Explorations in Arthurian History

The Importance of Geography

Part 6: Caerleon

Caerleon-on-Usk was Arthur's court. Pure and simple. That according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Look at a map of Wales and find Monmouth. Then find Caerleon. It's right down the road. Too easy? Perhaps. But the temptation to say that Geoffrey placed Arthur close to his own home is great, especially since subsequent excavations have unearthed nothing suggesting use of the kind Geoffrey described at any time after the Roman withdrawal.

Indeed, the Roman settlement was Isca Silurum, a legionary fortress. Ruined walls still show the layout of its buildings, and an amphitheatre can be found nearby. The Caerleon of the 12th century, when Geoffrey was writing, featured remains of baths, vaults, and even central-heating systems. It was a population center and an important town. It would have been easy to believe that such a place, close to Carmarthen and Lincoln, home of Merlin and one of Arthur's 12 great battles respectively, could be home to a warrior-king. But Geoffrey didn't stop there. His Caerleon included two famous churches and college with 200 scholars. And Arthur, after conquering Gaul, has a tremendous Whitsun ceremony. Knights engage in archery and javelin contests and throw dice.

Possible? Of course. History has proved dozens of times that truth is stranger than fiction. Probable? No. Yet, Geoffrey fancied himself a historian (although some would say that he produced fanciful history). Many scholars believe that a good deal of what he wrote is pure invention. But it is a proven fact also that all resilient myths have a basis in fact. The Romans built a fortress at Caerleon, along about 74. The headquarters were built in 75 and the baths in 85. The latest known structural work was completed in 255. The fortress was taken over by nomilitary personnel and occupied until about 370. After that, it was a Welsh (and British) settlement. It very well could have been the seat of power for a powerful warlord or perhaps a king, maybe not in the style of Geoffrey's City of the Legions, but impressive all the same to the people of the time.

Geoffrey makes no mention of a Round Table, but Caerleon has one. The large amphitheatre nearby is a perfect candidate if we assume that the Round Table was not a piece of furniture but a concept: A leader, such as Arthur, would stand in the sunken center and address his followers (read knights), who were seated on the ground surrounding the circular center. Perhaps the "Tabyll Round" was a Table Mound.

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Some elaboration

Caerleon: Dark Age Capital of Wales?

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