In 1883, Edwin Guest argued that this large Iron Age hill-fort about two miles (3.2 km) west of Shapwick was the ‘Mount Badon’ where, according to early chronicles, King Arthur won his great victory over the Saxons. The same claim has been made for several other places whose names begin with Bad, including Badbury in Wiltshire and Badbury Hill in Oxfordshire; there is no supporting evidence either here or elsewhere. But Guest’s theory became known to members of the Dorset Field Club in 1889, and spread out into the wider community, where it soon inspired further legends.
One concerns a colony of ravens which nested in pine trees on the hill, and whose presence was supposed to ensure prosperity for the family of the lord of the manor. In 1908, the archaeologist A. Hadrian Allcroft linked them to the Badbury/Badon hypothesis:
The Arthurian tradition lingers obstinately on the spot, and in view of the ancient superstition that the dead hero’s soul passed into a raven until in the fullness of time it shall be embodied in human shape and ‘Arthur shall come again’, it is curious to read that the solitary clump of trees which now crowns the hill was the haunt of the last pair of ravens to linger in Wessex.
He is referring to the belief about ravens and Arthur found in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1604– 15), and at MARAZION, Cornwall. The idea of a ‘last pair’ is romantic, but must have been erroneous, for the following year the local ornithologist R. Bosworth Smith, while equally enthusiastic for Arthurian links, spoke of the ravens in the present tense:
Don Quixote himself tells us that King Arthur did not die, but was changed by witchcraft into a raven. … What place would be more appropriate for King Arthur to haunt, during his inter-vital state, than the scene of his greatest victory, Badbury Rings? Long may he haunt it! The raven has continued to build, with few intermissions, every year since 1856, either at Badbury Rings or in the adjoining park of Kingston Lacy.
These ideas became part of local knowledge and underwent further elaboration. In the Dorset Magazine in 1968, for the first time a ghostly cavalcade of Arthur and his knights is mentioned; moreover, the ravens have become not merely the last in Wessex but the last in England:
‘They do say if you’m up to the Rings come midnight, you’ll see un.’ … Badbury Rings has many associations with King Arthur. Legend maintains he is still here, that at midnight he and his knights ride round the pre-Roman hill-fort in a ghostly cavalcade … People hereabouts will tell you that, of course, Arthur must have been at Badbury Rings for some period of his life. After all, was this not the last place in England where wild ravens lived? Trying to unravel this, one may recall that in Celtic mythology there is not only Arthur but also a goddess called Badb Catha, the Raven of Battle. Is it possible that Badbury Rings bears her name?
Then, in the 1970s, Stanley J. Coleman offered a lively evocation of Arthur as a raven ghost:
Legend has it that the victorious Arthur reappears on the anniversary of the battle every year since those stirring days, in the shape of a raven. He flies around croaking his satisfaction as he surveys the scene of his triumph, then off he flies, to reappear the following year.