Explorations in Arthurian History
The Importance of Geography
Part 4: Cadbury
It has been put forward that Camelot as the romance authors would have us fancy it did not exist, at least not for Arthur. Where to look for Camelot, then? Geoffrey of Monmouth says Arthur held court at Caerleon. Was this Camelot? It very well might have been, at least in Geoffrey's mind. But the historian is concerned with facts. It is a fact that the term Camelot was not mentioned until after Geoffrey had written his "history." Technically, Geoffrey's Arthur's Caerleon can never be Arthur's Camelot. History is defined by hairs split thinner.
Yet, for our purposes, such technicalities need not slow us down. Camelot as defined in the popular Arthurian legends cannot be found except in the imaginations of the authors. But two giants in the field of history and archaeology believe they have found the historical precedent for Camelot. It is at Cadbury.
South Cadbury, to be exact. This place contains a hill-fort, which in the 5th and 6th centuries was a castle. This painting shows an assault on a castle. Notice how small the castle is. The perception that a castle has to be massive is based on our perception of the medieval castles, which were massive, and the perpetuation of this ideal by the authors of the romances, who lived in the medieval period. A common theme throughout these pages is the idea that the Arthurian story can and is shaped to the times of the authors of the stories. In the Welsh tales, he is a Welsh hero. In Nennius, he is a British hero fighting against the Saxons. In Geoffrey, he is a medival warrior who holds in a court and accepts homage from knights. In Malory, he is a later medieval king who ... You see the point.
Anyway, back to Cadbury. It was a hill-fort that was defended by earthwork ramparts and ditches and fortified as early as the first century B.C. In Roman times, it was the stronghold of one Arviragus, who held out for quite some time before being driven out by the Roman army. The Romans left, for all intents and purposes, in 410. Arthur is said to have lived not too long after. For him to have refortified Cadbury, once home to Arviragus, would serve two purposes:
A woman walking a dog in the 1950s stumbled on some flints and pottery shards similar to those found at Tintagel in the 1930s. These have been dated to the mid-to-late 5th century; they were brought from the Eastern Mediterranean region, suggesting a wealthy household as their acquirer.
Excavations in the late 1960s unearthed a large stone-and-timber fortification, the largest of its kind on the entire island. This fortification also has a gatehouse. These two structures suggest a massive undertaking requiring a large amount of supplies and manpower, something only a powerful leader (or one who had influential backers) could have undertaken. It should be noted here that other similar fortifications have been found throughout England, Wales, and Scotland but that the one at Cadbury is unique in its stone-and-timber combination and its size.
The Cadbury site has around it several references to the King of the Britons:
This is by no means definitive proof. Scotland has four separate sites named Arthur's Seat. As has been mentioned previously Tintagel has several Arthurian sites as well. The Cadbury references reinforce the idea that the site had an Arthurian presence.
Lastly we come to the strange case of John Leland. Sent by King Henry VIII on a tour of the country, Leland wrote this about Cadbury:
"At the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle ... The people can tell nothing here but that they have heard say Arthur much resorted to Camalat." Notice that Leland spelled Camelot with an a at the end. Now, the dialect at that time allowed for the pronunciation of that syllable like the a in father. Spelling Camalat as we would sound it out gives you Camelot.
Was Cadbury Camelot? Not in the traditional sense. Was it Arthur's stronghold? Alcock and Ashe certainly think so. It doesn't hurt that the River Cam runs nearby. Some have speculated that this river gave its name to the Battle of Camlann, Arthur's final battle, after which, Geoffrey and the legends say, Arthur was spirited away to the Isle of Avalon.
Explorations in Arthurian History and Legends
Contact author2000-2009 David White