King Arthur’s Camelot: Location & Whether it Was Real

Camelot was King Arthur’s capital, where he reigned over the Britons before the Saxon invasion, according to legend. It does not appear on any authentic early map from that time period. The words “cam” and “camel” do, however, appear as elements in pre-Saxon British location names.

Camelot is never mentioned in Arthur’s earliest known stories. The first mention where King Arthur holds court explicitly Camelot, is in Chr├ętien de Troyes’ romance Lancelot, written between 1160 and 1180.

Three centuries later, Malory describes Camelot as the capital of the kingdom and the location of the Round Table. He usually associates Camelot with Winchester, however Carlisle is also mentioned in one passage.

Tennyson, on the other hand, never actually gave Camelot a location. The mythical city described in Idylls of the King was symbolic, in the poet’s words, of “the gradual growth of human beliefs and institutions, and of man’s spiritual development”.

No longer a reference to a specific location, the name now evokes a feeling or an idea.

Local legends and antiquarian guesswork have suggested several locations for this enigmatic city. According to one theory, it is located near Tintagel, Arthur’s renowned Cornish birthplace, in a district that includes the Camel River and Camelford.

Cadbury Castle in Somerset, on the other hand, has the strongest claim to be the Arthur’s lost city of Camelot.

An aerial photo of the site of Cadbury Castle

The ‘Castle’ is a pre-Roman Iron Age earthwork fort on a 500-foot-high isolated hill with views over the Vale of Avalon to Glastonbury Tor in the distance. The ramparts encircle an 18-acre enclosure on top of the hill.

The village of Queen Camel, formerly known as Camel, is nearby, as is the River Cam. During the reign of Henry VIII, the antiquary John Leland describes how locals referred to the hill-fort as Camalat and the home of Arthur.

Folklore from all ages has gathered around it. A well within the fortifications is known as King Arthur’s Well, while the summit plateau is called King Arthur’s Palace. Legend says the King sleeps in a cave there, and that the hoofbeats of his loyal knights of the Round Table can be still be heard in midsummer.

To say that this or that location is Camelot begs the question of what meaning can be attached to such an identification. There could never have been a medieval city like the one imagined by Malory at Cadbury Castle.

The Camelot Research Committee, which excavated the hill between 1966 and 1970 under the direction of Leslie Alcock, raised this issue even more forcefully.

Traces of several human occupations dating back centuries have been discovered. The evidence uncovered so far suggests that around the first quarter of the sixth century AD, Arthur’s presumed period, the castle on the Cadbury hill was the stronghold of a rich and powerful British ruler, who bought luxury items from the eastern Mediterranean, built at least one significant construction on the piece of ground known as King Arthur’s Palace, and renovated the defenses by layering a huge drystone rampart of Celtic type, the only one of its kind up until then.

An artists’s depiction of what Camelot or Cadbury Castle may have looked like

In light of other archeological discoveries, these findings indicate the phrase “Arthuran Britain” does have a historical basis, as well as Camelot being a historical reality which led to the creation of many legends, as they did around the smaller citadel of Troy.

The True Camelot

No matter what the truth is about the real Arthur, he represents a historical fact that can no longer be disputed.

After living under Roman rule and becoming more civilized, the British Celts fought back against the first Anglo-Saxon invaders and drove them away.

During the first half of the sixth century, the Britons dominated most of what is now England and the Scottish Lowlands.

They enjoyed relative peace and prosperity for the majority of this time.

Arthur appears to have been the British commander who received most of the credit for this prolonged period of peace.

He may or may not have been a king, but his victories as a military leader and the peace he helped bring about are the reason why legends about him were created and passed down.

Cadbury Castle, which is by far the biggest and most powerful of the known British strongholds from that period, makes sense as the leader’s base of operations.

In that sense, it may be the “true Camelot” of the “true Arthur.”

Moreover, the archeological context of Cadbury Castle includes other locations associated with the Arthurian legend.

For example, there is no evidence that Arthur’s birth place, the castle of Tintagel, ever existed. However, recent archeological research suggests that the headland on the northern Cornwall coast where it was supposed to exist was in fact an important royal center during Arthur’s time. In fact, it may even have been the coronation place of British high kings.

At a another Iron Age hillfort, Castle Dorein Cornwall, remnants of a chieftain’s sixth-century settlement have been discovered.

This chieftain constructed a timber hall, and he could have served as the inspiration for King Mark in the tale of Tristan and Isolde.

Other such hill-top dwellings have also been found in Wales and on Glastonbury Tor.

Thus far, the theory that Cadbury Castle was Camelot, the primary headquarters of the real man that inspired the legend of Arthur, has held up well.

Some authors, however, place Arthur’s birthplace elsewhere: Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, for example, claim he was born in Gwynedd, Wales’ northwest corner.

Knights of the Round Table

Some of the greatest tales associated with Camelot are those of the Holy Grail and of the Knights of the Round Table.

Looking at the historical evidence we have so far, what can we learn of Camelot’s fabled order of knights (a symbol of political, secular power) and their quest for the Holy Grail (a symbol of Christ and of divine power)?

Regarding the Knights of the Round Table, one popular theory claims that the real Arthur defeated the invading Saxons with a cavalry force, a personal corps of mounted men that, through legend, later became the Knights of the Round Table.

Heavy mailed cavalry was created by Rome in the last years of the Western Empire. The heavy mailed cavalry likely appeared in Britain in the early 5th century and continued to be used as a model for horse mounted warfare.

Furthermore, it is a fact that the Saxons were not horsemen, so they could have been defeated by mounted Britons.

There is still no direct evidence for the cavalry theory. However, research has made significant progress in tracing the outline of an actual British nobility in the Dark Ages.

Excavation results, combined with clues in early Welsh poetry, paint a convincing picture of warriors fighting under Arthur’s command and possibly gathering in his Cadbury millitary camp.

These knights, who undoubtedly fought against the heathen, lacked the variety of the Middle Ages.

They fought wars in thick leather tunics and breeches with mail coats, wielding long-bladed swords, spears, and round white washed shields.

These nobles almost certainly owned horses and rode across country, although it is still debated whether they fought on horseback or dismounted as infantry.

They were, at least nominally, Christians who attended divine service before a battle.

Their civilian attire was bright and possibly simple, and were adorned with gold ornaments and jewelry.

Bards played an important role in this early Briton society, with its strange mingling of barbarism and sophistication.

This is because bards also acted as historians of sorts, since they held the knowledge of a chieftain’s ancestors and could thus prove their legitimacy to rule.

Viewed from this perspective, Merlin and Taliesin may have been bards of old, who did truly exist but their true life stories were overcome by legends.

Because of these highly respected figures, the legend of Arthur and the British heroic age associated with him was passed down to to provide the material for the medieval British romance stories.

Celts and the Holy Grail

As for the religious symbol of Camelot, the Holy Grail, there is very little historical evidence that can act as a foundation for the tale of the Holy Grail.

One thing is for sure, however: there is no doubt Christians lived in Arthurian Britain and the nearby Celtic lands.

The Christianity of the people here was of a particular kind, and had the restless, wandering quality that the Grail stories reflect, and in some cases was strange enough to fit the peculiar atmosphere of the Holy Grail stories, if not the imagery in detail.

Before the end of Roman rule, the ruling elite in Britain were largely Christianized, and even produced such notable figures as St. Patrick.

The defeat of the Saxon invasion in Arthur’s time allowed a sequence of apostles, primarily Welsh, to shape a unique form of Christian culture as it spread in both Britain and Ireland.

Ireland, in particular, rose to become the most educated western land of the Dark Ages, due in large part to the British saints who came after Patrick.

During this time, the Celtic Church of the British Isles was almost completely separate from the Christianity of the continent, and because of this is evolved to have a character of its own.

It was based on monasteries rather than dioceses; its ruling priests were abbots rather than bishops; and the tone was set by the monks rather than the secular clergy.

According to Welsh legend, the major religious centers of Arthurian Britain were Amesbury, Glastonbury, and Llantwit Major in South Wales.

Despite having monasteries, none of the three were bishops’ residences.

Celtic monks in Britain and Ireland were more free than their counterparts on the European continent.

They travelled extensively and had a more democratic worldview.

Women were more respected than they were among Christians in Continental Europe because the importance of monks made nuns important too.

However, the arts suffered as a because of the ascetic disdain for worldly things.

Sculpture, for example, was reduced to decoration, and church architecture was non-existent.

However, the Irish excelled in literature and scholarship, and Gildas, the only British monk of the sixth century whose writings survive, was well-read and wrote in Latin.

The Church of the British Isles did not have to compete with a powerful and entrenched pagan priesthood, unlike the case of the Church on the European continent.

Even the Irish Druids posed little danger. As a result, the old religion that existed before the arrival of Christianity was not regarded as Satanic in the same way, and the Celts preserved much mythology and history that had faded or dissapeared elsewhere on the continent, such as Celtic apocalypse & creation myths.

The fact that they could safely possess fictionalized Christian books, which the Continental hierarchy forbade the faithful, aided the trend.

Celtic monks’ writings contain strange doctrines about angels and even theories on how to communicate with the spirit world.

St. Brigit is even referred to as a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary as well as a priestess in some obscure sense.

Pagan beings reappear in Christian contexts, but this time as heroes rather than devils.

Among them is the god Bran, a deity of both British and Irish Celts.

He appears in some of Arthur’s early legends, as a lord of Britain in the Welsh Mabinogion, as an Atlantic seaman in an early Irish tale, and eventually as Brons, a follower of Joseph of Arimathea, in the Grail stories themselves.

The saga of St. Brendan’s Voyage, which has its own links to the Grail Quest, combines Pagan myth, Christian legend, and classical scholarship.

Despite all it’s particularities however, Celtic Christianity could never truly be described as heretical. However, it expressed an unusual flavor, a “sense of something else.”

The Synod of Whitby in 663 brought the Celts into line with Rome, at a time when their missionaries had deeply influenced the Anglo-Saxons, and reversed their earlier westward movement.

The ferocity of the Whitby debate reflects the contintental Roman clerics’ sense of being confronted with a perplexing and unusual form of Christianity that they wanted to control.

There is no reason to believe that the Grail tales represent anything specific that occurred among Arthur’s people, but the medieval authors who saw that culture as a suitable setting for strange Christian mysteries were acting on a sound instinct.

If Cadbury Castle was Camelot, its proximity to Glastonbury, the Celtic sanctuary where the Grail legend has lingered for so long, could be more than a coincidence.

The Welsh and Arthur

As a cultural concept, Arthurian Britain has gone through two stages.

The early Welsh culture looked back to a mythical “Island of Britain” where Arthur and other heroes had lived.

Geographically, England was known as “Logria,” and the “Cymry,” or Welsh, ruled over it.

Then the Cymry lost Logria to the Anglo-Saxons, and only Wales kept what was left of Arthurian glory.

However, it was prophesied that one day Arthur would return as a Celtic messiah and conquer the English.

In the 1130s, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain, which did much to plant an exaggerated and romanticized Arthurian realm in the minds of non-Welsh readers.

However, as the theme became more popular among non-Celtic romance writers, Arthur ceased to be a purely regional, Welsh hero and instead became a hero of the English as well.

England’s Plantagenet sovereigns claimed to own his birthplace, chief cities, and grave, as well as being his rightful successors in the lordship of all Britain.

Edward I displayed the alleged remains of King Arthur at Glastonbury to demonstrate that Arthur would never return to aid the Welsh.

Henry Tudor skillfully combined both aspects of Arthur. He emphasized his Welsh ancestry and marched to overthrow Richard II under the Red Dragon banner.

When he became King Henry VII, used his propagandists to interpret his coronation as king as fulfilling the prophecy of Arthur’s return, implying that a true “British” prince had rescued the entire country from civil war and brought back its ancient Arthurian glory.

The great poetic believer of this Tudor myth is Edmund Spenser, who, in The Faerie Queen, depicts England under the rule of Elizabeth I as a magnificent kingdom that was restored in splendor of the long lost Britons.

The same theme appears in other Elizabethan and Stuart writings, as late as 1757 in Gray’s poem The Bard.


References:

  • Celtic Myths and Legends by Charles Squire
  • A Treasury of Irish myth, legend, and folkloreby William Butler Yeats and Claire Booss
  • The Age of Fableby Thomas Bulfinch
  • Tales of the Celtic Otherworld by John Matthews
  • Celtic myth & legend : an A-Z of people and places by Mike Dixon-Kennedy
  • A brief guide to Celtic myths & legends by Martyn J. Whittock
  • Myths & legends of the Celtic race by Thomas Williams Rolleston
  • The Celtic twilight. Men and women by William Butler Yeats
  • The handbook of Celtic astrologyby Helena Paterson
  • Celtic myth and legend : poetry & romanceby Charles Squire
  • Mythology of All Races – Celtic & Slavic by Louis Herbert Gray and John Arnott MacCulloch
  • The religion of the ancient Celtsby John Arnott MacCulloch
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