Arthur in the West Midlands

A review by Sir Guinglain the Fair Unknown

Large and mysterious envelopes are unusual and therefore welcome arrivals in my pigeonhole. Such was the package that arrived for me on Saturday 6 May. It turned out to be a collection of four documents assembled by Granville Calder of the Wychbury Archaeological Society, based near Stourbridge in the West Midlands. Mr Calder is a correspondent of Pendragon magazine, and had presumably obtained my name through seeing it in that publication. The letter enclosed hoped that I would find the four items of interest and that "you could discuss them with your members". Where better to do that than through the pages of Ceridwen's Cauldron?

By far the most substantial of the four was that dealing with Mons Badonicus (Hill of Fresh Water) - the site of the last battle at which the Britons successfully fought back the Saxons, according to Gildas. Subsequent sources, such as the Annales Cambriae and Nennius, associated the victory with the figure of Arthur. Granville Calder sets out to prove that Wychbury Hill, an Iron Age hill fort with evidence of post- Roman habitation - is the Mount Badon of legend and shadowy history, and was possibly a residence of King Arthur himself.

Calder's argument is intriguing but fails to actually convince. Much of it results from informed speculation that presents situations that are credible enough but lack the evidence to support the specific claims that he is making. There may well have been an incursion by Germanic peoples down the Trent into the West Midlands in the fifth century as Calder argues, stopping for a while at the end of the fifth century and starting again during the sixth. Calder relies largely on the authority of post-war German and British scholars, chiefly J.N.L Myers and Horst Wolfgang Boehme, for his account of the English settlements.

However, his main basis for identifying Wychbury with Mount Badon derives from a local tale, 'The Affairs of Hagley', telling the story of how "British legions" triumphed over the Saxons. Calder's sources are not given specifically, but the account has echoes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquarianism. He identifies the barrows at Clent Heath, near Wychbury, with the period of the Saxon conquest, without any justification for doing so, noting that when Charles Lyttleton Bishop of Carlisle opened three of the five in 1760 one contained "an Urn filled with human bones, perhaps the bones of the Chief or General." The temptation to make a connection with Arthur is obvious.

Calder points to a line on one manuscript of Gildas, that Badon 'qui prope Sabrinium ostium habitur', meaning near to a mouth, crossing or meeting place of the Severn according to Calder, to show that "this can only mean a place near to and which commands the crossings, etc, between Redstone (Arley) and Blackstone (Ribbesford) on the Severn. Redstone, says Calder, was the site of a Roman fort and Layamon was priest at Arley, where he collected Welsh legends for Brut. Other local connections are made with Ambrosius, the Mercian king Wulfhere and The Dream of Rhonabwy in the Mabinogion. Although the Ambrosius connections seem reasonably sound, based on local place names such as Ombersley, those with Wulfhere and the Mabinogion seem to rely on Calder's assumption that he has found the locale for the historical Arthur when there is no reason to suggest that the "Roman Type Villa" within Wychbury Camp can be directly connected with Ambrosius or his putative successor Arthur.

Further observations do little to advance Calder's thesis. "In Welsh writings Arthur is known and stated to have fought with a weapon known only to him", says Calder, identifying this magical item in a very literal sense as a mace of the type found in the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and "what other site has a major tomb within striking distance of Six Cave Tombs, in other words, Seven", an important number in early Welsh poetry such as The Spoils of Annwfn, backing this up by quoting from Tennyson's YEW (Taxus). Such connections begin to smack of desperation. What starts well ends up finding west midland sites for almost all Arthur's twelve battles listed in Nennius. While there may well be a genuine tradition about a clash of Dark Age forces at Wychbury, and the site certainly sounds of archaeological interest, with burial mounds and evidence of Roman or post-Roman occupation, it is really going too far to claim that there at Wychbury is both Badon Hill and one of the residences of Ambrosius or Arthur - although we know so little about the history and personalities of the period that Calder's claims can't be placed beyond the bounds of possibility.

The other three items deal with related topics, although they are less substantial. One is 'The Realm of Arthur', a far shorter, and more cautious piece going over similar ground to Mons Badonicus, that saw publication in the November 1994 edition of Mercian Mysteries. The others - 'West Midlands in Roman Times' and 'Boudicca / Suetonius', connect the Wychbury area with two other figures of British resistance, Caractacus and Boudicca, the former of the papers also describing something of the patterns of industry and settlement in the Severn valley under Roman rule. Calder suggests in the second paper that Boudicca's Roman opponent Suetonius did not fight her near Warwick as is usually suggested, but instead attempted to join up with the XXII Legion at Gloucester, only to be cut off by her "somewhere in the West Midlands". Calder asks for suggestions for sites rather than naming any himself.

Granville Calder's theories are enthusiastically presented but there are flaws in his arguments which weaken their credibility. His determination to prove that he lives in the shadow of Mount Badon overtakes his caution. This is not to deny that he has read widely on Arthurian matters, made plain by the bibliography as well as references in the text, but he doesn't make the use of his knowledge that he might. There may well be a good case for an Arthur-like chieftain, similar to the lord of South Cadbury, the 'Camelot' excavated by Leslie Alcock in the late 1960s, having ruled from Wychbury in the fifth century, holding back Saxon domination, but to make claims about Wychbury being Badon only distorts the picture.

Originally published in Ceridwen's Cauldron no 31, Trinity 1995