Was Camelot based on a real place?

The Arthurian legends have enthralled people from all over the world for centuries. These tales have inspired many books, poems, plays, television series, and movies. The characters from the cycle of Arthurian stories are well-known, such as Merlin. Camelot, the castle and the court associated with King Arthur, has become a by-word for a place of magic and enchantment. It was the capital of the realms governed by Arthur.

However, did Camelot actually exist? There is a long and on-going debate about the historicity of King Arthur and the Arthurian world. There is also a long-running debate about the original Camelot. Several theories about the location of the original court and castle, which inspired the story of Camelot, have been proposed down the centuries. This article examines some of the locations which may have been the original model for Arthur’s stronghold and court.

The Arthurian Legend and Camelot

A 19th-century painting of the Death of Arthur

The setting for King Arthur's stories is the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Britain was invaded by pagan Anglo-Saxons who killed and enslaved the native Britons. Many Romano-British warlords emerged who fought the invaders and established kingdoms in the 6th and 7th century AD. It is believed by many that Arthur was one of these warlords who battled the pagan invaders or that he was a composite of several of these Brythonic leaders.[1]

There are many connections between the Arthurian stories and Wales. The first tales about the great king and hero are from Welsh poems and chronicles. However, they appear to have been widely known throughout England and even in Brittany (France). In the Middle Ages, several French writers composed cycles of stories about the king and his adventures. These were enormously influential, and they introduced new characters and themes. In the 15th century, Thomas Malory composed ‘Morte d’Arthur, which was largely based on French and Welsh sources. This was one of the first printed books in England and was critical in developing the Arthurian legends and the story of Camelot.[2]

The story of Camelot

Some of the ruins of Tintagel Castle

Camelot was first mentioned in the Romance of Lancelot written by the French author Chretien de Troyes in the 1200s. The first mention of the location is the following ‘Upon a certain Ascension Day, King Arthur had come from Caerleon and had held a very magnificent court at Camelot as was fitting on such a day."[3]

None of the earlier Welsh sources had mentioned this place, and they had referred to Arthur holding his court at Caerleon. They had stated that the monarch had several capitals throughout his realms. Successive medieval French writers developed the image of Camelot. In brief, they portrayed Camelot as a fantastic fortress, with a Christian Cathedral, magnificent halls, palaces, and of course, the Round Table.

In some of the medieval French stories, Camelot was the capital of Arthur’s realm before Britain's conquest by the Anglo-Saxons. Camelot had a brilliant court, where the most chivalrous knights from as far as France gathered to serve the monarch. Some 150 Knights of the Round Table gathered here and decided to go on a crusade to find the Holy Grail. The French sources do not really describe the court and city, and simply state that it was surrounded by forests but was also located near some pastures that were ideal for knights’ tournaments.

There were regular tournaments in the medieval sources where knights, such as Galahad, would joust to win honors and impress their lady-loves. In the medieval stories, Camelot is portrayed as a Christian city whose population was all noble and chivalrous. There was a dark side to this place of magic and chivalry.

It was here that Arthur lived with Guinevere and where she and Lancelot fell in love. The adulterous affair between the great knight and the Queen leads to a series of ruinous civil wars that ultimately led to Arthur's death and the decline of his realm. The magical court and stronghold did not end with the death of the great king.

In some medieval tales, the city continued but was much diminished until it was sacked and destroyed by a King of Cornwall who was portrayed as a traitor and an ally to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Malory and other writers later adopted the story of Camelot. Today the Arthurian court and city have become a symbol for an ideal and chivalrous realm, a fantasy land, and utopia.

Tintagel

The hill where Cadbury Castle once stood

One of the most commonly cited locations for the real Camelot is Tintagel Castle. Since the earliest times this castle on the coast of Cornwall, in the south-west of England has been associated with the Arthurian cycle of stories.[4] The Welsh author Geoffrey of Monmouth in his history of the kings identifies Tintagel as the site of the conception of Arthur. Tintagel was occupied by the Britons during the Anglo-Saxon invasion and it was the capital of a small Brythonic kingdom and this could have been the basis of for Arthur’s kingdom of Logres.

Archaeological excavations have established that it was inhabited during the Dark Ages. Experts had found evidence that it was a center of trade and learning, which was remarkable for this period when civilization had almost collapsed. Evidence of writing and scholarship in the post-Roman period have been found here. This would indicate that it was like Camelot, a center of learning and religion.

In 1998, a stone bearing an intriguing inscription was unearthed by experts. This is the so-called Artognou stone, sometimes referred to as the Arthur stone. This is a stone that was taken from another building and used in the drains of Tintagel. The artifacts bear the inscription in Latin ‘Artognou’. Many scholars believed that this is very similar to the name ‘Arthur.’ However, many have rejected this and believe that Artognou was a common Celtic name. Despite the fact that Tintagel was a royal centre in the Dark Ages and its associations with Arthur it seems unlikely that it was the original Camelot.

Cadbury Castle

Another possible candidate for the real Camelot is Cadbury Castle in Somerset, England. This was an Iron Age hill fort, and the Romans may have occupied it. In the Dark Ages, it was the stronghold of the local Britons, and it was the chief residence of a Brythonic ruler.[5] Based on the archaeological evidence, a major Warband leader resided here, and he and his successors resisted the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Moreover, it was rich by the standards of the time, which could have given rise to Camelot's story.

Local tradition refers to the site as Camalat, possibly a reference to the River Cam. This persuaded writers from at least the 16th century that Cadbury Castle was the original Camelot. Some believe that Cadbury's site was ideal for the defense of south-west England against the invading Germanic tribes. This, they believe, is strong evidence for it being the Camelot of the Arthurian legend.

However, there is no firm evidence that a monarch or warlord by the name of Arthur resided in the hill fort and could have been the original Camelot. Archaeologists who investigated the site believe that it was not occupied at the time when the owner of Excalibur may have lived and reigned.

Camulodunum (Colchester)

It is widely argued that after the Romans abandoned Britons, the locals continued to live in towns and used them as fortresses in their desperate defense against the assaults of the Anglo-Saxons. Some scholars believe that the real Camelot was Camulodunum. This was a Romano-British city, and today it is the modern city of Colchester [6]. It has been established that Camulodunum was inhabited during the Dark Ages and may have been a Brythonic center. It is highly unlikely that this town was the real Camelot because of geography.

Camulodunum is located in the south-east of England. The pagan invaders who descended on England after the last Roman legions left the island would have most likely landed on the east coast. Their homeland was Northern Germany and Denmark and Essex would have been one of the first areas they attacked. Based on the texts of the medieval English historian Bede, the south-east of England was conquered early on by the invaders. This means that it is highly unlikely that a British war-band leader or king could have ruled this part of England in the 6th century AD.[7]

Caerleon

Traditionally King Arthur is associated with Wales. The modern Welsh are the descendants of the Romano-Britons who were driven to modern Wales's uplands by the invading Anglo-Saxons. Today Caerleon is one of the most important archaeological sites in Wales. It was an important Roman center and was occupied in the Dark Ages.[8] In the early Welsh sources, Arthur is shown as having several capitals and one of them may have been Caerleon. Having more than one capital would have made sense, as it could have allowed a commander to counter the threat from the Anglo-Saxons more easily.

In the 12th century, Gerald of Wales recounted that Caerleon was Arthur's court, and it was here that he received ambassadors from other kingdoms and lands. Later, Geoffrey of Monmouth also made Caerolon the capital of Arthur’s realm. It seems that there was a significant Romano-British kingdom cantered on Caerolon in the Dark Ages, and it ultimately became the Welsh kingdom of Gwent.[9] Moreover, those who argue that the well-preserved amphitheater in Caerleon inspired the Knights of the Round Table's legend. However, there is no material or documentary evidence that a Briton war-leader resided in Caerolon by the name of Arthur.

Winchester Castle

The great hall in Winchester Castle

Winchester Castle is one of the finest medieval castles in all of the British Isles. Once a Roman fort was located on the site, William the Conqueror built a wooden castle. Henry II built a stone castle here and this was greatly expanded during the 13th and 14th century. It was believed by writers such as Malory that the castle was the real Camelot. This was based on the existence of a Round Table in the Great Hall. However, this was an imitation of the fabled table that was built on the orders of Henry II [10]. There is no evidence for the claim that Winchester was the location for the fabled castle and court, that has fascinated so many generations.

Conclusion

Many parts of Britain claim to be the original model for Camelot, including Carlisle in England's northwest. These are usually based on folklore and have no basis in historical fact. The areas discussed above are those with at least some basis to be regarded as the real Camelot. The location with the most realistic claims to be regarded as the court and stronghold of the fabled king is Caerolon. It seems likely that we will never know the real Camelot, just as we will never discover the real Arthur. There is a high probability that Camelot is a literary invention. The first mention of the court was in the work of the poet Chretien de Troyes. It is possible that he invented Camelot's court, and therefore it is not based on any historical location.

Further Reading

Littleton, C. Scott, and Linda A. Malcor. From Scythia to Camelot: A radical reassessment of King Arthur's legends, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (London, Routledge, 2013).

Gidlow, Christopher. Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones, and Digging for Camelot (London, The History Press, 2011).

Lacy, Norris J., Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation (New York, Garland, 1992-1996).

References

  1. Halsall, Guy Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), p 78
  2. Snyder, Christopher Allen. The World of King Arthur (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 6
  3. de Troyes Chrétien Four Arthurian Romances (London, Gutenberg, 1914), p 56
  4. Field, P. J. C. "Searching for Camelot." Medium Aevum 87, no. 1 (2018): 1-22
  5. Field, p 17
  6. Field, p. 56
  7. Alcock, Leslie. "Excavations at Cadbury-Camelot, 1966–70." Antiquity, 46, no. 181 (1972): 29-38
  8. Breeze, Andrew. "The Early Welsh Cult of Arthur: Some Points at Issue." Studia Celtica Posnaniensia 1, no. 1 (2016): 5-13
  9. Breeze, p 7
  10. Morris, Richard K. "The Architecture of Arthurian Enthusiasm: Castle Symbolism in the Reigns of Edward I and his Successors." Late Medieval Castles (2016): 349