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Arthurian Legend in Cumbria

Many places in Cumbria claim a connection to the legend of King Arthur.

Camelot, Excalibur and the Round Table could be Cumbrian heritage. However, historians constantly debate the many myths and legends.

No definitive conclusions have been accepted, so the arguments continue.

Confusion however does not stop the many tourists visiting the county in search of Arthur.

Young Arthur

King Arthur
King Arthur is one of the most famous figures in British history

Arthur's father, Uther, was certainly local but whether young Wart grew up in Cumbria is another matter.

His adoptive father, Ector, lived to the west of Bala in north Wales. But legend also claims that Arthur was trained in a warrior school on the Roman Wall. By 410AD, the Roman grip on Britain was slipping.

The Empire's soldiers were being withdrawn from Britain to help in conflicts elsewhere and local men had been trained and employed by the Roman Army for some time, so it's quite likely that Arthur could have been trained at one of the Roman forts within Cumbria.

Excalibur

A lot of the Cumbrian claims to Arthur rely in part on the circumstances of his death.

Excalibur, and how it came to be in Arthur's care, is one such part of the story. The legend goes that when Arthur was fatally wounded he asked one of his knights to return Excalibur to the lake it came from.

Bedivere, the knight in question, made two trips to the lake and back before the dying Arthur was satisfied and asked to be taken to Avalon.

FACT FILE
Arthur is the Anglicised version of the name Arthwyr, which roughly translated means 'bear man'
A Middle Ages historian claimed Arthur was the High King of Britain, a descendant of the French Bretons' lineage. They arrived in Britain at the beginning of the 5th Century
Excalibur was a two-for-the-price-of-one gift for the king. The famous sword came in a scabbard which was also magical, protecting its owner from injury and illness
In the Dark Ages, Cumbria was known as Rheged. At its peak, the kingdom stretched from coast to coast and from southern Scotland to the Midlands.

If the lake in question was in another part of the country, Bedivere's first round trip would have taken days, if not weeks or months.

Lord Alfred Tennyson was also keen on the idea of Excalibur being found in and returned to a Cumbrian lake.

He was inspired to write the description of King Arthur's final journey and the return of the sword to the water when staying at Mirehouse, overlooking Bassenthwaite.

The Round Table

What with his legendary round table, Arthur could have taught modern group psychologists a thing or two.

His parliament of knights would have sat in various locations around the country as and when they were needed in different places, but the favourite location in Cumbria is the aptly-named King Arthur's Round Table, an earthworks at Eamont Bridge, near Penrith.

The site is a natural amphitheatre, ideal for knights to gather and swap their stories of adventure ad romance - and it's also said that fifty champions of the realm gathered there to fight for the hand of King Arthur's daughter, Gyneth.

Nearby is Giant's Cave - a place associated with two giants called Tarquin and Isir. The pair lived on a diet of human flesh, a practice which might have lost its appeal when Sir Lancelot slew Tarquin in battle.

Camelot

Camelot was never the capital of Arthur's Britain - it was simply where he set up his headquarters. Although he's sceptical about the actual existence of a real King Arthur, historian Michael Wood suggested that Carlisle was actually the most likely base for the legendary king.

Other locations he suggested are also local. They include somewhere near the Solway Firth and a contested area on the Borders which is now better known as Longtown.

Arthur's Last Battle

Travel to Birdoswald and you'll see plenty of information about the Roman fort and the gatehouse that stood until the 14th Century. One of the old grain storage areas became a great hall for local chieftains after the Romans left - and there's a good chance the chieftain had something to do with Arthur.

Arthur's last battle was at Camlann, also known as Camboglanna. This is thought to be the old Roman name for Birdoswald, although some people think the name actually refers to Castlesteads.

His Grave

The most famous legend about where Arthur is buried originated with the monks of Glastonbury. Some time in the 12th Century they discovered two graves in the abbey grounds which supposedly belonged to Arthur and Guinevere.

Glastonbury Abbey
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey

The abbey had just been laid low by a huge fire and the cost of repairing and running the abbey was crippling. The discovery of Arthur's grave gave the monks a much-needed financial boost - in fact by the end of the Middle Ages, Glastonbury was the richest abbey in Britain - but whether this was sheer good timing or a Medieval conspiracy theory is up to you.

But if Arthur did die near the Scottish borders, it would make more sense for him to be buried locally - which is why Arthuret Church has such a strong claim.

The first church was developed on the site as early as the 6th Century - about the right era - and although it's been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since then, Arthur's presence remains felt thanks to a plaque explaining the history of the church and its most famous intern.

In fact, the area has such a strong claim to Arthur that there's a caravan park about quarter of a mile from Arthuret called Camelot.

Time for an encore

So what about the part of the legend that says he didn't actually die, but went into extended hibernation? If Arthur did go into a long sleep, he and a gathering of loyal knights are supposed to have done so beneath Blencathra, waiting for their next call to arms.

Having been fatally wounded at Camlann, Arthur asked to be taken to a nearby shore where a boat would be waiting to take him to Avalon - in this case Blencathra.

As well as being a sacred place, it was also supposed to be the home of Afallach, a Celtic God of the Underworld.

The journey to this shore would have been along the Maiden Way, an ancient road leading south from Birdoswald to Pendragon Castle, crossing the River Eden at Appleby.

Beyond Arthur

Until the 5th Century, a vast empire stretched from the English-Scottish border to the Middle East and down into Africa. But as the Romans' grip started to loosen, local lords and knights emerged, keen on protecting their homes from invading Picts and Saxons. One such knight was Arthur - but he could never have done it alone.

King Arthur
Many tourists travel to Cumbria in search of King Arthur

If you take into account all the different stories, Arthur was in the unique position of having three fathers. His mother, Igraine, was married to a man called Gorlois. Gorlois was at war with King Uther Pendragon, who was in love with Igraine.

With the help of Merlin, Uther disguised himself as Gorlois and seduced Igraine, leading to the birth of Arthur. In order to protect their son, Uther and Igraine asked a nobleman called Ector to raise the young Arthur and to ensure he had no idea about his true heritage.

Pendragon Castle

Uther Pendragon was reputed to have found and battled a large dragon-like serpent while in Cumbria - perhaps this was the reason he decided to found his kingdom in Mallerstang. Pendragon Castle, situated four miles south of Kirkby Stephen, is built on what's thought to be the site of Uther's castle, which would have been built some 600 years earlier.

Pandragon Castle
Pendragon Castle lays in the Vale of Mallerstang on the banks of the River Eden

According to legend, Uther tried to re-route the River Eden to create a moat for the castle.

Pendragon Castle itself is now in ruins, having been built in the 1100s by Hugh de Morville - one of the knights who killed Thomas of Canterbury.

Merlin was part of Arthurian legend even before Arthur came to power.

He was placed in the care of Uther when he was a young boy, which meant he would have been in ancient Cumbria quite a lot as he grew up. In return for this, he organised Uther's visit to Igraine.

Merlin was a druid, and he would probably have been a regular visitor to Castlerigg Stone Circle. The circle has been an important place for the Druids since it was built in about 3000BC.

Guinevere & Lancelot

If the story is to be believed, Guinevere was actually a Pictish lass, complete with a symbol representing her clan tattooed on her bottom.

Unlike her male companions, she probably had less than positive impressions of Cumbria. Despite keeping their love for each other under control for years, she and Lancelot were exposed by Mordred in a Carlisle court. Lancelot fled while Guinevere was sentenced to death at the stake in the city - although he did return to rescue her in the nick of time, killing several of his old Round Table colleagues in the process.

Mordred

Mordred was the result of an unfortunate liaison between Arthur and Morgause - who, unbeknown to him, was his half-sister. He grew up to become King of Carlisle, a position he held until his death in 537AD at the battle of Camlann.

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

Possibly the second most famous knight to sit at the Round Table, Sir Gawain had his big break when he accepted a challenge from the Green Knight. He finished his challenge a year later, when he found the Green Knight in the fells surrounding Keswick.

The Green Knight himself apparently lived in the medieval forest of Inglewood, in a castle in roughly the same location as Hutton-in-the-Forest.

The Fell Ponies

The Arthurian cavalry was believed to use the symbol of a black horse on its flags and standards.

Fell Pony
It is thought that Arthur's men used the Fell Pony.

While looking at the origins of pubs called 'The Black Horse', a researcher called S G Wildman suggested that this was because Arthur's men rode black Fell ponies.

They seemed the obvious choice for men from the Celtic strongholds of Rheged and ancient Wales, as they were sturdy and hard-working, and capable of lasting a long time on minimal food and drink.

His suggestion was borne out by several other equestrian historians who had come to the same conclusion.

Arthurian Literature

The Arthur most people are familiar with, the one who had dashing chums, romanced fair maidens and always wore shiny armour is a figment of Medieval imagination.

By the ninth century he was already a legend, and medieval poets and writers decided the reality of the Dark Ages wasn't a fitting backdrop for such a romantic story. 'The Avowing of Arthur', 'The Adventures of Arthur', and 'The Carle of Carlisle' mention various Cumbrian locations, including Inglewood Forest and Tarn Wadling, an apparently magical lake near Lazonby.




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