Tuesday, October 23, 2018

An Early Piece on Arthur and Stanwix from Robert Vermaat's "Faces of Arthur" Website

King Arthur in the North:
The archaeological evidence and Etterby as Arthur's Burg.
August Hunt


When I wrote my various articles on Arthur and the follow-up book _Shadows in the Mist: The Life and Death of King Arthur_ (Hayloft Publishing), I did not have access to some critical information regarding the sub-Roman (i.e. 5th-6th century A.D.) re-use of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as forts along the Wall and in the adjacent tribal territory of the ancient Brigantian kingdom. 

My first step in absorbing this new information came with a brief investigation into the possible significance of Etterby hard by Stanwix as ‘Arthur’s fort’.  During the course of research into Etterby as a reputed Arthurian center, I learned of apparent sub-Roman timber structures at Stanwix.  According to the theory I present in my articles and book, Stanwix (and/or Carlisle) was the chief Arthurian power center in the 5th-6th centuries.

For those not familiar with my work, I have placed Arthur at Stanwix (and/or Carlisle), with his Avalon being Aballava/Avalana or Burgh-By-Sands just a little to the west, and his Camlann being Camboglanna or Castlesteads just to the east.  A second Arthurian center at Corbridge, near where I placed Arthur’s Dubglas battles (= the Devil’s Water at Linnels), was selected as the original ‘Camelot’ (from Campus Alletio, Alletios being the name of a deity attested at the Corbridge fort).  My battle site identifications (taken from the list in Nennius and supplemented by the Welsh Annals) shows a range of conflict extending from Buxton in the south to the Avon and Carron rivers in the far north, with the majority of the contests against the Saxons ( ? ) being fought along the Roman Dere Street from York to the Firth of Forth.  These identifications were made solely on linguistic grounds, but ended up revealing a quite plausible strategic and geographical scenario for Arthur’s activities.  I encourage anyone who might be interested in the hypothetical military pattern I’ve outlined to consult my articles or book and plot the said battles on a map. 

Robert Collins of the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Newcastle, Newcastle Upon Tyne, was kind enough to provide the following regarding Stanwix and its sub-Roman timber structures:

“Stanwix is a tricky one, to be honest.  Most of the excavations there have been unpublished, so when a few of us talk about the timber buildings that may be more examples of the timber hall structures (like those from Birdoswald), we are generally relying on word-of-mouth and the brief accounts provided in a few meager sources."

The references for Stanwix (which will be referred to as both Uxellodunum and Petriana) are:

Mike McCarthy 2002. Roman Carlisle and the Lands of the Solway. published by Tempus

The Stanwix section in Paul Bidwell's (ed.) Hadrian's Wall 1989-1999. published by Titus Wilson and Son

Simpson and Hogg 1935 "Stanwix" in Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Soceity, 2nd series, vol 35, pp 256-258

Simpson and Richmond 1940 "Hadrian's Wall: Stanwix" in Journal of Roman Studies, vol 31, pp 129-130

Britannia section of "Excavations in Roman Britain in ..." for 1994, 1998, 1999, and 2000

David Breeze 2006. The 14th Edition of J Collingwood Bruce's Handbook to the Roman Wall, published by the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle on Tyne.

The timber features are fairly recent discoveries, so I would recommend the summaries of annual excavations found in the back of the journal Britiannia; the Mike McCarthy book of 2002; and a brief mention in David Breeze's 2006 book. 

 There is always a hope that the Stanwix excavations that revealed the late Roman/sub-Roman timber structures will be published, but it may still be some years yet and I wouldn't hold your breath.  In the meantime, you may be interested to know that the Carlisle Millenium Project excavation report will be available in a few months time (the Carlisle fort being just a stones throw across the river from Stanwix), and they also found very late timber structures there.”

Tim Padley of the Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, summed up the evidence for 5th-6th century timber structures at Stanwix in similar terms:

“There is a suggestion of Stanwix fort – Uxellodunum– continuing into the post-Roman period.  Nothing has been published about this other than a mention of timber buildings in the Hadrian’s Wall Pilgrimage Handbook for 1999.  Thus, if there is a connection with Arthur, then it should be attached to Stanwix, rather than to Etterby/’Arthur’s fort’ next to Stanwix.”

While brief mention of the timber structures at Stanwix can be found in some of the publications cited by Robert Collins (and in such sources as Durham University Archaeological Services’ PDF on ‘Stanwix’, English Heritage’s Investigation History of the same site, etc.), the most valuable contribution to a general discussion of re-use of this fort and others along the Wall, as well as several forts in the Brigantian kingdom, is to be found in two papers by Ken Dark of the University of Reading.

In “A Sub-Roman Re-defense of Hadrian’s Wall?” (Britannia, XXIII, 111-20), Dr. Dark begins by saying that:

“… eight fourth-century fort sites on, or close to, the line of Hadrian’s Wall have produced, albeit sometimes slight, evidence of fifth-sixth-century use.  Nor is this simply a reflection of a pattern found father north; for no Roman fort site in what is now Scotlandhas any plausible evidence of immediately post-Roman use.  Thus the situation to the north of the Wall is similar to that found in Wales.

What is more surprising still is the character of the reuse found on the line of the Wall.  Two sites, Housesteads and Corbridge, have evidence not only of internal occupation, but of re-fortification; at Birdoswald there are the well-known ‘halls’, while at Chesterholm a Class-I inscribed stone of the late fifth or early sixth century come from the immediate vicinity of the fort.  At South Shields there is also evidence of re-fortification, and there is an external inhumation cemetery.  Another Class-I stone was identified by C.A.R. Radford at Castlesteads [I have rendered the inscription of this stone in my book].  At Binchester immediately to the south of the Wall, and at Carvoran, Benwell ,and Housesteads on its line, there are early Anglo-Saxon burials or finds, while at Chesters and Chesterholm (perhaps sixth century) Anglo-Saxon annular brooches come from within the forts, although these may be somewhat later in date than the other material so far mentioned.

At the western terminal of the Wall, a town-site, Carlisle, though not necessarily primarily military in the Late Roman period, has also produced substantial evidence of sub-Roman occupation, with continued use of Roman-period buildings into the fifth, if not sixth, century.  Many scholars accept that Carlisle was part of the late fourth-century Wall-system, perhaps even its headquarters, and at Corbridge, the other town-site intimately connected with the Wall, fifth-and sixth century material has also been found, including, perhaps, evidence of continuing British and Anglo-Saxon use.  In the North as a whole, fifth- or sixth-century evidence from what had been Late Roman towns is not common.  York, Aldborough, Malton, and Catterick are our only other examples.  Two of these sites (York and Malton) were part of the same Late Roman military command as Hadrian’s Wall: that of the Dux Britanniarum.

It is interesting that, of the sites at Manchester and Ribchester– between the Mersey and Carlisle the only fort-sites known to have possible fifth- or sixth-century evidence – Ribchester was not only part of the command of the Dux Britanniarum, but also listed as per lineum ualli in the Notitia Dignitatum.  It is, therefore, remarkable that out of the twelve fourth-century Roman military sites in northern and western Britain to have produced convincingly datable structural, artefactual, or stratigraphic evidence of fifth- or sixth-century occupation, eleven were, almost certainly, part of the Late Roman military command.  Eight of these were probably within the same part of that command, and eight comprise a linear group (the only regional group) which stretches along the whole line of Hadrian’s Wallfrom east to west.  The two more substantial late fourth-century settlements adjacent to the Wall – Carlisle and Corbridge– have also produced fifth- and sixth-century evidence and two of the other towns with such evidence were also late fourth-century strategic centers under the military command of the Dux.”

After setting forth these facts, and discussing them, Dr. Dark offers a rather revolutionary idea:

“Although it is difficult, therefore, to ascertain whether the military project which I have described was the work of an alliance or a north British kingdom or over-kingdom, there does seem to be reason to suppose that it may have represented a post-Roman form of the command of the Dux Britanniarum…

This archaeological pattern, however it is interpreted, is of the greatest interest not only to the study of the fifth- and sixth-century north of Britain, but to that of the end of Roman Britain and the end of the Western Roman Empire as a whole.  It may provide evidence for the latest functioning military command of Roman derivation in the West, outside the areas of Eastern Imperial control, and could be testimony to the largest Insular Celtic kingdom known to us.”

In his and S. P. Dark’s paper “New Archaeological and Palynological Evidence for Sub-Roman Reoccupation of Hadrian’s Wall” (Archaeologia Aeliana 5, XXIV), Dr. Dark elegantly rebutts P.J. Casey’s argument for a re-interpretation of the reuse and re-fortification of the Wall and its associated forts.  His conclusion for this paper reads as follows:

“If one adopts the interpretation that the Wall forts were reused in the later fifth-early sixth century for a series of sub-Roman secular elite settlements, then the associated problems involved in explaining this new evidence of occupation at that time disappear…

So, the interpretation that the Wall became a series of secular elite settlements, discontinuous from the Late Roman activity at the forts within which they were sited, is compatible with the evidence of pollen analysis, while the alternative interpretations are both rendered unlikely by it.  This does not, of course, make the suggestion that this reoccupation represents the sub-Roman reconstruction of the Command of the Dux Britanniarum any more likely, but the pattern on which that interpretation is based has been strengthened, rather than weakened, by the new archaeological data, whilst the evidence also hints at a similar reoccupation with regard to the signal stations of the Yorkshire coast and their headquarters at Malton.

Perhaps, then, at last one is able to see answers to many of the most pressing questions regarding what happened in north Britain, and more specifically on Hadrian’s Wall, in the fifth and sixth centuries…

The answer to all of these questions may lie in the rise and fall of a reconstructed Late Roman military command, unique in Britain, which was organized in a sub-Roman fashion reliant upon the loyal warbands of warrior aristocrats (and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries) rather than paid regular soldiers. The organizing authority of this system, probably a king of the sub-Roman Brigantes, assigned a politico-military role to the defended homesteads of these elites, and (as in the location of churches at disused forts, through land-grants?) positioned these at what had been Roman fort sites, but which were (at least substantially) deserted by the time when they were reused in this way.  Thus, the ‘Late Roman’ Wall communities dispersed during the first half of the fifth century, but the Wall – and perhaps the north generally – was redefended in the later fifth and early-mid sixth century on very different lines, yet not completely without regard for the Late Roman past.”

I would add only that it is my belief this “king” of the sub-Roman Brigantes whom Dr. Dark proposes was none other than the dux bellorum Arthur.


Etterby, in the parish of Stanwix, was called Arthur’s burg, according to Joseph Nicolson and Richard Burn’s _History and Antiquities of the County of Westmorland and Cumberland, Vol. 2, 1977, p. 454 (information courtesy Stephen White of the Carlisle Library):

“Etterby in old writings is called Arthuriburgum, which seems to imply that it had been a considerable village. Some affirm, that it took its name from Arthur king of the Britons, who was in this country about the year 550 pursuing his victories over the Danes and Norwegians. But there are no remains of antiquity at or near this place to justify such a conjecture.”

This passage was discussed by Joseph Ritson in his _The Life of King Arthur: From Ancient Historians to Authentic Documents_, 1825:

“Etterby [a township, in the parish of Stanwix, in Eskdale-ward, Cumberland], in old writings is called Arthuri burgum [Arthurs-borough], which seems to imply that it had been a considerable village. Some affirm, its name from Arthur, king of the Britons, who was in this country, about the year 550, pursuing his victories over the Danes and Norwegians [r. the Saxons, the ‘Danes and Norwegians’ did not arrive in Britain for three centuries after the death of Arthur]”.

Later on, the various Bulmer directories of the 19th century mention this same tradition of Etterby as Arthur’s Fort. I suspect that the tradition is in error only in so much as it identifies Etterby as Arthur’s Fort, which in reality that designation should be applied to the neighboring Roman period milliary cavalry fort of Stanwix.

Nicolson and Burn may have been correct in their assessment of Etterby as wholly lacking ‘remains of antiquity’: according to Humphrey Welfare, Planning and Development Director, North, English Heritage, “the evidence from excavation has been too slender to confirm a tentative suggestion” as to what kind of Roman camp – if any - may once have existed at Etterby. Durham University’s Project Manager of Archaeological Services, Richard Annis, confirms this, saying that “While it has been suggested that there might be a Roman camp at Etterby, no evidence for this has been found.”

Tim Padley, Keeper of Archaeology, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, informs me that:

“The English Placename Society Place-names of Cumberland Volume 1, page 43, states that Etterby is first seen in 1246 as Etardeby or Etard's land. The name is French of Germanic origin. Etterby Scaur is Etterby Scar in 1794 and refers to the river cliff or scar at Etterby. There is a suggestion of Stanwix Fort - Uxellodunum - continuing into the post-Roman period…Thus, if there is a connection with 'Arthur' then it should be attached to Stanwix, rather than to Etterby."

Robert Collins of the Newcastle Upon Tyne Museum of Antiquities states:

“The timber features [at Stanwix] are fairly recent discoveries… Most of the excavations there have been unpublished, so when a few of us talk about the timber buildings these may be more examples of timber hall-like structures (such as those from Birdoswald)… There is always a hope that the Stanwix excavations that revealed the late Roman/sub-Roman timber structures will be published, but in the meantime you may be interested to know that the Carlisle Millenium Project excavation report will be available in a few months time (the Carlisle fort being just a stone’s throw across the river from Stanwix), and they also found very late timber structures there.”

In Book IV, Chapters 20-23 of Sir Thomas Malory’s _Morte D’Arthur_, we are told of a Lady Ettard, who is involved in a tragic love triangle with Pelleas and Nimue, Lady of the Lake. As the “lake” of the Lady of the Lake was originally the marsh that surrounded the Avalon Roman fort at Burgh-By-Sands under a half-dozen miles west of Etterby, it is tempting to associate this very same Lady Ettard with Etterby or ‘Etardeby’ (1246). According to Ekwall, Etard is a French name of German origin (OHG Eidhart). 

In passing, I would mention one other site associated with King Arthur: the drained lake of Tarn Wadling at Hesket between Penrith (near which is the King Arthur’s Round Table henge) and Carlisle. There was once a fort on the edge of this lake called Castelewyne (c. 1272), Castle Hewin (c. 1794), doubtless from a Cumbric Castle ‘Ewain”, i.e. Owain. Excavated in 1978-9, this fort was discovered to be of Romano-British date. According to tradition, Castle Ewain was the headquarters of one Eugenius Caesarius, a king of Cumbria who expelled the Angles and Saxons and re-established British rule. While the title ‘Caeser’ here would suggest a confusion with Owain Finddu son of Macsen Wledig (the usurping emperor Maximus the Tyrant), in all likelihood this is an oblique reference to Owain son of Urien Rheged. The confusion may have come about because Arthur’s battle with a giant at Tarn Wadling in a 15th century ballad at Castle Owain may have reminded someone of the Welsh story of Owain Finddu’s battle against a giant between the fort of Dinas Emrys and Llyn Dinas (“Lake of the Fort”) in Gwynedd, Wales.

Etterby as Arthur's Burg is Copyright © 2008, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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