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Road to Camelot: Did King Arthur's City Exist?

E.D.K. (2016b, October 15). Arthurian round table, c1280/c1522 - Great Hall, Winchester Castle, Winchester, Hampshire, England. [Photograph]. Flickr.

Arthurian Legend exists in a historical ‘limbo’, consistently proven and disproven to the degree of its historical truth. King Arthur’s mythical city, Camelot, has been a site of intrigue for centuries since it was first mentioned in 12th-century French poetry. Even today, people ask whether the city of Camelot existed in historical reality, attempting to coax a physical location from across the United Kingdom. Others propose a linguistic argument, believing Camelot to have developed from Welsh, British and Latin vocabulary. The most compelling argument recognises Camelot not as a physical location, but as a symbolic space where we project our desires for the ideal society.

Despite no place in Britain has ever borne the name ‘Camelot’, countless scholars and Arthur enthusiasts have scanned the topography of the United Kingdom in an attempt to locate a geographically stable location for Arthur’s city. Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte D’Arthur in the 15th century, places Camelot at Winchester in England. The Round Table hanging in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle is supposedly the very same table used by Arthur and his Knights. However, the table has since been dated to c. 1250-1350, 800 years into the future for Arthur’s historical time in the fifth and sixth centuries (Field 2018, p. 9). Furthermore, in Arthur’s historical time, Hampshire, the county in which Winchester is, was ruled by the Saxons, not Arthur’s Britons (Castleden 2003, p. 149). This makes it highly unlikely that Winchester would have been the site for Camelot if the city did exist in historical reality. More recently, Leslie Alcock proposed South Cadbury in Somerset as Camelot, after archaeological excavations in the late 1960s found proof the site was occupied in the Dark Ages (Castleden 2003, p. 150). Tintagel in Cornwall is another name frequently evoked to be the location of Camelot. Archaeomagnetic dating of hearths at the site show fires burned c. 500, a date well situated in Arthur’s historical time (Castleden 2003, p. 152). An impression of what appears to be a human footprint in the stone at Tintagel has been enthusiastically named King Arthur’s Footprint and is said to be evidence of an iron age belief system of the Celts, where the “symbolism of planting a foot… [represented the] divine marriage between the king and his kingdom” (Castleden 2003, pp. 159-162). However, it is unlikely that any of these locations make for a historical Camelot, if Camelot was a physical city at all. A more compelling story for the existence of a Camelot follows linguistic developments during the Dark Ages and Roman-occupied Britain.

Visit Cornwall. (n.d.). King Arthur [Photograph].

Castleden (2003, p. 177) proposes that Camelot was not a “geographically specific” location, but a name resulting from the introduction of new languages to Britain. Castleden (2003, p. 177) argues that the word Camelot began as Caer Malleator, ‘caer’ being the Welsh or British word for 'castle' or 'stronghold', and ‘malleator’ the Latin word for 'hammerer'. In Arthur’s time, both the native Welsh and British words, along with new Latin vocabulary would have been used, resulting in a hybrid name meaning ‘The Stronghold of the Hammerer’ (Castleden 2003, p. 177). That is, ‘Camelot’ was simply a word used to refer to the King’s castle, wherever that may be. A similar line of argument is developed by Field. Field recognises that Colchester has long been associated as the physical location of Camelot from the origins of its name, Camulodunum. Camulodunum means ‘the fort of Camulos’, a Celtic war god (Field 2018, p. 13). Field argues that because Camulos was worshipped all over Britain, any Camulodunum could have served as Arthur’s Camelot; they mentioned specifically the Camulodunum at Slack in West Yorkshire (Field 2018, pp. 14-17). Field (2018, p. 15) argues that we should look beyond a bias of literary tradition that requires Camelot to be a physical city and consider alternative sites for Arthur’s stronghold. Perhaps it is the case that Camelot was not a city at all, or any other type of physical location, but was instead a symbolic space.