7 – ARTHUR’S SEAT
After his epic campaign of 509-510, Arthur goes off the radar for a few years, turning up again in c.516AD on his second campaign in Scotland. This saw two great battles/sieges – one at Edinburgh & the other at Dumbarton, named in the HB as the Battles of Mounts Agnet & Badon respectively;
The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon in which there fell in oneday 960 men from one charge by Arthur; no one but the Lord affording him assistance.
Geoff chips in with, ‘Ebrauc also built the town of Alclud & the settlement of Mount Agned which is now called the castle of the Virgins & the Hill of Sorrows (Montem Dolosorum), facing Albany.‘ That Edinburgh was known as the Castle of Maidens back in Geoff’s day is proven in a papal bull of 1237, which names Holyrood as the ‘Monastery of the Holy Rood of the Castle of the Maidens.‘
Arthur’s fighting in the Edinburgh area is remembered in quite a distinctive way. On approaching the city of Edinburgh, the happy traveller will first notice from afar the wild & gigantic ruin of an ancient volcano. This compact & heathy wilderness is known as Holyrood Park, whose chief height is a soaring 800-foot high, lion-like edifice called Arthur’s Seat. During my chispological surveys in Edinburgh, I would often glance up through the windows of the National Library’s Rare-Book reading room, & gazed upon the peak as it dominated the skyline over Edinburgh’s rooftops. It was in that same & silent room, high on the 15th floor of the building, while reading through an obscure corner of Arthuriana one sunny day, that I came across the following passage in Thomas Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur;
Afore the time that Sir Galahad was born, there came in an hermit unto King Arthur, upon Whitsunday, as the knights sat at the Round Table. And when the hermit saw the seige perilous he asked the King& all the knights why the siege was void. King Arthur & all the knights answered, ‘there shall never one sit in that siee but one, but if he be destroyed.’ Then said the hermit, ‘What ye what is he?’ ‘Nay, said Arthur & all the Knights, we wot not who is he that shall sit therein.’ ‘Then wot I,’ said the hermit, ‘for he that shall sit there is unborn, & this same year he shall be born who shall sit there in that seige perilous, & he shall win the sangreal.
In medieval literature, the ‘Siege Perilous’ was a seat reserved at the Round Table for the knight who would successfully find the Holy Grail, called the ‘Sangreal’ by Mallory. Please join me for a moment high on the top floor of the National library, looking at that passage in Mallory, then looking up at Arthur’s Seat, then looking back down at the passage for a bit, & so on, for about two minutes, thinking why the hell would a chair be called a siege?
Ordering up some books on medieval orthography, I soon found out that at the time the Morte D’Arthur was composed – in the 15th century – the English language existed in some sort of lingual half-way house between the old Anglo-Saxon tongue of lets say, Beowulf, & the modern English farmed into life by Shakespeare. Inbetween these two compass points thrived a mad half-French, half-German, Latin-loving dialect known as Middle-English, under whose auspices the word ‘sege’ possessed two very different meanings, being;
(i) A prolongued military blockade of a fortified position (i.e. a siege)
(ii) A chair or throne
The first hint that Arthur fought in Edinburgh is found in a text written c.600 AD by a brilliant Welsh bard called Aneirien. In his famous & much-loved poem ‘Y Gododdin,‘ a host of warriors set off from Dun Eidyn (an old name for Edinburgh) to meet their bloody dooms in battle at a place called Catraeth. The poem contains only a single mention of Arthur, but it is the earliest record of him we have with that particular spelling, & as such is a significant treasure. Aneirin uses Arthur merely in an allusary capacity, as a comparison to the military efforts of a warrior called Gwenor.
Three centuries of soldiery lay slain
All slaughter’d from the centre to the edge
His leadership inspired & gentle glow’d
As thro harsh winters barley fill’d his horses
Now sable ravens cloak these fortress walls
Of choking fire, & there an Arthur fought
Right at the heart of warring’s weariness
Heroic pass-defender, Gwenor praise!
Gwenor is – significantly – defending a fortress, but this is far too loose a connection to make any proud claims about ‘confirming my theory.’ Saying that, just as with criminal cases, every little bit of evidence, however circumstantial, helps us paint the best possible picture of past events. All In the case of Anerin’s Arthur, we can at least raise the possibility of people in the 6th century understanding that Arthur once fought at some ‘fortress walls,’ whose efforts were later compared to a warrior from Edinburgh.
Later on in the bardic tradition of the Welsh, we encounter a more concrete association between Arthur & Edinburgh. It is found buried in a collection of poems known as ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen,‘ thought by scholars to date from the middle of the thirteenth century. In the heart of one of these poems, the charming list of obscure Arthurian battles known as Pa Gur, we are told;
On the heights of Eidyn
He fought with cynocephali.
By the hundreds they fell
To Bedwyr’s four-pronged spear.
The mention of these ‘heights’ suggests a battle fought all across Edinburgh’s seven hills. To this day, Arthur’s Seat & its surrounding uplands bear traces of Iron-Age hillforts, such as the one at Dunsapie Fort. This is definitely a potential siege-spot, but the best defense of the area would have been conducted from the summit of the ‘crag & tail’ heap of volcanic rock on which Old Edinburgh spreads like a spiky duvet. But, wherever the battle was factually ought, & whether it was a siege or not, Pa Gur clearly places our boy in Edinburgh. Another text that places Arthur in Edinburgh is the 13th century, Norman-French Lancelot-Grail cycle, that although not specifically mentioning Edinburgh by name , is clearly talking about the Scottish capital & its environs. At one point its poet declares;
The King is at Arestel in Scotland,& as soon as you reach there, you’ll find him laying siege to Saxon Rock.
What first caught my eye was the name Arestel, which could well have lent its name to Restalrig, an area of Leith which I know very well, living as I do just off Easter Road. In fact, I’ve caught the single-decker number 25 to Restalrig many times – its usually a bit cramped but its not so bad a journey. Dropping the ‘a’ of Arestal gives us Restal, & a couple of miles from the great precipitous rock of Edinburgh lies an area called Restalrig. The ‘rig’ element comes from the Scottish world for field, as in other Edinburgh place-names such as Pilrig & Bonnyrig, rendering Restalrig as the ‘Field of Restal.’
The first record of the name is actually Lastalric (1178), which the expert on Edinburgh place names, Stuart Harris, says derives from the the Anglian lastal or lestal – i.e. marsh. In the L-G, Lancelot’s camp was said to be only guarded at the front, for to the rear, ‘the water was so deep no-one would have set foot there because of the muddy marsh.‘ This, of course, gives us a ‘lestal,’ & the water-body mentioned must have been the lake at Lochend, which covered a far greater surface area in Dark Age times than it does today. That it was once a muddy mire was still remembered in the 16th century by John Knox, but today that much-reduced body of water is just the wee center piece of a lovely little park. Its rather nice, thoug, & I occasionally find myself there downing a few beers with my mates on those rare, sunny, Scottish, summer days.
During the early medieval period, the same Norman poets who worked on literary works such as the LG, began to show a predilection for changing l’s to r’s, a philological process known as rhotacism, providing a perfectly plausible background to the name -hange of Lestal to Restal. As the romantic ‘Arestal,’ it is also mentioned as the place where King Lot of Lothian summoned a council of war, again supporting Restalrig as the LG’s Arestal. In addition, the romances state that Arestal was famous for its fine hunting grounds, giving us a direct connection to the hunting grounds of Holyrood Park. William Bryce records;
It appears that the wide tract of land from the western boundary of the Burgh Muir round to Holyrood was, in the twelfth century, ” ane gret forest full of hartis, hyndis, toddis (foxes), and siclike maner of beastis,” which was then known as the forest of Drumselch — the hunting hill — and now as Drumsheugh. This was the favourite hunting ground of King David when residing in the Castle.
It is fair to imagine that the Saxon Rock of the L-G is the Castle Rock of Edinburgh, with the ‘rock’ element having derived from the Alauna given by Ptolemy as a fortress of the Votadini, whose lands stretched from Lothian to Hadrian’s Wall. Alauna means ‘rock place,’ & archeologists have discovered traces of Roman & sub-roman occupation on Castle Rock. They were found amidst the ‘midden deposits’ – i.e. ancient layers of rubbish which led ST Driscoll to conclude was, ‘oblique evidence that an aristocratic household flourished there.’ Its a bit like rifling through someone’s bins & finding a receipt for John Lewis’s amidst well-packaged boxes, rather than plastic bags from the Aldi down Leith. This at least places a sub-roman presence at Edinburgh, backing-up any Arthurian siege of the place.
When the tale tells us ‘the rock was lofty… nor could one besiege it from any side,‘ we gain an excellent match for Edinburgh’s natural fortified situation. 1500 years ago, Edinburgh’s rocky loftiness would have ensured major problems for anyone trying to ascend the difficult climbs, especially when laden down with weapons. An attack against a Dark-Age Edinburgh Castle would have been channelled along only a narrow rise of land, as if they were the hordes of Persia assaulting the Spartans at Thermopylae. The city’s defenses would have been bolstered by the Nor Loch, where today’s Princes Gardens sit so splendidly today, fitting in with the LG’s, ‘on the other side, the marsh was so vast that nothing could enter it.’ The precise origins of the Nor’ Loch are much contested, but there is evidence to suggest that a large body of water existed in the ice-age-hewn valley to the north of the Castle Rock as far back as 15,000 years ago. This illustration of Edinburgh from 1460 shows the Nor Loch before it was drained;
The depressions on both sides of Castle Rock suggest that in former times the whole of Edinburgh’s Old Town, except for the causeway down to Holyrood, was surrounded by water – perhaps even in Arthur’s day. This painting by Slezer (1690) shows how the water added to the defences of Castle Rock on its northern side. We can also see in the LG the correct geographical position for Arthur’s camp having been somewhere about around Arthur’s Seat. When we are told of the, ‘gate on the side toward Arthur’s men, in the slope of the rock, just above the water,’ we gain a perfect match for Edinburgh castle’s main entrance looking out east towards Arthur’ Seat. This is some of the best evidence there is to say that – yes, Arthur did make camp on Arthur’s Seat, & yes – he did co-ordinate a siege from the safety of its slopes.
Re-examining the evidence= for a moment, the phonetics of Agnet are more of a match for Auchendinny, the site of a dark-age hillfort a few miles to the south of Edinburgh near Penicuik. Analyzing the L-G again, one discovers that there were in fact two battles fought in the campaign the siege at Edinburgh & a massive fight in the nearby ‘Narrows of Godolente.’ This lovely name contains both the Welsh spelling of the Votadini tribe, & the Ptolemy’s Latin version, as in;
God-odin (Welsh) Ot-alini (Latin)
The full passage reads; ‘When the Saxons had fled as far as the Narrows of Godelonte, the stream that ran below the causeway changed its colour, more than 2000 plunged into the marshes & perished there.’ After this battle, the LG tells us, ‘the king’s forces pursued their enemy all the way to Malaguine, a mighty saxon fortress, & they came back with many prisoners & had killed many of their foes.’ Malaguine seems a combination of Melrose & the same Guinnion at Stow-on-Wedale where Arthur fought his eighth battle. That Auchendinny is situated in the ‘Narrows’ makes perfect sense, for these would be the several miles of fertile plains that lie between the Lammermuir & Pentland. hills.
Finally, during the L-G’s siege of Edinburgh, Arthur & his nephew Guerrehet became captives in Edinburgh castle itself. We are told how Arthur was completely enamoured with a red-hot bird called Gamille, the Maiden of the Castle, & how he & Guerrhet made a sneaky move inside the castle in order to get laid – & how after they did the business, they were taken prisoner by the Saxons. The tale tells us;
Then the King lay down with his ladylove in a splendid bed, & Guerrehet lay with a beautiful maiden in an other room. After the king had lain a long time with his ladylove & had his way with her, more than forty knights entered the tower, fully armed& with naked swords, & forced open the door to the room.
According to the LG, Gamille was a sorceress who, ‘knew more about enchantments than any other maiden in the land. She was very beautiful… She was as much in love with King Arthur as she could possibly be.’ This leads us to the following passage in the Welsh Triads;
And one Prisoner, who was more exalted than the three of them, was three nights in prison in Caer Oeth and Anoeth, and three nights imprisoned by Gwen Pendragon, and three nights in an enchanted prison under the Stone of Echymeint. This Exalted Prisoner was Arthur. And it was the same lad who released him from each of these three prisons – Goreu, son of Custennin, his cousin.
Surely we can see how Guerrehet of the LG should be Goreu of the Triads, & how Arthur’s imprisonment with the sorceress Gamille is nothing but a mirror to his imprisonment at the hands of Gwen Pendragon. The names ‘Oeth & Anoeth’ also ring highly familiar with ‘Otalini’ & ‘Agned’ & are worthy of deeper investigation.
In light of our quest, this is the first time we hear of the Grail… not directly connected to Arthur just yet, but as the chief subject of a Norman-French romance whose author seems to have both been in Edinburgh & also known uniquely recorded details about Arthur’s siege of Saxon Rock. Later on in our quest we will be returning to this very district in our search for the Grail, but before we leave for now, I think we should examine a little more the Saxon presence in Edinburgh