In the spring I announced my intention of diving into the “Matter of Britain,” the cornucopia of material concerning King Arthur. This is a long-term project, involving various detours and many interruptions. Before I left for Scotland I hinted that we may begin (or rather, continue) our study of King Arthur with a glance off the walls of Stirling Castle. And so we shall…
Stirling Castle is an hour’s drive north-west of Edinburgh. It has, of course, many merits (not least of which that it is a genuine medieval castle). Among these is that it is rumoured to have a connection with King Arthur. The original buildings were built in the early second century, although the oldest buildings that survive now are from 1381. Due to its strategic position, the castle was the key to holding the border of the Scottish kingdom. It was the seat of the Scottish kings until the reign of James VI, and overlooked the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297) and the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) during the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Below the south-west wall of the castle is a curiously tiered earth-formation called the King’s Knot. This is believed to be the remains of a 17th century garden, however it has been rumoured that King Arthur’s Round Table lies beneath the central mound.
The first document to mention this “Round Table” was a poem written in 1374 by John Barbour. The poem details the victory of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Barbour writes, Beneth the castell went thei soyne, / Richt by the Rownde Tabill thair way, “Beneath the castle forthwith they held their way, close by the Round Table.”1 In 1478, William of Worcester wrote that “King Arthur kept the Round Table at Stirling Castle.”2 This all sounds very good, but one must remember that these statements were written at least seven hundred years after King Arthur is thought to have lived, if he lived at all (more on that another time). By the time Barbour wrote his poem, King Arthur was already a famous figure of legend and monarchs leapt at the opportunity to legitimize their rule by connecting their ancestry with his. The Scottish kings were fascinated by the stories of King Arthur. King James IV built a jousting ground at Stirling, modeled after the ones of early medieval castles.3 The “Table,” if there was one, was likely a replica based on the stories.
Even though the connections between King Arthur and Stirling Castle are likely a fabrication created centuries after his life, it has nonetheless been discovered that the King’s Knot, and other locations around Stirling, are much older than the 17th century garden visible now, or even John Barbour’s poem of 1374. Archaeologists have found remains of ditches and structures beneath the Knot. They believe these date from the Roman and Sub-Roman4 periods when scholars generally agree Arthur would have lived (again, it is possible he didn’t).
North-west of Stirling Castle stands the Wallace Monument, built on Abbey Craig in the 1860s to commemorate William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling Bridge. On top of Abbey Craig are the faded ruins of an ancient hillfort. This hillfort may date from as early as 500 A.D.—also from the Sub-Roman period.
Although the buildings still standing in Stirling Castle and the surrounding area date from the fourth century onwards, underneath them lie ruins centuries older. While these places probably have no connection with King Arthur, they may date from his period and it is fun to speculate what was going on in that ancient world when history was dipped in legend.
2William of Worcester, Itinerarium, 1478. As much as I have searched for this document, I cannot yet find a digital edition. My citation is based on secondhand information found in this article by Stirling Castle guide Russel Moran, and in others of like subject.
3It is worth noting that later in the medieval era jousting tournaments were called “Round Tables” after the Round Table of King Arthur.
4The Sub-Roman period is the time between the departure of the Romans, circa 410 A.D., and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the mid- to late-500s A.D.