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King Arthur’s Round Table discovered in Chester?

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Chester's Roman amphitheatre in 2000, before I started re-excavating parts of it

At last a story for which I have personal experience to back up what I say: the story, announced in The Telegraph on 11 July 2010 that King Arthur’s “Round Table” is actually the Roman amphitheatre in Chester! A similar story (with nicer graphics, it has to be said) appeared in The Mail Online on the same day, while The Independent carried a story giving the “Top 10 clues to the real King Arthur”, by Christopher Gidlow, who appears to be the historian behind the claims and who just happens to have just published a new book, Revealing King Arthur: swords, stones and digging for Camelot (The History Press, 2010). It also happens that The History Channel has a programme, King Arthur’s Round Table Revealed, first aired on 19 July 2010, about it. So am I surprised, pleased or horrified by the announcement?

The Riegn of Arthur

Christopher Gidlow’s first book

Before launching into what I think about the claims, I’d like to say what I think about his first book on Arthurian matters, The Reign of Arthur (Alan Sutton, 2004). Insofar as popular (as opposed to academic) books on the subject go, it’s considerably better than most of its rivals. Mr Gidlow is convinced that there was a real person named Arthur who lived around the year 500, around whom the Arthurian legends grew. He goes against the current consensus that Arthur was initially a figure of folklore, perhaps even a divinity; the consensus view is that an “historical Arthur” was constructed around the folkloric character as Welsh historians sought to root him in history and put him at a time when a hero who fought the English could plausibly have flourished. Gidlow turns this on its head. In his view, Arthur was a genuine character who gradually attracted legendary material; he uses the available historical sources to back up this claim, showing that the earliest sources contain very bland and mostly plausible material about Arthur, and that it is only later sources that clearly describe a character not of history but of folklore or legend. I like this approach: it treats the historical sources much more fairly than many historians do. Too many start from the High Medieval portrayal of Arthur as a king who performs feats suitable only for a legendary hero and project this back onto the earlier sources. Using this sort of logic, we could dismiss Charlemagne as a fictional character were it not for the contemporary literary and archaeological evidence for his existence, something that is clearly unreasonable. It is equally unreasonable to do this with Arthur, according to Christopher Gidlow.

Chester amphitheatre from the air in 2003

What, then, is Gidlow’s evidence (if, indeed, it is not his and not an over-enthusiastic Tourist Information Centre)? As quoted in The Telegraph and The Mail Online, it is this: “The first accounts of the Round Table show that it was nothing like a dining table but was a venue for upwards of 1,000 people at a time. We know that one of Arthur’s two main battles was fought at a town referred to as the City of Legions. There were only two places with this title. One was St Albans but the location of the other has remained a mystery. The recent discovery of an amphitheatre with an execution stone and wooden memorial to Christian martyrs, has led researchers to conclude that the other location is Chester. In the 6th Century, a monk named Gildas, who wrote the earliest account of Arthur’s life, referred to both the City of Legions and to a martyr’s shrine within it. That is the clincher. The discovery of the shrine within the amphitheatre means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court and his legendary Round Table”.

The Round Table

The Round Table

The Holy Grail makes an appearance at The Round Table in Camelot

There is so much wrong with this, it’s difficult to know where to start, but let’s assume that Mr Gidlow has been quoted correctly (although the same quotation is identical in both sources, The Mail Online is not unknown for cutting-and-pasting from others’ articles). First off, “[t]he first accounts of the Round Table” date from the twelfth century, when an Anglo-Norman writer named Wace (c 1115-1183) translated Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittanię from Latin into French. He includes one mention of the Roonde Table. There are no mentions of it beforehand and no specification of the number of knights who could be seated at it.

Here is Wace’s account, in the translation of Eugene Mason, from Project Gutenberg:

Because of these noble lords about his hall, of whom each knight pained himself to be the hardiest champion, and none would count him the least praiseworthy, Arthur made the Round Table, so reputed of the Britons. This Round Table was ordained of Arthur that when his fair fellowship sat to meat their chairs should be high alike, their service equal, and none before or after his comrade. Thus no man could boast that he was exalted above his fellow, for all alike were gathered round the board, and none was alien at the breaking of Arthur’s bread. At this table sat Britons, Frenchmen, Normans, Angevins, Flemings, Burgundians, and Loherins. Knights had their plate who held land of the king, from the furthest marches of the west even unto the Hill of St Bernard.

And here, in the original Old French, from Google Books:

Por les nobles barons qu’il ot
Dont cascuns mieldre estre quidot;
Cascuns s’en tenoit al millor,
Ne nus n’en savoit le pior,
Fist Artus la Roonde Table
Dont Breton dient mainte fable:
Iloc séoient li vassal
Tot chievalment et tot ingal;
A la table ingalment séoient
Et ingalment servi estoient.
Nus d’als ne se pooient vanter
Qu’il séist plus halt de son per;
Tuit estoient assis moiain,
Ne n’i avoit nul de forain.
N’estoit pas tenus por cortois
Escos, ne Bertons, Ne François,
Normant, Angevin, ne Flamenc,
Ne Borgignon, ne Loherenc,
De qui que il tenist son feu
Des ocidant dusqu’à Mont Geu

Remember, before this poem, there are no mentions in any of the literature of a Round Table. We are talking about the earliest evidence being some 650 years after the purported date of ‘King’ Arthur. If it’s something that is so central to the Arthurian story, we need to be told why nobody thought it needed to be mentioned for centuries.

Gildas and Legionum Urbs

In The Reign of Arthur, Gidlow suggests that the notorious chapter of the Historia Brittonum purporting to be a list of the battles fought by Arthur dux bellorum (“leader of battles”) is genuinely historical. This goes against the consensus historical view that the list is a fiction, but let’s concede that Gidlow’s reasoning is correct (and, in this case, I have reason to believe that it is) and that the ninth battle, in urbe legionis (“in the city of legions”) really was fought around AD 500 by a general named Arthur. Gidlow is quite right to say that “[t]here were only two places with this title”, although where he got the idea that one of them was St Albans is something of a mystery. One of these places is still called Caerleon, in South Wales (Caerlleon in modern Welsh), and the other was Chester. It is quite wrong to say that “the location of the other has remained a mystery” when historians have agreed on it since the time of Bede in the early eighth century!

Chester Eastgate

The Eastgate in Chester: there is nothing more than 240 years old in this picture

Next, Gildas’s surviving writings (de excidio Britanniae, some fragments from letters and a Penitential of dubious authenticity) do not mention Arthur, let alone constitute “the earliest account of Arthur’s life”. He does mention a “City of the Legions” (actually legionum urbis, “of the city of legions”, in the original Latin), which he associated with a pair of martyrs he names as Aaron and Julius, citizens of the place. Taken since the twelfth century (on the very dubious authority of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Historia Regum Brittanię IX.12)) to have been Caerleon in South Wales, Legionum Civitas (using the more usual word civitas (‘city’) in preference for the poetic urbs, which almost always refers to Rome) was probably used in the Late Roman period as a term for Chester. Indeed, the Old Welsh name of Chester, Cair Legion, is a direct translation of Civitas Legionum, the form in which it appears in Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica II.2). There are therefore no a priori reasons for rejecting Chester as the location of the martyrdom of Aaron and Julius.

The Caerleon amphitheatre

The amphitheatre at the other Legionis Urbs, Caerleon

However, the second part of Gidlow’s argument for identifying legionum urbs with Chester involves a shrine, of which there is no mention in the text. What we do have, immediately preceding the naming of Alban, Aaron and Julius, is the phrase “clarissimos lampades sanctorum martyrum nobis accendit, quorum nunc corporum sepulturae et passionum loca non si lugubri diuortio barbarorum quam plurima ob scelera nostra ciuibus adimerentur” (“he lit the most famous lamps of the holy martyrs for us, were it not that their places of death and bodily burial are taken away from us by the mournful partition with the barabarians as a result of the many sins of our citizens”). Then comes an amazing leap of deduction: “[t]he discovery of the shrine within the amphitheatre means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court and his legendary Round Table”. How? This is worse than adding 2 and 2 to make 5!

The discovery of the amphitheatre

The first part to be uncovered of the “recently discovered” amphitheatre in Chester – in 1929

Chester’s Roman amphitheatre

It’s then quite wrong to suggest that the discovery of the amphitheatre at Chester is a recent event: it was first located by W J (Walrus) Williams in 1929 (the nickname derives from a description of his moustache!). Major excavation of the northern 40% of the site took place between 1957 and 1969, and it was opened for public display in the 1970s. I put together a Research Agenda during the 1990s, which was used to decide how and what to investigate when I started to re-excavate parts of it in 2000. I left my job with Chester City Council early in 2004, just before a much larger investigation, in partnership with English Heritage, began under the direction of Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner.

Postholes in the arena of Chester's amphitheatre

Postholes from the post-Roman timber structures in the amphitheatre, uncovered in the 1960s

In the meantime, I had investigated enough of the monument to know that the interpretation published in 1976 was wrong on a number of counts. In particular, a series of postholes in the centre of the arena, published as part of a platform on which the legionary commander would stand while reviewing his troops or presenting them with medals, could not have been part of a platform. For one thing, the very English view that amphitheatres located outside Roman forts and fortresses were used for military weapons training and troop reviews is, quite frankly, laughable. It’s based on the silly idea that members of the Roman military elite were far too gentlemanly to be interested in such brutal entertainments as gladiatorial combat and staged animal hunts. Of course they weren’t, and I suspect than nobody outside the United Kingdom ever believed in such a patently ridiculous idea. I suggested instead that the postholes belonged to a post-Roman timber building of possibly two separate phases. In an article published in Cheshire History in 2003, I hinted that they might have been ecclasiastical structures. At the time, I could not prove their date, but the subsequent work of Tony and Dan confirmed my guess. They might be churches (not shrines), but they might equally have been the residences of Dark Age lords. Indeed, Tony and Dan’s discovery that the amphitheatre was fortified in the sub-Roman period, which I had again speculated might have been possible, makes this second interpretation more likely.

The "tethering stone" from the centre of the arena

The “tethering stone” from the centre of the arena

The “execution stone” is no such thing. In the centre of the arena, Dan and Tony found a large stone block with an iron ring set into it. We can speculate that animals (and perhaps condemned criminals or particular types of gladiator) would be tethered to it, giving them sufficient room to run around and provide ‘entertainment’ for the crowd as they tried to escape their armed attackers. Similar blocks were found in the arena during the 1960s excavation. Perhaps Christopher Gidlow has misread my paper in Cheshire History, where I raised (and rejected) the possibility that the postholes in the arena were elements of temporary structures used during the execution of criminals, maybe including Christians.

The Top 10 Clues to the Real King Arthur

So, I’m not impressed with this story. Do the “Top 10 clues to the real King Arthur” fare any better? The first “clue” is Tintagel, associated with the legends of King Arthur since Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1139. This is very late evidence to assume that it has any bearing on a fifth- or sixth-century character, but, as the article points out, it was occupied at precisely the right time. Of course, in Geoffrey, Arthur’s only connection with Tintagel is that he was conceived their with the help of Merlin’s magic. It is not quite true to say that “[e]xcavations demonstrated that, as the legends said, this was a fortified home of the ruler of Cornwall in about 500AD.”, as all the excavations have shown is that it was a densly occupied site at this time, but possibly more urban in character than “a fortified home”. Moreover, the discovery of a slate inscribed with the name Artognou is irrelevant and neither this nor the other names (Coll, Paternus and Maxen[tius]) inscribed on it are even remotely like “other names from the legends”. So, as a “clue”, Tintagel is worthless.

The presence of a Late Roman basilica in London, while interesting, is hardly unexpected: as the capital of the fourth-century Diocese of Britanniae, the city would be expected to be home to its principal church. That’s a very long way from confirming the idea that the young Arthur drew a sword from an anvil sitting on top of a stone there, though!

The sub-Roman activity at Silchester is also very interesting. We don’t know why Geoffrey of Monmouth made it the site of Arthur’s coronation, but again, we can hardly use someone writing more than six hundred years after the supposed event as a primary authority. Worse, to ask if there could “be a connection between Arthur’s sword, Excalibur and the late Roman name for Silchester, Calleba?” shows woeful ignorance of linguistics (the name of Silchester was Calleva, and it’s a late misspelling that replaces the -v- with a -b-) and of the origins of the name Excalibur (Geoffrey of Monmouth spells it Caliburnus and it derives from Welsh Caledfwlch, which has nothing to do with Calleva).

That “Henry VIII’s librarian, John Leland, identified the Iron Age hill fort of South Cadbury as the original Camelot” is hardly relevant, more than a thousand years after Arthur is said to have lived. Moreover, Camelot is first mentioned in Chrétien de Troyes’ poem Lancelot, li chevalier de la charette, dating to the 1170s:

A un jor d’une Acenssion
Fu venuz de vers Carlion
Li rois Artus et tenu ot
Cort molt riche a Camaalot
Si riche com au jor estut.

“One Ascension Day,
King Arthur had come
from Carlion, and held
a very rich court at Camaalot,
so rich as was fitting on that day.”

It’s worth noting that this is the only mention of Camelot: it’s not Arthur’s principal court, there is no mention of a Round Table… It’s as if Chrétien is just throwing in another exotic name for the sake of entertainment (after all, he was writing fiction). So to use a librarian’s opinion a thousand years after the event to prove that a place that was actually occupied at the right time really was Camelot is a bit poor. Yes, South Cadbury has some very interesting sub-Roman archaeology, but it’s far from the only place in south-west England to have been the residence of a high status fifth-/sixth-century warlord; why single it out as the only potential Camelot?

Next, Wroxeter gets dragged out as a “clue”, although it’s hard to see why. Yes, its sub-Roman archaeology is truly spectacular, but it’s not alone in having it. Chester, too, has excellent archaeology of the period, even if it has hardly been appreciated (although we can hope that the discoveries in the amphitheatre will go some way toward rectifying this). To say that “[t]radition put the home of his wife, Queen Guinevere, at nearby Old Oswestry” is simply lame.

Chester’s amphitheatre, that poor, over-hyped and much misunderstood monument, is irrelvant to the story, as I’ve already explained. Tony Wilmott is distancing himself from the television programme, in which he appears; on his Facebook wall, he says “I am embarassed to say that I appear in this piece. My contribution has been cut and voiced over to make it appear that I support and endorse the ludicrous, far fetched conclusions that are reached. I would like all of my friends and colleagues to be aware that I emphaticaly DO NOT!”. Case closed, I think!

Heronbridge is a different issue. The excavations there by David Mason re-examined the site of a post-Roman earthwork found in the 1920s to be associated with some poorly dated skeletons. His work has shown that the bodies date from the early seventh century, a time when Bede documents a battle at Chester, fought between Æthelfrith, king of Bernicia c 593-616, and the local Welsh rulers. Nothing to do with Arthur and a century too late anyway, so why even bring it up?

Birdoswald comes next; poor Tony Wilmott must be furious, as it was his excavations here in the late 1980s that discovered evidence for sub-Roman occupation. Again, it is difficult to see why it is mentioned at all; to say that “[m]any scholars believe Camlann was ‘Camboglanna’, a now-vanished fort on Hadrian’s Wall is scarcely relevant. The site of Camboglanna was at Castlesteads, west of Birdoswald, so we have yet another non sequitur that offers no “clues” to the “historical Arthur”.

Slaughterbridge on the River Camel has proved popular, for obvious reasons. There are numerous reports of finds of Dark Age weaponry from the site. It is now the location for an ongoing archaeological project intended to get a clearer picture of life in the Dark Ages there, and near neighbouring Tintagel. A 6th century memorial stone, inscribed in Latin and Irish Ogham, is still visible here, bearing an enigmatic inscription, probably to a Romano-British warrior named Latinus.” Can anyone explain how Slaughterbridge can be Camlann, if it is also at Castlesteads on Hadrian’s Wall and somehow also related to Birdoswald? This is irrelvance of the highest order.

Occupation on the top of Glastonbury Tor has been known since Philip Rahtz’s excavations, but it is difficult to see how this is relevant to the Arthurian story. His association with Glastonbury is not with the Tor but with the town, a short distance away. The first time we hear of Glastonbury in an Arthurian context is in Caradoc of Llancarfan’s Vita Giladae (“Life of Gildas”, the British cleric we met earlier as someone who didn’t write an account of Arthur’s reign, despite the claims of the popular press). In Chapter 10, we learn that Gildas “ingressus est Glastoniam cum magno dolore, Meluas rege regnante in Aestiua Regione… Glastionia, id est Urbs Vitrea, quae nomen sumsit a uitro, est urbs nomine primitus in Britannico sermone. obsessa est itaque ab Arturo tyranno cum innumerabili multitudine propter Guennuuar uxorem suam uiolatam et raptam a praedicto iniquo rege et ibi ductam…” (“entered Glastonia with great anguish, King Melwas reigning in the Summer Region… Glastonia, that is Glass-town, which gets its name from glass, is the town first known by that name in the British language. So it was beseiged by the tyrant Arthur with a great host because Gwennuvar his wife had been violated and seized by the aforementioned wicked king and taken there”). This is a story about the Abbey, which is not on the Tor, so once again, we are treated to some irrelevant information disguised as a “clue”. Moreover, the late date of the information in Caradoc’s Vita Gildae is obvious when we realise that Glastonbury is an English name, not Welsh, and that “the Summer Region” is just a poor translation of English Somerset into Latin!

The burial at Glastonbury has long been dismissed as a medieval fraud. We have Leslie Alcock (1925-2006) to thank for resurrecting it as a possibly genuine sub-Roman aristocratic burial. Descriptions of the discovery were written by Ralph of Coggeshall in 1221, Giraldus Cambrensis in 1193 and Adam of Domerham (himself a monk at the abbey) in the 1290s. All give slightly different accounts of the discovery of the body, but it was alleged to have lain in an ancient coffin, hollowed from an oak trunk. They also differ in the wording of the inscription said to have been on a lead cross found above the coffin. Ralph gives it as Hic iacet inclitus rex Arturus in insula Avallonia sepultus (‘here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the Isle of Avalon’); Giraldus adds the phrase cum Wenneveria uxore sua secunda (’with his second wife Guenevere’) at the end.

In the sixth edition of William Camden’s Britannia, published by Richard Gough in 1607, a drawing of the cross appeared for the first time. It is by no means certain that Camden saw the cross, but Leslie Alcock used the shape of the letters in the drawing to suggest that it dated from the tenth or eleventh century. He was subsequently (and, in my opinion, rightly) criticised for his lack of scepticism regarding the alleged cross, last known to have been owned by William Hughes, a chancellor of Wells cathedral, in the early eighteenth century and no longer available for study. Although a Derek Mahoney claimed to have rediscovered it in the bed of a lake at Forty Hall near Maidens Brook, Enfield (UK), when it was being drained for dredging, according to the Enfield Advertiser of 17 December 1981, it is now thought that Mahoney’s cross was a forgery.

So have we been shown any worthwhile evidence?

The short answer has to be “no”. Although I will not be watching The History Channel’s clearly ridiculous “documentary” (I can watch all manner of ridiculous “documentaries” on Freeview, without having to pay for the privilege of hundreds of unwatchable television channels), I am inclined to trust the opinion of a friend who was misled by the producers into believeing that the programme was serious. The press releases put out as free advertising for the show do not inspire any confidence.

But… But this does not mean that I am completely sceptical of evidence that there might have been a British soldier named Arthur who had a series of victories over the Anglo-Saxons around AD 500. I suspect that there was a genuine character who was remembered in increasingly elaborate legends throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. It’s that the very weak (and occasionally completely wrong) evidence that Chrisopher Gidlow has presented to us is not robust enough to do the job of resurrecting Arthur as an historical character.

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