Sunday, 16 November 2014

Looking For King Arthur's Camelot - Cadbury Castle

Camelot is a place surrounded by myths and legends which have created the enduring impression of a wonderful, mythical castle and land; where knights in shining armour lived to a noble Code of Chivalry.  These legends are so deeply ingrained into our minds that many have gone in search of evidence that this place did in fact exist.  Although we have an image of this fantastical castle in our minds, some have said that we should not be looking for a castle at all, and that we should be looking for a wooden lodge.  Over the next few posts we will look at three different locations which have been proposed as the possible location of Camelot and King Arthur's Court.


Cadbury Castle

In order to find Camelot, we need to look at the legends of Camelot in more detail.  The oldest literature concerning Camelot can be found in Chretien de Troyes romance Lancelot, written between 1170 and 1185.

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.


One of the most popular locations for a possible Camelot is Cadbury Castle, located by the River Cam.  This site shows signs of refortifications at around the right time for King Arthur.  There are also many postholes which could possible indicate a large feasting hall.  The hill at South Cadbury had long been associated with Arthurian folklore. There is a belief that Arthur and his knights are eternally sleeping in a cave beneath the hill and, on Christmas Eve, they are believed to ride along the top of the hill.  One 14th century author, John Leland, claimed that the name Camelot came from local tradition.  While visiting Somerset, Leland maintained that Camelot was the name of a hill by the village of South Cadbury.  He first recorded the link between King Arthur, Camelot, and Cadbury in 1542:

Right at the South end of South Cadbury Church stands Camelot.  This was once a noted town or castle, set on a real peak of a hill, and with marvellously strong natural defenses...  Roman coins of gold, silver, and copper have been turned up in large quantities during ploughing there, and also in 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 Camelot.


When archaeological research first began in the area, an old man from the village anxiously asked if they had come to remove the King.

In the 1950s, Dr Raleigh Radford, a recognized expert on Dark Age Britain, examined samples of pottery and coins found on the hill and concluded that they belonged to Arthur's period.  Apparently, this evidence was enough for the formation of the Camelot Research Committee, including members such as the British historians and archaeologists C.A. Raleigh Radford, Geoffrey Ashe and Phillip Rahtz, under the direction of Leslie Alcock.  The very name of the Committee suggested that the excavations at Cadbury were specifically searching for proof of King Arthur and his Court.  Any finds from Arthur's period were then taken as proof of exactly that, and the media were quick to jump on the King Arthur bandwagon, not to mention the local tourist industry which will now not hear of any other site being suggested as Camelot.


From July 15th to August 6th, 1966, there was a trial excavation at the site to see if there was enough physical evidence to justify a full scale excavation.  Three sites were identified and excavated along the 18 acre hilltop.

Sit Mortimer Wheeler, an archaeologist, commented, 'King Henry VIII's appointed antiquary, John Leland, found that this place was known to local folk as Camelot.  Sober-minded historians have hesitated to scorn the ancient belief that, about 500AD, there was a veritable Arthur, whether king or soldier of fortune.  Now archaeology has given fresh substance to this Arthurian Camelot.


Discoveries covering a large timespan from the Neolithic (300BC) period, to an occupation in the 1st millenium included mass amounts of bronzes and Bronze Age pottery.  The pre-Roman Iron Age provided loom weights, weaving combs and La Tane III brooches.  Further evidence was discovered from the Roman period, marked by 3rd and 4th century pottery./  The next level provided mass amounts of Tintagel Class B pottery, which indicates a major occupation during the Dark Ages.

Alcock commented: 'We have achieved the main objectives of our first years work.  We are now able to show that this fortification belongs to the 6th century, that is to say the period of Arthur himself.  We've made enough finds - particularly of pottery and metal objects - to tie down this date quite quickly.'


This trial excavation provided enough evidence to warrant a full scale excavation of the site, which occurred throughout the summer of 1970.  The new evidence discovered during this time further supported the theory of a Dark Age military stronghold.  At this point, the Committee made use of geophysical prospecting, giving them a way to select the most beneficial areas to excavate.  An area of 1000sq metres was selected.  One trench revealed more than five structural phases, at least two of which were post-Roman.  They also discovered that, during the fort's re-occupation in the decond half of the 5th century, earlier defences were reconstructed and fortified.  This refortification consisted of a 16ft thick unmortared stone wall, with blocks of Roman masonry on top of it.  This is in addition to the surrounding earthbank, an internal drystone wall and a gate tower with two entrances.  Additional postholes indicated more buildings and a small 'amount of Tintagel-like sherds of Class A, B, and D pottery were also discovered.'  These finds of imported pottery suggested a peasant's hovel, where the widely scattered pottery indicated a 'civilized settlement.'  Due to the quantity of imported luxury goods, it was also suggested that the occupants of the fortified settlement were people of standing.

Only an important chieftain would have been able to afford to import the luxury goods found and to build on the scale discovered at Cadbury.  The size of Cadbury Castle itself has led to the suggestion that a High-King such as Arthur would be the most likely to have resided here.  However, Cadbury lay in the Kingdom of Dumnonia and there seems little reason to doubt that it was the capital of Dumnonian Kings due to its incomparable size and the discoveries of luxury goods on the site.  Strengthening this theory is the possible interpretation of the name.  It is usually translated as Battle-Fort, but Cadbury may really mean Cado's Fort.  Cado was the name of an early 6th century King of Dumnonia.  It has been suggested that the Arthurian connection with Cadbury stems from confusion with the now forgotten pre-Roman king Arvirogus.


That's it for today.  Tomorrow we will look at the claim that Caerleon is King Arthur's Camelot.  Until next time.

Useful Resources

The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend by Alan Lupack
King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend by Rodney Castleden
Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot by Christopher Gidlow

Four Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes
Britannia - Cadbury Castle: King Arthur's Camelot
The South Cadbury Excavations
The UnMuseum - Camelot
‘Have You Come to Take the King Away?’: A Survey of Archaeology and Folklore in Context