The Castle of the Seven Shields

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The Castle of the Seven Shields

by: Anonymous (Author)
from: The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend (Pp. 567 - 568)  December 1891

Among the innumerable Arthurian legends which have been spun and woven in the course of the last eight or ten centuries out of the scanty materials furnished by Nennius, Ordericus, Vitalis, and William of Malmesbury, there is one of an interesting nature connected with Northumberland. It is that of the Castle of the Seven Shields.

This fortress, now in utter and almost undistinguishable ruin, was situated on the sheep farm of Sewingshields, a short distance northward from the Roman Wall, and is in the immediate neighbourhood of the Northumberland Lakes. It is most likely in this case, as in others, that the legend was originally invented to account for the name of the place, and that the seven shields, now said to have been those borne by an equal number of gallant Knights of the Round Table, were in reality nothing more nor less than seven herdsmen's or watchers' huts (shiels), built on that convenient spot to command the extensive prospect from it. But the love of the marvellous ever prevails. Hence, Sewingshields now is, and will remain to the latest generation, one of the scenes of King Arthur's fabulous history.

Hodgson's "History of Northumberland" contains the following account of an adventure which is said to have brought to light, more than a century since, some of the marvels that lie concealed under Sewingshields Crags:—
Immemorial tradition has asserted that King Arthur, his Queen Guenever, his court of lords and ladies, and his hounds were enchanted in some cave of the crags, or in a hall below the castle of Sewingshields, and would continue entranced there till some one should first blow a bugle-horn that lay on a table near the entrance of the hall, and then with "the sword of the stone" cut a garter also placed there beside it. But none had ever heard where the entrance to this enchanted hall was, till the farmer of Sewingshields, about fifty years since, was sitting knitting on the ruins of the castle, and his clew fell, and ran downwards through a rush of briars and nettles, as he supposed, into a deep subterranean passage. Full in the faith that the entrance into King Arthur's hall was now discovered, he cleared the briary portal of its weeds and rubbish, and entering the vaulted passage, followed, in his darkling way, the thread of his clew. The floor was infested with toads and lizards; and the dark wings of bats, disturbed by his unhallowed intrusion, flitted fearfully around him. At length his sinking courage was strengthened by a dim, distant light, which as he advanced, grew gradually brighter, till all at once he entered a vast and vaulted hall, in the centre of which a fire without fuel, from a broad crevice in the floor, blazed with a high and lambent flame, that showed all the carved walls and fretted roof, and the monarch and his queen and court reposing around in a theatre of thrones and costly couches. On the floor, beyond the fire, lay the faithful and deep-toned pack of thirty couple of hounds; and on a table before it, the spell-dissolving horn, sword, and garter. The shepherd reverently but firmly grasped the sword, and as he drew it leisurely from its rusty scabbard, the eyes of the monarch and his courtiers began to open, and they rose till they sat upright. He cut the garter; and as the sword was being slowly sheathed, the spell assumed its ancient power, and they all gradually sunk to rest; but not before the monarch had lifted up his eyes and ands, and exclaimed:—
O woe betide the evil day,
     On which this witless wight was born,
Who drew the sword,—the garter cut,
     But never blew the bugle-horn.
Terror brought on loss of memory, and the shepherd was unable to give any correct account of his adventure, or to find again the entrance to the enchanted hall.
Sir Walter Scott's version of the Sewingshields legend differs essentially from that which we have quoted from Hodgson.