Birdoswald in 1987 from the air  
 



The Roman name Camboglanna or "crook bank" which may identify with "Camelot"* lies near a stream called King Water draining the glacial drift landscape from near Midgeholme Moss. This was one of seventeen Roman forts on Hadrian's Wall which in its entirity is now classed as a World Heritage Site. The fort, thought by some to be Birdoswald, encompasses about 5.5 acres, and in the 200's had a garrison of the 1st cohort of Dacians & Thracians [from modern Romania], being rebuilt late in the 300's. The person who is speculated to have inspired the folk hero, King Arthur, is supposed to have died here in 537 fighting the Anglians3 In 573 A.D. the Battle of Armterid was fought a few miles to the N.W. of Arthuret2 Camlann was sited in the county of Cumberland, now part of Cumbria. However, then Birdoswald lay within the British kingdom of Caer Guendoleu centred on Caer Ligualid or Carlisle. As such after the Romans left the area was controlled by the British in what is now Strathclyde [Strat Clut or Alt Clut] with its capital at Dunbarton. The Scotii had migrated from Hibernia to Caledonia or Pictland in the 400's and colonised what is now N.W. Scotland, calling it Dalriada. *We might note with some scepticism note that the term "Camelot" is an invention of the French poet C. de Troyes in the 1100's, but he may have garnered this name from an earlier phonetic corruption.

Continuing excavations during the 1990's have shown two linear vicii or civil settlements, one to the west and one to the east of the fort which have been interpreted as 2nd century market sites between Carlisle and Corbridge. To the west of the fort lies a cemetary field  where 'Timeteam' found the first cremation urn on Hadrian's Wall.
Burials and mausolea are thought to be sited along the roadside as was common outside Roman forts and settlements. The excavation where the cremation remains were identified is being eroded by a northward advancing meander of the River Irthing although there was no evidence that the cremation area has been penetrated by this erosion. This erosion was then followed by slumping of the unconsolidated boulder clay - glacial drift composed of sand, silt and clay.
In the western field, evidence of pyre debris and cremation urns were located along with intaglia and coins from the Trajanic and Domitian periods [2nd century]. All coins were dated to less than 200 A.D. although we know that the Romans did not leave the wall until the early 400's and Roman-British occupation occurred after this collapse in the 500's.

In the 1980's two large granaries were found under the old tennis courts of the farm which was built over the fort occupied by civilians and soldier families after the Romans left Britain. A corn drying kiln was found adjoining the west guard-chamber which is of post-Roman date.
In the 400's a wooden building 60 feet long was built within the northern granary and occupied well into the 500's. The granary held enough for 1000 soldiers. The whole of the fort to the north is composed of barrack blocks.

Birdoswald ,a fort on Hadrian's wall. The excavations of 1987 revealed hearth debris, pottery, a jet ring , brooches and a gold earring from the 300's. This suggested that the fort was populated by civilians and families of soldiers after the Romans had left. Early in the 400's a wooden building about 60 feet long had been built on the Granary site excavation 1987 northern granary and was possibly occupied well into the 500's. This is equated with Arthurian times. Long narrow ventilation slots for the granary were found above the floor level  in the south wall of the better preserved south granary. The ventilation slots and the buttresses on the southern walls of both granaries suggest a rethink as to how the grain was stored. It is estimated that the granaries would together provide enough grain for 1000 persons per year.
The Roman Willowford Bridge crossed the Irthing about 3 miles to the east of Birdoswald fort. It is here that an undershot watermill was identified which most likely helped to provide ground wheat for the inhabitants of the fort.
Birdoswald is unique amongst the forts on the Roman Wall as it shows unbroken evidence of both Dacian altar from Birdoswald Roman and subsequent occupation. The fort also exhibits both the earlier turf wall which was built over and the later stone wall. Remains of the turf wall can be seen on the west side of the fort. Again this is a unique site on the wall because here the turf wall was not built over with a stone wall as in other parts of the Hadrianic boundary marker. The stone wall is reduced from its normal ten foot width to eight feet here. The fort was considerably damaged in the 1700's and 1800's. Some excavation work was carried out in 1851 and 1928.


Local  traditional references to King Arthur2:

English tradition says that Arthur sleeps in a cave and when Britannia is in danger Arthur will rise again to engage the enemy.
p 114 " 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 someone should first blow a bugle-horn that laid on a table near the entrance into 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 at Sewingshields some 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 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 ancient power, and they all gradually sunk to rest; but not before the monarch had 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!" 

........Terror brought on loss of memory, and he was unable to give any correct account of his adventure, or the place where it occurred". - a tradition collected by the Revd. J. Hodgson and Miss Carlyle.

aerial view of Birdoswald
image from http://www.getmapping.com                         An aerial view of  Birdoswald


P115 "Half a mile north-west of Sewingshields, beyond the wall, two strata of sandstone crop out; the highest points of each ledge are respectively called the King's and Queen's crag, from the following legend:-
King Arthur seated on the farthest rock, was talking with his queen, who meanwhile was engaged in arranging her 'back hair.' Some expression of the queen's having offended his majesty, he seized a rock which lay near him, and with an exertion of strength for which the Picts were proverbial, threw it at her, a distance of about a quarter of a mile!
The queen with gret dexterity, caught it upon her comb, and thus warded off the blow; the stone fell about midway between them, where it lies to this very day, with the marks of the comb upon it, to attest the truth of the story. The stone probably weighs about twenty tons!" - This may be personally verified today by the traveller" (probably the results of quarrying for the wall)

p116 On the Military Way between Sewingshields and Carvoran: "The columnar rocks soon attract attention. There used to be one that was dignified by the name of  Arthur's Chair, but it was purposely dislodged by a mischief-loving countryman."

p160  At Walltown Nick the Wall crosses the ditch"Close behind the Wall in the middle of the gap is a spring, now confined in a modern manhole, called the King's Well; the inhabitants name it King Arthur's Well. Other accounts are given of it. Hutchinson says* : 'Travellers are shown a well among the cliffs, where it is said Paulinus baptised King Egbert; but it is more probable it was Edwin, King of Northumberland.' But Edwin was christened at York, and this story at least is untrue"


                                     .Willowford and Birdoswald

CASTLESTEADS FORT ON CAM BECK - AN ALTERNATIVE CAMBOGLANNA?

In recent years, some question has arisen as the whether Birdoswald was the Roman fort of Camboglanna or more correctly, Banna.  Banna was formerly identified with the forward castle of Bewcastle. The modern interpretation is that Birdoswald should now be identified with the Roman fort of Banna. After Camboglanna the Notitia Dignitatum names Petriana which is seen as being Stanwix, just outside Carlisle. It seems that 'after Birdoswald the Notitia no longer gives forts of the wall in geographical order. Thus the Roman naming of the forts has moved in domino fashion down from Bewcastle then west to Birdoswald, to Castlesteads to Stanwix.

Modern Name Formerly associated with the Roman: New association
Stanwix Petriana Uxellodunum
Castlesteads Uxellodunum Camboglanna
Birdoswald Camboglanna Banna
Bewcastle Banna -

The Rudge Cup [left] and the Amiens skillet, which name the important wall forts from the west to Birdoswald were believed to supply the name 'Uxellodunum' for Castlesteads. However, Camboglanna might now be associated with the Roman fort at Castlesteads. Castlesteads fort is the only one not in contact with Hadrian's Wall lying within a deviation of the vallum to the south of the wall and south of Cam Beck in a highly defensive position. Certainly Cambeck Hill and the Cam Beck, which has partly eroded the fort site on its north side, could have gained their names from Camboglanna. Castlesteads fort is now labelled on Ordnance Survey maps as 'Camboglanna?' whilst Birdoswald could easily be derived from Banna [Oswald]. To the east of Castlesteads is Conqueror's Bank and further east still is Lanercost Priory where the great venerator of King Arthur and the round table often resided between bouts of hammering in Scotland. The only problem with making Castlesteads the site of Camlann is that to date excavations have not revealed any immediately post-Roman occupation. Castlesteads was occupied by the First cohort of Spaniards then perhaps in the 2nd century by the Fourth cohort of Gauls and later the 2nd cohort of Tungrians. Excavations were carried out in 1934 on a much reduced site which had been levelled for a garden in 1791 by the owners of Castlesteads House.

 

In the distance on the rise in House Wood is the location of Castlesteads, the recently identified Roman fort of Camboglanna, perhaps 'King Arthur's Camlann.


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Hiking Sources:
1. Map of Dark Age Britain, Ordnance Survey
2. Collingwood Bruce, J. , Richmond L.A. [ed.] Handbook to the Roman Wall, 1957.
3. History Today January 1988
4. Field work.
5. Collingwood Bruce, J., op. cit., 1957, p. 198.

External Link:
Map of the British  kingdoms 300-400's and the Anglian invasion


Copyright © Tim Midgley 1999, revised 22nd January 2011.