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The River Eden begins life high on the moors above the valley of Mallerstang. It’s a remote place, harshly beautiful. The water bubbles northward on its journey to the Solway Firth, flanked in these parts by Wild Boar Fell to the west and Mallerstang Edge to the east. Alongside the Eden in the valley bottom is the road, tramped by countless souls since time out of mind. Close by the tiny hamlet of Outhgill, in a field about 4 miles south from the market town of Kirkby Stephen, you will find the brooding and crumbling remains of Pendragon Castle.
The story goes that Pendragon Castle was founded by Uther, father of the legendary King Arthur, in the dark years of the 5th century. These are times of historical shadows, after Roman rule had collapsed in Britain and the remaining population battled for survival against terrible invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Scots. Legend says that a tyrannical leader, Vortigern, seized control in the south of the island, but was overthrown by Aurelius Ambrosius and his younger brother Uther, the rightful heirs. Uther became the Pendragon (the ‘chief dragon’ or ‘high warlord’) after Aurelius died suddenly. And this ruin beside the road in the old county of Westmorland, now Cumbria, is supposed to be Uther’s fortress. The legend goes on to say that the Saxons cornered Uther and a hundred of his men in the castle and, unable to storm its ramparts, murdered all of the defenders by poisoning the well. Further tales are that Uther fought a dragon in Mallerstang and also tried, unsuccessfully, to re-route the Eden in order to form a moat around the castle.
Let Uther Pendragon do what he can
The Eden will run as it ran.
We are not going to discuss in depth the legend of Arthur here. He is, at best, a legend, albeit an enduring one. Arthurian references and place names occur all over Britain, particularly west of the Pennines, where native resistance to the Germanic conquest held out longest. But if a man like Arthur ever existed he, and those associated with him (like Uther), would have been superhuman to have travelled so widely in a lifetime. There is a frustrating and inconvenient lack of reliable sources for this intriguing period in our history. Then again, this part of the country was in the Celtic Kingdom of Rheged, which survived – possibly due to its remoteness – long after most of south east England had succumbed to the Saxons. However, while it’s not inconceivable that Pendragon Castle is on the site of an earlier fortification, no evidence has yet been found for anything being there before the Norman Ranulph de Meschines built a castle on the spot in the late 12th century – 700 years after Uther is supposed to have lived.
At that stage in its history, the castle was called Mallerstang (possibly Melvestang) and one of its more notable owners was Hugh de Morville, Lord of Westmorland, who was one of the four killers of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
Actually, the name Pendragon was most probably bestowed by its 13th century owner, Robert de Clifford. Robert was one of King Edward I’s most loyal knights, and a great soldier, who was granted a licence to crenellate Pendragon/Mallerstang and his other nearby castle of Brougham, in 1309. There was something of an Arthurian cult at Edward’s court at the time – partly due to a 12th century cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey produced a hugely influential and imaginative work, blending fact with a liberal amount of fiction, the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) which puts Arthur centre stage at a time when the Plantagenet kings needed a unifying hero. Records show an event known as a ‘round table’ – a sort of combined feast and joust in which the leading participants acted out their fantasies and assumed the names of Arthurian knights – taking place on eight occasions in Britain, between 1242 and 1345. Perhaps Robert, who had Welsh roots as well as Norman and who might therefore have felt some connection with the ancient Britons, saw himself as Uther Pendragon. Up the road at the old frontier settlement of Eamont Bridge is a prehistoric earthwork known as Arthur’s Round Table; it is tempting to speculate, as Jennifer Westwood suggested in ‘A Guide to Legendary Britain’, that Robert might have held a ‘round table’ there himself. Robert, alas, was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Pendragon Castle was sacked by the Scots in 1341, rebuilt in 1360, and virtually destroyed when the Scots put it to the torch in 1541. For years it stood in ruins until, in 1660, it was restored by Lady Anne Clifford, countess dowager of Pembroke, Dorset, and Montgomery and daughter of the Earl of Cumberland. The remarkable Anne Clifford had, after a long legal battle, inherited five castles, including Appleby, Brough, Brougham, Skipton and Pendragon. She spent the last years of her life travelling from one to the other and in October 1661 stayed at Pendragon. She died in 1676 at Brougham and her estate, including Pendragon, eventually passed to her grandson, Thomas, Earl of Thanet.
It seems that Thomas had little use for Pendragon, other than in 1685 to use materials from it to help improve his principal seat at Appleby Castle. By the mid-18th century, it was once again a ruin.
The upper stories have completely fallen in now at Pendragon; the jumble of them lie under your feet as you inspect what remains of the interior. There’s plenty of dressed stone to be seen, though, and the position of a gatehouse is clear enough. The ruins stand on a mound, a little forlorn, with the Eden bubbling and tripping by below, to the west. It cannot have been an extensive place, even in its heyday, and it’s hard to imagine the bustle of activity there must have been then, standing now amidst the silent collapsed walls and towers, surrounded by the still, ever-watchful, fells. The only occupants these days are sheep and birds, but perhaps the ghosts will come in the right conditions.
So – as well as being a romantic ruined relic of a once violent border region, is Pendragon Castle also part of Britain’s mysterious Dark Age past? The fact is that we really don’t know how or why Pendragon Castle got its name and there is nothing tangible to link it with Arthur (or Uther) & Co. But it is in an alluring part of the world, where the mish-mash of place names suggest a less structured, multi-racial, past with various Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse and others all contributing to a rich patchwork heritage. Mallerstang, for example, is not English – it is almost certainly a combination of an older Cumbric-Celtic name with the Norse ‘stang’. Danish-Norse influence, coming centuries after the sub-Roman period, is particularly extensive, displacing whatever names existed before – though ‘Eden’ seems to come from a Celtic word meaning water.
Pendragon Castle is on private farmland. It can be seen from the roadside and it can be accessible, but the last time I was there it was fenced off because the ruins were being stabilised. If you do visit, and are allowed in, take care – and make sure to shut the gate to stop sheep wandering out.
As a footnote, the parents of Michael Faraday lived in a cottage in nearby Outhgill, before moving to London where Michael was born in 1791. Faraday senior, James, was a blacksmith and the cottage is still there (in private hands). Another electrifying piece of trivia brought to you by A Bit About Britain.