Arthurian tale. Sadly this view has influenced modern writers who still see Modred in a negative light, but in Welsh tradition, free of Geoffrey's influence, he is portrayed in a positive way; indeed, to the bards he was the epitome of courage and virtue.
|The so called 'Arthur Stone' near Slaugterbridge, Cornwall|
The so-called 'Arthur's Stone' was first recorded by Carew in 1602 but had reputedly lain on the river bank for a thousand years before that. The stone carries a Latin inscription and rare Ogam script, an ancient Celtic alphabet thought to convey arcane messages between the Druids. The stone has no connection with Arthur whatsoever but does indicate an Irish presence in North Cornwall at this time.
Following Alfred, Lord Tennyson's description of the stone following a visit to Slaughterbridge in June 1848, he was inspired to write the Idylls of the King, a work of 12 poems significantly influential on the Arthurian Revival of the Victorian Age, antiquarians again favoured a Cornish location for Camlann, reinforcing earlier adherence to the 12th century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, while today academics prefer a northern setting on Hadrian's Wall.
Arthur's Last Battle according to Geoffrey
Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to locate the Battle of Camlann at the river “Cambula”, identified as the river Camel in Cornwall, which rises on Bodmin Moor, flows past Camelford and discharges into the sea at Padstow. It is claimed that Camelford was formerly known as 'Cam Pol', Cornish for curved, or crooked, river.
According to Geoffrey (Historia Regum Britanniae, Book XI, Chp I, II) Modred and his whole army, around eighty thousand men, met Arthur just after he landed at the port of Rutupi (Richborough near Sandwich, Kent) and engaged in battle with him, and made a very great slaughter of his men. With great difficulty, Arthur eventually got ashore, returned the slaughter, and put Modred and his army to flight.
Modred and his forces fled to Winchester which Arthur beseiged for three days. Modred then fled to Cornwall. Arthur pursued him as far as the river “Cambula”, where Modred lie in wait. Modred was the boldest of men and always the first to make an attack, immediately placed his troops in order, resolving either to conquer or to die, rather than continue his flight any longer.
After much slaughter, Geoffrey writes, “Arthur, himself, our renowned king, was mortally wounded and was carried off to the Isle of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to. He handed the crown of Britain over to his cousin Constantine, the son of Cador Duke of Cornwall; this in the year 542 after our Lord's Incarnation.”
Bones and harnesses are said to have been brought to the surface during ploughing of this area but these are said to date from the battle of Gafulford recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 823 AD. Camelford is the favoured location for this conflict between the British and Saxons during the westward expansion of Wessex under King Egbert (802 to 839). There is no evidence of any other Dark Age battle being fought here.
Malory and Arthur's Day of Destiny
Geoffrey's account influenced Arthurian Romance for several hundred years. Indeed, Thomas Malory's story was the final culmination of the Arthurian legend, written c.1469, drawing on Geoffrey, Arthurian French prose romances, and the anonymous English works titled the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, remains fairly faithful to Geoffrey's earlier work in that Arthur lands on the south-east coast and pursues Mordred, but the final battle is fought on Salisbury Plain, not Cornwall.
Mordred (as Malory calls him) meets Arthur at Dover but is forced to retreat. In this battle Gawain is mortally wounded. In his Preface to Malory, Caxton claims Gawain's skull can still be seen at Dover Castle in his day. Arthur meets Mordred again at the battle of Bareon Down (Barham Down - Stanzaic Morte Arthur) and again puts him to flight. The Barham Downs is an extensive area of downland south east of Canterbury.
Their forces come together again at Salisbury Plain where they prepare for what is to be their final battle. But the night before the battle, Arthur dreams he is on the 'Wheel of Fortune'. After this prophetic dream he has another in which Gawain and a number of ladies come to him to warn him against fighting in the morning for if Arthur fights, they warn, he will die.
Arthur seeks a truce with Mordred, and the two armies meet on the field to set terms when an adder appears, a knight unthinkingly draws his sword to kill it. With the flash of steel the two armies think fighting has broken out and battle commences.
At the end of the day, Mordred is the only man of his army left standing, and Arthur has only two knights, Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere. Against Sir Lucan's advice, Arthur fights Mordred and kills him, but he gets his own fatal wound as he does it. Arthur charges Mordred and impales him with a spear. But with the last of his strength, Mordred impales himself even further, so as to come within striking distance of King Arthur, then strikes a mortal blow to Arthur's head. Lucan and Bedivere take him to a chapel.
The dying Arthur commands Bedivere to throw his magical sword Excalibur into the lake nearby, then return and tell what he has seen. But believing Arthur's sword is too precious to throw away, Bedivere hides the sword under a tree. When Arthur challenges Bedivere by asking what he saw, he says he saw only waves and winds. Knowing he is not being truthful Arthur sends him twice more, and the last time Bedivere finally does as Arthur commanded. A hand rises out of the lake and catches the sword, brandishes it three times, then withdraws below the water.
Bedivere then carries Arthur to the waterside, where a barge carrying ladies in black hoods awaits him. Arthur is placed in the barge and borne away to 'Avilon', his ultimate fate uncertain; will he be healed of his wounds, or will he die? Bedivere then wanders through a forest where he comes to a hermit who is kneeling over a freshly dug grave. The hermit reveals it is the grave of a man brought to him at midnight by ladies in black. Is this the body is of Arthur? Malory does not say.
By South Cadbury – Is That Camlann?
The Somerset Cam is another river conjectured as a site for the battle of Camlann. Geoffrey Ashe (The Quest For Arthur's Britain, Academy Chicago, 1987, p.125) writes of a mass grave on the western side of the hill where labourers dug up skeletons of men and boys that had the appearance of a hasty burial. However, there is no local tradition to support such a connection with Arthur's final battle.
|South Cadbury hill fort|
Leland seemed to accept Slaughterbridge in Cornwall as the site of Camlann as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but is the first to record an association between the hill fort near South Cadbury, Somerset, with Arthur's court at Camelot, possibly because of the local river called the Cam, and the settlement of Queen's Camel. Rising on the south side of Bratton Hill, east of Yarlington, the Cam flows south west past North Cadbury, Sparkford, Queen Camel and West Camel, joining the Yeo near Yeovilton.
Local lore tells of Arthur sleeping in a cave beneath the hill, behind a pair of golden gates which open just one night of the year. Indeed, when a group of antiquaries visited the hill, a local resident asked if they had come to take the king away. Another tale says that the ghosts of Arthur and his knights ride from the hill along Arthur's Hunting Path toward Glastonbury, eleven miles distant on certain nights of the year. But these appear to be late traditions.
Archaeological investigations, under the direction of Leslie Alcock for the Camelot Research Committee (CRC), co-founded by Geoffrey Ashe and C A Ralegh Radford, carried out large-scale excavations of South Cadbury hill fort from 1966-70.
The hill fort saw considerable activity during the pre-Roman Iron Age, when the huge ramparts were constructed. Evidence of Roman activity was found in the excavation of barracks and a ‘shrine’ or ‘temple’ on the hill-top. The Roman presence at Cadbury significantly declined during this period with the growth of the Roman town at nearby Ilchester.
Alcock's excavations revealed that the fort had been re-fortified in post-Roman times, the classic Arthurian period, commanding the gateway to the south west. Alcock found evidence for a wall which had been built in the 500's AD and the ramparts were strengthened with large quantities of dressed masonry from derelict Roman buildings and mounted by raised wooden walkways. The remains of a large timber feasting hall, 63 feet by 34, were discovered at the centre of the site, set in a commanding position on the high part of the plateau that the excavators termed 'Arthur's Palace'. It has been dated to the 5th/6th centuries from pottery finds.
Alcock had uncovered a new type of late 5th century site; the heavily fortified British hall. It was soon discovered that the fortified Dark Age hall, was not unique to South Cadbury as there were many more similar fortified halls at other hill forts in Britain. Yet South Cadury is symbolic of the Arthurian period more than anything else; a battle leader co-ordinating British resistance against advancing barbarians. Alcock had confirmed the Arthurian period did actually exist.
We should expect to find a candidate for Camlann near to Arthur's fortress, but despite the locality of the river Cam, there appears to be no local tradition for the battle. In the late 16th century William Camden went on to relate that local people were unaware of Leland's name for the site (Camalat), but referred to it as ‘Arthur’s Palace’ or ‘Cadbury Castle’. Subsequently it can be questioned if Leland invented this tradition, attracted by the nearby settlement name of Queen's Camel?
Camden himself actually identified Cadbury with another Arthurian battle; Cath-Bregion, the site of Arthur’s eleventh battle from the list in the Historia Brittonum. Joseph Ritson (The Life of King Arthur from Ancient Historians and Authentic Documents, 1825) had observed a note in the margin in one manuscript of the Historia, opposite this particular battle, “in Somersetshire, quem nos Cath bregion.” Chris Barber and David Pykitt (Journey to Avalon: The Final Discovery of King Arthur, Weiser, 1997, p.199) suggest this refers to Catbrain Hill just north of Bristol.
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
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