Monday, 17 November 2014

Looking For King Arthur's Camelot - Caerleon: The City of Legions


Caerleon: The City of Legions

Although Chretien de Troyes mentioned Caerleon and Camelot separately, Geoffrey of Monmouth tells of how Arthur held his Court at The City of Legions, and there is little doubt that this was Caerleon in Wales, although Geoffrey does not give it the name Camelot.


'...he [Arthur] pitched upon the City of Legions [Caerleon] as a proper place for his purpose. For besides its great wealth above the other cities, its situation, which was in Glamorganshire upon the river Uske, near the Severn sea, was most pleasant, and fit for so great a solemnity. For on one side it was washed by that noble river, so that the kings and princes from the countries beyond the seas might have the convenience of sailing up to it. On the other side, the beauty of the meadows and groves, and magnificence of the royal palaces with lofty gilded roofs that adorned it, made it even rival the grandeur of Rome. It was also famous for two churches; whereof one was build in honour of the martyr Julius, and adorned with a choir of virgins, who had devoted themselves wholly to the service of God; but the other, which was founded in memory of St. Aaron, his companion, and maintained a convent of canons, was the third metropolitan church of Britain. Besides, there was a college of two hundred philosophers, who, being learned in astronomy and the other arts, were diligent in observing the courses of the stars, and gave Arthur true predictions of the events that would happen at that time. In this place, therefore, which afforded such delights, were preparations made for the ensuing festival.'


With it's splendid Roman remains, Caerleon would have been an impressive place for Arthur to hold Court for important rulers.  We can also be fairly sure that only a professional army could have defended the Roman fortress ruins.  However, some believe Caerleon may have just been a meeting place for Arthur and so we should look at the surrounding hilltops for possible locations of his 'castle'.  Interestingly, such a site exists less than a mile north of the village - a fortification known as Belinstocke.

Caerleon is another site that is said to have a hidden cave where King Arthur and his knights slumber.  Here they are said to wait to be called on to save their country in its hour of need.  One local tale tells of a farmer who met a mounted man wearing a 3-cornered hat, who promised to show him something amazing.  He took the farmer to the middle of a woods, stopping in front of a sheer rock face.  He pushed a large boulder away to reveal a hidden cave.  The man led the farmer inside, passing two bells and descending into a huge underground cavern.  Here the farmer observed over a thousand knights, with King Arthur at their head.  All slept.  On leaving, the farmer knocked one of the two great bells, waking the sleeping men who immediately asked, 'Is is time?'  The man told them it was not yet time and that they should continue to sleep.  The knights returned to their slumber.  The man and the farmer left the cave, where they parted ways without a word.  The farmer is said to have searched for the cave many times but could never find it again.


In the preface of Le Mort d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, William Caxton tells us that Camelot is located in Wales, describing ruins of a city that sound much like Caerleon.

'...in Wales, in the town of Camelot, the great stones and the marvellous works of iron lying underground, and the royal vaults which many now living have seen.

This part of Wales, believed to be Gwent, became a Dark Age kingdom which was ruled by Atrwys ap Meurig, who is believed by some to be 'the real King Arthur'.


Caerleon is especially noted for Arthur's Table, the Roman amphitheatre, which is where King Arthur is said to have been appointed St. Dyfric as an Archbishop of St. Aaron's Cathedral in Caerleon.  When the Caerleon Excavation Committee formed in 1926, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the Director of the National Museum in Wales, made the most of the connection between King Arthur's Round Table and the Roman amphitheatre, commenting that it was 'likely to attract considerable funds required for a long-term programme of work.'  Wheeler announced his project to the media, with the Daily Mail soon offering to give the Committee £1,000 for exclusive rights and daily reports of the excavation of''King Arthur's Round Table'.  By the time the agreement was made, the Daily Mail had tripled their offer and carried daily 'sensational' reports, despite Wheeler being accused of shameless exploitaton and no Dark Age remains were reported.

But Wheeler's connection between King Arthur's Round Table and the Roman amphitheatre was not the first.  In 1587, Thomas Churchyard wrote of the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon:

In Arthur's tyme, a table round,
Was where at he sate:
As yet a plot of goodly ground,
Sets forth that rare estate...


And this is not the earliest connection between the two.  According to a French source, Chronique Religieus de St Denys, in 1405 the French army, who had landed at Milford Haven to support Owain Glyn Dwr in his uprising against the English Crown, went to Caerleon, once known as the legionary fortress Isca.  They are then said to have visited 'The Round Table of Arthurian legend', which was in fact the Roman amphitheatre.  Those that believe Caerleon is a contender for Arthur's Camelot claim that the addition of Arthur's Table strengthens the theory.


That's it for today.  Tomorrow we will look at one more potential contender for King Arthur's Camelot.  Until next time.


Useful Resources

Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
Historia Refum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] by Geoffrey of Monmouth
King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend by Rodney Castleden
Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot by Christopher Gidlow
Caerleon and Arthur