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Genealogy Places of Interest

The South West King Arthur

In the 12th century a monk named Geoffrey, who lived in Monmouth, now better known as Geoffrey of Monmouth, was mainly responsible for the compilation of the legends of King Arthur when he wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae or ‘History of the Kings of Britain’.This was 400 years after Arthur died in about 542 ad and to whom nobody had referred to before. Many historians believe that a major part of Geoffrey’s writings were embellished and exaggerated, but because a lot of the basic writing were based on facts, they cannot entirely rule out that there was an Arthur.

Other people jumped on the band wagon in later years. In the 1190s an excavation was taking place at Glastonbury Abbey when a grave with a cross bearing the inscription ‘ARTUR’ was found and claimed to be the grave of Arthur. Now it is generally held to be a fraud carried out by the Glastonbury monks and could well be one of the first confidence tricks for their own benefit and advancement.

The legend goes that Arthur was born in the 5th century at the original Tintagel Castle. It is not known when the original castle was built, but it was rebuilt between 1230 and 1236 by Earl Richard of Cornwall and is now in ruins owned by the Duke of Cornwall and maintained by English Heritage. Legend says that Merlin originally lived in a cave below Tintagel Castle.

It is said that Arthur drew his magical sword Excalibur from a rock at Mousehole, on the shore seven or eight miles east of Lands End. Many years later it is said that Arthur cast Excalibur into Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor before the battle of Camlan and his last fight with his stepson Mordred on the banks of the River Camel on Bodmin Moor. The battle of Camlan is recorded in the 10th century Annales Cambriae to have taken place in either 537 or 539, whereas Geoffrey of Monmouth dates it as 542 - this five year spread being of little consequence all those years ago and could well be the result of calendar changes - but the defeat affects peoples minds so much that it is thought the word calamity is a result.

We must assume that the south west consists of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall for the purposes of this article and that Devon and Cornwall were very closely allied to Wales, just across the estuary from Monmouth, where Geoffrey lived. In Somerset can be found South Cadbury beside the A303 and about eight miles north of Sherborne in Dorset, which, it is claimed was the legendary Camelot of King Arthur. Not far away is Glastonbury with its magnificent Abbey, said to be the oldest foundation of Christianity in the British Isles and founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the first century, where within the grounds can be found the Holy Thorn, the legendary burial place of King Arthur.

However we have to move a long way west into Cornwall to Slaughter Bridge, claimed to be the scene of Arthur’s last battle and the stone marking the place where he was fatally wounded. He was then taken to his castle at Tintagel to be mourned by Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table before being taken to his secret tomb. Tintagel is on the north coast of Cornwall north west of Bodmin Moor and well over a hundred miles from Glastonbury. After his death it is claimed that Guinevere fled to Amesbury, near Salisbury, to become an Abbess and that after her death Sir Lancelot took her body to the Isle of Avalon to be buried with her husband - his third reported burial place.

Many stories abound that King Arthur has never died and that he lies waiting to reappear when his country is in peril. Some say in a cave near Alderley Edge, others in a cave near the town of Ganarew, whilst others say he transformed into a raven - a royal bird said to watch over us. This concept of Arthur never having died appears in the Black Book of Carmarthen of the mid ninth century. This is a book of poetry of the burial places of ancient heroes of legend and folklore rather than history, but the notion of Arthurs return was widespread and believed by the 12th century as recorded in Breton, Welsh and Cornish folklore.

King Arthur is absent from Armes Prydein, a 10th century poem which calls upon ancient heroes to return and lead the British people in their battle against the Saxons, which seems a little remiss if he was held in such esteem by the 12th century.

So far it would appear that King Arthur is being dismissed as a West Country myth or legend but it cannot end there as King Arthur is a fascinating historical story which for hundreds of years people have been telling versions of. True, the more a story is told the stranger it becomes and the further from the trueth but in Arthur’s case can something so powerful and profound and with such deep sense of Britishness and character be so lightly dismissed.

Cornwall has so many Arthurian place names and locations. It would take an extraordinary imagination so many years ago to compile not only the man and his exploits and battles with the Saxons but to also compile the ’Round Table’ as well beggars belief. To make up and embellish a man and his exploits so convincingly as to fool a complete nation would be astronomical. Yes, there were many kings called Arthur all over Europe if the name is translated - so is this story the result of bringing them all together? How can it be when he only fought Saxons.

Now it could well be that a certain monk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, having become bored with his ecclesiastical duties and having read such worthies as Nennious and others and having listened to many stories handed down over the years, decided to write a best seller on the history of his country, and to add spice made up a vast tale of the exploits of a mythical king taking part in battles against the accursed Saxon invaders until his own stepson turned against him. Is this the truth of the matter? Can there really be smoke without the possibility of fire? ……Naaah.