Friday, 7 December 2012

In The Footsteps of Arthur, Part Four: Camelot

  Aspects of the Arthur legend have achieved autonomy, have become legends in their own right: the Sword in the Stone, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin, Excalibur, Tristan and Iseult, the Isle of Avalon. Stories have been written that focus on these aspects, reducing Arthur to a background figure. Such is the scale of the Matter of Britain that, even in the medieval epics, peripheral figures have been granted their own stories. As well as introducing Arthur to a wide audience with his Historia Regum Brittaniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth also produced Vita Merlini. An anonymous scribe gave us Gawain and the Green Knight, and Malory's Morte D'Arthur owes its considerable length to vignettes of various individual knights undertaking quests and adventures.

  Another iconic aspect of the Arthurian sources is his home, his base, variably a 'many-tower'd' castle (1), a shining city, an emblem of high civilisation. This utopia epitomises Arthur's ideal of chivalry. It was first named by the Breton author Chretien de Troyes in his poem Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart. Written in the 1170's, this poem also contains the first reference to an affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. However, the name is mentioned in passing, giving no hint of its importance to later works (a fact that holds true for much of the Arthurian mythos). It is, of course, Camelot.

Engraving by Gustave Dore

  Earlier works refer to Arthur's base, but they have different names. Some are obscure, one is known. Let us take a look at a couple of these pre-Camelot sites.


  A tale in the Mabinogion called Culhwch and Olwen may date to the 11th century. It tells the tale of Culhwch, a cousin of Arthur, and his attempts to woo a giant's daughter named Olwen. It also mentions 'Celli Wig' which can be translated as 'forest grove'; first as a site with a view: 'Drem son of Dremidydd... saw from Celli Wig in Cornwall as far as Pen Blathaon in Prydein' [a stupendous feat considering that 'Prydein' here means 'Pictland' - the Scottish Highlands!], and later as a destination: 'Arthur and his host went to Celli Wig in Cornwall', 'Arthur went thence to Celli Wig'.

  The site is also named in a collection of medieval manuscripts which preserve older Welsh folklore. Due to their rhetorical method of grouping places and people together in threes, these are known as the Welsh Triads/ Triads of the Isle of Britain/ Trioedd Ynys Prydein. Of Arthur's strongholds (three of them, of course) they have this to say:

'Arthur as Chief Prince in Mynyw...
Arthur as Chief Prince in Celliwig in Cerniw...
Arthur as Chief Prince in Pen Rhionydd in the North...'

  The location of 'Mynyw' is up for debate. It may be Aberffraw, a settlement on the Isle of Anglesey. Today a small village, it was the royal capital of Gwynedd between the 9th and 13th centuries. Its importance declined after the conquests of Edward I, when the buildings were dismantled to provide materials for the nearby Beaumaris castle. Caerleon and St. Davids have also been suggested as the site of Mynyw.

  'Pen Rhionydd' is even more obscure, and has been tentatively identified as Penrith in Cumbria, due to its modern Welsh name of 'Penrhudd'.

  These two sites fail to appear in subsequent material... but what of Celliwig? It appears to be sited with more certainty, as 'Cerniw' is the Welsh for Cornwall, but scholars have pointed out that variations also exist in Wales, e.g. Coedkernew near Newport, and a site called Gelliweg in Gwynedd. However, a Cornish legal document from 1302 mentions a 'Thomas de Kellewik', inferring that such a place did exist in Cornwall at least until the 13th century.

  With this in mind, the site has been sought out at various points in Cornwall. Callington, Gweek, Callywith and various promontories along the North Cornish coast have been mooted... but since Regency times, the focus has turned to a small Iron Age defended enclosure in the parish of Egloshayle, close to the A39 Atlantic Highway and just north of the town of Wadebridge. This site is known locally as 'Kelly Rounds', and more officially as 'Castle Killibury'.

'Kelly Rounds', covered in scrub

    It is a circular, bivallate (two defensive banks and ditches) enclosure which survives well on its northern side, but not so well on its southern due to ploughing and the presence of Sandylands Farm. Its diameter is between 220-250 metres, and traces exist of one and possibly two adjoining annexes. Archaeological exploration has shown that it was occupied as far back as 1250 B.C.E., the Bronze Age, although the defences probably date to the Iron Age, when the site was occupied between 400-100 B.C.E.

Castle Killibury (c) Google Earth

  And what has archaeology to show regarding the Arthurian period? Shards of pottery dating from the dark Ages have been found at Killibury, but not in any great quantity. They suggest settlement, but not on a large scale and not for a long period. Interestingly, though, the pottery is Tintagel-ware, found in great quantites at the site that has been proposed as Arthur's birthplace.

  Others have cast doubt on the idea that Kelliwic existed at all... pointing out that the 'forest grove' translation indicates an origin in the Celtic otherworld, a mythological context. In the absence of proof, let us turn to a site, much connected with Arthur, that most certainly exists.


  Caerleon-Upon-Usk, the Fortress of the Legion, was founded in 75 C.E., although the presence of the nearby hillfort at Lodge Hill shows that the area was already settled by the Silures tribe. It was the principle headquarters of the Second Legion Augusta, and was known by the names ISCA SILVRVM or ISCA AVGVSTA. The Legion was based here for over two centuries, until being moved to the Saxon Shore fort of RVTVPIAE at Richborough in Kent. After the Roman withdrawal, Caerleon may have become an important ecclesiastical centre, possibly due to the usefulness of remaining Roman buildings plus the association with two early Christian martyrs, Julius and Aaron. Its importance continued into medieval times with the construction of a Castle, and a pub next to the castle's only remaining tower played host to Alfred Lord Tennyson, who wrote his 'Idylls Of The King' while staying here. This work seriously revitalised the Arthur legend in the Victorian period.

Roman Caerleon

 The presence of Caerleon in Arthurian literature is an old one. It may be the 'Mynyw' mentioned in the Welsh Triads as one of Arthur's courts. The Mabinogion stories known as the Three Romances - Countess of the Fountain, Peredur Son of Efrawg and Gereint Son of Erbin all mention Arthur as being at Caerleon, as does Chretien de Troyes. The ninth-century Historia Brittonum lists Caerleon as the 11th most important city in Britain, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential Historia Regum Brittaniae certainly claims it as the King's main base.

Caerleon: Recent excavations have revealed a Roman quayside on the River Usk
  Modern Caerleon still has plenty of outstanding Roman remains. The ramparts can be followed for a distance, the sites of several barracks are available for public view and, protected by the Museum built around it, an excellent baths complex has been excavated. The most impressive remains, however, are those of the Amphitheatre. This has been known in the past as 'Arthur's Table', the place where the King and his advisors sat. There may well be a trace of historical truth in this. If Caerleon was indeed a major ecclesiastical centre in sub-Roman Britain, it would be a logical place for important meetings between leaders. If this be the case, the Amphitheatre at Caerleon could be the origin of the Round Table.

Roman Fortress wall at Caerleon

  It is certainly an inspirational site to visit. Other amphitheatres have survived to the modern age, the ones at Silchester and Cirencester being especially worthy of mention...  but there seems something a little special about the Caerleon site. Perhaps it's all the literary associations, stretching across legend as well as fact, perhaps it is merely imagination running riot. Or, perhaps, it's the Round Table.

Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre - the Round Table?

Others have claimed that the 'Caerleon' of the old stories may be referring to the Lodge Hill enclosure which dates back to the Iron Age and overlooks the town. Recent archaeological work has shown that late Roman and post-Roman activity took place at Lodge Hill, but not to a significant degree - certainly not to the degree that the site can be posited as the base of a major Dark Age chieftain.

Lodge Hill, Caerleon

 Other problems interfere with the identification of Caerleon as Camelot... the earliest being the first mention of Camelot by Chretien de Troyes, in his Lancelot Knight Of The Cart: '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.'

  As can plainly be seen, this very first historic mention of Camelot quite clearly states that it is NOT Caerleon! However, it may provide an indirect clue to another impressive site, only a few miles away... and now we turn to the first of two sites which I believe have the best claim upon Camelot.


  Troyes' passage seems to suggest that 'Camelot' was within easy travelling distance from Caerleon. This leads us naturally to the village of Caerwent, about eight miles to the east along the A48.

  Modern Caerwent is today a quiet village in the Welsh countryside, with views across to the older Severn Bridge... yet at one time it was important enough to provide the name for the surrounding county - Gwent. It originates in the second half of the first century, when the Romans built a town here in an attempt to 'Romanise' the local tribe, the somewhat bellicose Silures. The town was called VENTA SILVRVM, the 'Market Of The Silures', and may have been intended to replace a major Silures hillfort at Llanmelin (indeed, this hillfort has been suggested by some modern scholars as perhaps providing Troyes with the name 'Camelot', derived from Caer-Melin).

Llanmelin (c) David Ford Nash

  Although it was one of the smallest of Roman Britain's tribal capitals, Caerwent contained townhouses, shops, a basilica and forum constructed during the reign of Hadrian, a temple possibly dedicated to Mars-Ocelus, and in the mid-fourth century was surrounded by a defensive wall. The wall stands today around the perimeter of the village and is easily one of the most impressive survivals from Roman Britain.

Caerwent Roman Wall

   For those with an interest in history or archaeology, Caerwent is a joy to explore. Its walls stand to a height of several metres in places, and many other ruins are visible on ground level. A Norman motte stands in one corner of the defences. Laid out to public view are the foundations of several townhouses, the Romano-Celtic temple, and the Forum and Basilica. In the porch of the village church stands the Civitates Silurum stone, inscribed with Latin text that reads: 'For Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, legate of the Second Legion Augusta, proconsul of (Gallia) Narbonensis, imperial propraetorian legate of (Gallia) Lugdunensis. By decree of the ordines for public works on the tribal council of the Silures.' Another stone records a dedication to Mars-Ocelus and probably originates from the Temple.

The Civitates Silurum Stone

  And what of Caerwent's sub-Roman history, leading into the Arthurian age? It seems that the town continued in use following the Romans' departure in 410. Archaeological finds include jewellery that dates from the fifth to seventh centuries, and burials of the period have been found outside the East Gate and around the church.

Caerwent's Forum then...
...and now!
 Tradition associates Caerwent with a King of Gwent called Caradog Freichfras ('Strong Arm'), who was named as one of Arthur's Chief Elders in the Welsh Triads. At some point after 500 C.E., Caradog moved his court to Portskewett and donated Caerwent to the holy man St. Tathyw, who built an Abbey there. The modern dedication of Caerwent's church is to St. Stephen, a later corruption of Tathyw, and the age of the aforementioned burials would seem to back up this part of the tradition.

  So what else in the stories of Arthur might suggest Caerwent is Camelot? The biggest clue actually lies in the most famous of all Arthurian histories, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur of c.1470. This describes Camelot as being the city of Winchester, and today the Great Hall of that venerable Hampshire town does indeed boast a medieval 'Round Table'.

Created in medieval times, decorated in Tudor times, the 'Round Table' hangs in the Great Hall at Winchester.
  However, this association with the Hampshire town is an error. In his Introduction to Le Morte D'Arthur, its publisher William Caxton describes it as being in Wales, and Malory's words actually read 'Camelot which is (called) in English, Winchester', thus suggesting that the name is not English. If this particular Winchester is in Wales, it would be known by its Welsh name, and the Welsh translation of Winchester (another VENTA in Roman times) is... Caerwent!

  Furthermore, Malory writes of a chapel at Camelot. Twelve rebellious Kings were buried there, and it also hosted the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere. The chapel, just like the church at Caerwent, was dedicated to St. Stephen. Could some of the Dark Age graves unearthed around the church be those of these rebellious Kings?

An aerial view of Caerwent clearly shows the circuit of the Walls. The Forum can be seen above the centre, with the Temple to its lower right. In the upper left quadrant can be found the bases of townhouses. St Stephen's Church can be seen across the road from the Temple.

  Caerwent, the Roman VENTA SILVRVM, is one of the jewels of Roman Britain, and has never been less than breathtaking on my various visits. It is easy, very easy, to stroll the circuit of its mighty walls and imagine oneself patrolling the ramparts of Camelot, and if Arthur's mighty fortress was indeed in Wales, this noble village must surely be a major contender.

  Others, however, would prefer the site of Camelot to be somewhere in the southwest of what is now England, and one site in particular has a serious claim to the title...

South Cadbury Castle

  One of the mightiest Iron Age hillforts in the Southwest lies a short distance from the A303 in Somerset, a few miles from Ilchester (the Roman LINDINIS). Occupation on the site goes back as far as Neolithic times, when a 'causewayed camp' (usually interpreted as a seasonal meeting-place for ritual and trading purposes) was constructed on the summit of the hill.

Cadbury's mighty ramparts from the air
  In the period preceding the Roman Conquest, the Durotriges tribe threw up mighty ramparts to protect their hillforts. Maiden Castle near Dorchester is the most impressive example, and Hod Hill, Hambledon Hill, and Badbury Rings (see previous essay on Badon Hill) also display this tribe's determination to resist the invaders. It did not work, of course; the Durotriges were subdued by the Second Legion Augusta, who even built a small fort within the ramparts of Hod Hill. In later centuries, the Durotriges became the chief providers of Black Burnished Ware pottery to the Roman Army and were provided with important towns at Dorchester (DURNOVARIA) and Ilchester (the aforementioned LINDINIS).

  So why would this particular site be associated with Camelot? The proximity of the villages Queen Camel and West Camel, plus the river Cam (a minor tributary of the Yeo) probably have much to do with it, but the association was first recorded in Tudor times by Henry VIII's favourite historian, John Leland.

Bust of Leland, probably by Roubilliac; engraving by Grignion (1772)

  While travelling around the country in 1542, looking for historic sites, Leland happened upon Cadbury. He had this to say about it:

'Right at the South end of South Cadbury Church stands Camalatte. This was once a noted town or castle, set on a real peak of a hill, and with marvellously strong natural defences to which are two enterings up by a very steep way: one by the North and one by the South West. The root of this hill is over a mile in cumpace. In the upper part of the hill there are 4 diches or and wooden trenches to make them stronger. At the top of the hill above alle trenches there is a great area of 20 acres (est.), where in diverse places foundations of walls can still be seen. There was a lot of blue stone which the people of the village have used again and taken away.
  'Roman coins of gold, silver and copper have been turned up in large quantities during ploughing there, and also in the fields at the foot of the hill, especially on the East side. Many other antiquities have also been found, including at Camelot, within memory, a silver horseshoe. The only information local people can offer is that they have heard that Arthur frequently came to Camalatte.'

  Inspired by Leland, the Camelot Research Group was set up in 1965 and the hillfort was subsequently excavated by the noted archaeologist Leslie Alcock, whose previous exavation at the hillfort Dinas Powys in Glamorgan rendered him eminently suitable for the task. What he uncovered at South Cadbury stunned the archaeological world...

A plan of Alcock's excavations

   Alcock discovered that the site had, indeed, undergone major refortification in Arthurian times. Roman masonry was imported, probably from ruined buildings in Ilchester, to strengthen the ramparts in stone and provide the base for a wooden walkway. A cobbled road led to the southwest entrance through the rampart, protected by a wooden gatehouse. On the summit itself, on a flat plateau known locally as 'Arthur's Palace', was uncovered the remains of a large feasting hall, measuring sixty-three by thirty-four feet. Associated with this was a quantity of the pottery known as Tintagel-ware, a distinctive relic from the Dark Ages. Smaller buildings clustered nearby. The site went out of use early in the seventh century but came back into use during the tenth, when a Mint and an (unfinished) church were built here during the reign of Aethelred II.

Artist's reconstruction of the gatehouse at South Cadbury

      The scale of the site indicates that a high-status individual from Arthurian times held sway at this spot. Some have argued that it might have been Cadwy, in literature a relative of Arthur whose main seat was at Dunster, about twenty miles to the west. The name Cadbury, 'Cadwy's Burgh' has been cited in defence of this theory. Nevertheless, no other hillfort in the country has revealed Dark Age construction on this scale, although similar Halls at the Roman town of Wroxeter (VIROCONIVM) and the Hadrian's Wall fort of Vindolanda (BANNA) have been associated speculatively with Arthur. It seems a remarkable coincidence that the only hillfort to reveal this sort of activity, dated to the right timeframe, would also be the only hillfort known as 'Camelot' to the locals, and have a large building on a spot known as Arthur's Palace!

South Cadbury Castle

  Those seeking an Arthur in the Southwest have struggled to identify prospective Camelots that come as close to South Cadbury as being the ideal site. From the ramparts, lofty views can be had across the Somerset countryside, stones from the Arthurian defences lay scattered here and there and, on a clear day, one can gaze across the Somerset Levels and see the unmistakeable bulk of Glastonbury Tor, since medieval times associated with Arthur's last resting-place... the Isle of Avalon.

Soon: Part Five, Avalon.

(1) Tennyson, The Lady Of Shalott 

Further Reading

Cornovia Weatherhill, Craig (1985) Cornwall Books, Tiverton
A Guide To The Roman Remains In Britain Wilson, Roger JA (1975) Constable, London
Arthur's Britain Alcock, Leslie (1971) Penguin, London
The Mabinogion trans: Jones & Jones (1949) Everyman, London
Early British Kingdoms Ford, David Nash
Brittania: King Arthur various

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