King Arthur ride out of a Cheshire hillside
to save England?
ONCE upon a time, in a
wood above the Cheshire plain, where the red sandstone cliffs rise
up to become Alderley Edge, a farmer on his way to market was stopped
by a bearded old man.
Was the farmer's fine white mare for sale?
No, said the farmer, for he hoped the horse would fetch a better
price in Macclesfield than anything the old man could offer. But
strange to relate, he could not sell his horse at market that day.
No one would buy. As he travelled home the farmer was stopped again
by the old man who led him into the wood and stood him before the
sandstone cliff. Merlin struck the rock. (Yes, it was he!)
The rock sprung open like a door to reveal a cavern where King Arthur
and the Knights of the Round Table lay asleep. They cannot return
yet to England's aid, explained Merlin, for the lack of just one
white horse, and yours will fit the bill. The terrified farmer took
the offered purse of gold and ran, leaving the mare in the cave
with Arthur and his knights.
So King Arthur was sleeping in a cave on Alderley Edge in the County
of Cheshire was he? The ' n surely he sleeps there still, for he
has not yet come to England's aid. White mare or no white mare.
What do we really know about Arthur? Very little. There are no concrete
historical facts. Surprisingly very little of the popular legend
was in writing before the fifteenth century. The earliest, and still
the best, itersion of his story in the English language was the
first edition of that most English of English books, Le Morte D'Arthur,
by Thomas Malory, printed by Caxton at Westminster in 1485.
Caxton said that Malory had taken his work'out of certain books
of French and reduced it to English', thus implying that Malory
was merely a translator and compiler of harmless foreign legends.
Malory even leads us to believe this himself in his text. 'The French
book maketh mention,' he says.
This is just a smokescreen. By writing tales of King Arthur's heroic
knights Malory was dicing with death. For in his day the subject
matter of this book was politically explosive.
At the end of his story Sir Thomas Malory tells us that he finished
writing in 1470, in the ninth year of the reign of Edward 1 V. This
was the very year that this glorious son of York, was temporarily
deposed and imprisoned by his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick,
Warwick the Kingmaker.
Edward escaped and Warwick fled, but returned to invade England,
aided by Louis Xl of France. Edward himself was forced to flee to
At the same time the country was also being invaded by the deposed
Henry Vl, with his warrior wife and son. It must have looked to
Malory as though the golden age which Edward's reign had promised,
would all be lost. England was in turmoil and about to lose a second
The chivalrous jousts, feasts, manners and clothes described by
Malory are all those of his own time, not those of the age in which
Arthur was supposed to have lived. For nine years most of the country
had, comparatively speaking, been having a good time.
As England recovered from the ravages of the Wars of the Roses there
were many ready to accept thoroughly English Edward, and his English
commoner wife, as candidates to rule a new Camelot.
Edward had drawn up regulations governing the organisations of tournaments,
intending to avoid risk and maximise the spectacle. The resulting
public entertainments became popular venues for wheeling and dealing,
much like corporate entertaining today. This won him friends and
undermined his enemies.
Promoting a new retinue of English born nobles around him, in contrast
to the Norman Plantagenet aristocracy of his predecessors, he established
a court, apparently given over to a good life of eating, drinking
and pagentry. The court of Arthur lived again.
But there were a lot of people who had never really believed that
Arthur was dead. At Bodmin a party of French monks got themselves
into serious trouble with the locals for asserting that King Arthur
was not alive. The Cornish of course did not hold themselves to
be English. Like the Welsh, the Men of the Marches, and the inhabitants
of Britons they believed in the Breton Hope.
In these very British regions there was always the hope that Arthur
was not really dead, only sleeping in the company of his knights,
ready and waiting to become King again.
'Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not
dead,' wrote Malory. 'Men say that there is written upon his tomb
this verse ... Here lies Arthur, once and future king.'-
Belief in the Breton Hope was a sore trial to the conquering Normans
and their successors the Plantagenets. The outer, unruly areas of
the country clung to their belief that someday, in response to some
extra stimulus, Arthur would rise up, gather his oppressed nation
about him and sweep the invaders into the sea. Gradually a watered
down belief in the Breton Hope spread through England until it became
as just an attractive story. If Morte D'Arthur was written in 1470
why was it not published for another fifteen years? Malory is believed
to have died a year after his book was finished, on March 14th,
1471, less than a month before Edward killed Warwick at Barnet on
The County of Cheshire had suffered more than most in the final
fight leading up to the overthrow of Henry Vl from their forced
allegiance to his only surviving son, who had been Earl of Chester.
After the Earl was also killed at Tewksbury one month later, Edward
made his own son, another Edward, Earl of Chester.
The baby Earl, only a year old, was received in Chester with great
Edward recovered his throne that year, - but not his glamour. He
was suceeded by his brother Richard III, who may or may not have
been responsible for the death of the twelve year old Earl of Chester,
one of the little Princes in the Tower.
In 1485, Richard was himself deposed - by a Briton, the Welshman
Henry Tudor, who promptly married Edward's surviving daughter Elizabeth.
Maybe at that point Caxton, who had owed a lot to the patronage
of Edward and his wife, observing the parallels between life and
art, published Malory's book as his own political statement.
So where is Breton Hope today? Where does Arthur sleep? Is he waiting
still in a cavern at Aiderley Edge on the borders of British Wales?
The door in the cliff disappeared, and could never be found again,
but Merlin was left behind. His face, carved in the sandstone, looks
out over a stone basin into which a natural stream drips a steady
flow of water, called locally the Wizards Well. Above the basin
these lines have been carved by a relatively modern hand.
'Drink of this and take thy fill
For the water falls by the wizard's will.'
On the day when Arthur does ride out, with all his knights, to drive
the enemies of England into the sea, will he be riding, I wonder,
on a fine white Cheshire mare?
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