Prince Valiant’s England

A few brief shining moments

OVER dinner one night nearly two decades ago I asked the illustrator Hal Foster why he had decided to set his comic strip Prince Valiant in sixth-century England. Well, he said, he needed King Arthur to figure in the strip, and the earliest historical reference to an actual leader in Britain named Arthur places him in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, roughly a hundred years after the Romans had departed. Foster leaned a little closer, as if to impart a confidence. "It's also the case," he said, "that nobody knows very much about sixth-century England. That gives me a certain freedom."

I can appreciate Foster's point. Shortly after that conversation, with the help of an undergraduate degree in medieval history and much instruction from Foster, I took over the writing of Prince Valiant, teaming up with my father, the illustrator John Cullen Murphy, who had already taken over the drawing. The fact that huge gaps exist in our knowledge of Britain's political history in early medieval times does offer considerable scope for invention. But Foster insisted on accuracy about medieval life to the extent that accuracy is possible, and readers of the strip are quick to hold my father and me to account, writing in a state of dudgeon when they suspect that anachronisms have crept in. I have engaged in spirited and protracted correspondence regarding such things as the ogham alphabet used by the Celtic druids, the technology of anvils, and the origin of the surname Fulda. Both of us do considerable research, mostly in libraries but sometimes also by visiting places that Prince Valiant would have known.

Prince Valiant, the son of King Aguar of Thule (a kingdom in what is now Norway) and the husband of Queen Aleta of the Misty Isles (a kingdom somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean), is a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. His infant granddaughter, Ingrid, will eventually inherit King Arthur's throne. The strip has perhaps a dozen major characters, including the villainous Mordred, and a cast of regulars numbering in the scores. Although the tumultuous saga of Prince Valiant's life has taken him to four continents, roughly half his time is spent in the vicinity of the fabled city of Camelot, the capital of a kingdom that mostly enjoys peace but faces territorial pressure from ever-growing numbers of invading Saxons.

I have been to the scene of many of Prince Valiant's adventures, in England and elsewhere, but until recently had never visited the geographic heartland of the Arthurian legends, the county of Somerset. My wife and I recently set out to rectify that situation. Our aim was to spend most of daylight in the sixth century or earlier—that is to say, in an environment that Prince Valiant would have recognized—but to eat, sleep, and otherwise maintain ourselves in the late twentieth century. In many respects a fondness for the Middle Ages depends on keeping them at a distance.

SOMERSET, which lies less than two hours by car west of London, is a county that the English themselves have long held in high regard. In the great expanse of Exmoor it offers some of the brooding bleakness of Devon and Cornwall, but it has large swaths that display a softer, lusher mien. There are many stately homes in Somerset. Nearby there is one of the world's finest little cities, Bath, which was located in Somerset until gerrymandered into a new county called Avon. Bath, about which I'll have more to say later, has been an attraction for people at leisure for more than 2,000 years, and it is a good place to establish headquarters for a time if you intend to visit the Somerset region. My wife and I made it ours. We had a car (a necessity for autonomous day trips), but once arrived at a selected staging area, we relied on the means of transportation that was most prevalent in medieval times: legs.

One of the most appealing aspects of England is that the countryside is intricately crisscrossed by what are called public footpaths, routes of access between here and there which have been used since medieval times (or even longer than that) and which property owners must not obstruct. The footpaths are marked, and there is no shortage of guidebooks to point out interesting routes. We found Nigel Vile's Somerset Rambles to be unerring, and took his suggestions for five-and ten-mile walks almost every day, encountering few people and plentiful traces of ancient times. The countryside is, of course, where antiquity most naturally (if sometimes unobtrusively) survives. On our rambles the low, golden light of late afternoon revealed the furrows of medieval ploughs. Our paths took us down lanes, overgrown and casual in appearance, that the Romans had built as major roads, their unremitting straightness giving them away. We crested hills that had been used as relay stations—a bonfire set on one, and then the next, and then the next—for the transmission of important news. On other hillsides circles of stones fending off purple and yellow gorse marked the locations of prehistoric hearths.

Encountering all this was happenstance, but it's the kind of happenstance one can count on. We did make three premeditated forays. One was to Cadbury Castle, a 500-foot-high mound a mile in diameter, during a longer walk through south Somerset. Forget any preconceived notions of "castle" in thinking about Cadbury: the only thing there now is landscape, although some of it is man-made. The significance of the mound is that it is identified in legend as having been the location of Camelot. Is there anything to this legend? Was there a Camelot? All that archaeologists and historians can say for sure is that Cadbury Castle was the site of an Iron Age hill fort, and that after a period of disuse it was refortified by someone early in the sixth century—Arthur's time. Against this circumstantial evidence may be set the observation of my wife, who, peering from under the hood of a slicker, noted that if it doesn't rain in Camelot until after sundown, as the musical claims, then this must not be the place. Whatever the case, massive earthworks, which would once have been topped by staves and are now softened by vegetation, form rings upon the slopes. Shaping terrain in this fashion required enormous manpower and organization, and Cadbury offers a reminder that even in early medieval times people did not lack technological sophistication. It also provided an idea for an episode of the comic strip, in which Prince Valiant must oversee the quick construction of just such a fort.

Cadbury Castle has a gently domed and grassy summit bounded by a fringe of forest that gives the hill the appearance of a monk's tonsured crown. From the summit one looks across a broad plain, the Somerset Levels. To the northwest is the sugarloaf protuberance known as Glastonbury Tor, which was another of our intended destinations. In Prince Valiant the Levels are depicted as a treacherous bog known as Mucken Mire, which flanks the town of Camelot and King Arthur's Palace of Light on three sides. Bog is indeed what much of this area used to be—such parts of it as weren't under water entirely. Any high ground in the Levels existed essentially as islands, and one could travel from Cadbury Castle to Glastonbury Tor, a distance of some twelve miles, by boat—a fact reflected in Arthurian legends that refer to Glastonbury as the Isle of Avalon. In the later Middle Ages the bog was claimed for agriculture and drained by an intricate network of channels known as rhines.

We climbed Glastonbury Tor, which crests at 520 feet. The winds blew in off the Bristol Channel and were stiff. Below, the rhines sparkled in sunlight. Here and there dark columns of rain appeared to hold up the sky. The tor, topped by a medieval spire, can be seen from all parts of the lowlands, often appearing in one's line of sight unexpectedly, around a bend or over a rise. It is not hard to understand why the place had cultic significance in prehistoric times and acquired legendary associations in medieval ones. Glastonbury Abbey, at the tor's foot, is believed by some to be King Arthur's burial place; that this is in all likelihood untrue detracts not a whit from the haunting character of the place. Today a ruin, Glastonbury was one of the greatest monastic establishments in England, destroyed in 1539 when Henry VIII began suppressing England's monasteries. The abbot was taken to the top of Glastonbury Tor and hanged, drawn, and quartered. An Anglican minister today walks the grounds in a flowing black cassock, holding a short service on the hour five or six times a day at the grassy site where the main altar once stood.

Our third destination was Exmoor National Park. For aesthetic reasons the action in Prince Valiant frequently ranges over moorland: the vegetation is low, the views extend to far horizons, and evidence of prehistoric habitation abounds. Here on the moorlands the bones of the earth sometimes show through; this terrain in ancient times was as a result one of the easier places to go prospecting for various ores—crucial resources, then as now.

(And ones worth fighting over? Perhaps after a Saxon incursion? Might that be why Prince Valiant must build a hill fort?) Exmoor is wild but accessible. Anyone who has frequented the visitors' center at a national park in the United States knows how such a place is helpfully set up to accommodate everyone from the most casual tourist to the most experienced outdoorsman. The visitors' center lying at the approach to Exmoor, in the town of Dunster, is set up the same way, its walls lined with shelves holding several varieties of maps along with books and pamphlets on local history and the natural world nearby.

The finest walk of our trip occurred in Exmoor. It took us from a thick deciduous forest, which occupies the ravines that descend from the moorland mountains, up to the summits of the mountains themselves, along a ridge in the direction of some neolithic barrows, down into narrow roads among hedgerows, to a small, medieval church, and finally, for two miles, along an aisle between ancient oaks—a gnarled forest Arthur Rackham might have imagined—which led to where we had started. A short drive brought us to a beach on the Bristol Channel just in time to see a rainbow over the far coast of Wales. Thank you, Nigel Vile.

AS for Bath, it is a city that Prince Valiant would have known. It lies on the Fosse Way, the Roman military highway that slashed diagonally across Britain from Topsham in the southwest to Lincoln in the northeast—a road that Prince Valiant uses frequently in the strip. Prince Valiant would also have known about the hot springs in Bath, which made it a cultic center in pre-Roman times and a resort city after the Romans arrived (they gave it the name Aquae Solis, meaning "Waters of the Sun"). The Fosse Way survives in and around Bath as the A367 motorway. The extensive ruins of the Roman baths, partly restored, occupy a portion of the city center near the medieval abbey, and other Roman relics can be viewed in an adjacent exhibit area. Steam rises from the waters, which come forth from the earth at a rate of 1,170,000 liters a day and at a constant temperature of 116 degrees Fahrenheit.

The springs gave Bath its existence and its name, but they do not explain its appeal. Bath is built on several hills, through which the River Avon flows, and most of the city is today Georgian in character, the work largely of the architect John Wood.

This is not the brick Georgian architecture that marks the residential squares of London and Dublin but rather the stone Georgian architecture one finds in larger public buildings, here applied to buildings of every kind, block after block. The stone is yellow gray and universal, and it gives the city a happy consistency, which makes the place a delight even though the buildings seem not to be trying for effect. The scale is also humane. Inviting, sometimes eccentric alleyways lead off the grander streets. Because the city is compact, walking gets one anywhere.

Bath is prosperous. It has for three centuries been the West Country outpost of choice, the urbs in rure, for wealthy Londoners; some of the flavor of Bath prior to the Victorian era can be found in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and other novels. The city has a full complement of international stores—The Gap, Laura Ashley, Mondi—but they by no means dominate the many handsome shops of local pedigree. We were thankful for the presence of a Waterstone's bookstore. Bookstores are always a good place to stop when visiting an unfamiliar place; in addition to the obvious resources they offer, they tend to be information clearinghouses for the community as a whole. The Waterstone's in Bath stocks a complete set of the Landranger series of ordnance-survey maps of Great Britain, which show terrain at a scale of 1:50,000—meaning that a mile on these maps is about an inch and a quarter long. The maps indicate every feature that anyone, even Prince Valiant, could care to know about: tumuli, Roman roads, battle sites, and all the public footpaths (not to mention the more usual things, such as highways, railroads, and towns). A valuable adjunct to the ordnance-survey maps is the book The Medieval Landscape of Somerset, edited by Michael Aston, which explains the forms of ancient land management accounting for various aspects of the county's current appearance. Somerset is laced, for example, with hedgerows, many of which go back to the Middle Ages; one aerial photograph in Aston's book prompted an expedition to find a long stretch of exceedingly narrow fields between Cheddar and Draycott which were laid out by the Saxons.

The high quality of the food we ate came as something of a surprise. The idea that one can base a successful cuisine on unusual combinations of fresh local produce and game may not have reached all of England, but it has reached Bath. The restaurant at the Queensberry Hotel, where we stayed, was persuasive evidence of this, as were a number of other restaurants. (The menus in the windows, carefully describing the sometimes counterintuitive contents of each dish, give such restaurants away immediately.) The Queensberry Hotel, located in what was once the home of the Marquis of Queensberry, offers everything I want from a hotel: it is quiet without being stodgy, elegant but not overdone, and it provides service that is efficient but not overbearing. It also has the advantage of being small—only twenty-two rooms. (The price of a double room ranges from $135 to $225. For more information, write to the Queensberry Hotel, Russel Street, Bath, BA1 2QF, United Kingdom; telephone 011-44-225-447928; or fax 011-44-225-446065.) Designed by John Wood, the Queensberry is of a piece with the city itself. On the mantel of our fireplace the staff had left copies of Northanger Abbey and a useful old book called The Building of Bath. Our room, No. 10, looked out upon the irregular back upper stories of one of Bath's great adomments, a series of contiguous Georgian dwellings known as the Circus, which encloses a circular park.

When he was a lad, Prince Valiant was told by the witch Horrit that he would never know contentment, a prophecy that has been borne out by his subsequent life. I'd write him into Room 10, but I'm afraid he's busy with that fort.