“King Arthur lives in merry Carlisle,
And seemly is to see;
And there with him Queen Guenever,
That bride so bright of blee.”
Lug's Town: Carlisle Castle
Experiencing quieter days now, Carlisle has been caught between the wars of rival kingdoms for centuries. This is the land of Urien Rheged but Cumbria is also rich in Arthurian legend and well worth a visit.
Carlisle was formerly a major Roman town called Luguvallium (Carvettiorum), thought to mean the "wall[ed town] of Lugus". The large Roman fort was built of turf and timber in 72 AD, supplying support for the garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman fort and town are now located under present day Carlisle. After the Romans, Carlisle may have been used as the administrative centre of the Romano-British kingdom of Rheged and possibly the citadel of Urien Rheged; the exact boundaries of Rheged and Urien's stronghold have eluded historians. The city regained its importance at the end of the 13th century when Edward I used it as a base for his invasion of Scotland.
Being the principal fortress of England’s north-western border with Scotland, Carlisle Castle witnessed frequent conflict between the two countries. Edward I (Longshanks) made Carlisle his headquarters in the early stages of his war against the Scots in 1296. His relentless campaign earned him the epithet “the Hammer of the Scots”.
Between 1173 and 1461 The Scots besieged Carlisle no less than seven times. Robert the Bruce carried out perhaps the most determined siege in 1315 following his victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn the previous year. However, the Scots failed to take the castle. The next century Carlisle witnessed one of the bloodiest episodes of the Wars of the Roses during the siege of 1461 when a combined army of Lancastrians and Scots succeeded in taking the castle from the Yorkists.
During the second Jacobite rising of 1745–6 the city was besieged in November 1745 but surrendered after just 5 days. Having found little support further south the Jacobite army retreated over the border back into Scotland in December, leaving a garrison of 400 soldiers at Carlisle Castle to hold off the pursuing English. The castle then endured its tenth and final siege, but fell after being battered by the English artillery of the Duke of Cumberland. Several Jacobite prisoners were taken, 31 given public executions.
Opposite Carlisle Castle is the Tullie House Museum with a collection consisting of over 12,000 man-made objects that date from Prehistory to the end of the Tudor period. The Roman influence here is reflected in the large collection of Roman artefacts housed by the museum, including objects from excavations of the fort and town in addition to a large collection of altars, inscribed and sculptured stones originating from the Cumbrian sections of Hadrian’s Wall, today a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Is This Camelot?
Named as “Caer-Ligualid” in the list of Britain's 28 cities in the Historia Brittonum, the earliest record of the place in English is as “Luel” (c. 1050); combined with the Latin prefix of “Caer” it was known as “Carleol” by the 12th century, which led to later medieval forms including “Cardeol” or "Carduel". In Arthurian Romance references to Carduel are generally considered to represent Carlisle, and is first specifically named as the location of Arthur's court in Landavall (an English version of Marie de Frane's Lanval). Historian Michael Wood has suggested that Carlisle is the most likely base for the legendary King Arthur.
Cardoel (Carduel, or sometimes Cardeuil), which may have some basis in memories of a Northern Arthur to French writers of the Romances, is often confused with "Carlion" (Caerleon) which was known to the French story writers as being in Wales. Indeed, Welsh adaptions of Chretien's Romances always substitute "Caerleon" for "Carduel".
Chrétien de Troyes was the first to mention Arthur's court at "Camelot" in the poem Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, although Chrétien does not say where it is, but Arthur had travelled from Carlion to get there. In Yvain, or the Knight of the Lion, Chrétien places Cardoel in the kingdom of Gales (Wales).
Chrétien then follows Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and places Arthur's principal court in Carlion in Wales. Chrétien has Arthur holding court at a number of cities and castles. Cardoel, then appears to be one of the three principal residences of King Arthur, along with Camelot and Carlion. In later Romances, from the 13th century, Camelot came to be the prominent residence.
Surprisingly, in his Le Morte d'Arthur (1469), a text based mainly on the French romances, Sir Thomas Malory identified Camelot with Winchester. Malory was almost certainly influenced by the presence of the Round Table hanging on the wall of the Great Hall at Winchester Castle in his own day. Although Malory saw this as a genuine Arthurian relic his editor, William Caxton, preferred a Welsh location and appeared to lean towards Caerleon or perhaps the Roman ruins at Caerwent.
According to Malory, Guinevere and Lancelot's affair was exposed by Mordred at Carlisle. After fighting his way out of her bed chamber Lancelot fled while Guinevere was sentenced to burn at the stake outside the city walls. Lancelot returns to rescue her just in time of course but he kills several Knights. The ensuing war enabled Mordred to seize the throne while Arthur pursued Lancelot in Gaul, culminating in the battle of Camlann and the demise of the Order of the Round Table.
No doubt because of its association with Cardoel, Carlisle features in many Arthurian Romances, such as the Awntyrs off Arthure which may have been composed in Carlisle in the late 14th century; the Middle English texts Sir Landevale and Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle, c.1400, the latter, in turn seems to have inspired The Carle of Carlisle found in the 17th century Percy Folio.
|Arthur's Round Table, Eamont Bridge|
Sir Walter Scott wrote part of The Bridal of Triermain while staying at the Royal Oak in Keswick, clearly inspired by the legend:
“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…”
Nearby is the Giant's Cave, a place associated with two giants called Tarquin and Isir, which may, or may not, have some connection to the Giant's Grave in Penrith.
At around 50 miles south of Carlisle is the ruins of Pendragon Castle, the legendary stronghold of Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, at Mallerstang, near Kirkby Stephen. The only connection to Arthur is the name and the local tale that Uther attempted to divert the River Eden for the moat. The castle was built in the 12th century and owned by the Lord of Westmorland, a certain Sir Hugh de Morville, who was one of four knights who murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. You can see Morville's sword in Carlisle cathedral.
“So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.”
Ullswater is another with an Excalibur story.
Travelling in the opposite direction on the A689 toward Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall, after 10 miles one soon arrives at St Martin’s Church at Brampton. This church is famous as being the only church designed by the Pre-Raphaelite architect Philip Webb. Inspired by Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the Pre-Raphaelite's are famous for their artwork depicting Arthurian scenes which adorn the covers of many of our Arthurian books today. But sadly Brampton church has no Arthuriana on display, the stained glass windows, many designed by Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris, depict biblical scenes but is still well worth a visit.
Lanercost Priory & Bewcastle
Of all the Cumbrian monasteries Lanercost Priory is the best-preserved. The east end of the 13th-century church survives to its full height, with its triple tier of arches. The Nave is still used as the parish church.
|Roman altars at Lanercost Priory|
|Bew Castle (Fanum Cocidi)|
|Roman remains at Birdoswald (Banna)|
|Hadrian's Wall at Birdoswald|
Sewingshields Castle, probably a tower made from masonry robbed from the Wall, once stood in a marshy area known as Fozy Moss beyond the wind-swept Whin Sill ridge. Here the landscape bears such names as the King’s Crags, Queen’s Crags (said to be named after Guinevere), King Arthur’s Well and King Arthur’s Chair.
A popular local tale recalls a shepherd who was sitting by the ruins of Sewingshields Castle knitting. He dropped his ball of wool and ran after it, when he came across a hidden passageway which he followed. At the end of the passage, now well underground, was a great hall. Here was King Arthur, Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table sat around a large table, all in deep sleep.
If you have time it is worth travelling a few further miles east along the B6318 toward the village named Wall. Before arriving at the village, just east of Chollerford, you will notice a large wooden cross set in a walled enclosure by the roadside. This is the Heavenfield Cross erected, near the presumed site of the original cross erected by Oswald, to commemorate the battle of Hefenfelth fought between Cadwallon of Gwynedd and his ally Penda of Mercia against Oswald of Northumbia in 633, or 634 AD. On the eve of battle Oswald claimed to have seen a vision of St Columba, who promised him victory. Bede tells us that Oswald erected a large wooden cross where he prayed before the battle which resulted in a decisive victory for the Northumbrians and the death of Cadwallon. A Saxon church was erected on the site of the battle, which has been rebuilt in the Norman period and again during the 19th century. On leaving Hadrian's Wall we now head for the village of Arthuret to complete our tour.
The Birth of the Merlin Legend
The 9th century Historia Brittonum tells us that Arthur's “seventh battle was in the Caledonian Forest, that is, the Battle of Celidon Coit”.
The site of this battle has been (almost) unanimously identified as the Caledonian Forest in modern Scotland,Coed Celyddon, by Arthurian scholars. At one time this forest probably extended from the Solway to the Highlands, but Welsh tradition tends to favour the area of the Scottish border.
North-east Cumbria retains a memory of one of the bloodiest battles of Early Medieval Period Britain. The 10th century Welsh Annals (Annals Cambriae) record the Battle of Arfderydd in the year 573 as “Bellum armterid”. This is too late for Arthur of course if he was present at the battle of Badon c.500, although Thomas Green (2008) argues for the interesting possibility of Arthur's seventh battle as a mythical 'Battle of the Trees' (Cad Goddeu) as recorded in the Book of Taliesin in which animated trees form an army.
Arfderydd has been identified as Arthuret, lying between the rivers Esk, Lyne, and Liddel, near Longtown, north-east of Carlisle near the Scottish border. However, it must be said, this is based on an uncertain etymology. An alternative suggestion is that the site was once known as “Arthurs Head” which has become corrupted over time to “Arthuret”.
The Parish Church at Arthuret, St Michael and All Angels, was constructed in 1609, yet a church is said to have stood on the site since the 6th Century AD. A local tradition claims Arthur was buried here after the battle of Camlann on Hadrians Wall, thought to be Castlesteads (Camboglanna), in 537. Today a plaque at the church reinforces the claim of its most famous intern.
The Triads record the Battle of Arfderydd as one of the Three Futile Battles of Britain, fought over a “Lark's Nest.” This has been interpreted by historians as a particularly bloody event during the conflict of the Northern British kings Gwendoleu of Caer-Winley and Peredyr of Ebrauc, with much slaughter on both sides. The “Lark's Nest” was apparently the disputed territory at fort at Caer-Laverock.
A later addition to the Annal entry noted that “Merlin went mad.” This is supported by a series of Welsh poems found in the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Red Book of Hergest which tell the story of Myrddin's (Merlin) madness after the carnage of the battle, who then fled into the Celidon Forest where he spent the rest of his days. In Scottish texts he is named as Lailoken. Tim Clarkson (2016) sees the Battle of Arfderydd as the one single event that sparked the Merlin legend.
Copyright © 2018 Edward Watson
John Matthews and Caitlín Matthews, The Complete King Arthur: Many Faces, One Hero, Inner Traditions, 2017. Chapter 1: Arthur of Rome: Commander of Legions, pp.5-40.
Tim Clarkson, Scotland's Merlin: A Medieval Legend and its Dark Age Origins, John Donald (Birlinn), 2016.
Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2008,
Photographs copyright © Edward Watson
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