Myths, Heroes and Villains

Uther Pendragon

Pendragon Castle is reputed to have been founded by Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur. In legend, Uther and a hundred of his men were killed here when Saxon invaders poisoned the only source of drinking water in a nearby well.

“Let Uther Pendragon do what he can,
Eden will run where Eden ran”

image courtesy of Matt O’Brien

Even with the assistance of Merlin, Uther was unable to divert the River Eden to provide a moat for Pendragon Castle. In historical record, the castle was built in the 12th century by Ranulph de Meschines, during the reign of King William Rufus, and one of its most notable owners was Sir Hugh de Morville, Lord of Westmorland, one of the four knights who murdered St Thomas Becket in 1170.

A note of caution if travelling Shap Fell at night, be vigilant of a shadowy figure on horseback, galloping as if being chased by the Devil himself. For it is said to be none other than Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur.

Illuminated manuscript showing Uther Pendragon, Aethelbert, King Arthur, and Oswald of Northumbria, from Epitome of Chronicles of Matthew Paris, 13th century

King Arthur

The historical Arthur has been long debated by scholars, citing entries in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), that saw Arthur as a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Saxons in the late 5th to early 6th century, trained at one of the forts along Hadrians Wall.

King Arthur’s Round Table, a prehistoric earthwork near Penrith, is said to have been a duelling ground for his knights.

It is believed that Arthur’s last battle at Camlann, in which he was fatally wounded, was fought near the forts of Birdoswald or Castlesteads, whose Roman names were Banna and Camboglanna respectively. The Roman bath-house at Ravenglass, known locally as Walls Castle, is perhaps the Arthurian ‘Lyons Garde’ where Arthur was taken after the battle.

Guinevere – Arthur married the daughter of a Pictish King against Merlin’s advice. He tried to warn Arthur against the union as Guinevere was in love with Sir Lancelot. When Arthur discovered that his wife and Sir Lancelot were having an affair, Lancelot fled for France with Arthur in pursuit. In his absence, Arthur’s nephew Mordred seized power. Arthur returned to Britain and a great battle ensured, during which most of his knights died and he was grievously wounded.

The ghost of Guinevere’s mother rose from the water of Tarn Wadling to warn her daughter against commiting adultery with Sir Lancelot. The tarn is now drained, and gone.

Gyneth and Merlin – the Castle Rock of Triermain played host to King Arthur and a group of faeries. Gyneth, Arthur’s daughter by a Faerie Queen named Guendolen was sent into an enchanted sleep by Merlin as punishment for her cruelty. His other children Morgan the Black and Patrick the Red may also have been the result of a union with the same ‘Fairy Queen’.

Excalibur and Sir Bedivere – when Arthur was fatally wounded, he asked one of his knights to return Excalibur to the lake it came from. Bedivere was the knight in question, and he made two trips to the Lake before the dying Arthur was satisfied it was being taken to Avalon. Lord Alfred Tennyson was keen on the idea of Excalibur being found in and returned to a Cumbrian lake, that lake being Bassenthwaite.

Sir Bedivere throwing Excalibur into the lake. Illustration by Walter Crane, 1845

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – Gawain, a knight of Arthur’s Round Table accepts a challenge from a mysterious ‘green knight’ who lived in Inglewood Forest. The Green Knight who dares any of Arthur’s knight to strike him with his axe if he will take a return blow in a year-and-a-day. Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads him with a single blow, at which the Green Knight stands up, picks up his head, only to remind Gawain of the wager.

Sir Lancelot – Giant’s Cave near Penrith is associated with two giants called Tarquin and Isir. The pair lived on a diet of human flesh, a practice that lost its appeal when Sir Lancelot slew Tarquin in battle.

Sir Eglamore – this knight of the Round Table lived near Aira Force waterfall with his beloved Emma. The tale, as immortalised by William Wordsworth in The Somnabulist, is of Emma, dressed in white, sleepwalking beside the waterfall. Sir Eglamore at first, thought the figure was a ghost, but when he realised it was his beloved Emma, he called out to her. Awoken and startled, Emma fell to her death. He was so heartbroken he lived out his days as hermit under the falls of Aira Force.

Blencarthra – the final resting place of Arthur and his most loyal knights is beneath Blencathra. One of the most northerly hills in England, this sacred place is also home of Afallach, a god of the Underworld.

Dunmail, the Last King of Cumbria

Dunmail Raise is the name of a large cairn situated near Grasmere, which may have been used an old boundary marker. In legend, the cairn marked the burial of a local king named Dunmail; or the historical Dyfnwal ab Owain, King of Strathclyde.

Adam Bell, the Robin Hood of the North

Adam Bell was a legendary English outlaw. He and his companions William of Cloudsley and Clym of the Clough lived in Inglewood Forest. He is referred to as the ‘Robin Hood of the North’. Their story is told in Child Ballad 116 entitled ‘Adam Bell, Clym of the Cloughe and Wyllyam of Cloudeslee’. The oldest printed copy of this Ballad dates from 1505, and Bell is thought to be the “Adam” mentioned by Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing:

“…hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me, and he that hits me, let him be clapp’d on the shoulder, and call’d Adam”

film courtesy Bardsea-Green Films

Tom Fool

Several centuries ago, the Pennington family of Muncaster Castle employed a jester called Tom Skelton, who became known as Tom Fool, and is said to have inspired Shakespeare’s joker in King Lear.

However, Skelton was more than just a harmless clown. His story is recorded in The Remains of John Briggs, a compilation of tales by Briggs, a former editor of the Westmorland Gazette and Lonsdale Magazine.

The story goes that the unmarried daughter of Sir Alan Pennington, the lord at that time, sneaked-out to go to a dance in the local village. Disguised as a shepherdess, Helwise Pennington danced with a carpenter’s son, Dick, a servant at Muncaster Castle and who was also secretly her lover. When a local knight, who wanted to marry Helwise discovered the secret, he enlisted Skelton to exact his revenge on the carpenter’s son. The jester, who already believed the young man had stolen money from him, was more than willing to help, and a plan was hatched to behead Dick with his own axe while he slept.

“I have hid Dick’s head under a heap of shavings; and he will not find that so easily, when he awakes, as he did my shillings”

Tom Fool portrait, courtesy Muncaster Castle

References:

Nicolson, J. and Burn, R. 1777  The history and antiquities of the counties of Westmorland and Cumberland

Higham, N. J. 2018 King Arthur: The Making of the Legend

Anderson, Graham 2004 King Arthur in Antiquity

Loomis, Roger Sherman 1956 The Arthurian Legend before 1139

Rowling, M. 1976 The folklore of the Lake District

Wood, M. 2005 In Search of Myths and Heroes

Cherewatuk, K. 2006 Marriage, Adultery and Inheritance in Malory’s Morte Darthur

Bromwich R., Jarman A. O.H. and Roberts B. F. 1991 The Arthur of the Welsh

Bromwich, R.; Evans, D. Simon 1992  Culhwch and Olwen. An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale

Greenblatt, S. 2006 The Norton Anthology of English Literature

Simpson, J. 2007 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation

Clarkson, T. 2010 The Men of the North: The Britons and Southern Scotland

Clarkson, T. 2014 Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

Evans, Z. T. 2019 British Legends: The Outlaws of Inglewood and the Feminine Influence

Evans, G. 1974 The Riverside Shakespeare

Holt, J. C. 1982 Robin Hood

Jester competition reveals dark past May 30, 2013 bbc.co.uk