Where Was Camelot?

Hi folks and welcome back. After a couple of digressions, it’s time to return to Gawain’s adventure in The Retreat to Avalon. Today’s post is about one of the most recognizable subjects in Arthurian lore: Camelot. We’ll look at the name’s origin, where Camelot may have been, and what sort of place Camelot would be if you could go back in time to visit.

I’ve never met anyone who’s never heard of “Camelot”. It’s so entrenched in our culture, that it is now more an adjective than a place. However, wherever the historical Arthur set up his court, it most certainly was never called “Camelot”.

Camelot is a silly place.

Most people only know about the King Arthur portrayed in the French romances, the first of which was written about 1170 by the French poet, Chrétien de Troyes. This is 34 years after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (Latin abbreviation: HRB), which is the oldest known complete story about King Arthur. More importantly, it’s about seven centuries after the historical Arthur would have existed. We are about the same amount of time from the middle ages that the French romance writers were from Arthur.

The French romances were only loosely based on the HRB and had almost no recognizable connection to the original British stories about Arthur. Before the romances, before the HRB, the ancestors of the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons told stories and wrote poems about their struggles against the invading Saxons who pushed them to the periphery of their island, and even beyond to Brittany, France and Galicia, Spain. The only surviving records we have of those poems and stories are from much later, after the 11th century. Some we know are copies from much earlier, and there are clues that support some dating almost to Arthur’s time.

Celliwig was not Camelot
Culhwch & Olwen, one of the earliest surviving Arthurian tales.

One such poem, Culhwch and Olwen, places Arthur’s court at Callewic, later Celliwig. Located somewhere in Cornwall, the name means “forest grove”. Other poems, like the Welsh Triads and Mabinogion suggest older material that was later rewritten to conform to the story portrayed in the HRB. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed to get his information from a variety of lost sources, but he clearly filled in missing pieces with his own invention. One of these was placing Arthur’s court at Caerleon in Wales, probably because of the grand Roman ruins that stood there. Many stories suggested Arthur had courts in Cornwall, Wales and northern Britain, and travelled between them.

Later romances placed Arthur’s court at Carlisle, London, or Winchester, but the name of Camelot came from Chrétien de Troyes. His poem, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, is the first mention of the fabled court. Yet, it appears Chrétien just invented the name because he needed something to rhyme in his poem (the same thing accounts for Lancelot’s name). A version of the text, thought to be the original, uses an Old French phrase “as he pleased”, or “con lui plot”, rather than “Camelot”.

Having set aside “Camelot” as having any basis in history, we are left wondering where Arthur’s court would have been. There are a lot of possibilities, and he may have had several. But for his headquarters, the place that would inspire the fabled Camelot, one location rises to the top. Cadbury Castle, near South Cadbury, Somerset.

Camelot at Cadbury Castle, Somerset
1723 drawing of Cadbury Castle (Camalet Castle, he writes) by W. Stukely. The slopes are heavily overgrown by trees now.

I learned of this location when I read Geoffrey Ashe‘s The Discovery of King Arthur. Ashe was co-founder and secretary of the Camelot Research Committee, which, led by archaeologist Leslie Alcock, excavated Cadbury Castle between 1966 and 1970. What they found gave credence to local legend, dating at least from the late medieval period, that it was the site of Arthur’s Camelot.

The banner for this post shows the map that appears briefly in the 1967 musical film, Camelot. Warner Brothers had asked Geoffrey Ashe where to put Camelot, and they took his advice, placing it in Somerset on their map. Geoffrey chuckles about it being his “one connection to Hollywood”. I hope the future has more in store for his work.

The hill rises dramatically about 500 feet over the surrounding flatlands. Occupied since the Neolithic, the sides were terraced into defensive ramparts in the Iron Age, and there are signs of warfare dating from the early Roman occupation. It was not surprising that Alcock and his team found evidence that the fort was reoccupied from the mid 5th century to mid 6th. After the Roman occupation ended at the beginning of the fifth century, many Iron Age hillforts throughout Britain were reoccupied as centralized government collapsed and cities were abandoned.

What was really remarkable, however, is that Cadbury Castle was rebuilt into something not otherwise seen at other sites. A massive reconstruction of the highest ramparts included stone and timber walls, and three strong gatehouses. Enclosing 18 acres, it was twice the size of any other known fort of the era. Within the castle they found evidence of structures, including a very large building thought to be a warlord’s great-hall.

Cadbury Castle in the fifth century
Artist reconstruction of Cadbury Castle in the 5th century.
Peter Dennis, from British Forts in the Age of Arthur.

Someone in the mid-fifth century had tremendous resources available to finance and manage that construction project. This was further supported by large quantities of pottery imported from the eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople being the center of Roman trade at this time). This is similar to finds at Tintagel and other high-status British sites of that era. We don’t know if it was Arthur who lived at Cadbury Castle, but it is the best guess we can make until someone digs up further evidence.

So, if Arthur’s headquarters was not called “Camelot” in his time, what would it have been called? Callewic may have been one of his forts or estates, but Cadbury is unlikely to be that location. I like the association with Kelly Rounds, not far from Tintagel for Callewic. In The Retreat to Avalon, I made Cadbury Castle Arthur’s “Camelot”, but I gave it a different name: Cadubrega.

While researching the linguistics behind “Cadbury”, an expert in Brittonic, the Celtic ancestor language of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Cumbric, told me that Cadu Brega would translate as “Battle Hill”. Considering the history of the location, that sounded perfect. I could see how such a name, passed down by the Britons, could eventually be converted by the conquering Anglo-Saxons to Cadbury.

Of course, another option is that it is a combination of a Celtic name and Anglo-Saxon word. A famous king from the Arthurian Age, Cador, would have been ruler of the land where Cadbury Castle stands. Cador was said to be a friend of Arthur’s and may have given him the fort, which may have been called “Cador’s Fort”. When the Anglo-Saxons took over the area, they may have kept part of Cador’s name and added their word, “byrig” meaning fort or town, which eventually becomes “bury”.

You’ll see how I approach all of this in Book 3 of The Arthurian Age, Three Wicked Revelations, which I’m working on now. I also just finished a very interesting project, and will have news for that soon. Below you can see a few pictures from our visit to Cadbury Castle in 2016. Until next time, thanks for stopping by, and I love comments!

The hike up to Cadbury Castle Camelot
The magical path approaching “Camelot’s” southeast gate. It’s a climb.
The walls of Cadbury Castle Camelot
The final rampart atop Cadbury Castle. You can just make out my lovely bride as a light colored dot. She is standing near where the southeast gate had been.
Cadbury Castle Camelot
From the southeast gate, you can see me standing roughly where the great hall, possibly Arthur’s, stood on Cadbury Castle. Only the cows live in Camelot, now.
The Retreat to Avalon Book 1 of The Arthurian Age

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