SILBURY AND KING ARTHUR
by Laurence Upton
Silbury Hill lies at the heart of everything. It is at the centre of the whole Avebury complex, uniting Avebury Henge, the Sanctuary, two Avenues, the East and West Kennet Long Barrows, the East Kennet Stone Circle and the Swallowhead Springs, and it is the symbolic heart of our island.
Silbury Hill is thought to date from between 2800 and 2400 BC, the New Stone Age. Topped in turf, its shape is much unchanged from that time, though it was fortified in 1010 to defend against marauding Vikings. This and several other remarkable British and Irish megalithic structures predate any evidence of astronomical and mathematical cultures elsewhere in the world. It is now a 4,700-year old world centre, owned by Lord Avebury (b. 29 September 1928). His grandfather, the archaeologist and prehistorian Sir John Lubbock bought it when the henge stones included in the lot were about to be used as rubble by a builder. The Ancient Monuments Bill came about because he sought to safeguard the Avebury complex, and realised the need to widened its scope to protect our entire heritage. Through this process English Heritage now holds the lease of the Silbury hill and Avebury henge land.
The great natural Silbury Prime Meridian ley line runs across it, as does the "planetarium" ley line of the Wiltshire Downs as discovered by Rev Edward Duke, an antiquary living at Lake House in Wilsford cum Lake, near Amesbury, in 1846. To Duke, Silbury Hill represented Earth and was regarded by him as the centre around which all his Zodiac planets orbitted, marked by nodal "temples" in the landscape. The mighty Stonehenge, representing Saturn, marked its perimeter. Each of these temples he took to be Druidic sites, each one representing a planet.
The true age of these Neolithic monuments was greatly underestimated at Duke's time, and of course, they predate the Druids by thousands of years, though these monuments may have been appropriated by the Druids, for their own dramatic purposes. As recently as 1965, Ross Nichols (b. 26 June 1902, Norfolk), chosen chief of the Druidic Association, was championing Dukes "Axis of Powers" in his book "The Time Stones Of The Druids".
The name Silbury (Seleburgh in the 13th Century) may derive from Sul (or "Suil", meaning "eye"), a goddess venerated by the Britons; or Sol, the Roman god. However, Sil in British signifies "great", so the name could simply be "great hill", though in Welsh it means "seed". It has in the past, been taken to be a reference to a forgotten ancient king called Sil. "Bury" may derive from the Old English "beorg" = barrow, or "byng" meaning a defensive purpose. Swallowhead could be a derivation of Suilohead. When water circled Silbury it could have been said that "the goddess Suil has come to the mound and fed the spring" (Lawrence Durdin-Robertson - The Year Of The Goddess, 1990).
Local Silbury druid Terry Dobney believes Silbury Hill to be a water feature. When working, he believes, water rises inside the hill as a result of capillary action, and then flows out on to ledges around the sides. Silbury Hill is surrounded by a water meadow, probably used for pasture by Neolithic farmers. The area was evaluated by Wessex Archaeology in 1996, prior to a power cable trench being laid there by Southern Electricity. Their conclusions indicated seasonal flooding from the River Winterbourne in the East, confirming the existence of an ancient flood plain.
Bronze Age people revered sites of springs, so it is no surprise that Silbury is close to Swallowhead Spring (1W51.4 51N24.6), where the Winterbourne and the Springs combine to form joint sources of the River Kennet. According to Stukeley, locals up to the mid-19th Century locals climbed the hill on Palm Sunday to make merry with cakes, figs, sugar and water from Swallowhead Spring, or Spring of the Kennet. In the 18th Century there are reports of meals served on top of Silbury Hill at Samhain, with bonfires, bull-baiting, bowling, backsword, wrestling and dancing, with up to 5,000 in attendance.
In The Silbury Treasure, Michael Dames shows that Silbury Hill, which is aligned with midwinter and midsummer solstices, was built on a ley line that runs from Avebury Henges west entrance to Milk Hill, and indicates that "all full moons and all mid-day suns reach highest altitude on this line."
For the Celts, the mystic centre of the land was a powerful and important concept, since it was where the soul of the country, its sacred energy, was located. Lludd, in the ancient story, was required to vanquish two dragons. One represented the Britons and the other the Saxons, so he was defending the very soul of his country. To do this, Lludd had first to find the middle of his kingdom, which he did by measuring all of Britain top to bottom, and side to side (he found the "navel" to be the city of Oxford). The British dragon had raised a scream that rendered the land barren at the time which should herald the most fertile season of the year, the time of the Beltane Festival. To make the dragons harmless, they had to be taken far away from the centre to the mountains of North Wales.
There is no doubt that Silbury Hill also represents the mystic centre of an important ancient kingdom. To the Neolithic Wessex man it could well have represented the centre of the Earth itself, dedicated perhaps to Gaia, the Earth Goddess.
"In view of the fact that in China mounds like that at Silbury were erected upon lung-mei, the paths of the dragon, there is good reason to suspect that Silbury itself was sited by Pre-Celtic druids on a dragon line with the assistance of a geomancer's compass," writes John Michell in The View Over Atlantis. "It may also be inferred that the Chinese lung-mei stretch over the entire globe. Many centres of English dragon legend stand at the junction of well-marked leys, one notable long-distance example being the St Michaels line that runs from the Avebury circle to the extreme west of Cornwall."
The "Three Mighty Labours of the island of Britain" listed in the 14th Century Welsh triads include "heaping the pile of Cyvrangon". Dr William Owen has suggested that Cludair Cyvrangon ("Heap of Assemblies") may refer to Silbury Hill (Bryn Gwyddon may be Avebury).
There is a story that the Devil was filled with vengeance against some Wiltshire town (some say Avebury) and set off to bury it under a layer of earth, but was thwarted and flung it way, causing Silbury Hill.
"When Stonehenge was builded, a goodish bit after Avebury, the Devil were in a rare taking. Theres getting a vast deal too much religion in these here parts, he says, summat must be done. So he picks up his shovel, and cuts a slice of Salisbury Plain, and sets off for to smother up Avebury. But the priests saw him coming and set to work with their charms and incussations, and they fixed him, while he wer yet a nice way off, till at last he flings down his shovelful just where he stood. And thats Silbury." (original story words retained for 300 years by a Melksham family and recounted in Robert Heanleys Folklore, Vol. XXIV, p. 524, 1913)
The path to its summit, which winds serpent-like round the wide flank of the hill, is mostly unaltered after hundreds of years. Illustrations from Stukeley and Aubrey onwards have tended to show the slope of the hill as 60º or more, although in fact the sides are at 30°, a twelfth of a circle, linking Silbury with both the twelve signs of the Zodiac and the Arthurian knights of the Round Table.
Dr William Stukely wrote in 1723 that he believed Avebury represented a two-dimensional mausoleum focused on Silbury Hill, which he believed to be the burial site of Aveburys founder. The archaeologist Richard Atkinson suggested that Silbury Hill contained a Bronze Age potentate, the architect of Stonehenge, "a figure as shadowy and insubstantial as King Brutus of the medieval British History. Yet who but he should sleep, like Arthur or Barbarossa, in the quiet darkness of a sarsen vault beneath the mountainous pile." There is a case to be made that the Bronze Age King Arthur's resting place is at Silbury Hill.
Dr William Stukeley tells us, "No history gives us any account of this hill; the tradition only is that King Sil, or Zel, as the countrey folke pronounce, was buried here on horseback, and that the hill was raysed whilst a posset of milk was seething. The name of this hill, as also of Silchester, makes me suspect it to be a Roman name, sc. Silius. Silbury denotes the great or conspicuous barrow, as Silchester the Calleva of the Roman itineraries, denotes the great castrum, camp or city The person that projected the forming of this vast body of earth, Silbury Hill, had a head as well as hands, and well chose his ground, well contrived how to execute his purpose. He pitched upon the foot of the chalk hill, by the fountain of the Kennet, in the very meridian line of Abury "
King Sil, i.e. the Sun, was said to be buried in a golden coffin, or buried upright in the saddle of his gold horse. This could symbolise his riding towards the afterlife, or, it could imply that he is in a state of readiness to return one day and save the country, like King Arthur. He is still said to ride around the hill in his golden armour on moonlit nights. In Celtic mythology, the horse was an agent of regeneration, a potent life force. Epona, the Celtic horse goddess of war, had many cults dedicated to her in this area. She was linked to Rhiannon, and to the Campestres (goddesses of the parade ground), Hercules and Mercury.
King Sil could be a variation of the pre-Celtic Raven-god Bran the Blessed, a member of the family of Llyr, and identified by Robert Graves with Saturn (Apollo, Cronus, Aesculapius). Bran means Raven, and in legend it is told that Arthur could also be reincarnated as a raven.
Countering another argument, Robert Graves writes, "It would be fallacious to regard Stonehenge as Brans shrine, because it is an unsuitable site for the worship of an Alder-god. The older, larger, grander, Avebury ring 30 miles to the north at the junction of the Kennet and a tributary, is the most likely site; and is proved by the debris removed from the ditch about it to have been in continuous use from the early Bronze Age to Roman times. All the available evidence points to Stonehenge as Belis seat, not Brans; it is laid out as a sun-temple in cultured Apollonian style which contrasts strangely with the archaic roughness of Avebury." The White Goddess, pp. 40-41.
In Don Quixote (1605), Quixote says, "Have not your lordships read the annals and histories of England, in which are recorded the renowned exploits of King Arthur of whom there is an ancient tradition common in all that kingdom of Great Britain, that this king did not die, but by arts of enchantment, was transformed into a raven, and that in due course of time he will return to reign for which cause it cannot be proved from that time to this, that any Englishman has ever killed a raven".
Bran became grafted onto British tradition. His wounded foot may identify him with the Fisher King in the Grail legend, and he was a prototype for many characters of the Arthurian romances, including King Arthur himself. He has already been closely associated with Avebury by Robert Graves, through its associations with Annwn, the Underworld, along with Arawn, King of Annwyn (Mercury).
Like Sil, though mortal, Bran too had power over death. After his foot was injured by a poisonous spear in a battle with the Irish, he commanded the seven survivors to cut off his head and take it to the White Mount for burial. There it would protect the kingdom against invasion. The seven spent seven years en route in Harlech, feasting and listening to the magic birds of Rhiannon, and then a further 80 years on the island of Gwales, still in Wales, in peace and contentment. During all this time Brans head laughed and joked, and provided convivial company. However, it had been foretold that when someone mistakenly opened a certain door, a seriousness would descend on them and it would be time to complete the journey.
It is generally assumed that the White Mount, or Mound, was Tower Hill, where Brutus founded Troynavant (New Troy), in London. However, the leap from Gwales to London is out of keeping with the scale of the rest of the tale. It is now known that Silbury Hill is a white rammed chalk mound, covered by turf, and it fits logically with the topography of the rest of the tale. Furthermore, it was familiar to Bran from his dominion at Avebury Henge close by. Could this actually be the White Mount that Brans head was buried under?
Brans head remained buried until, later in the Arthurian cycle of tales, King Arthur dug it up:
"And Arthur disclosed the head of Bran the Blessed from the White Hill since he did not desire that this island should be guarded by anyones strength but his own" - Welsh Triads.
This is a clear indication that the archetype of Bran had been subsumed in the Druids bardic tradition by the new mythical order of King Arthur.
The idea that King Arthur did not die, popularised by Geoffrey of Monmouth, predates him by at least a decade, when William of Malmesbury wrote, "Arthurs tomb is nowhere to be found, for which reason ancient fables declare that he will return again." This potent myth could date back to Arthurs actual death: an attempt not to demoralise the British in their battles with the Saxons.
In 1723 workmen planting trees on top of Silbury Hill, found a skeleton near the surface which Dr Stukely hailed at once as that of King Sel. This was dismissed at the time as primary burials were said to occur at the bottom, not the top of tumuli. This may not necessarily be the case, as burials would have been made from the side, possibly starting near ground level, and working up.
If Arthur is Bran or Sil, and Bran is Arthur or Sil, then Silbury Hill becomes the true resting site of Arthur, in myth if not in historical fact. Bran was not entirely forgotten in the Arthur cycle, and appears first in the guise of Uther Ben (Arthurs father), then as Sir Brandel, and finally as Arthurs rival King Brandegore.
Silbury Hill is also incorporated into the myth of Sir Gawain, one of Arthurs knights.
He is required, for the sake of his own honour, to find the Green Chapel in order to be decapitated by the Green Knight, who waits for him inside the "high hill". The Green Chapel is depicted as a green mound, in a valley beside a stream. The poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight also alludes to the burn bubbling "as though it were boiling," which compares to the "posset of milk seething" referred to by Stukely with regard to the legend attaching to Silbury Hill.
Another of Arthurs knights was Sir Galahad, Percivals son, who completes the Grail quest. He was able to sit at the unoccupied seat at King Arthurs Round Table, the Siege Perilous. Taliesin claimed to have sat in the Perilous Seat and said it was above Caer Sidi (The Revolving Castle, or Spiral Castle). In The White Goddess Robert Graves, noting that its flat top is of the same diameter as that of New Grange, but 30 feet higher, writes, "I take Silbury to be the original Spiral Castle of Britain, as New Grange is of Ireland; the oracular shrine of Bran as New Grange was of the Dagda. Avebury itself was not used for burials."
It is possible that Silbury is the actual burial site of an important founder from the Neolithic period, but Sil, Bran and Arthur belong in the higher realm of myth, and not to mundane fact.
The Duke of Northumberland and Col Drax, with the help of miners from the Mendips, drove down an exploratory shaft in 1766 in search of Sels treasures, but found nothing apart from a slip of oak wood. Unfortunately, little was known of the construction inside the mound, and this and other explorations may have fatally damaged the integrity of the structure. It was this shaft which became opened up by heavy rainfall in 2000. A hole was discovered at the top of the Hill after Beltane on 1 May 2000, causing the Hill to be sealed off and guarded thereafter. The dragon was screaming again.
Dean J Merewether of Hereford had explored further from the side of the hill, for the Archaeological Instute of Gt Britain and Ireland in 1849, not deterred by a violent thunderstorm and opposition from superstitious locals. He too found only ox and deer bones and sarsen stones. Mistletoe was also discovered suggesting winter solstice festivity. There were further excavations in 1922, 1959 and 1967, and the BBC sponsored a new tunnel in 1969.
By 2001, there were worries that as a result of the shaft damage, the entire nearly 5,000-year old structure was in peril of total collapse. By now the 1.8 metres wide hole had grown 10 times larger. Another hill, the Marden Giant (Duke's Temple of Mars), had collapsed as a direct result of antiquarians having dug a tunnel there in 1807. English Heritage maintained that covering the hole at Silbury would be counter-productive and commissioned three studies: an archaeological excavation from the top, a 3-D seismic survey in July 2001, and a satellite contour study. Results of these studies were still awaited at the time of writing.
Julian Cope, the pop star antiquarian, describes the "green pudding" as "the mother hill. It is the mother of all hills, even if you are living in a patriarchy." (Ann Treneman, The Times Magazine, 9 June 2001). Convinced of its imminent collapse he added, "It blows my mind." In the same article, Amanda Chadburn, inspector of ancient monuments, describes it as "unique in terms of man-made mounds. It is the biggest, the best, the sexiest, the hugest, everything; all singing and all dancing."
There is one important related Arthurian connection already in place: Merlins Mound. Merlin is inextricably linked to the Arthur myths as a magician, wizard and prophet who acts as Arthurs mentor. A timeless figure, he of course is also credited with being the engineer of the Stonehenge stone circle. Perhaps he also had a hand in Silbury Hill, as it too was reputedly once surrounded by a circle of stones (Wilts. Arch. Magazine, XLIII, 215)?
Merlins Mound or Mount is a Neolithic manmade wonder, connected in some way to the Avebury complex. It is exactly half the height of its contemporary big sister, Silbury Hill, a few miles away. Silbury still keeps its secrets after considerable research, and Merlins Mound has been paid far less attention. Small wonder that little has been established as to its origin and purpose.
Marlboroughs Royal Castle used to stand on top of it, but it now lies within the grounds of Marlborough College in Marlborough, with an ignominious water-tank on its summit.
Standing outside linear time through his sorcery, Merlin was originally a pre-historic legendary figure. He was said to be the illegitimate son of a nun and an angel, who may have really been an incubus of the Devil, in the form of one Morfyn Frych (the Freckled), a minor Prince of the House of Coel. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the famous monk who lived and worked in 12th Century Oxford, wrote inspiringly about Merlin and a cast including Uther, King Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred, Bedivere, Gawain, Kai and Yvain. He was crucially important in popularising Arthurian myth, though other Arthurian characters such as Lancelot (son of King Ban), Perceval, Bors and Galahad (who is never found in Geoffreys writings) derive from the French romances of the time. Tristan, Isolde and Mark are of Celtic origin.
Later in life, by now King Arthurs tutor, Merlin fell fatally in love with Arthurs half-sister and sorceress Morgan le Fey, one of the Ladies of the Lake, whom he had met at the Fountain of Barenton (in Brittany). It was she who revealed to Arthur in later stories, by means of a truth-revealing magic potion, that Guinevere had betrayed him with Sir Lancelot. In some tales she is identified as Nimué (aka Niniane or Viviane), Lancelots foster-mother. According to the story, she wanted to learn all Merlins mystical powers, and soon became so powerful that she outshone Merlin's fading magic. To ensure her supremacy she imprisoned the now redundant Merlin in a glass tower or cave for the rest of all time.
There are several attributions for Merlins resting place - Bryn Myrddin (Merlin's Hill) near Carmarthen is one often-quoted site. Drumelzier in Tweeddale, Scotland; Le Tombeau de Merlin (Merlin's Tomb) near Paimpont, Brittany and Ynys Enlli, Bardsey Island, off the Lleyn Peninsula are others. However, Marlborough has the strongest claim.
A possible derivation of the name Marlborough from the Saxon is Merlins Hill, although a version of the name appears in the Domesday Book (1080), which predates the first applied use of the name Merlin, by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the early 12th Century. The Latin version of the name is Merleburgia (Merle Barrow), and Merlin's eternal prison and place of burial is now largely accepted to be Merlins Mound.
A couple of miles east of Calne in Wiltshire, the mysterious and splendid 5-6th Century Wansdyke path, while on its graceful curving line from Marlborough, passes a hill known as Morgans Hill, thereby linking Merlin at Merlins Mound, less than fifteen miles away, to Morgan Le Fey.
Morgan Le Fey is a powerful witch,
inextricably linked to Arthur (his half-sister) and Merlin (his enchantress and
nemesis). She is linked to Morrigan, a Celtic battle goddess who appears as a
hag or a maiden, or as a raven, crow or rook. In her Hag form she is the
Washer-at-the-Ford, connected to water, washing the blooded clothes of those
destined to die in battle. As a maiden, she is a Lady Of The Lake, receiving the
magical sword Excalibur from the dying Arthur.
Aurelius Ambrosius was the possible creator of Wansdyke earthwork, which runs and twists from Andover to Portishead on the Bristol Channel, and it is quite conceivable that the historical Arthur also had a hand in its creation, as he was military adviser to Ambrosius. Similarly, since Ambrosius was also known to have used the nearby Ridgeway it is likely that Arthur was familiar with that also.
Morgans Hill contains a sanctuary consisting of an earthwork, an unopened round barrow and a long low mound (50ft long) known as Furze Knoll, oriented due North and South. The mound is highest to the South, where the earthwork reaches 40ft wide, and there is a prominent grove of trees with a long-established rookery, a bird linked to Morgan le Fey.
These trees are visible from my study window as I write and are a landmark that can also be seen from Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow, and East Kennet stone circle. In October 2001, I visited the site with Maria Wheatley. We were struck by the powerful atmosphere we found, particularly at Furze Knoll. Though the day was mild and relatively still, the rustling from the trees, accompanied by a steady expulsion of leaves, was noticeable, and as we entered the grove, expecting shelter, we instead found ourselves buffeted by suddenly strong cold winds. We left and re-entered a number of times, and each time the effect was the same. Inside, the "sanctuary" includes a large bowl-shaped section with trees sprouting from its banks. Although growing from different heights, the tree-tops were all of the same height, forming a symmetrical oval shape.
As we continued our walk, Maria began to notice a smell of burning. I could smell it also, but there was a strange ingredient I didn't at first identify: sulphur.
It is easy to imagine Morgan Le Fay entombed here.
The name Morgans Hill can be precisely dated to originate only in 1720. At this time a gentleman discovering a theft of money, made it known that he would make it his business to find the culprit and hand him over to the law. He may have suspected already that the thief was his own nephew, John Morgan. If this was the case, it was perhaps foolhardy of him to agree with Morgans disingenuous suggestion that he should accompany him on an otherwise lone walk along the Wansdyke. Predictably, when they reached Blackland Copse, Morgan, having confirmed that his own status as nephew would not obtain kinder treatment from his uncle, cut his throat.
Hastening to Losemore Bottom, he washed away the blood of his victim from his person, and then made on to a lime kiln on Calstone Hill to dry himself. However, as seemingly with all villainy, he obligingly left behind the vital clue that was his undoing - the murder weapon, a jack knife.
John King, the kiln owner, found this the next day, and recognised the knife. Unfortunately for Morgan he was able to identify its owner, and after the due process of law, he was sentenced to death. He was taken on 24 August 1720 to the most prominent of knolls on Runway Hill, as it was then known, within sight of his last crime, and there hung.
Perhaps the name Runway Hill derives from the Wansdyke path, which can be clearly seen winding its way over the downs to the distant horizon.
The main post-hole of the gallows was subsequently found by the resourceful estate workers to be a good source of fresh water, even in the hottest driest months when the nearby pond was dry. And so, perhaps as an annual reminder of their unwitting benefactor, the hill came to be known as Morgans Hill.
Although to the literal mind this may seem to rule out an association with Morgan Le Fey, I like to think that a mythic association with place can recur time after time over centuries, rather like a plant or weed that persistently reappears on the same site long after all evidence of it would seem to have been eradicated. Why were gallows especially erected on Furze Knoll to hang John Morgan, when a set was already in place nearby in Cherhill?
When we visited Mary Caine to consult with her about our project, one of the stories she told was how she was initially unwilling to look for further evidence of a Kingston Zodiac. She felt that if she found she was on to something she would be committed to a long and arduous process of research, and that the credibility of her Glastonbury Zodiac would be undermined. Then when she was driving through the area that was ascribed by her theory to Leo, she passed signs of a pride of lions in Chessington Zoo. As soon as she began to take into account all the contemporary evidence, as well as historical, the wealth of associations to Leo she encountered became too multifarious to ignore.
The Wansdyke path is not the only link between Morgans Hill and Merlins Mound. There is also the Barbury Ring. This is a symbolic circular "ley" discovered by the dowser Glenn Broughton, while living in Avebury. If a circle centred on Avebury is drawn, 10 miles in diameter, so that the sacred sites of the East Field Treble Springs and Barbury Castle lie on its circumference, it passes through both Merlins Mound and Morgans Hill. It also passes through the former medieval village of Bupton, where now are only five springs to mark the spot. These sites together comprise the five points of what he calls the Avebury Landscape Pentagram, thus making the link back to Silbury Hill, which lies beside the Avebury henge.
Glenn Broughtons teams work was inspired by Rosemary Barry, who published an article in Fountain (December 1994) showing that the Barbury Castle crop circle formation of 1991 corresponded to some important sacred sites if overlaid on a map centred on Avebury, or more specifically East Field, some 5 miles away. This is the site of the Treble Springs and is close to two churches, one now disused.
"The story that Morgan robbed Merlin of his wisdom and imprisoned him in a crystal or a cave is a total distortion of the truth; this story being invented and perpetuated down the ages to denigrate and deny the female principle", writes Broughton, in Journey To The Heart, March 1999. "The reality was that Merlin and Morgan together stored away and hid their true power because the world was coming into dark times and it would have been misused. Merlin's Mound itself fell victim to this as the ancient sacred mound had a military castle built upon it. But it was one of the places where Morgan and Merlin stored this wisdom and energy until we were ready to use it for the benefit of all. It was safely hidden by moving the Michael energy current to bypass the mound and requiring the rediscovery and activation of this pentagram before their secret wisdom could be fully accessed once again. To me it is unimportant whether Morgan and Merlin existed as historical characters, what is important about their story is that their archetypes have been operational throughout history and are still so today. They help explain what is actually happening in the world."