Tuesday, 12 September 2017

King Arthur and Hadrian’s Wall (NY805704 & thereabouts)

Around the stretch of Hadrian’s Wall known as Sewingshields, near Housesteads, are a few hundred square yards of Northumbrian countryside with strong links to Arthurian legend. It all concerns King Arthur and his court in an enchanted subterranean sleep, and, well, I’ll let John S.Stuart Glennie explain. This is taken from his Arthurian Localities tome of 1869:

… Turning now westward, and passing through the picturesquely-situated old town of Hexham, with its Moot Hall and Abbey Church, on a wooded ridge over-hanging the Tyne, we stop either at the Haydon Bridge, or the Bardon Mill station of the Carlisle and Newcastle Railway. For six or eight miles to the north of these stations, and in the neighbourhood of Housesteads, the most complete of the stations on the Roman Wall, are the principal Arthurian localities of this Northumbrian District. The scenery here is very remarkable. The green, but unwooded grazing hills – wide and wild-looking from their want of enclosures, and the infrequency of farm-houses – seem like the vast billows of a north-sweeping tide. Along one of these wave-lines runs the Roman Wall, with the stations of its garrison. In the trough, as it were, of this mighty sea, and to the north of the Wall, were, till a few years ago removed and ploughed over, the ruins of the ancient castle of Sewing Shields, referred to by Sir Walter Scott as the Castle of the Seven Shields, and by Camden as Seavenshale. Beneath it, as under the Eildons, Arthur and all his court are said to lie in an enchanted sleep. And here also tradition avers that the passage to these Subterranean Halls, having once on a time, been found, but the wrong choice having been made in the attempt to achieve the adventure, and call the Chivalry of the Table Rounde to life again, the unfortunate adventurer was cast forth with these ominous words ringing in his ears: 
O woe betide that evil day
On which this witless wight was born, 
Who drew the Sword, the Garter cut, 
But never blew the Bugle-horn.
the very opposite mistake, it will be observed, to that of which the equally luckless Eildon adventurer was guilty. 
The northern faces of three successive billows here, if I may so call them, present fine precipitous crags – whinstone and sandstone strata cropping out. These are called respectively Sewing Shields Crags, the King’s, and the Queen’s Crags. Along the crest of the first of these the Roman Wall is carried. The others take their name from having been the scene of a little domestic quarrel, or tiff, between King Arthur and Queen Quenivere [sic]. To settle the matter, the king sitting on a rock called Arthur’s Chair, threw at the queen an immense boulder which, falling somewhat short of its aim, is still to be seen on this side of the Queen’s Crags. And on the horizon of the immense sheep farm of Sewing Shields, and beyond an outlying shepherd’s hut, very appropriately named Coldknuckles, is a great stone called Cumming’s Cross, to which there is attached another rude Arthurian tradition. For here, they say, that King Arthur’s sons attacked, and murdered a northern chieftain who had been visiting their father at Sewing Shields Castle, and who was going home with too substantial proofs, as they thought, of the king’s generosity.

As mentioned in the text, Sewing Shields Castle no longer exists, having been expunged from the landscape in the mid-nineteenth century (it lay somewhere to the north of the Wall near Sewing Shields Farm). The legend of a slumbering royal court, and the failure of a visiting stranger to rouse them, is a common yarn – the author mentions a similar tale from the Eildon Hills, and there is another associated with Dunstanburgh Castle. As for Cumming’s Cross, this was the memorial supposedly placed by Arthur after he heard of the murder of his visiting dignitary, named Cumming or Comyn. And then, unmentioned above, there’s nearby Broomlea Lough, a watery expanse said to be the lair of the Lady of the Lake and the site of a great hidden treasure.

So, you see, you needn’t look any further than the North-East of England for a perfectly viable setting for all that King Arthur stuff.

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