Ancient Carlisle and Arthurian Legend

Hello, fellow history and King Arthur enthusiasts! Today we’re continuing to follow Gawain on his adventures in The Retreat to Avalon to the ancient city of Cair Ligualid, modern Carlisle in Cumbria. We’re currently on chapter five, and it’s a big one for Gawain. In fact, it marks a turning point in his life. That will be a topic for the next post, because today I want to talk about the location of this big event. It has a lot of links to Arthurian legend.

Carlisle is located on the River Eden in northwestern England near the Scottish border. Occupied continuously since being built in 1092, it is the most besieged castle in Britain, primarily due to the wars between Scotland and England. Yet, its history stretches back much farther, and it was a seat of power through the Arthurian Age and beyond.

British tribal regions of the Arthurian Age near Carlisle
Celtic Tribes of the British Isles

Prior to the Roman occupation, it was a British settlement of the Celtic tribe the Romans called the Carvetii. The name of the Roman fort established there, Luguvalium, comes from Brittonic for “City of the Strength of Lugus” (an important Celtic god). In Roman times, Luguvalium was the only walled city in Carvetii territory, so it was likely the regional tribal (i.e. civitas) capital. However, it is not thought to have been the capital of the Carvetii before that.

Roman Carlisle was one of the most important military bases in Britain, with powerful cavalry units stationed there, or at nearby Uxelodunum (Stanwix, a suburb of Carlisle). Hadrian’s Wall passes nearby, and Luguvalium was one of two major staging points for Roman incursions into Scotland. The road Gawain follows from Alt Clut (Dumbarton Castle) to Carlisle was actually built by the Romans in their attempts to subdue northern Britain. As I talked about in this article, that turned out to be a futile effort.

Roman Fort at Carlisle in the Arthurian Age
The location of the original Roman fort.

Nothing of the original Roman fort or its walled town remains standing today. Carlisle Castle lies over part of the original Roman fort, and the medieval walls probably followed the same lines as the earlier Roman walls around the town. The Roman re-fortified the city with stone walls in the 2nd century after the city was burned by Irish raiders.

Medieval Castle at Carlisle after the Arthurian Age
Medieval Carlisle

At some point, probably before the end of the Roman occupation, Luguvalium became Cair Ligualid, as the Britons reverted to their own customs and language. “Cair” means “fortress”, and was usually applied to walled towns rather than simple military strongholds. It survives today as part of many names in western Britain, including Carlisle, Cardiff, Caernarfon, etc. Cair Ligualid is one of the 28 Cities of the Britons (mentioned by Gildas in the 5th century) listed by Nennius (one of the oldest surviving chroniclers of Arthur) in the 9th century.

Cair Ligualid was the capital of the Roman province of Britannia Secunda. The end of Roman rule in 410 AD started the process of breaking up the Roman provinces and civitates into smaller kingdoms (modern counties in the UK are often based on these ancient kingdoms’ borders). Prior to the breakup, and for a short time after, the area that would become northern England was under the control of Coel Hen. Upon his death, his territory was split among his sons, per the Celtic custom. Britannia Secunda became the Kingdom of Rheged, a name that probably derives from the tribal name of the Brigantes.

Kingdoms of the Old North in the Arthurian Age. Carlisle in Rheged.
Yr Hen Ogledd

Rheged appears to have been a bellicose state, frequently at war with its neighbors. I allude to this in The Retreat to Avalon, The Strife of Camlann, and the upcoming Three Wicked Revelations. Cair Ligualid, however, remained a place where Roman education and culture remained strong as it faded in much of Britain. We are told by Bede that when St. Cuthbert visited Carlisle in 685, he was shown the Roman walls and a Roman fountain, still connected to a water system and working. There is no description of the fountain, but the one I describe in The Retreat to Avalon is based on other Roman fountains from the Roman Empire.

In the mid 600’s, the British princess of Rheged, Rhiainfellt, was married to Oswiu, the Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, peacefully absorbing Rheged into the Anglo-Saxon realm. It suggests that the Brittonic kingdoms still maintained a high status in Britain at the time.

Carlisle was a frequent target in the continuing border wars, changing hands at various times, sacked by Danish Vikings in 875, and finally taken by the son of William the Conqueror in 1092. He began the fortification that remains as Carlisle Castle today.

So how does Arthurian legend cross paths with Carlisle? There are historical references that suggest Arthur was active in the region. These may be the reason for so many references to the city in the Romance legends of King Arthur. Carlisle has been referred to as one of his courts, thought not the fictional Camelot. Urien and his son, Owain, both kings of Rheged, were frequently associated with Arthur, though Urien reigned about a century after Arthur died. Everyone wanted to be part of Arthur’s court!

King Arthur and Owain play chess during war
19th C. image of Arthur and Owain playing chess as war rages; from the medieval Welsh poem, The Dream of Rhonabwy.

Sir Thomas Malory, arguably the greatest of the Arthurian Romance writers, has Carlisle as the place where Mordred and Agravain catch Lancelot and Guinevere in the act, and it is here that Lancelot rescues Guinevere from the stake. Carlisle is where Perceval first comes to Arthur’s court. In Erec and Enide, Erec adventures to prove marriage has not made him less of a knight, and looks for Arthur at Carlisle. It is from Carlisle that Yvain sets out on his great adventure. The noble Saracen, Sir Palomides, is baptized at Carlisle.

Our favorite knight Gawain, spends a fair amount of time around Carlisle. In my favorite Arthurian Romance, Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s search for the Green Chapel takes him to the Inglewood forest south of present-day Carlisle. Another of my favorites, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell, is set in Carlisle, as is Sir Gawain and the Churl of Carlisle, which is another story of the Celtic-originating “Beheading Game”.

Gawain and Dame Ragnelle meet near Carlisle.
Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady

Our next article is going to talk about Gawain’s adventure in Cair Ligualid, where I adapt my favorite Arthurian story to a historical fiction setting. Until then, I’d love to hear any comments on this or other posts. Thanks for stopping by.

The Arthurian Age Book 1

7 thoughts on “Ancient Carlisle and Arthurian Legend”

    • Great question! Mostly it’s because we only know of the names from Greek and Roman sources. The Greek explorer Pytheas explored the British Isles about 325 BC, and it was he who first recorded the names of the Celtic tribes there, though his writings are lost and only referred to by others in the Roman era, and typically in Latin. We can’t be sure exactly what the tribes called themselves, but the names are likely close because Pytheas would have tried to keep the sounds similar when writing in Greek, but also because Celtic Brittonic is not too different from ancient Latin. Both languages descend from the Indo-European ancestor language. The name “Britain” was originally something like Pritanī.
      Thanks for checking in!

  1. Very interesting post, Sean! Thank you for writing and sharing it here on your website! Keep up the good work, much health, all the best, take care, and stay safe! Many blessings and great peace your way as well!

    P.S.: Minor correction, if I may:

    ‘Yet, it’s history stretches back much farther, and it was a seat of power through the Arthurian Age and beyond.’

    Shouldn’t it be ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s’?

    Kind regards,
    Victor Rouă – freelance writer and self-published author

  2. Hi Sean! Great reading your posts. Very informative and enjoyable. One thing, however. Roman rule did not “end” in 410AD. The three Legions were recalled. Their Eagles went with the Cohorts that left but much of the three Legions Briton Legionaries remained in their Forts along with many Garrisons of Auxillia (as many were Limitani and Romano-British with their families in Brittania). They were given a choice to go or remain. Many chose to remain. The final recall was in 476AD and many Auxillia vexxilations and Legionary formations did leave denuding the Province of much of it’s Military. The dark times really took hold but there was still a large Romano-Brittish military left even then.

    • Hi Mike! Thanks, but I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. 😉
      The record is pretty clear that the Usurper, Constantine III took most of the remaining troops of the field army and likely a fair number of the Limitanei to Gaul in 407. Increasing “barbarian” raids and lack of Roman support led to the Britons “expelling” the Roman magistrates in 410. When the Britons sent a request for assistance to Emperor Honorius, he told them that needed to “see to their own defense”. It was a tacit acceptance of what Rome likely considered temporary British self-government, but they never returned. By 476, the early British kingdoms were already established. There was still a certain amount of Roman culture within certain parts of Britain, but that was fading and according to Gildas, who lived at that time, Britain was ruled by “tyrants”, meaning people who were not legitimate rulers, which would have been Romanized in Gildas’ mind.
      Please keep up the input, I love hearing from you!


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