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Friday 15 July 2011

King Arthur's Stone

The inscribed stone pictured on the left is larger than it looks in the photograph: about nine feet (2.75 metres) long. Originally it must have stood upright, but for centuries it has lain on its side on the banks of the River Camel in North Cornwall. It's called King Arthur's Stone... and although there's no real evidence connecting it with King Arthur, it does at any rate come from the right period of history.

The "King Arthur" familiar from works like Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1869) is almost entirely mythical, based on legends that grew up during the mediaeval period. It's possible that King Arthur never even existed -- but if he did, then it must have been after the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, but before the country was overrun by the Anglo-Saxons. That's quite a narrow window of time, more or less corresponding to the sixth century AD. But that's precisely the period this stone dates from!

The most obvious inscription on the stone is in Latin -- in my photograph (if you click on it to enlarge it), you can read the first few words quite clearly: "LATINI IC IACIT FILIUS MA...". The most likely translation is "Here lies Latinius, the son of Ma[carius?]". But there is another inscription (not visible in the photograph, and barely legible) which is written in a runic-style alphabet called Ogham -- a "secret" language used by the Druids in Ireland. And the only time that both Latin and Ogham scripts were in use was... the sixth century! So the stone really does have an Arthurian connection, even if it's a very tenuous one! The best archaeological date for the stone is 540 AD.

Nowadays, thousands of tourists visit King Arthur's Stone every year. But one of the first travellers to make the trip, in June 1848, was the poet Tennyson. About his visit he wrote: "Sought for King Arthur's Stone, found it at last by a rock under two or three sycamores. The stone, a nine foot pillar, lies in a dank and picturesque setting near a stream. It is an inscribed memorial stone of the sixth century." This discovery was one of the things that inspired him to write Idylls of the King!

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