Bury Castle – Iron Age Hillfort & the Court of King Arthur

It may be a little off the beaten track but with breath-taking views across the Cornish countryside and a mysterious atmosphere Bury Castle near Cardinham is well worth seeking out. This castle has long been a forgotten treasure hidden in our landscape and the theory that it may be connected to the legends of King Arthur only adds to its mystic.

Bury Castle from above – image wikicommons

Making of a Hillfort

“Bury Castle, above Cardinham, is . . . situated below the highest point of the ridge on which it stands . . . To the east and south east the land falls steeply to a small stream. On this side the enclosure is guarded by a single bank and ditch. On the west where the land slopes gently upwrds, the fort is guarded by additional ramps and ditches of which only scanty traces remain.”

E. C. Axford, Bodmin Moor, 1975

Bury Castle was built to be easily and strongly defended. Not only was its position carefully chosen to maximise the naturally invulnerable features that the landscape offered but this was also a multivallate hillfort, meaning that its builders chose to surround it with multiple defensive ramparts.

We should remember however that there is little evidence that these forts ever saw much fighting. These forts may have been more of deterrent or a community hub and a status symbol rather than for military use.

“The social decline in the later Bronze Age, coupled with an ever increasing population, had already given rise to the building of some hilltop forts. In the new Iron Age, this trend was really to take off, but not necessarily as a reaction to greater violence. In fact, little evidence has ever emerged from them of actual conflict.”

Craig Weatherhill, The Promontory People, 2018
Plan of Bury Castle. Bodmin Moor, an Archaeological Survey Vol 1, Nicholas Johnson & Peter Rose, English Heritage, 2008

The hillfort is roughly oval in shape and covers nearly 4 acres (1.5 hectares) on the crown of a steep ridge. The entrance, now badly damaged, is to the east of the enclosure and the whole structure is surrounded by ramparts 3m high and ditches around 1m deep. Some of these ramparts are still very impressive today while others have been almost entirely destroyed by later ploughing.

“It is currently assumed that most settlements [on Bodmin Moor] were abandoned by c1000 BC due to deteriorating climate and impoverishment of the soils . . . The only readily identifiable settlements of later Prehistory are the strongly defended hillforts . . . The sites are found fringing the moor . . . and avoid the main granite up land which served as a great tract of seasonal grazing.”

Bodmin Moor’s Archaeological Heritage, Peter Herring & Peter Rose, 2001

Though built in the Late Iron Age, around c400BC – 600AD there is a theory that Bury Castle, like Castle Dore near Fowey and Chun Castle in West Penwith, was actually reoccupied during the Dark Ages (410AD – 1066).

An Arthurian Connection . . .

The connections to King Arthur in Cornwall are many and varied, from his supposed birthplace at Tintagel to numerous rock formations and monuments that bear his name. The earliest known reference to Arthur comes from a Welsh poem dated 594AD and it is generally thought that he ruled in the 5th or 6th century.

One of the places which appears frequently in Arthurian legend is Caradigan (or Caradignan) a fort where King Arthur is said to have held Court and this has long been interpreted as Cardigan in Wales.

However, Mr Egerton Phillimore (1856 – 1937), said to be a great authority on ancient Welsh literature and an expert in Welsh placenames, argues that Caradigan from the Arthurian romances actually refers to Bury Castle at Cardinham in Cornwall, a theory also supported by Sir John Ryhs in 1891.

“At first sight one would have said that Caradigan was the town of Cardigan but this name is actually a form of Keredigion and we have not been able to ascertain how early Cardigan became the name of the town, which was called in Welsh ‘Aber Teivi’ which literally means the Teivi’s Mouth. On the other hand we are assured by Mr Phillimore that the Caradigan must have meant Cardinham near Bodmin in Cornwall, where the remains of a great fort are well known.”

Sir John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, 1891.

Both men believe that Cardinham, once known as Cardinan, is a corruption of Caradigan, the place referred to in the legends of this king. (It is worth noting that the other ruined earthworks known as Old Cardinham Castle was of Norman construction, not built until the 11th century, after the conquest.)

So was Bury Castle once a seat of King Arthur’s court? If so, it seems it held a prominent place in Arthurian lore.

“This is one of the places where Arthur held his Court. It was at Caradigan that Enid was wedded to Eric by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of Queen Guenevere. It was to Arthur’s court at Caradigan that Lancelot brought his newly married wife, Iblis.”

King Arthur in Cornwall, W. Howslip Dickinson, 1900

Writing in 1926 Dr. J. Hambley Rowe reiterates Phillimore’s conclusions and also adds another link between King Arthur and Bodmin Moor. Rowe writes:

“Kair Belli mentioned by John of Cornwall [12th century Cornish scholar] in his notes on Merlin’s Prophecies might be Carbilly near to which on a high wooded hill was an important earthwork called Bury.”

Cornish Guardian, 3rd May 1928

Carbilla is a tor on the edge of Cardinham parish, while Carbilly is a hamlet and tor a few miles north of Bury Castle, so theoretically John of Cornwall could have been referring to either. On Carbilly Tor however there is a stone outcrop known as Arthur’s Sword . . .

Final Thoughts

Bury Castle, whether on not it is connected to King Arthur, this is a very special place, offering visitors wonderful views in all directions. It is only by standing within its walls that you can really get the feel for how impressive this structure once was, photographs just don’t do it justice.

Advice on Visiting Bury Castle

Bury Castle itself is on open access ground but from which ever direction you arrive you will be crossing farmland which may contain livestock. Please keep dogs on leads and stick to the footpaths. And of course its up hill all the way!

There are numerous footpaths leading up to Bury Castle but only limited parking on the verge beside the track leading to Higher Bury Farm. (It is might be easiest to park in Cardinham village.)

Alternatively follow the guided walk below which also takes in Old Cardinham Castle too.

Walking Opportunities

Circular Walk – Cardinham to Bury Castle

Further Reading

Caer Bran Hillfort, Sancreed – Cornwall Heritage Trust

Largin Castle – Iron Age Hillfort

Warbstow Bury – Cornwall’s Finest Iron Age Fort

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