Sunday, 7 July 2019

The Secrets Behind King Arthur's Sacred Sites

Documentary on Channel 5 at 7:00pm first aired on Saturday 29th June, claiming to examine new archaeological evidence from sites associated with the legendary King Arthur which experts argue seems to suggest there may be truth behind the legends.

Included contributions from Christopher Gidlow (Revealing King Arthur), Graham Phillips (The Lost Tomb of King Arthur), Fiona Gale (County Archaeologist with Denbighshire County Council), Robert Tremain (English Heritage Tintagel) and Roberta Gilchrist (University of Reading) as Arthurian scholars and archaeologists attempt to solve the mystery if Arthur was a real person or a legend...... 

Investigating some of the most Mystical Places from Arthurian Legend
So much for the hype, did this TV documentary actually tell us anything new in the story of King Arthur or provide any new archaeological evidence for his historical existence?

The story begins setting the historical context for King Arthur: after the Romans withdrew from Britain, the Anglo Saxons arrived from Germany, settling in the south east of England. The Britons come of worse during the early Saxon wars until the end of the 5th century when a fightback led by King Arthur culminated in the British victory at Badon.

Writing some 600 hundred years after the event, the Welsh bishop, as the documentary calls Geoffrey of Monmouth, writes an account of the history of the Kings of Britain which is as much fiction as fact. Geoffrey tells the story of Arthur's conception at Tintagel by the magic of Merlin the wizard; why Geoffrey chose the north Cornish promontory has puzzled historians for centuries. Yet, so the narrator tells us, recent discoveries suggest the legend may be based on fact.

At Tintagel archaeologists have discovered about a hundred structures built in the Post-Roman period, long before the medieval castle was built there. Radiocarbon dating has revealed these structures were built in the 5th century. Ongoing excavations has uncovered high quality glass and pottery at Tintagel suggesting high status occupation at the time of Arthur's conception.

An inscribed slate, known as the “Artognou stone” discovered in 1998 at Tintagel is believed by some to relate to Arthur as the first letters of the word mean "Bear". The documentary then tells us that the 6th century historian Gildas mentions a great warrior known as “The Bear” who fights at the battle of Badon in 516 AD linking the Tintagel slate to the legendary King Arthur.

The Dragons of Emrys
The documentary now switches back to Merlin who whisks the boy Arthur away after his birth. We then move to Snowdonia in North Wales and the ancient hillfort of Dinas Emrys.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth this is the site where Vortigern attempted to build his fortress but the walls kept collapsing. Vortigern’s magicians advise him to sprinkle the blood of a fatherless child on the foundations and this will solve the problem. The young Merlin is identified as a suitable sacrifice.

The Dragons of Dinas Emrys
The boy Merlin tells Vortigern of the two dragons, one red, one white, asleep in a pool under the site of the intended stronghold which is the reason the foundations keep collapsing. Geoffrey moves on to Merlin Prophecies and the wizard goes on to become the greatest sorcerer.

Vortigern, however, is considered a historical character who ruled c.450 AD, thought by many to be the “Superbus Tyrant” mentioned by Gildas who invited the Saxons in to Britain. In the 1950s archaeologists discovered a subterranean pool underneath the ancient hillfort at Dinas Emrys with dating evidence for Post-Roman occupation of the hillfort; perhaps there is some truth behind the legend.

The documentary goes on; Arthur must then prove he has the right to rule and pulls the sword from the stone as described by Malory in the 16th century. Then we're off the Mitchell's Fold stone circle with Graham Phillips who tells us that in the Middle Ages arguments were resolved with duels fought in stone circles. We are shown megaliths with holes in which swords could have been pulled from. Then Merlin reappears to take Arthur to the Lady of the Lake from where he receives his magical sword Excalibur.

Many years later when Arthur lies dying after the battle of Camlann he must throw Excalibur back into the lake. The documentary admits that this is fantasy but it appears to be based on pre-Christian religion. We then move to the ancient site of Flag Fen, east of Peterborough. Here a timber causeway was built in the Bronze Age through the marshes from which many objects were thrown into the water, presumably as offerings to the water goddess. Phillips tells us that 1500 years ago there was a tradition in Britain during a funeral to throw a warrior's sword into sacred water which is where, he claims, the story of Excalibur originated.

Camelot was believed to Winchester because of the Round Table hanging on the wall of the Great Hall. Constructed from oak trees growing around 1270, Christopher Gidlow says its almost certain Edward I built the table. Gidlow argues that the Round Table kept the tradition of Arthur and his Knights alive for many years and convinced many, including Malory, that Winchester was Camelot.

In search of Camelot, Arthur’s Court, we arrive at Cadbury Castle hillfort in Somerset, abandoned after being attacked by Romans in the 1st century AD. Archaeologists found the hill fort was refortified around 500 AD. Was this King Arthur's Camelot? Significantly, no medieval writer mentions it until the 16th century.

Caerleon amphitheatre

The documentary now switches to South Wales and the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon, the site Geoffrey of Monmouth identified as Camelot. The Romans abandoned Caerleon c.300 AD. If Geoffrey is correct then 200 years later Arthur used it as his court with the amphitheatre at Caerleon used as a meeting place for a fellowship.

Gidlow explains that the Round Table is not introduced to Arthurian legend until the 12th century by Wace (pronounced here as “Wazz”) and then the English cleric Layamon wrote that 1600 knights sat around the table. Gidlow argues that "Wazz" and Layamon must have had something like the amphitheatre at Cearleon in mind. Archaeologists have not found a royal palace at Caerleon but they have found evidence of a post-roman building there.

The Grail
We are now told the Grail was the cup of the last supper. According to legend the grail is brought to Britain and hidden in a castle at Corbenic. Arthur and his knights set out on a quest to find it.
The narrator tells us that the story of the Grail was inspired by Celtic legend; the story of Bran the Blessed who had a cauldron with the power to restore life. We are now at Castell Dinas Bran, above Llangollen in Wales, who's current buildings date to the 13th century, named apparently after Bran the Blessed, or to some it is Corbenic.

Fiona Gale, County Archaeologist, has carried out geophysical surveys and magnetometry at Dinas Bran in search of Post-Roman buildings beneath the 13th century castle. But Gale found no evidence for a building here dating to the Arthurian period.

10 miles from Dinas Bran is Whittington Castle which Phillips claims is a more plausible candidate for the Grail Castle. Phillips tells us that it is the “white castle in the white town” of the Romances. In the 13th century Fulk Fitzwarin is said to have held the Grail at Whittington Castle in a private chapel. Centuries later his family removed the Grail and hid it in the family estate. Phillips found a 2000 year old Roman scent jar 20 miles away at Hawkstone Park which he believes is the cup held by Fitzwarin and the origin of the Grail stories.

Following the battle of Camlann in which he and Modred fell, Arthur is taken to Avalon. Many believed Avalon to be Glastonbury, so the narrator tells us, and we focus on the Tor, a sacred place for centuries. But no sign of Arthur’s tomb has ever been found on the Tor so we must look elsewhere.

In 1191 monks at the abbey claimed to have discovered his grave although today this is largely seen as a hoax. Gidlow thinks it unlikely the Glastonbury monks invented the story to raise money; he prefers to think that they had simply found the remains of some “imposing little man; as Arthur was topical at this time they simply assumed they had found him”. If Arthur is buried at Glastonbury we will never know until the whole site is excavated.

Glastonbury Excavations
In 1963 Ralegh Radford claimed to have found some cist graves which dated to the 6th century, and a pit which he believed was the site of where the monks dug in the 12th century. In 2015 Roberta Gilchrist, University of Reading, re-examined the Glastonbury excavation archive and found the cist graves disturbed by the pit were dug hundreds of years later - sometime between 12th -15th centuries, significantly later than Ralegh Radford had supposed.

In further studying the archive Gilchrist found that Ralegh Radford had missed some very large post holes that contained eastern Mediterranean amphorae fragments. The 5th - 6th century pottery indicated this was the site of a Post-Roman timber hall of high status within the Abbey grounds.

Evidence of Arthur?
The television documentary “The Secrets Behind King Arthur's Sacred Sites” attempts to bring together the latest archaeological evidence from key sites associated with the Arthurian legend. But does it provide evidence for the existence of Arthur?

Recent work at Tintagel has confirmed occupation in the 5th - 6th centuries. Ralegh Radford’s original interpretation that it was a monastic site has been disproven by modern archaeology; Tintagel was a high status Post-Roman site importing fine glass and pottery from the Mediterranean. The site has been linked with Arthur ever since the 12th-century when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that the legendary king was conceived there through Merlin’s magic. Later writers, following Geoffrey, suggested that Arthur was actually born there. Yet no evidence been found to link  King Arthur to Tintagel.

In 1998 an inscribed slate was found in a secure Post-Roman context on the island. The first three letters of the name on the so-called Artognou stone were promoted by Englsih Heritage at the time of discovery as a link with “Arthur"; however the full name translates as “bear knowing”. In fact, contrary to what we are told in the documentary, Gildas does not provide the name of the leader of the Britons at the battle of Badon, and certainly makes no connection between the battle and the “Bear”. Gildas simply does not mention the leader of the Britons at Badon, which has led many to argue that it was not Arthur.

Gildas wrote the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) around the late 5th or early 6th century as a rant against the foolishness of the Britons who were being punished by God with the Saxon onslaught for their sins. In the second part of his sermon Gildas attacks five British princes that he describes as “tyrants”; one of these rulers, Cuneglasus, Gildas berates as “You bear, you rider and ruler of many, and guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear".

In the genealogies Cuneglasus is a son of Owain Danwyn (or Ddantgwynn) which has led Graham Phillips (King Arthur: The True Story, Century, 1992) to suggest that Owain was King Arthur. However, Owain was a minor Gwynedd king of Rhos at Dinarth on the north coast of Wales, whereas Phillips tells us Arthur is king of Powys and locates the site of his grave at Baschurch in Shropshire.

Geoffrey took his story of the dragons of Dinas Emrys from the 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons). In the original tale the fatherless boy identified as a suitable sacrifice is named Ambrose (Emrys in Welsh) – there is no mention of Merlin who is the pure invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, archaeology has revealed a subterranean pool at Dinas Emrys but there is no recorded Arthurian association, beyond Geoffrey's tale of the boy Merlin, with the site.

As for the site of Arthur’s Court, the term “Camelot” was not introduced to the Arthurian legend until the 12th century. Geoffrey may have seen the Roman remains at Caerleon and envisaged a Post-Roman presence at the site; but Geoffrey never saw the old Roman amphitheatre as The Round Table and a meeting place for a fellowship of knights, indeed he doesn't even mention it. Yet archaeology has uncovered evidence for a Post-Roman timber hall on the site.

Cadbury Castle in Somerset is one of the countries largest hillforts, deserted during the Roman invasion of Britain and refortified in the 5th and 6th centuries before being finally abandoned. As with Tintagel, high quality pottery has been found on the site and evidence of a large timber hall suggests a high status site during the Arthurian period. But, despite a visit by Edward I in the 13th century on his way to Glastonbury Abbey, there is no evidence that the hillfort was associated with King Arthur before John Leland in the 16th century convinced himself it was the site of Camelot.

Despite multitudes of claimants, the Grail remains obscure. Yet the Romances always identify the stories as occurring in Britain. Fiona Gale found no evidence of Post-Roman remains under the 13th century castle remains at Dinas Bran. It is up to the individual to decide if there is any substance to Graham Phillips interpretation of the Fulk Fitzwarin Romance that the Grail was kept in a private chapel at Whittington Castle (in the white town) and this was the Roman scent jar that he discovered at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire (The Search for the Grail, Century, 1995).

Post-Roman hall at Glastonbuy Abbey
Finally we come to evidence of a high status Post-Roman timber hall in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. This is a significant development in our understanding of the site as previously it was thought that Post-Roman activity first occurred on the Tor which later spread to the Abbey precinct; the new evidence suggests the opposite.

Although evidence of Post-Roman activity has now been found at many sites associated with the Arthurian legend, such as Tintagel, Dinas Emrys, Cadbury Castle, Caerleon and Glastonbury Abbey, this cannot, in any respect, be interpreted as evidence of Arthur.

The Secrets Behind King Arthur's Sacred Sites was available on Channel 5 catch up until 29 July 2019.

* * *

No comments: