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Legends of King Arthur and of Sewingshields

1 Pope

2 Robert Heron

3 Apud Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons, Vol 1.

4 Finlay's Wallace.

5 The era which Turner prefers is one not before 528.

6 Vide Turner's History of the Anglo Saxons, Vol. 1. whence the preceding information is principally derived.

7 Rogers's Italy.

8 "Part of which I was." Giraldus, it seems, was present at the exhumation, and beheld the wondrous disclosures made. See Turner's Hist. Ang. Sax. and the Gentleman's Magazine for 1842.

9 Annual Review for 1804.

10 A Relation of the Death of the Primitive Persecutors, written originally in Latin by L. C. F. Lactantius. Englished by Gilbert Burnet, D. D. Amsterdam, printed by J.S. in 1687. Chap. 2 p. 59. 60.

11 Annual Review for 1804 of Sir W. Scott's Sir Tristrem.

12 See the Introduction to the later editions of Waverley.

13 The allusion is to the volcanic nature of basalt and other trap rocks.

14 Hist. Northd. Pt. ii. Vol. III.

15 Others of the natural curule seats of monarchs in former times may be here alluded to. On the summit of a green hill in the vicinity of the unpretending hamlet of Humbleton near Wooler, there is pointed out an eminence whereon a king sat, and viewed his army fighting in the valley below, for adds the legend it "was the custom for king's[sic] in those days to sit." A similar chair exists on Twinlaw, one of the Lammermuir range, in Berwickshire— a hill celebrated in the traditionary annals of fraternal discord. (Statist. Accct. of Scotland, Parish of Westruther). The unfortunate James IV. of Scotland, occupied a kindred position during a part of the fatal day of Flodden-field, and posterity, with true attachment to a theme so melancholy, still "offer to the passing stranger's gaze," the King's Chair. "It is," says Wallis, (Vol ii. p. 471) "a natural rock, on the highest part of Flodden hill, from which he had a good view of his own, and of the English army, and of the country round him." Arthur's seat near Edinburgh, has also its tradition of this class. But on this subject it would be prosaic to insist. It has been "married to immortal verse."

"A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations:—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set where were they?" BYRON.

16 The picture which the survey of Sir Robert Bowes, and Sir Ralph Elleker, in 1542, (Hodgson's Northd. Part iii. Vol. II.) gives of Sewingshields, and the neighbouring territory is too curious, and too strikingly illustrative of the uncivilized, lawless, and unsettled state of that part of the country, at the period to which it relates, to be here omitted. The castle was then the property of John Heron of Chipchase, and was found "in great decaye both in the roofes and floores." While the peel-house was thus dilapidated, the extensive grounds of the attached demesne, (fitted says the record "eyther for corne or pasture") to which it might have afforded a protection, were in an equally deserted and unoccupied condition. "Both the said house and grounde lye waste and unplenyshed at this presente." And there was sufficient reason for both remaining "dyssolate and waste." For such was the lamentable state of that "wylde" country, that the "true poore men that got their lyvinge, eyther by labour in husbandrye, or by pasturage of their catall," had so great dread of the "theves" of Liddisdale and Tyndale on the one hand, of those of Gilsland and Bewcastle on the other, who made this district "a Goole (qu? open, from goulet Fr. a strait, a hole?) passage, and common entry" to their spoil, that none of them could be induced to "aventure theyr lyves, bodies, and goodes in suche remote houses where small relefe can come to them in theyr extreme necessyties." To give warning of these inroads, and for the better preservation of the whole Border from "theves and spoylles," Sir Cuthbert Radclyffe, deputy warden of the East Marches "devysed" a watch to be "suerley kepte endlonge all the mydle marches." Amongst other places of more conspicuous merit, two watchmen were appointed to "stand at the Sewynge shealles cragge," from "the sonne sett untyll the sonne aryse," "upon payne for every defaulte to forfette vjs. viijd.. And in order that no one should protect his own or his neighbour's property unremunerated, each man's services were rated "at a iiijd. for a nyghte." Whether from this wise measure, it resulted that this "troublous quarter" was "stablyshed in better order," the document does not specify.

17 This piece of domestic garniture, perhaps now confined to the "pauperum tabernas," was once deemed not unappropriate to statelier abodes. In the inventory of Sir William Hilton, of Hilton, Knt., 7 Oct., 1600, at Hilton, we are presented with the following gratifying glimpse of the detail of a very important department in the mansions of those times. "In the Parlour: one olde large table, with a grene clothe; xviii buffit stooles; an olde chare; three little formes of firdale; 4 tables with armes: a litle liverie cupborde; a pair of virginalls." (Surtees' Durham, Vol. ii. p. 34.) This was the sum total!

18 Cowper's Homer's Oddyssey.


THE days are gone by, when tales of enchantment and of dark mystery held an unbroken sway over the mind. "They live no longer in the faith of reason." The extension of a brighter knowledge has narrowed the sphere of their influence, and compelled them to forego the bondage in which they enchained the faculties of all. But their vestiges are not yet effaced. They still linger in those sequestered haunts, whose very loneliness and absence from human abodes, appear from the awe they impress upon rude minds, to have concurred to the production of their marvellous and wild incidents. There they still survive, and though divested of much of their ancient power over the human intellect, they impart to the desolate scenes, round which the memory of the exertion of more than mortal agency yet hangs, a darker and more solemn tone.
A "gloomy presence saddens all the scene,
Shades every flower, and darkens every green,
Deepens the murmur of the falling floods,
And breathes a browner horror on the woods."1
The same genial cause which has dispelled the darker features of those popular tales, has also contributed to extract their malignancy. No longer surrounded by the universal imbecility of an uncultivated age they brood as an incubus of terror over the minds of the abject and enslaved, or serve as powerful instruments for designing men to rivet the fetters of ignorance and superstition. They have higher purposes to fulfil in the ameliorated influence they exercise over the imaginations of those who still own their power to fascinate and gratify. Under this aspect they may be compared to the hoar-frost, that in the diminished temperature of the evening has fallen within the recesses of the hills, which if enveloped by a rigorous atmosphere, blights and chills the plant which its elegant chrystallization seemed to ornament and beautify, but if touched and gently dissipated by the cheering sunbeam, it "leaves a saving moisture at the root," to quicken and refresh. In their native sites they form the stirring theme, with which the swain strives to diversify his unvaried round of labour
——"and make the destined road of life
Delightful to his feet."
They are the tales "to childhood dear," at which the youthful imagination "lights its lamp"—and by whose animating incentives, the spirit of unquenchable research is aroused, which will neither flag nor tire, till the more than magical wonders of literature and of science, unfold their "silver lining" to the light—the high results of its ardour. From them genius has drawn some of her finest inspirations—to them poetry has owed most exquisite effusions. They have come over the mind "like a happy breeze touching the wires of an Æolian harp, and calling forth the most ravishing melody!"2

At the head of the array of legends that owe their celebrity to their supernatural machinery, stands that of King Arthur. The popularity which the romantic details of his actions—the feats of his chivalrous courtiers—and the improprieties of his faithless queen, obtained in ages, in which we are apt to imagine the intercourse between different nations very unfrequent; is such as appears scarcely credible. According to Alanus de Insulis, who was born in 1109, the fame of Arthur in his time had become unbounded. "Who does not speak of him," "he says," he is even more known in Asia than in Britain, as our pilgrims returning from the east assure us; both east and west talk of him; Egypt and the Bosphorus are not silent; Antioch, Armenia, Palestine, celebrates his deeds."3

But the fame of the mighty acts of Arthur was more than equalled by the extraordinary mystery in which his death was involved. Fatally wounded, it is said, in battle, with his rebellious subjects, headed by his ungrateful nephew Modred,—the fairy Morgana, who had long cherished an attachment to him, had him conveyed into Fairy-land, there to re-infuse the fast-ebbing stream of life, and win by her attentions, his grateful affections. Thence at some indefinite period, when the whole land shall groan under oppression;—
"And through the realm gaunt kings and chiefs shall ride,
Wading through floods of carnage bridle deep;"4
she shall again restore him at the head of the "dark warriors" of the Cynmry, to avenge the wrongs of Britain.

This tale so well fitted to ensure the approbation of the people, to whom the vast labours his energetic mind had surmounted, had appeared more than mortal, seems to have been propagated soon after the assigned era of his life.5 Taliessin the chief and most learned of the British Bards, who flourished in the sixth century, warmed while he sung the captivating strain. It opened to him visions of the future glory of the country he loved so well, and unfolded retributive vengeance poured upon the ruthless Saxon invaders, the progress of whose irresistible torrents, bravery, patriotism, and military skill, strove ineffectually to withstand. Myrzin the Caledonian in his prophetic song announced "the coming again of Arthur, monarch of the warlike host." The Welsh clung to the tale for ages, with that fond affection towards the renown derived from past events, which misfortune leads nations as well as individuals to cherish. "If you do not believe me," says Alanus de Insulis, speaking of the popular view of the matter, "go into Bretagne, [a colony of the ancient Britons] and mention it in the streets or villages that Arthur is really dead like other men, you will not escape with impunity; you will be either hooted with the curses of your hearers or be stoned to death."6

While such was the interest attached to Arthur's fate, it became an essential enquiry, as to the region in which he and his faithful followers lie slumbering under the protracted night of enchantment,
———"a mournful company
Their features full of life though motionless"7
and in what scene posterity shall behold his reanimation,—and the august array of the warriors of other times, issuing to conquest and triumph. This, however, is almost as shifting as the many-coloured legend to which his renown has given birth. Giraldus Cambrensis, indeed relates, that in 1189, the bones of the hero were sought for and discovered, in the Abbey of Glastonbury. But tradition has paid little regard to a fact of which it appears the historian might say "magna pass fui."8 The name of Arthur had been too long a household word in the various sections of the island; he had become the actor in too many a localized tale of enchantment, to be supplanted by the story of a monk who lived six centuries after his reputed death, from the haunts on which his revered presence had conferred a portion of his own glory. Indeed, it would be a matter somewhat difficult, to account for the many different localities that bear witness to this hero's charmed fate. One reason of their number may be, that the fiction of enchantment was not new, as respects him. It may have formed the basis of some more ancient tale, of which his surpassing excellence usurped the fame and disinherited the actors. In this manner Thomas of Ercildoune became the representative of Merlin's prophetic skill, while in some parts of Scotland, Peden the covenanter, as yet an unpoetic name, has cast both into the shade. The legend is too extensively diffused to be otherwise regarded, than as the fragment of some pre-existing opinion. The marked coincidence between the tale of Arthur, and those of other lands, is sufficient to testify to its remote original. We find the whole circumstances of the narrative in the marvellous account of the "seven men who sleep, and long have slept, in a den, under a cliff of ocean, in the uttermost parts of Germany, where there is snow all the summer-time, and in the winter, though men see the light of the sun, yet the sun is not seen! All men may see them there; they are sound in body; their colour is not changed; neither do their garments wax old; and therefore the people hold them in great worship and reverence. A covetous wretch once attempted to strip one of them of his clothing, and his impious arm was dried up in the attempt."9 There is also a wonderful resemblance between the story of Arthur's future appearance, and an opinion prevalent among the early Christians, respecting a very different character—the detestable Nero. It is told by Lactantius. "The Tyrant, as he was dispossessed of the Empire, so he disappeared all of the sudden, nor is there so much as the least remembrance left of the burial place of that brutal prince. But some have from hence taken up a very foolish imagination, of his being translated, and of his being preserved alive in some other region; which they found on some words of the Sybil, that mentions a murderer of his mother that had fled away, but that should return again; and they fancy, that as he was the first, who persecuted the Christians, so he shall be likewise the last of their persecutors; and that he is to appear again immediately before the coming of Antichrist, and they judge the stars likewise that Nero shall appear as the forerunner of the Devil, who must make way for him, who is to bring a strange desolation upon earth, and destruction upon all mankind."10 This being the general belief in such statements, we need not admire, that in the native country of Arthur, assisted by the strong tendency of mankind to connect those events that give an extraordinary exercise to their sympathies, with the scenes of their passing existence, the locality of his final history became widely and variously assigned. We may allow to the Welsh, the merit of the original draft of the story, provided they claim no monopoly. The legend has been well pourtrayed. "In the cavern under the hazel tree on Craigy Dinas, king Arthur and all his knights are lying asleep in a circle; their heads outward; every one in his armour, his sword and spear and shield by him; ready to be taken up whenever the Black Eagle and the Golden Eagle shall go to war, and make the earth tremble with their affray; so that the caverns shall be shaken, and the bell ring, and the sleepers be wakened and come forth."11 Again, we find his warriors, each beside his coal black steed, immured in "Eildon's caverns vast." Leyden has sung of them. Scott had written of them before Waverley saw the light.12 "Some reliques of the ancient lay," are referred to the dreary dungeon over which Fast Castle (the presumed Wolf's Crag of Romance) frowns in solitary and desolate grandeur, and
Holds its blind visage out to the lone sea."
On the coast of Northumberland, which is more immediately our present theme, it is not unknown on "Dunstanborough's caverned shore," but the more particular details of its history have settled down upon the ruined strength of Sewingshields, and mingled their interesting bewitchery with the shadows of its basaltic crags, in whose pillars, the evidence of the exertion of a power even more gigantic and dreadful, than the utmost prowess of enchantment, stands for ever memorialized.13

The Northumbrian legends on the topic of Arthur vary in several interesting particulars, but all of them are accompanied with such strong features of affinity, that they may be easily reduced to one primeval type, which time, accident, and the opposite characters of relators have contributed to diversify. They bear the most fraternal likeness to the German and Welsh narratives already cited, and to those variations of the tale preserved in other districts, to which reference has been made. An outline of the scene, which in traditionary record they have rendered famous, will serve to place those legends in their most favourable point of view, and will the better exhibit their more prominent characteristics.

Sewingshields lies between the Roman Wall and the military road, near the 28th mile-stone from Newcastle, and at the western extremity of Warden parish. Of Sewingshields castle, Mr. Hodgson informs us,14 "a square, low, lumpy mass of ruins, overgrown with nettles, still remains. Its site is on the end of a dry ridge, and overlooked from the south by the basaltic cliffs, along the brow of which the Roman Wall was built. There are also some traces of trenches near it; and on one side it has a sike, and on the other, flat, swampy ground extends a long way to the east; but to the north and west, the surface is thrown into dry gentle hills and ridges, with intervening bogs." "Near the farm-house of Sewingshields, several basaltic columns rose very proudly and remarkably in the front of the high and rugged cliff that The Wall has traversed, and one of these in particular, was called by some, King Arthur, and by others King Ethel's Chair.15 It was a single, many-sided shaft, about ten feet high, and had a natural seat on its top, like a chair with a back; but was most wantonly overturned a few years since by a mischievous lad, well known in the neighbourhood, but unworthy of punishment by the mention of his name. Vulgar malignity loves to torment the orderly and ingenuous, by destroying works which time has sanctified and rendered objects of their veneration.

"Though the history of Sewingshields castle is blended with legends of British days, its size never entitled it to a higher name than a tower, of which description of border strengths many were much more formidable than this.16 But as its tale belongs to times nearer the Romans, than these degenerate days, we will enshrine it here within the sound of Roman trumpets, and in sight of the armies of the Mistress of the World, as they make their well-defended marches from sea to sea. For the broad outline of the story, I am indebted to the enquiries and graphic pen of Miss Carlyle, of Carlisle: for parts of its detail and colouring to old inhabitants of the neighbourhood.

"Immemorial tradition has asserted that King Arthur, his queen Guenever, 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 laid on a table near the entrance into the hall, and then, with "the sword of 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 at Sewingshields, about 50 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 a 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 faith 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 antient power, and they all gradually sunk to rest; but not before the monarch lifted up his eyes and hands, and exclaimed,
"O woe betide that evil day,
On which this witless wight was born,
Who drew the sword—the garter cut,
But never blew the bugle horn!"
"Of this favourite tradition the most remarkable variation is respecting the place where the farmer descended. Some say that after the King's denunciation, Terror brought on loss of memory, and he was unable to give any correct account of his adventure, or the place where it occurred. But all agree that Mrs. Spearman, the wife of another and more recent occupier of the estate, had a dream, in which she saw a rich hoard of treasure among the ruins of the castle; and that for many days together she stood over workmen employed in searching for it, but without success."

The version of the story that has fallen under our notice, has less of the "pomp of sceptred State," than the preceding, and has evidently inherited from a baser original, but its verity is not the less to be depended upon.

A shepherd one day, in quest of a strayed sheep, on the crags, suddenly had his attention aroused, by the scene around him assuming an appearance he had never before witnessed. There seemed to be about it a more than wonted vividness, and such a deep solemnity hung over its aspect, that its features became as it were palpably impressed upon his mind. While he was musing on this unexpected occurrence, his steps were arrested by a ball of thread. This he laid hold of, and pursuing the path it pointed out, found it led into a cavern, in the recesses of which, as the guiding line used by miners in their explorations of devious passages, it appeared to lose itself. As he approached, he felt perforce constrained to follow the strange conductor, "that had so marvellously come into his hands. After passing through a long and dreary vestibule, he was ushered into an apartment in the interior. An immense fire blazed on the hearth, and cast its broad flashes with a wild—unearthly glare, to the remotest corner of the chamber. Over it was placed a huge caldron, as if preparations were being made for a feast on an extensive sca1e. Two hounds lay couchant on either side of the fire-place, in the stillness of unbroken slumber. The only remarkable piece of furniture in the apartment was a table, covered with green cloth.17 At the head of the table, a being considerably advanced in years, of a dignified mien, and clad in the habiliments of war, sat, as it were fast asleep, in an arm-chair. At the other end of the table lay a horn and a sword. Notwithstanding these signs of life, throughout the chamber there prevailed a dread silence, the very feeling of which made the shepherd reflect that he had advanced beyond the limits of human experience, and that he was now in the presence of objects that belonged more to death than to life! The very idea made his flesh creep. He however had the fortitude left, to advance to the table and lift the horn. The hounds pricked up their ears most fearfully, and the grisly veteran "started up on his elbow," and raising his half unwilling eyes, told the staggered hind, that if he would blow the horn and draw the sword, he would confer upon him the honours of knighthood, to last through time. But such unheard of dignities from a source so ghastly, either met with no appreciation from the awe-stricken swain, or the terror of finding himself alone in the company it might be of malignant phantoms, who were only tempting him to his ruin, became too urgent to be resisted, and therefore proposing to divide the peril with a comrade, he groped his darkling way, as best his quaking limbs could support him, back to the "blessed" daylight. On his return with a reinforcement of strength and courage, all traces of the former scene had disappeared; the crags presented their usual cheerful and quiet aspect; and every vestige of the opening of a cavern was obliterated. Thus failed another of the repeated opportunities, for releasing the spell-bound king of Britain from the "charmed sleep of ages." Within his rocky chamber, he still sleeps on, as tradition tells, till the appointed hour, or if invited by his enchantress to participate in the illusions of the fairy festival, it has charms for him no longer. "Wasted with care," he sits besides her—the banquet untasted—the pageantry unmarked,
———"by constraint
Her guest, and from his native land withheld
By sad necessity."18
The groundwork of this legend, says Sir Walter Scott, "is a tradition common to all nations, as the belief of the Mahommedans respecting their twelve Imaums demonstrates. It is found with several variations, in many parts of Scotland and England; the scene is sometimes laid in some favourite glen of the Highlands, sometimes in the deep coal-mines of Northumberland and Cumberland, which run so far beneath the ocean. It is also to be found in Reginald Scott's book on Witchcraft, which was written in the sixteenth century. It would be in vain to ask what was its origin. The choice between the horn and sword may, perhaps, include as a moral, that it is fool-hardy to awaken danger before we have arms in our hands to resist it."