The Shepherd’s Tale

The Shepherd's Tale

The tales of King Arthur and his knights are among the most famous and well-loved in England’s history. The earliest references to Arthur originate from Wales and Brittany in north-western France, though the creation of the warrior king has long been credited to the French-speaking Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae (A History of the Kings of Britain) was written in the 1130s and, although not utterly based in fact, his portrayal of King Arthur in this text was instrumental in the popularisation of the Arthurian legend throughout Britain.

There are countless regional examples of legends regarding King Arthur, the north-east being no exception. This tale finds its origins at Sewingshields in Northumberland, which overlooks Hadrian’s Wall.

The crags of Northumberland hold many secrets. A wanderer at Sewingshields today would pass by unknowing, but here once stood the great northern stronghold of King Arthur. It was here Arthur received the chieftain Comyn and presented to him gifts of gold and polished wood embellished with jewels and precious metals. Upon seeing this, Arthur’s sons were struck with jealousy of the Northern captain.

“Who is this man, that he should receive such wealth from our father?” complained the youngest of the sons.

The eldest, who stood to lose the most from his inheritance, was angry. “A mere peasant, dressed up as a chieftain!”

The brothers sulked, until the time came for Comyn to leave the castle and return to his home. Then, a wicked plan arose in the mind of the eldest son. He plotted to follow Comyn disguised and steal back the handsome gifts the king had given him. His brothers were not difficult to persuade, as each coveted the riches for himself.

Shortly after Comyn’s departure the brothers rode out at night, finally coming upon Comyn’s entourage at a place called Haughton Common. There, they slew Comyn and his companions and returned. Arthur never learned of who committed so atrocious a crime against the good Comyn, but erected a cross upon the site where the massacre took place. Cumming’s Cross still stands there today.

Thereafter followed the many adventures of King Arthur, which are told by others with more skill in story and song than I. King Arthur faded from all sight and knowledge until all that remained of him in the north were the tales of bards and the old ruins of Sewingshield Castle.

A shepherd was whiling away a summer’s afternoon among the old stones, knitting a pair of stockings for himself for when the hard winter came. The afternoon would have been perfect, were it not for the flies which troubled him. Letting fall his wool to wave them away, he lost the ball among the brambles. It rolled away from him as he followed it, managing to grab hold of the end. The ball fell into a cleft hidden among the ruined walls and he reached down to retrieve it; but the further he reached, the further it fell.

Before long, the shepherd found himself overhead in the grasses. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw a rough path leading downwards, along which his wool-string led. Believing himself brave, the shepherd followed it down into the depths until he could no longer see the sky above him. A strange, eerie green light reflected from the walls of the cavern and made his skin appear a deathly colour, but still he followed his wool as if compelled.

Down and down he followed the path until he came to a doorway, hewn into the rock. There at last he halted, because although his wool-string led straight through, the passage ahead was narrow and glimmered as if bewitched. Toads hopped across the floor, their croaks making echoes which seemed to say, “Beware! Beware!” Three owls perched above the doorway hissed at him menacingly, as if both forbidding and daring him to enter.

Summoning all his courage, the shepherd ducked under the doorway and followed his wool along the passage, on and on, until a wonderful sight met his eyes. Before him was the entrance to a great hall. In the middle of the floor was a fissure from which a pure white fire burned miraculously, filling the hall with light. As his eyes adjusted, the shepherd saw beyond the fire a great silver lamp, which shone down upon a small table. The table was made from rowan-wood and was carved beautifully. Upon it lay three things; a sword in its scabbard, a garter and a hunting horn.

As he stood, the shepherd became aware of figures reclining or sitting around the table. All were dressed in rich finery and he knew them as courtiers, great lords and ladies clothed in fashions of a time long past. At the centre of the group and closest to the table sat a lady so lovely he immediately knew her to be a queen; and by her side, an old man of such noble stature and bearing he knew him to be a king. His crowd was studded with jewels which glittered in the firelight and around his neck lay a magnificent silver chain.

Being the lowly peasant he was, the shepherd was frozen in fear at having intruded into the presence of such royal company. However, neither the king nor any other figure moved. A thought entered his mind that these people had been poisoned and that this was their tomb, an undiscovered crypt of the castle which stood long ago on the grasses above; however, their clothes had not dimmed with age and neither had their faces. As he approached and passed the fire he finally knew them to be asleep.

The shepherd’s eyes were drawn to the table in front of him. Curiosity overtook fear and he reached out his hand to the sword. As he did so, the king’s eyelids flickered. He began to draw the sword from the scabbard; the king’s arm moved slowly as if rousing from a deep sleep. Drawing the blade out of its sheath, the king raised his head. The shepherd used the sword to cut the garter. The king began to stir and opened his eyes; and the shepherd recognised him – this was surely Arthur, the ancient king of the Britons.

Only one deed remained to wake the king and his court – to lift the horn and sound it. But whether it was the king’s gaze he feared or the enormity of the task he was performing, the man’s courage chose that moment to leave him entirely. He thrust the sword back into its scabbard, let the garter fall to the floor and fled. As he passed the doorway the shepherd heard a noble voice call after him,

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!

The shepherd did not stop to hear any more. His wool forgotten, he ran unseeing past the toads, the owls and the green light of the passage beyond and did not stop running until he reached his home. Uneventful year after year passed and the shepherd became old. Now a much wiser man, his thoughts returned to the secret hall beneath the ruins and King Arthur’s court sleeping below. He returned to Sewingshields and searched among the brambles and the ancient stones for the secret entrance to the underground hall until night fell. The next day he returned with a new ball of wool which he dropped at the same spot; but the ball lay there on the grass, unmoving.

Never again did the old shepherd find the secret hall. So legend has it, King Arthur still sleeps with his queen and knights all around him beneath Sewingshields, until the next adventurous soul stumbles upon the entrance; with courage enough to wake him.

Photo credit: Sewingshields Crags, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland by Roger Clegg

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2 Comments on “The Shepherd’s Tale”

  1. Rhys says:

    I have a short version of your Shepherd’s tale from Stuart Glennie’s “Arthurian Localities” article in the introduction to Wheatley’s “Merlin.” What is the origin of your additional details? Are they folklore or are they creative writing?

    • Marie says:

      A mixture of both! I would have to read the version you’re familiar with to judge. I have admittedly made the story more palatable, but all the details such as the items in the underground chamber, the rhyme, are folklore. The bit about Comyn’s cross is from another local story. My source for the shepherd tale was F. Grice’s Folk Tales of the North Country.


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