Monday, 18 February 2013

In The Footsteps Of Arthur, Part Five: Avalon

Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as they mayest, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou never hear more of me, pray for my soul.
   Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur

  Of the locations connected with King Arthur, none is so mystical as the one that appears at the end of his story: Avalon. Etymologically, the word appears to be derived from the Brythonic abal/afal/afall, meaning 'apple', and the notion of an 'Island of Apples' may be connected to Irish 'Otherworld' legends. It makes its first appearance in Arthurian lore in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Regum Historia Brittaniae, as the site where Excalibur was forged and where the King was transported after receiving a head wound at the Battle of Camlann... an event which we shall briefly explore.

The Battle of Camlann was, in most versions of the story, fought between the Knights loyal to Arthur and those who sided with his treacherous nephew Sir Mordred. It was first mentioned in the Annales Cambriae as having taken place in the year 537: 'the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished'. With the usual infuriating vagueness of early Arthurian references, it fails to specify a location or whether Arthur and Mordred were enemies or allies. The blossoming of legend around Arthur's final battle seems to have stemmed from this short and vague comment. References to the battle later turn up in the folkloric Welsh Triads, although these vary as to explaining its cause.

Arthur and Mordred meet at Camlann. By Arthur Rackham, 1917

The site of Camlann has been suggested in a myriad of places. Queen's Camel in Somerset, close to the South Cadbury hillfort that has been suggested as the site of Camelot.  A river in Gwynedd called Camlan. Somewhere on Salisbury Plain. Outside the town of Camelford in Cornwall.

Although the Camelford site is based on a fanciful (or perhaps merely hopeful) reading of an inscribed stone in the vicinity, it lies in an area much defined by proximity to the supposed Arthurian sites of Tintagel and Castle Killibury, and in a spirited attempt to emphasise Arthur's Cornish connection, the supposed site has become a visitor attraction in recent years. Calling itself the Arthurian Centre, it contains 20 acres of North Cornwall countryside abutting the River Camel (at this point an attractive stream). It does seem possible that a battle was fought here in antiquity, but is most likely to have been the Battle of Camelford, fought between the defending Cornish and the invading Saxon King Egbert in 823.

 And what of the Slaughterbridge Stone, used for centuries to suggest that this was the site of Camlann? It was first described by the Cornish antiquary Richard Carew in 1602 in his The Survey Of Cornwall... 'the folke thereabouts will show you a stone bearing Arthur's name...'

The Slaughterbridge Stone lies on the banks of the Camel. Photo by Babelstone.

  Over nine feet long, it now lies recumbent by the side of the stream, presumably having been cast down at some point from its original upright position. The inscription has faded, but has been dated possibly to the 540's (contemporary with Camlann). It is one of the few inscribed stones to use both Latin and Ogham script, the latter deriving from Ireland, and the tentative readings of the damaged inscription do indicate a hybrid of Latin and Irish names: LATINI IC IACIT FILIUS MACARI (Latinus lies here, the son of Macarius). The Arthur connection lies with earlier readings which suggested that the inscription actually read LATIN HIC JACET FILIUS MAGNI ARTURI (Here lies Latin the son of Arthur the Great).

Inscription on the Slaughterbridge Stone

  A more likely site for the Battle of Camlann lies in the western half of Hadrian's Wall. One of the forts along the Wall was, according to the late Roman document the Notitia Dignitatum, named CAMBOGLANNA, 'crooked riverbank'. It was long believed that this referred to the fort of Birdoswald, an evocative site that exists today next to an impressive section of the Wall. However, it is now believed that the fort at Birdoswald was BANNA and that the neighbouring fort, seven miles west at Castlesteads, was the real CAMBOGLANNA. Nevertheless, both sites are adjacent to the great Roman border and suggest, if Camlann was indeed fought here, that Arthur's enemy may have been the Scotti or the Picts.

The author at Birdoswald Fort, BANNA, Hadrian's Wall. (c) Emily McManus
Archaeologists discovered that a timber hall of the Arthurian period had been erected on the site of Roman granaries at BANNA, which has led to much debate over activity in the area during this period. Alas, of the real CAMBOGLANNA at Castlesteads, little remains. The adjacent section of Hadrian's Wall was virtually obliterated to provide building material for Lanercost Priory, and the site of the fort itself was levelled in the late eighteenth century when Castlesteads House and its gardens were constructed on the site.

Altar dedicated to Jupiter, found at CAMBOGLANNA at an unknown date
 According to the stories, Arthur and Mordred met in hand-to-hand combat toward the end of the battle. Mordred dealt the King a serious sword wound to the head before himself being  fatally struck down. Sir Bedivere, one of the few survivors of the strife, was instructed to return the sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. Subsequently, Arthur was borne off to the Isle of Avalon on a barge accompanied by the Isle's queens, one of whom was Morgan Le Fay.

A rather hectic 13th-century depiction of the Battle of Camlann

Arthur was never seen again. In some versions of the story, such as Malory, he dies. In others he merely rests, awaiting the time that his country will need him so that he may return. Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus. The Once And Future King.

So what of the mysterious 'Insula Avallonis', first mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia? He returns to it with a little more detail in his later work Vita Merlini, but this time he describes it as 'Insula Pomorum' - the Isle of Apples. This ties in with the Celtic word 'afal' for apple, and the Welsh spelling of Avalon as Afallach. He also seems to be have been inspired, by this time, by the work of Saint Isidore of Seville (c.560-636). This scholarly Archbishop, in his highly influential work Etymologiae, describes the Isles of the Fortunate where fruit grows in abundance. These have been assumed to be the Canary Islands. Monmouth, in the Vita, describes Avalon as the 'Fortunate Isle' where fruit grows in abundance. He describes it as being occupied by nine sisters, the foremost of whom is Morgan le Fay. The others, of somewhat lesser importance in the Arthurian legends, are Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton. Notice how they are divided by their initials into groups of three, and combined form 3 X 3. This is the rhetorical trick used by the later Welsh Triads.

James Archer, 1860. Much visual art regarding Avalon emphasises its 'fairytale' nature

Putting aside the disconcerting notion that Monmouth may have based his description of Avalon on Tenerife, is there anything in the historical record to indicate that this otherworldly realm may have been based upon a more corporeal site? Oddly enough, there may be...

A popular candidate for the prototype of King Arthur is one Riothamus, a historical figure who was active around 470 C.E .Scholars of the period believe that this name may be derived from 'Rigotamus', a title meaning 'Highest King', and the Celtic linguist Leon Fleuriot argued that he may have been Ambrosius Aurelianus, the warlord mentioned by Gildas as holding back the Saxon tide.

 Although he is as obscure as most warchiefs of the period, there is no doubt that Riothamus existed. A letter survives from Sidonius Apollinaris, the Bishop of Clermont, asking Riothamus for redress regarding a humble landowner whose slaves had been enticed away by a group of Bretons (presumably part of Riothamus' 12000-strong army). According to the historian Jordanes, writing from Constantinople about eighty years later, Riothamus was a leader from Britain or Brittany (possibly both) who marched with his army to defeat the depradations of the Visigoths. It is believed by Geoffrey Ashe and others that this may be the basis of Arthur's continental adventures in Monmouth's Historia.

Apparently, Riothamus' war against the Visigoths was the result of a call from aid from the Roman Emperor Anthemius. Unfortunately, Riothamus does not seem to have been as successful as the legendary King whose adventures he may have inspired. Possibly betrayed by the Prefect of Gaul, Arvandus, Riothamus found himself intercepted by the Visigoth King Euric and, according to the writer Gregory of Tours, 'The Brittani were driven from Bourges by the Goths and many of them perished at the village of Deols'. Riothamus survived this rout and fled into Burgundy, at which point he disappears from the historical record. His last known position was near a Burgundian town called Avallon. This town, the Roman ABALLO, exists today with a population of 7700 and is known for the manufacture, among other things, of gingerbread. It has been twinned with various European towns, including Tenterden in Kent - another area known for apples!

Avallon, Burgundy.
 Unfortunately, the Burgundian connection with the Isle of Avalon has not endured well, despite the possible connection with the Historia. Only a few decades after that popular book was written, an event occurred that switched the focus of Avalon's location elsewhere... and that location has proved popular right up until the present day. Known to the Britons as Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass, it is better known today as the Somerset town of Glastonbury.

The Isle Of Glass
Modern Glastonbury is a Mecca for both Christians and Neo-Pagans, fascinated by the legends surrounding the area and the evocative sites that can still be visited. Two neighbouring springs, the Red Spring and the White Spring, produce two completely different types of mineral water and are venerated for their mystical connections with Grail lore and Joseph of Arimathea. The unmistakeable conical shape of Glastonbury Tor dominates the town, and its folkloric connections with Arthur vie with the ruins of the town's Abbey as popular with visitors seeking the legend.

Chalice Well, a popular sacred site for both Christians and NeoPagans

So how did this curious town become so enmeshed in the Arthur legend, and why do so many consider it Avalon?

In the year 1184, only a few decades after the Historia Regum Brittaniae popularised the Arthur legend across Europe, the influential Benedictine Abbey at Glastonbury suffered a major fire which destroyed most of its monastic buildings. Rebuilding began immediately, and in 1190, under the directions of the Abbot Henry de Sully, monks dug to a depth of 16 feet at a point in the Abbey cemetery that was marked by two tapering crosses. Apparently, a travelling Welsh bard had entrusted to King Henry II the supposed site of King Arthur's burial, and at some point prior to his death in 1189, the King had passed this information to the Abbot.

The exhumation at Glastonbury

At a depth of several feet the monks recovered a lead cross. Digging further, they found a treetrunk burial - two skeletons encased in a hollowed-out tree. A male skeleton of large proportions was accompanied by a smaller female skeleton with traces of blond hair that disentegrated to the touch. The cross, which was drawn by William Camden in 1607, bore the inscription 'HIC IACET SEPTULUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA', meaning 'Here lies the famous King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon'. Some chroniclers, perhaps referring to an inscription on the other face of the cross which was not drawn by Camden, claim it read 'Here lies the famous King Arthur with his second wife Guinevere in the Isle of Avalon'.

Edward I had a marble tomb built for the re-internment of the pair, and the cross was laid on top of it. When the tomb was destroyed at some point following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the cross was kept by St John's Church in Glastonbury, subsequently being held at Wells until it disappeared from history.

The Arthur Cross, after Camden

Most scholars believe the whole exhumation to have been a hoax, perpetuated by the Abbey as a fund-raising exercise for the rebuilding. Curiously, however, the monks never seem to have 'cashed in' to any great degree. The marble tomb was not commissioned until the reign of Edward Longshanks and he, as a warrior King fighting the Welsh, had good reason to display that the legendary Arthur, who was meant to return and lead the Britons, was in fact six feet under.

Others have pointed out that the lettering on the Cross is tenth-century, and may date from when Abbot Dunstan (later an important Archbishop of Canterbury) ordered the level of the cemetery to be raised.

Whatever the truth behind the exhumation, it sealed Glastonbury's position as the Isle of Avalon up to the present day. The site of the tomb is marked in the Abbey grounds, and the legend has also encompassed the landmark Glastonbury Tor.

The site of Arthur's tomb

The Tor is a familiar landmark, a conical, terraced hill with a church tower perched on top (the rest of the church having been destroyed in a medieval earthquake). From the summit, a clear day's view will show you South Cadbury Castle, a hillfort suspected of being Camelot. In the other direction can be seen Brent Knoll, where Arthur is supposed to have fought a giant. The whole region is suffused with Arthurian legend.

Archaeological exploration of the Tor has shown that there was indeed some sort of complex here during the time of Arthur, but its nature is uncertain. The stories usually have the Tor as the site of Melwas' stronghold, the knight who abducted Guinevere and forced her rescue by Lancelot. Others, relating it to the Grail legends, would have it as the base of the Fisher King.

(c) Early British Kingdoms .com

The Tor is a special place in a very spiritual part of the country. The legends of Arthur, vibrant, colourful and mysterious even to the present day, take life here. Even if he was not buried here, did he walk these hills? Was this the centre of his lands? Was this Avalon? We will probably never know, we shall merely keep imagining, and as long as we keep imagining, the legends will never fade.


Following the footsteps of Arthur is a fascinating quest through some of the most attractive and historical sites in Britain. The following Gazetteer briefly describes the sites mentioned in this essay and its predecessors.

Tintagel   Coastal resort in Cornwall, site of Arthur's birthplace.  4.42'0"W, 50.42'0"N
Liddington Castle  Hillfort near Swindon, Wilts.  1.42'33"W, 51.30'30"N
Little Solsbury Hill  Hillfort near Bath, Somerset  2.20'03"W, 51.24'34"N
Badbury Rings  Hillfort near Wimborne Minster, Dorset  2.03'72"W, 50.49'21"N
Castle Killibury  Hillfort near Egloshayle, Cornwall  4.47'93"W 50.31'94"N
Caerleon  The Roman ISCA SILVRUM, Gwent  2.57'82"W, 51.36'13"N
Caerwent  The Roman VENTA SILVRVM, Gwent  2.46'70"W, 51.36'98"N
South Cadbury Castle  Hillfort near Ilchester, Somerset  2.31'49"W, 51.01'77"N
Slaughterbridge  Battle site near Camelford, Cornwall  4.40'05"W, 50.38'83"N
Birdoswald  Fort on Hadrian's Wall, Cumbria  2.36'67"W, 54.59'69"N
Glastonbury  Town in Somerset  2.43'79"W, 51.08'85"N


Early British Kingdoms

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