Shropshire History

King Arthur

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Poem of Canu Heledd

The Canu Heledd, a poem in the Red Book of Hergest, identifies the area around modern day Baschurch as the burial site of the seventh century kings of Powys. Eglwyseu Bassa translates as the "churches of Bassa".

“Baschurch is his resting place tonight,
his final abode, the support in battle,

the heart of the people of Argoed.

 

Baschurch is crumbling tonight,
My tongue caused it, It is red,

my grief is too great.

 

Baschurch is confined tonight,
for the heir of the Cyndrwynin,
the land of the grave of Cynddylan the Fair.

 

Baschurch is fallow land tonight,
its clover is bloody, It is red,

my heart is too full.

 

Baschurch has lost its privilege,
after the English warriors slew,
Cynddylan and Elfan Powys.

 

Baschurch is ruined tonight,
its warriors have not survived,
men and warriors know me here.

 

Baschurch is glowing embers tonight,
and I am sorrowful, It is red,

my grief is too full.

 

There are many places in Britain that lay claim to be King Arthur’s resting place.  Perhaps one of the lesser known, and yet most supported by historical fact, is Shropshire.

 

 

Historians Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman have carried out a lot of research and their results are published in the book “King Arthur : The True Story”.  It makes convincing reading and Shropshire County Council have produced a car trail of the main places mentioned.  The grave of King Arthur is said to be at a secluded hill fort called The Berth near Baschurch, which was traditionally the burial place of Welsh kings.  Have a look and judge for yourselves and download the King Arthur Trail in pdf format to visit the main locations.

 

They believe that King Arthur was actually called Owain Ddantgwyn, who was King of Powys around AD 500, and that his base was Viroconium (modern day Wroxeter).  The word “Arthur” was not actually a name, as used by later writers, but a title.  The name of an animal, in some way typifying the qualities of the individual, was given to many Dark Age kings as an honorary title.  There is evidence that Owain Ddantgwyn was given the title “The Bear”, which in Welsh was the word “Arth”.  Such titles were also passed down to their sons and Owain’s son Cuneglasse was referred to by this title.  Thus literary references to “Arthur” may actually cover more than one person.

 

If Camelot is based on “The Berth”, then the pool in front could well be the place where Excalibur was thrown when Arthur was dying.  It was a common practice at that time to make sacrifices to the gods by throwing valuable things into deep water, which was regarded as the gateway to the underworld.  Similarly, since it was surrounded by water, Arthur’s body would need to be carried there on a boat, as in the old tales.

 

Many people imagine King Arthur and his knights to be clad in full plate armour but this is just Hollywood myth.  At that time, warriors would be much more lightly armed with chain mail smocks and helmets with nose and ear pieces.  The best description of what life was like for King Arthur and his associates is a series of 3 books by Bernard Cornwell called “The Winter King”, “Enemy of God” and “Excalibur”.

 

The Berth

(from “Memorials of Old Shropshire” by Tomas Auden)

 

  

 

An Iron Age hill fort set on two islands in a mere, which has now mostly been drained. They were connected to each other by a causeway of gravel, with another linking them to the surrounding land. Although originally Iron Age, the Berth was used into Roman times and a Roman bronze cauldron was found near the causeway to the land. Berth Pool is on the south side of the mounds, presumably the remnant of the original mere.  The water level was at least 11 feet higher 2,000 years ago. The water level could also be adjusted, enabling the causeways linking the camps to be flooded, thus any retreat on foot to safer ground is well guarded for those who knew where to walk. The marsh is still in evidence here, and for a sense of scale, look to the people on the top of the rampart beneath

 

 

A large bronze cauldron (c.1st Century AD) was found at the point where the small brook, which runs into the Berth Pool, intersects the south side causeway. This was probably a votive offering but there are other theories relating to this. After the bronze cauldron was found in 1906 the Society of Antiquaries of London put forward a suggestion in 1907 that the cauldron was a water clock. This was because of the peculiar nature of the cauldron. Unlike most other vessels of this type, the Berth cauldron had a neat round hole, ½ cm in diameter in the middle of its base. These were known of in other parts of the world but not thought to be used here. My theory is that, if it was made as a votive offering and not for domestic or chronological use, the hole was there to help it sink! Just a thought (The cauldron is now in the British Museum).

 

The Berth could have been a religious site. There was nothing more sacred to the ancient Britons than water. The amount of votive offerings found in rivers and lakes are testament to this - including the bronze cauldron found here in 1906. It seems from the archaeological evidence that most hill forts had a religious shrine. These varied in style from region to region but probably all had a similar function. Here they would pray to their gods and sacrifice animals... yes, and humans. Maybe this is what the La Tene III period dagger and knife found at the Berth were used for? (A recent discovery at Humber estuary in the east of England found a hill fort whose sole purpose seems to have been as a ritual killing site). The Outer Enclosure could also have been of some religious significance, either as a place of worship or as a burial ground. As I've already said, it's almost the shape of a Bronze Age burial 'Pond Burrow' tumuli. There are six Bronze Age burial rings in the Baschurch environs so this isn't out of the questions. There have also been Bronze Age finds from the Berth Pool. For anyone interested, the rings all lie on the Baschurch to Ruyton XI Town's road. The first is situated in the field on the right just after the crossroad and the 40 mph sign as you head west towards Ruyton. The other five are grouped together and lie further west, but I haven't discovered which field as yet. Although it doesn’t relate to the Berth, a bronze shield was supposedly found at nearby Hordley in 1804. This subsequently went missing so we've no idea if the story's true or whether this shield was anything like the famous Battersea or Cherstey shields found in the Thames or the Witham shield from Lincolnshire. My mother-in-law tells me that she heard a story about a farmer using this shield as a 'door' to a piggery! Whether this is just an urban, or rather, rural myth, I don't know. Hordley was also the site of an Iron Age axe find, as well the discovery of a large Iron Age enclosure and 362 Roman coins, dated between 138 and 282 AD, in an earthenware jar.

 

Hill forts were for the upper echelons of ancient British society; for the chieftains and the kings and queens; for the noblemen and noblewomen or for the warrior class. They would have lived in roundhouses at this time; kept warm by wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof. This kind of dwellings had already been around for quite some time and had certainly proved its durability against the British elements. The reconstructed roundhouses at Castell Henllys in South Wales have withstood winds of up to 110 mph and other reconstructions have proved that they withstand rain perfectly well. It's estimated that they would have lasted between 10 and 20 years, depending on the owners and the type of ground they stood upon. We know from other similar sites how they may have been laid out, but even with archaeology it's hard to tell just how many dwellings existed at the same time. It's was difficult for us to calculate how many may have been at the Berth because roundhouses could be anywhere from 15 to 50 feet wide (4.6 to 15.3 meters) and up to 27 feet high (8.3 meters). No one knows how many dwelling there would have been in the Berth's main enclosure as there hasn't been enough archaeology done on the site, but we calculate it could have contained up to 9 or 10, although it has been known for other very high status sites to have only between 1 and 3. (The limited archaeological digs of the 60's only found evidence of one roundhouse). Outside the roundhouses would be granaries and storage pits. Apart from small cultivation plots for each roundhouse, the farming was done by the farmsteads outside the fort. They paid their dues to their lords and in return got protection. Let the sunshine in... Of the roundhouses discovered at other sites, nearly all have their entrances facing to the east or southeast - the direction of the rising sun on the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. A few face the exactly the opposite way, i.e. west or northwest. Why? Archaeologists aren't sure, but one of the theories is that these belonged to a chieftain or similar high-ranking person. He may have sat with his back towards the rising sun - the source of power.

Lilly Chitty, an archaeologist working here in 1925 heard a local legend that "a prince was buried beneath a mound on the south slope after a great battle and that his men were buried in a longer, narrower mound nearby" Archaeology at Berth Pool has been limited. The hill adjacent to the Pool is called the Berth, may have been where the kings were actually buried. This area has not been excavated and the only recorded artefact was picked up in 1906 when a man working on the banks of a small stream that drained the pool discovered a bronze cauldron dating from the early first century, and is seen as evidence that pagan Celtic peoples cast religious offerings into this pool. Cauldrons held special religious significance in this pagan society, and some scholars have seen such objects as precursors to the Holy Grail.