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Sunday 3 May 2015

Camelot, maybe

Hill-forts are among the most impressive pre-Roman structures to be found in Britain. They are particularly common in southern England, as Paul Jackson described in his blog post A Handful of Hill Forts. Despite the name, hill-forts weren’t really military structures so much as small, self-contained towns that were defended by artificially built ramparts. An example can be seen in the photograph above, which shows Cadbury Castle in Somerset.

Cadbury Castle was built during the Iron Age, around 500 BC, and was continuously occupied until it was overrun by the Romans in the first century AD, in what seems to have been a particularly brutal and violent event. According to the Somerset County Council website, there is “clear evidence of destruction by fire and the massacre of a group of inhabitants”. However, after the departure of the Romans, the South Cadbury site was reoccupied and redeveloped in the early Middle Ages.

In 1533, a man named John Leland was given a commission by King Henry VIII “to make a search after England’s Antiquities”. This assignment took him to all corners of the country, including the Somerset village of South Cadbury, where he wrote “At the very south end of the church of South Cadbury standeth Camelot, sometime a famous town or castle” and that “The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard say that Arthur much restored to Camelot.

In other words, Leland was saying that Cadbury Castle was nothing less than King Arthur’s Camelot!

Now King Arthur is one of the most frustrating figures in British history. Almost everyone has heard of him, but there is no firm consensus on what century he lived in, what kingdom he ruled over, or even if he existed in the real world at all. As I said last year in The Lost Tomb of King Arthur:
Down here in the south-west, the prevailing opinion is that he was the King of Dumnonia around 500 AD, a century or so after the departure of the Romans. Dumnonia roughly corresponded to modern-day Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, which remained resolutely Celtic while Wessex to the East (Dorset/Wiltshire/Hampshire) adopted the language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.
According to this view, it’s not that unreasonable to suggest that Cadbury Castle might have been associated with King Arthur – possibly even one of his main courts. It was occupied at the right time, and it’s in the right place. I made this point in my book Bloody British History: Somerset:
Cadbury Castle is one of the best natural defences on what would have been the eastern border of Dumnonia. Although the hillfort had existed for more than a thousand years in Arthur’s time, its modern name dates from precisely that period. Cadbury means ‘Cado’s Fort’... and Cado was king of Dumnonia around the time Arthur was born. Archaeologically, too, the evidence points to the site being an important military installation of the period. It was refortified in the fifth century with massive stone walls, and in the middle of the hilltop a timber-framed Great Hall was built – a splendid palace fit for a King!
These days, the only structure on the top of Cadbury Castle is a stone plinth dated “2000 AD” (see picture below). The plaque on top of this shows the directions and distances to a number of other places in southwest England. I struggled at first to discern a common theme to these, eventually deciding that they're all places dear to the hearts of hippies and New Agers! There are nine places in all, as follows:
  • Two other “Arthurian” sites, Tintagel and Glastonbury
  • Two other hill-forts, Ham Hill and Maiden Castle
  • Another Iron Age site, Hengistbury Head, which was a busy seaport and trading centre
  • Two megalithic sites, Stonehenge and Avebury
  • Lamyatt Beacon, the site of a Romano-Celtic temple
  • Alfred’s Tower, an 18th century folly commemorating Alfred the Great


Anonymous said...

As far as I know Wales has as much a claim on King Arthur as the West Country of England and the names Morgan (ie: Morgan Le Fay) and Merlyn are Welsh names (Merlyn Rees was a Welsh Labour MP). The first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, wanted to divert attention from his dubious right to the crown and named his first born son Arthur thereby claiming some kind of fuzzy link with ancient Britain. Arthur died in 1502, aged 15, and his younger brother became Henry VIII. Maybe the discovery of "Camelot" in 1533 was just a way to continue that supposed link between Tudor times and Arthurian Britain - the Tudors were always a bit sensitive as to the legitimacy of their right to the throne and that was certainly true of Henry VIII.

Anonymous said...

I could also mention that 1533 was the year that Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn and broke with the Roman Catholic Church. At the time this was justified as returning to the ancient British version of Christianity unsullied by Rome. Perhaps the discovery of "Camelot" was also meant to connect the Tudor monarchy to the Arthurian past at a very sensitive time ?

Andrew May said...

Thanks for some very interesting points, Colin.

While I think it's possible that King Arthur was based on a garbled account of one or more real people (leaders of the various small kingdoms in post-Roman Britain), I've no doubt that the rest of the Arthurian mythos, with Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table etc, is pure legend. As you say, it may well be a Welsh legend, because most of the character names sound Welsh.

I've written in the psst about how the legend of Joseph of Arimathea coming to Britain with the Holy Grail was spun into anti-Catholic propaganda by the Tudors, in exactly the way you suggest, and of course there is a strong legendary connection between the Arthurian cycle and the Grail, so you might be right that the "rediscovery" of Camelot was part of the same propaganda campaign.

Earlier this year Paul Jackson did a blog post about the Winchester Round Table, in which he mentioned that the current paintwork dates from the time of Henry VIII and shows Henry in King Arthur's position at the top of the table - so that ties in too.

Sid Law said...

Camelot is Camelon, the Roman town and series of forts at the Eastern end of the Antonine Wall, now a suburb of Falkirk. The round table is a simple mistranslation of the Old French term for a "tabled rotunda" - this was a strange little building, a Roman Victory Monument (or perhaps a dedication to Terminus) at the Eastern End of the Antonine Wall (in modern day Stenhousemuir). This circular building was torn down in 1746 and was called "Arthur's O'on - Arthur's Oven.
Placing Arthur in Southrn England is wishful thinking, it was already over-run by Angles and Saxons before the legions had really left... there was no resistance keft down there. The only fight going on anywhere against these invasions was in the North. Land of The Goddodin!

Andrew May said...

Fascinating stuff - thanks for the clarification. I have to confess I didn't approach this blog post by thinking "Where was King Arthur's Camelot?" so much as "Where can I go for a short walk this afternoon now that it's stopped raining?"