We wandered the summit of Cadbury Castle, each of us alone with our thoughts before gathering once again at the centre to speak of archaeology, history and legends. Now, legends are all very well, but many a place has adopted a lucrative tale, just to pull in the tourists. The monks drew in pilgrims with dubious saints and relics, and it is no more than economic sense to capitalise on something that will help the local economy. But there are a few crumbs of fact, as well as the legends, that might place our vision of Camelot at Cadbury, even though the Arthur we think of first did not exist before the medieval romances.
Who is Arthur anyway? Is he just the hero of the medieval romances or something more? Was he the historical war leader mentioned in the oldest texts? Was he a giant? Certainly there are enough ancient sites, hills and megaliths across the country that bear his name to portray him as being of gigantic stature. Or is he something other than that? When we had first visited Cadbury, five years ago, we had both ‘picked up’ a similar impression… that of a ‘wise guardian presence’, the archetypal guardian of the land. Could the King Arthur we know today be a conflation all of these strands, buried deep within the psyche of a nation?
If a historical Arthur did exist, he was most likely a fifth century war-leader, and not an armoured and caparisoned knight. The tales we know and love have their origins hovering between medieval romance and a much older tradition, in whose stories we can find fragments and parallels.
Historically, Nennius, writing in 820, names Arthur as the dux belloram, or war commander, who fought alongside the British kings against the Saxon invasion by Horsa and Hengist and as the victor of many battles, including the decisive victory of Mount Badon. The name ‘Arthur’ may have a number of origins, but the most likely seems to be that it comes from the native Brittonic arto– ‘bear’, which later became arth in Welsh.
Similar names were common throughout the Celtic world. Oddly, one of the names for the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is Arthur’s Wain. A wain is a wagon or a wheeled vehicle, and one of the earliest references to Arthur is from Gildas who lived from around 500 to 570, and who wrote of the British King Cuneglas that he had been “charioteer to the bear”. For a king to be anyone else’s charioteer would suggest that person held an elevated status. Dux belloram, perhaps?
Stars were to play a major role in our weekend workshop, in many guises. The Great Bear has been used from time immemorial for navigation, pointing the way to the north star, with Orion’s rising and setting marking due east and west. Orion too was going to crop up again…
But, back to Arthur. There is the circumstantial evidence on the ground. An ancient trackway runs from the base of the castle to Glastonbury and is known as King Arthur’s Hunting Track. The river Cam runs close by and the nearby villages of Queen Camel and West Camel bear its name. Cadbury Castle used to be known to the villagers as Camalet too. And, from the summit of Cadbury, you can see the Tor at Glastonbury, the mythical Avalon to which most of the Arthurian stories are tied and where Merlin himself sleeps beneath the Tor.
The name ‘Cadbury’ may come from ‘Cador’s fort’ and while the legends speak of Cador, Duke of Cornwall, history tells that Cado was the historical son of a Dumnonian king named Gerren. In the old stories, he was a friend and relative of the legendary Arthur, conceived at Tintagel and therefore possibly also a Dumnonian prince. Local tales have been associating Cadbury Castle with Camelot for hundreds of years, long before the people of the land were able to read for themselves Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and there are snippets of history that add fuel to the fire, as well as local legends.
The Saxon conquest of Somerset took about fifty years longer than anywhere else due to the fierce resistance by a local king. Legend has it that this king was Arthur Pendragon. The size and scope of Cadbury, plus the etymological links and archaeology, may not confirm the claim for Arthur, but it certainly fits the known facts of resistance.
For the doubters, there is the tale of a band of knights who sleep in a cave beneath the hill, beyond a pair of iron gates, waiting to be called to the land’s need. On Christmas Eve and Midsummer’s Night, they ride to water their horses in the spring beside the Saxon church at Sutton Montis, in the shadow of the hill. So deeply ingrained is this story, that when archaeologists came to work at Cadbury, one old gentleman asked if they had come ‘to wake the king’. We had not done so… or perhaps, in a way, we had, waking something higher, buried deep within ourselves, as we visualised an ancient rite and opened ourselves to the whispers of the land.