Arthur Part 3: Here Lies Arthur King

© 2005 Jeff Lynch

I well remember going to Winchester when I was a young man. The year was 1967 and of course I was grinning like Dodsgon’s Cheshire cat at my first visit to England. At this stage of travel, my wife Liz and I were hitchhiking around the south east of this tiny island, intent on a central sweep up Northwards, through Stratford on Avon to finish ultimately in Scotland, where work awaited us. After we visited the mighty Winchester Cathedral of mixed parentage, we went to a hall which I now discover, is the remains of a castle built by William the Conqueror and in one large room hung a 5.5 metre circular table. I recently read that it is green and white in the Tudor Henry the Seventh colours. We were informed that many believed that this was the Round Table of Camelot fame. We poor gullible young Aussies were told, that Arthur and Guinevere (should she have ever been permitted) together with the rest of his sweet knights, used this very table as their council place. Made round the story goes, so that the troublesome knights might not fight for a higher place at table! It dates from the 13th century and is now repainted in Tudor colours of green and white. Many others of course, were not so sure. In my opinion it is certainly not a candidate for Arthur’s table of fable. If experts are correct in that the invention of the round table belongs with the 13th century, then I certainly am not in favour of it. My readings so far, have now trained me, to expect a much earlier date of existence for this doughty man. Winchester in Hampshire, sits astride a Roman road and has been a seat of learning and power on and off since those days. A parcel of Danes, namely Alfred the Great etcetera made it a centre of learning in the late ninth century and Canute(Knut) his seat of power 110 ten years later on. Many chose the ancient city of Winchester as their prime spot for a putative Camelot. Alfred the Great and Canute the Second are also buried in Winchester and the town retained it’s prosperity throughout the long and generally speaking prosperous medieval period and had a large population of merchant and trader Jews. One of the streets of Winchester town is called Jewry. It had associations with Normandy France too, by virtue of it’s proximity to the major port of Southampton and in many ways it rivalled London as a potential centre of commerce and arts. It could have been as many thought, the seat of Arthur’s days in the sun.

In that same idyllic year of 1967, I drove past Glastonbury in a Mini Morris van which was just removed from being the toast of England’s finest autos. This fine car we had purchased in London and made no attempt to stay at this lofty, mythic city. I did not even lay eyes on the famous Iron Age (I think) White Horse laid out on a hillside just outside the ancient city. One could easily see the Cathedral city perched prominently on a hill, and visible for miles around. This city too, has ancient connections with the Arthur of legend and many have nominated it as the fabled site of King Arthur’s court. To some extent its reputation rests upon a famous, and some say infamous event in that occurred in the year 1191.The monks at Glastonbury claimed that they had discovered the tombs of Arthur and Guinevere, in St Mary’s chapel at their monastery. Now most people say that this event was undoubtedly a bogus one, staged by the monks themselves for their own nefarious motives. Some suggested that they set up a scam, at the behest of the reigning king. But Leslie Alcock noted professor of Archaeology and author of ‘Arthur’s Britain’ of 1978 and updated somewhat ten years later, is not so sure that the rediscovery of the bodies was an in-house fake at all!

It is a fairly complicated set of proofs that he is looking at, but essentially he is claiming that an honest attempt at reburial by the monks, should be considered over the hoodwinking theory. In essence he seeks a get out clause to say, that it is still possible that a warrior king from the 5th century, could be behind the story. There is one contemporary account of the alleged burial site by the famous travelling monk Geraldis Cambrensis, who visited the site either one, or two years after exhumation. Another is by a Glastonbury monk and was written almost one hundred years later. These accounts tally on very few matters and Mr Alcock is inclined to think that Gerald’s account is also highly coloured. Gerald wrote I might add, that the burial cross stated that Arthur lies here with Guinevere his second wife.* The Glastonbury monks version of the inscription on the lead cross is famous:

Hic iacet inclitus rex arturis
In insular Avallonis sepultus.*

Perhaps Morgan Le Fay was his first wife then. In any case all the artefacts discovered and then reburied, whatever may be the truth of the matter are currently missing and so tests are not available for us today. Many years after 1967, I did get to visit Tintagel in Cornwall another contested site for Camelot. This is a spectacular site indeed, perched on the edge of huge cliffs astride a small inlet. It is in fact the remains of a Celtic fort! But as Alcock says there are simply scores of topographical sites throughout Great Britain with some real or imagined backgrounds of Arthurian matters. Alcock himself from 1967 to 1972 excavated at Cadbury in south Cadbury, Somersetshire. He could not find anything conclusive at all as far as a personal ‘Arthur’ connection at the excavation. In truth Arthur pops up in so many places, with some findings seeming very impressive and others laughable. Some of the more famous places not yet mentioned are Camelford in Cornwall, Caerlon in Monmouthshire and Queen Camel, a small village in Cornwall . It is a fact that Geoffrey of Monmouth*, in his medieval romances placed one of Arthur’s chief courts at Caerlon, others being at London and Winchester. It would seem that many cases have topographies chasing fictions for willing readers and not the other way around. Alcock believes that the famous Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh too, is an area at which the man may have well operated. He also thinks that remnants there, which are mostly unexcavated, are probably post Roman and not pre Roman Iron Age remains and thus fitting the 5th century hypothesis. He says that it is likely nothing may be found to fix the area to Arthur in a personal way. Also Mr Alcock has looked at famous stone inscriptions around Britain. He states that there are no inscriptions on stone, wood or any other material available to us, which can beyond doubt prove that they are referring to a historical Arthur. That is to say these monuments though often intriguing cannot pinpoint the man to exact places or exact moments. The history of the Arthur of the 12 battles in ‘The History of Britain’* however is with us, as are even more obscure references in Welsh poetry* in particular.

And so Camelot has eluded us once again dear lovers of fable and history alike. And am I daunted? Not a smidgeon! Time is not on my side maybe, but it will I believe, be on our side. I am almost certain that more evidence will inevitably surface about a warrior king, in ways that will enable us to place him in time and perhaps too, with a lesser accuracy, to some of the places where he, loved, fought and died. I wonder after all, if he did die after his twelve recorded battles at his last battle, the battle of Camlann and could he really have been buried at Glastonbury and then reburied? In any case why worry, he still lives on beyond the flesh, in literatures imagination, in visual art and film and myth abounding.



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