Quite some years ago, when I started to read about the history of Great Britain because I realised I loved that country, I often saw King Arthur’s name in the books that I read. And he caught my attention. Who was this king and why did he appeal to the imagination of so many people? In this blog I will take you to a number of well-known and less well-known ‘Arthurian sites’ in South England that you could visit if you are interested in Arthurian literature or history. My favourite Arthurian sites.
Connecting King Arthur’s name to a site means more visitors and therefore more income. So there are a lot of places in the UK and abroad that claim to have a connection to this king. Since no one can say with certainty whether he actually existed and who he was, it is of course difficult to say whether these claims are justified or not. Most places that are allegedly linked to King Arthur draw their connection from legends and not from reliable historic sources. Therefore, and to avoid being too much of a correct-history-supported-by-sources-freak we look at these places from the romantic perspective and let ourselves being guided by legends, stories and poems.
Who was King Arthur?
The answer to this question is so complicated you could write a book about it… or two. And believe me, plenty books have been written about this. So briefly explaining who he was is quite difficult. Especially for me 😊
Arthur is a figure from early British literature. We meet him for the first time in a 7th century Welsh poem, Y Gododdin. In early literature he is usually not a king, but a war chief (lat. dux bellorum). In younger literature he is named as king. He appears in various stories and poems as someone who led the fight against the Anglo-Saxons who had invaded the country. He fought a number of battles against these Anglo-Saxons, triumphed at Mons Badonicus, the Battle of Badon, and died in the Battle of Camlann. All this would have taken place in the 6th century AD. According to the younger, more romantic story, Arthur was the son of King Uther Pendragon. Uther had fallen in love with Ygraine, wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. With the help of the magician Merlin, Uther turned into Gorlois for 1 night, while the real duke was away to defeat Uther’s men. That night Uther slept with Ygraine and Arthur was conceived. This took place at the castle of Gorlois, Tintagel. The next morning the real Gorlois was dead, killed in battle, and Uther could marry Ygraine. Arthur was born, but immediately after his birth was brought to a foster family. When he was an adult, not knowing who he really was, Arthur went to the court where King Uther had just passed away. It was unclear who the true heir to the throne was, since Uther had no sons but Arthur and no one knew of Arthur’s existence but Merlin. But luckily the wizard was smart enough to make a test so that all pretenders who wanted to prove that they were suitable to become king of Britain could show who was the true king. The test was the famous sword in the stone. The magical sword Excalibur was stuck in a large stone and only the true king of England could pull the sword out of the stone. Many tried, all failed. Until Arthur appeared and pulled the sword out of the stone. He was the new and legitemate king of Britain. The new king did not get any rest or time to get used to being king. The Anglo-Saxons invaded the country and he had to lead his armies to show the invaders who was the king and whose country they were trying to take over. He was quite succesful and according to the stories a long period of peace and quietness followed. Arthur married Guinevere and from his court Camelot he ruled the country together with his Knights of the Round Table. Unfortunately, Guinevere couldn’t give him a child and she fell in love with Arthur’s best knight and friend Lancelot. Arthur had a son with Morgaine, his half-sister. This son, Mordred, would be his downfall and at the final battle, the battle of Camlann, they mortally wounded each other. But Arthur didn’t die. He was taken to the mythical island of Avalon, to heal and rest until the country would be in great danger and need him again. Thanks to Hollywood, there are numerous slightly different versions of this story.
Many people have been researching King Arthur and the historical correctness of the stories. One thing is certain, the romantic story I just briefly told here has no historical basis. This is the romantic version of older legends and stories. But there are men from history who could be the source of these stories. There are a few candidates including a Roman general Artorius (Lucius Artorius Castus) and Riothamus, a Breton king who we know very little about, not even if he really existed. Then there is Ambrosius Aurelianus, a general who, according to the De Exidio Britanniae written by Gildas, led the British in various battles against the Anglo-Saxons. He is also linked to Merlin and the story about the two dragons under the castle. According to some historians, it is therefore Ambrosius who was the inspiration for the stories about King Arthur.
Important themes that you find in Arthur’s stories are loyalty and chivalry, but also the struggle between ancient pagan Britain full of mysticism and legends and the rise of the “new” religion, Christianity.
Arthurian sites to visit
But enough about the ‘did he really exist’ part. Let’s have a look at some of the most famous an beautiful Arthurian sites in the South of England.
Of course this castle, the place where Arthur was born and the place where Uther mislead and deceived Gorlois, is top of the list when it comes to Arturian sites. A visit to Tintagel guarantees that you have a day filled with history, mysticism and impressive views of the Cornish cliffs. The castle is a major tourist attraction in Cornwall. This is not only because of the connection with the Arthurian legends, but also because of the beautiful dramatic setting. The castle is located on a small peninsula near the village of Tintagel on rugged cliffs in the far west of Cornwall. As soon as you see the castle, or the ruins that are left of it, you understand that this castle is a in a place that is easy to defend because of the location and that is is difficult to conquer. The ruins you visit nowadays don’t date from the time of King Arthur. These are the remains of a castle built in the thirteenth century by the Earl of Cornwall, Richard I. However, much archaeological evidence has been found of an earlier occupation and it is believed that in Roman times and the subsequent period, so the time in in which the stories about Arthur take place, there was a castle or fortress with small settlements. It was probably the place where the king of Dumnonia had his seat. Dumnonia was the kingdom that after the fall of the Roman Empire covered the extreme southwest of England (present-day Cornwall, Devon and part of Somerset). It is named after the Celtic Dumnonii tribe. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the (not really reliable source) History of the Kings of Great Britain, Arthur was also a member of the royal family of Dumnonia. It was also Monmouth who first wrote that Tintagel was King Arthur’s birthplace. Archaeological finds show that since Roman times Tintagel was a place where people traded food, pottery and other objects with, among others, the Mediterranean. Count Richard had a certain sense of drama, because the reason he built the current castle on this site was the link that Monmouth had made with the Arthur story and with the old Dumnonia royal seat here. He had it built in an older style, so that it looked more authentic, as coming from the Arthurian era.
In the Victorian era, Tintagel Castle became a real tourist attraction. Victorians loved romance and heroic figures from Britain’s dark past. And who was a more suitable hero than King Arthur? The village near the castle, now known as Tintagel, was then called Trevena. Tintagel was the name for the peninsula. Everyone who has ever visited Tintagel Castle knows that it is not a castle that you can easily walk to. The access is difficult over small steep stairs carved out the rocks. As tourism grew, access was made easier and the castle became more accessible. This year a new footbridge that connects the castle with the mainland has been opened.
The castle was built high on the rocks and below it, by the sea, is a cave. This cave is known as Merlin’s Cave, the cave of the famous wizard Merlin. The cave can be visited at low tide. Pay close attention to the tides, because you really don’t want to be surprised by the incoming tide here. At the visitor’s centre at the castle you can check the tide tables. They can tell you exactly what a safe time it is to go to the beach and to the cave. In 2016 an artist carved the face of Merlin into a rock near the cave. All this to emphasize the connection between this place and the Arthurian legend. A stylized statue of Arthur has recently been placed on top of the cliff. Tintagel is one of the most visited historic sites in England and is managed by English Heritage. If you want to visit the castle, check their website for details, prices and opening times.
When you say King Arthur you say Avalon. According to legend, Arthur was brought to the mythical island of Avalon after the Battle of Camlann. Here he his wounds could heal and he can sleep until the country needs him again. Avalon is an island from Celtic mythology, it is hidden in enchanted mist and can only be reached by a handful of people who know how to lower this veil.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Avalon is the island of apples. Etymologically that could be true, since aval is the old Cornish word for apple, just like the Welsh afal. Another theory is that it is named after an ancient Celtic deity, Afallach. On the island a sanctuary was dedicated to the Mother Goddess that was maintained by priestesses. One of those priestesses was Morgaine or Morgan le Fey, Arthur’s half-sister. Nobody knows where Avalon really is and if it really exists, but Glastonbury is a possible candidate.
When you think of a magical island you don’t immediately imagine a village in the inlands of Somerset, but the area around Glastonbury used to be a marsh with lakes, it was actually permanently flooded. Glastonbury must have been an island in the midst of an inaccessible marshes and could only be reached by boat. Archaeological evidence has been found of settlements dating from the time that this was marshland. People lived in stilt houses above the water on the edge of the lake and actively traded with people in other parts of the country and abroad. Different places in the marshes were connected to each other by waterways, but also by timber trackways. Another name for Glastonbury is Ynis-witrin, the island of glass. The name Glastonbury itself is of Anglo-Saxon origin, Glaestingaburg.
Next to the village lies Glastonbury Tor, an oddly shaped hill with a tower on top. This hill looks like someone tried to build a mountain with Lego layer by layer. The hill is natural, it is not a manmade hill. It is still a mystery how the terraces on the hill were shaped. Whether this has a natural cause or whether this has been done to make the hill suitable for agriculture? Or it is a labyrinth, some people think they recognize this in the paths that lead to the top. The tower on top of the hill is the only remnant of St Michael’s Church that once stood here. The large Glastonbury Tor has two smaller companions. Wearyall Hill and Chalice Hill.
A large part of Glastonbury is the grounds of the abbey that once stood here. Nowadays it is a ruin, a beautiful ruin though. From what is left of Glastonbury Abbey we can see that this must have been a majestic place. An abbey that can be compared in grandeur to many of the cathedrals and abbeys we know in the UK and abroad. Unfortunately, the Dissolution did its job well here and they destroyed the abbey. Time, weather and people looking for building materials and relics did the rest (oh yes … please be sensible and don’t take a piece of the church as a souvenir). But despite all that, it is still a place that appeals to the imagination. A place of tranquility, timelessness and serenity. In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey found the grave of two people. They claimed that these bodies were King Arthur and his wife Guinevere. This generated a lot of publicity, even back then, and a lot of extra visitors and thus income. The bodies disappeared during the Reformation, but there is still a sign on the site of the supposed grave indicating that the bodies of King Arthur and his wife were found there. Historians assume that the bodies were real but the identification as them being Arthur and Guinevere was made up by the monks to generate extra income after the fire that had recently destroyed part of the abbey. But still … it’s a beautiful story.
Isn’t it a poetic name for a pretty little village in Cornwall? Sounds pretty dramatic, Slaughterbridge. The village (quite a word for a few houses and a road) lies on the river Camel. According to stories, Slaughterbridge would derive its name from two important battles that supposedly took place here. One of these battles would have been the Battle of Camlann, in which King Arthur was mortally wounded before being brought to Avalon. Anyway, slaughter is also an Old English word (slohtre) and means marshland. That is not a strange name for a low-lying village near a river. Just outside the village is a large stone next to the river. This stone is called King Arthur’s Stone. It is an elongated, rectangular stone with ogham inscriptions. If you want to know what the ogham alphabet is, have a look here. The inscription on the stone reads (losely translated) ‘Here lies the son of Macarus.’ The stone is dated sixth century AD and would have been used to commemorate a Celtic war chief. So the stone has little to do with Arthur. It was described as King Arthur’s Stone in the 17th century. There has been some debate about the name on the stone. There are historians who believe that it is not Macari or Macarus, but Mag Uri or Magni Arturi (the great Arthur). Geoffrey of Monmouth describes Slaughterbridge as the place where the Battle of Camlann took place. The nearby village of Camelford would be the site where Arthur’s famous court, Camelot would have been. Other candidates for Camelot include Cadbury Hill, Winchester, Colchester (Camulodunum), Caerleon, Slack and a number of lesser known places. At King Arthur’s Stone is a visitor centre, The Arthurian Centre. The stone lies in what used to be the garden of Charlotte Boscawen, Lady Falmouth. Step by step, the garden is restored to its former glory and can also be visited.
Moor or moorland is the English word for an upland area with heather, grasses, low bushes (in the UK mainly gorse and broom) and marshland. These are often sparsely populated areas, where wind and weather reign and people prefer to stay away. Ideal places for legends and ghost stories. And there are plenty of these legends when it comes to Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor. These two stretches of moorland lie not far from eachother in Devon and Cornwall. Dartmoor is even a National Park. These are upland areas with granite hills which have eroded peaks shaped into beautiful rock formations, the so-called Tors. It sometimes looks like a giant has walked through the landscape and stacked a pile of flat rocks on each hilltop. These are all natural formations. Horses, sheep and smaller animals roam freely in the area. If you drive through Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, it is therefore advised to drive carefully to spot animals on the road in time.
In prehistoric times Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor were inhabited. Trees grew here. Flint tools have been found in both Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor. At the end of the neolithic people cut down the forests and made permanent settlements, of which archaeological evidence has also been found. Bodmin Moor is a well known area for legends and stories that are widely known. For example, Jamaica Inn. If you walk in the dark in Bodmin Moor you immediately believe all these stories and legends. Dozmary Pool in Bodmin Moor is a small lake. This is the lake where The Lady of the Lake dwells, a woman that lives in a lake and gave King Arthur the sword Excalibur. After Arthur’s death, Sir Bedivere threw the sword back into the lake. When he did this, a woman’s hand reached out of the water to catch the sword and take it to the bottom of the lake, although there are also stories that claim that Dozmary Pool is bottomless. Other places where the mysterious lake could have been located include Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen and Llyn Glaslyn on the flanks of Mount Snowdon in Wales and Meare Pool near Glastonbury (nowadays disappeared due to extensive drainage).
Dartmoor is a National Park in Devon. Here too there have been settlements in the Stone Age, evidence is a wealth of archaeological finds, burial mounds, standing stones and stone circles. Even if you are not interested in King Arthur, Dartmoor is worth a visit. The rugged landscape, the Tors, the wildlife, the atmosphere … in everything it is different than the land surrounding it. The Hound of the Baskervilles suddenly becomes something that could be real in this entourage. But we were talking about King Arthur. Arthur met the devil on Dartmoor. He challenged the devil to a game in which they would throw quoits or discus shaped objects. The loser had to leave the country. Both threw gigantic quoits all over the moor, which now lie on the tops of the hills of Dartmoor as stone tors. Of course Arthur won and the devil was asked to leave the country. King Arthur lives on in Dartmoor. Here it is believed that the legendary king did not die, but turned into a bird, a Chough, and that killing this bird would bring bad luck.
The city of Winchester in Hampshire is one of the candidates for once having been Camelot. Winchester, just like so many places with an Arthur connection, has been inhabited for a long time. An iron age hill fort was discovered, it was an important place for the Belgae and in Roman times it was a prosperous city. The Anglo-Saxons built a palace and a church here, and Winchester became a diocese. Winchester therefore has a strikingly large and beautiful cathedral that is certainly worth a visit. A number of Anglo-Saxon and English kings kings have been crowned or were married here and it has been a place of pilgrimage for some time. King Alfred the Great has been buried here, but his grave has not been found yet, partly because his body has been dug up and moved a number of times and the Dissolution has left its mark here as well. Sometimes they research human remains found in old graves and bones have been found that date from the right time, but it is impossible to determine whether these really are Alfred’s remains. Today many people visit the cathedral to see the grave of writer Jane Austen, who died in Winchester in 1817. Other famous people buried here include Henry of Blois, abbot of Glastonbury and brother of King Stephen, King Cnut (Canute), and William Rufus, son and successor of William the Conqueror.
If you are interested in history, the City Museum is also worth a visit. I was pleasantly surprised by the exhibition there that shows the history of the city with a number of interesting objects.
There are many places in the UK that claim to have a connection with King Arthur. For the Arthur lover the South of England is like heaven. And when you’re done with the south, Wales is definitely another good place to search for King Arthur. And Scotland also claims to have a connection to this famous king. Enough places to visit.