Of the many places associated with King Arthur, Cornish Tintagel or Glastonbury Tor spring to mind. But what these places lack in archaeological evidence is compensated by fiction and the lure of the tourist pound (250,000 visitors pay to enter Tintagel Castle annually.)
Cumbria also has its fair share of sites affiliated with the name Arthur. Some have captured the imagination of the writers but not the tourist boards. The irony is that Cumbria, or to be more authentic, the Kingdom of Rheged, flourishes with Arthurian matter that hangs from an esoteric framework of castles, forts, and battlegrounds.
The Dark Ages
Described as a period of cultural and economic decline after the collapse of the Roman Empire, The Dark Ages enveloped northern Britain for 700 years. But the lights didn’t go out suddenly. Through the murk of the collapsing Romano-British civilization, there was enough light to illuminate the way ahead for the abandoned client-kingdoms.
Foul hordes of Picts and Scots, like tawny worms coming forth in the burning heat of noon.Gildas – De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
Fourth Century Britain had witnessed an upheaval in command to meet these new threats. The 6th Century Monk Gildas warns in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae [On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain] that ‘Foul hordes of Picts and Scots, like tawny worms coming forth in the burning heat of noon out of the deepest recesses of their holes, hastily land from their curraghs in which they had crossed the Tithican Valley.’
In Greek mythology, Tethys (left/above) was a Titan, daughter of Uranus and Gaia, wife of Oceanus, mother of the river gods, and a true Lady of the Lake. Gildas’ Tithican Valley in this instance is the Solway Firth.
In the sixth century comes the news of the first great battle fought in the vicinity. At Arthuret on the Border Esk, in the year 573, Rhydderch of Cumbria, a Christian, overcame the pagan Guendoleu.
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, now allies of the northern Picts resumed raids against British settlements as far south as York. Forts, citadels, libraries, and churches burned in the onslaught.
The Notia Dignitatum, the official list of ancient Roman civil and military posts records numeri [barbarous troops allied to Rome] and limitanei [low-status troops assigned specifically to frontiers] manning the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. All under the command of a new imperial officer, the Dux Britanniarum [Duke of Britain].
Whereas the early 6th Century Dux Britanniarum Ambrosius Aurelianus was skilled in re-establishing trade with Rome and restoring the rule of law, it was his successor Artorious who took the fight to the enemies of The Britons.
According to Gildas, Artorious led the Britons in twelve victories against the Saxons, Picts & Jutes culminating in the decisive victory of Mount Badon.
Here then we have Artorius, possibly assuming the Brythonic (Welsh) name of Arthur, who may have been the Roman Dux Legionum Lucius Artorius Castus who served with the Legio VI Victrix Valeria in Roman Wall county.
Whoever’s deeds forged the romanticised, gilded hero of later Arthurian legend, we can be confident that the factual element of Dark Age Artorius has a home in northern Britain.
The Battle of Camlan
Today, the imposing Grade 2 listed house of Castlesteads stands at the confluence of two rivers, the Irthing, and the Cam Beck. Viewed from the Walton road just off the A 691, the house presents a tranquil setting framed by mature trees with grazing fields leading to the front door. The extensive woodland to the right of the house hides a walled garden built over the site of the Roman fort Camboglanna [crooked glen].
The earliest known reference to the Battle of Camlann appears in the 10th Century Annales Cambriae, giving the date 537. It mentions Mordred (Medraut), but doesn’t specify that he and Arthur fought on opposite sides: ‘Gueith camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt’ [The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished].
With a woodland backdrop and foreground swathes of rich pasture, the Grade II listed Castlesteads House is a picturesque scene of tranquillity. But scratch the surface and we can see a remarkable landscape of roads, buildings and the hurly-burly of civilian life outside a major Roman Fort thanks to Alan Biggins and David Taylor’s magnetic geophysical survey of the civilian settlement outside the fort.
The Lady of the Lake
Below the escarpment at Castlesteads, the Cam Beck descends west to the River Irthing, before joining the Irish Sea via the River Eden below the high vantage point of Burgh by Sands.
At Aballava (The Orchard), the Hadrianic wall fort at Burgh by Sands, a dedication alter was discovered to the goddess Latis: DEO LATI LVCIVS VRSEI. This translates as an offering made by Lucius Ursius (Ursius from Ursus the bear, the first component of Arthur’s name). In the Ravenna Cosmography, Aballava is also called Avalana.
Latis was originally an Anglo-Celtic Goddess associated with fresh or open water, literally a ‘Lady of the Lake’. Latis can also mean ‘Goddess of the Bog/Pool’, and thus be a deity of watery places. On the other hand, Latis can mean ‘intoxicating drink’ and be a goddess of intoxication. A jug, bespeaking her function of pouring drinks, is engraved on the back of the altar found at Birdoswald Fort.
Could then, amongst this esoteric framework of castles, forts, and battlegrounds in Northern England, during the dimming of the lights before the coming of the Dark Ages, an Artorious who fell at the decisive battle of Camlann have been brought by boat along the Cam Beck, the River Irthing and the Eden, to rest at the Roman Fort of Avalana under the auspices of Latis, a Lady of the Water?