BESIDE the old quay at Caerleon is a quaintly built inn called the Hanbury Arms and it is the oldest public house in the village. It was built in the 15th century by a member of the Morgan family, on the site of an earlier building established by the prosperous monks of Llantarnam Abbey. After 1720 it became associated with the Hanbury family during the establishment of their local tinplate industry By 1750 it had become a pub, under its present name, and is now a Grade II listed building.
In the early eighteenth century the person living here had to keep the wharf and its slipways in good repair for there was regular trade between Bristol and Caerleon but today this wharf is no longer of importance since Caerleon lost its trade to the new port nearer the river mouth at Casnewydd (Newport).
Literary history, relating to King Arthur was given a boost on the 16th September 1856 when a stranger arrived in Caerleon and rented a room at this riverside inn. Some years later, a local chronicler, J. Cummings Walters recalled that this man was ‘quiet and unobtrusive, but soon attracted attention because of his very reserved and secluded habits. Frequently he would leave the building early in the morning, and go no one knew whither, and on his return partake of slight refreshment and retire to his room until next morning. It was soon recognised that he was fond of long walks, and there was not a hill in the neighbourhood up whose sides he did not climb.
For a long time no one took any notice of him, but occasionally a letter arriving at the post office was delivered to him. At first the name attracted no attention, but at length, Alfred Tennyson Esq. inscribed on successive envelopes, seemed to have special interest for the local postmaster, for he began to suspect that the stranger was no other the Poet Laureate.
Alfred Lord Tennyson had come to Caerleon in search of atmosphere for his great work, the Idylls of the King and no doubt he had no desire to indulge in idle conversation. This bearded mystic who wore a long cloak and made notes on everything he saw or heard must have seemed a strange site to the local inhabitants. He undertook solitary rambles from morning to night over the local area and then returned to spend the evenings in his little room, thinking and jotting down his blank verses.
With the help of a local schoolmaster he learned some Welsh and endeavoured to read the Hanes Cymru (Welsh History) and the poetry of Llywarch Hen. His visit to Caerleon had been inspired by the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth who claimed in his Historia Regum Britanniae that King Arthur had once held a plenary court at Caerleon.
The Arthurian legends became Tennyson’s lifetime obsession, forming a magic spell, which haunted him and his poetry from 1830 until 1889. His Idylls of the King published in its earliest form in 1859 is a rare example of poetry as a best seller. It became a great favourite of the Royal family and Queen Victoria even saw her husband, Prince Albert as a modern day King Arthur.
Tennyson stayed at the inn for six weeks and in the panelled room which had been used as a courtroom he would have sat looking through the mullioned windows, gazing across the river Usk towards the mysterious forest of Wentwood. In 1856 he wrote:
The Usk murmurs by the windows and I sit like King Arthur at Caerleon. This is a most quiet, half-ruined village of about 1500 inhabitants.
Even today, this is known as the ‘Tennyson Window’ and on an external wall of the building is a commemorative blue plaque which records that ‘Alfred Lord Tennyson began writing his Idylls of the King here in 1856.
For a long time afterwards, the upstairs room where Tennyson slept was kept untouched, unaltered, just as if it was a ‘sacred relic’. The old four poster bed that had been used by the Poet Laureate during his stay, remained there for many years afterwards, but eventually fell victim to woodworm and had to be destroyed.
There was a time when thousands of visitors flocked to the Hanbury Arms every summer just to see the chair where the poet sat, the table on which he wrote and the bed on which he slept. Americans in particular made the pilgrimage and demanded to sleep in the bed. They even offered large sums of money to the landlord for the poet’s chair, and the little round table, longing to carry them back across the Atlantic. To sit in it was considered an even greater attraction than to tread in the footsteps of King Arthur!
A short distance from the Hanbury Arms is a large steep-sided mound, clothed in a thick mantle of trees and surrounded by a high turreted stone wall. It was built by the Normans as a motte and bailey castle and one of the legends associated with it claims that it was the site of a ‘gigantic tower’ built by King Arthur. Tennyson tells us that Guinevere climbed this tower three times when she was looking for the return of Geraint and Enid across the River Usk: ‘Now thrice that morning Guinevere had climb’d the giant tower from whose high cresr they say Men saw the goodly hills of Somerset…’
Tennyson’s Idylls of the King , a cycle of twelve narrative poems was published between 1856 and 1885. It retells the legend of King Arthur, his knights, his love for Guinevere and the rise and fall of his kingdom.
The complete poem was composed in sections over a period of nearly half a century and it was Tennyson’s most ambitious work. He had claimed that ‘there is no grander subject in the world’ and his lengthy preparation is the reason why it took him so long to write the entire work.
On the death of his admirer Prince Albert in 1862, Tennyson dedicated this epic work to him and this led to Swinbourne’s description of the Idylls of the King as the Morte d’ Albert. In his final section, Tennyson praises Queen Victoria and prays that she, like Arthur, is remembered as a great ruler long after her reign is over.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 -1892) Was born in Lincolnshire, the 4th son of the twelve children of George Clayton Tennyson, Rector of Somersby. At the age of twenty in 1829, he was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, ‘Timbuktu’ and his first collection of poems ‘Poems, Chiefly Lyrical’ was published the following year. But his best known work includes ‘In Memoriam’1850) and ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854).
Undoubtedly, Tennyson was one of the most prolific poets of the Victorian age. He was appointed Poet Laureate after Wordsworth in 1850 and held the title for 42 years, the longest tenure of any laureate.
Queen Victoria met him twice and in her diary described him as ‘very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair and a beard, oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him.’ He has been identified as coupled with Queen Victoria and the Prime Minister William Gladstone, one of the three most famous living persons. No other poet writing in English has ever held this reputation.
Alfred Lord Tennyson died at Aldworth, in Surrey on 6 October 1892, and was buried in the Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, near the graves of Browning and Chaucer.