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. https://bit.ly/3vb5Keu

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]. https://www.visitcornwall.com/king-arthurcornwall

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.


The most persuasive argument on the identity of Camelot is that it is not a physical location or linguistic development, but a symbolic representation of an ideal society. Castleden (2003, p. 149) identifies that Camelot is represented in literature as a castle, a city, and a fortress. Could it be that Camelot is a symbolic fortress of ideas, at once a place “mythical, historical, political, and fictional” (Davidson 2007, p. 80). Davidson (2007, p. 80) identifies the figure of King Arthur as a “model” for “[what] we want our leaders to…represent”; could it not be possible for Camelot to be a “model” for what we want our society to represent? T. H. White famously represented John F. Kennedy’s presidency as a ‘Camelot’ in his 1963 Epilogue: “For one brief shining moment there was Camelot”.



Lee, A. (1984). Camelot [Illustration]. Timeless Myths. https://www.timelessmyths.com/wpcontent/uploads/2019/12/camelot.jpg

From our experiences in the literary tradition of the Arthurian Legend, we are conditioned to search for Camelot as a physical city, grounded in a geographic place. Such a place, however, cannot be agreed upon without dispute, nor can a linguistic line of argument deliver any concrete assurance on the existence of Camelot. The style of kingship in the early Middle Ages is described as peripatetic, referring to the mobility of the King and his court across the landscape (Field 2018, p.1). This concept can be applied to the Arthurian Legend as a whole, with the city of Camelot itself a peripatetic feature of our imagination, traveling through time, space and meaning. In this way, Camelot certainly does exist, but it is not a physical place; it is an imagined space of hope and the desire for a better society.




The Camelot Project online is good resource for information on the Arthurian Legend:


University of Rochester & Robbins Library. (n.d.). The Camelot Project. The University of Rochester. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot-project



References:


Castleden, R. (2003). King Arthur: The truth behind the legend. Taylor & Francis.


Davidson, R. (2007). The Reel Arthur: Politics and Truth Claims in Camelot, Excalibur, and King Arthur. Arthuriana, 17(2), 62–84. https://doi.org/10.1353/art.2007.0037


Field, P. J. C. (2018). SEARCHING FOR CAMELOT. Medium Ævum, 87(1), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.2307/26871213


Kraft, M. (2010). Winchester Round Table [Photograph]. Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/winchester-round-table


Lee, A. (1984). Camelot [Illustration]. Timeless Myths. https://www.timelessmyths.com/wpcontent/uploads/2019/12/camelot.jpg


Visit Cornwall. (n.d.). King Arthur [Photograph]. https://www.visitcornwall.com/king-arthurcornwall


White, T. H. (1963, December 6). For President Kennedy: An Epilogue. Life. https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/THWPP/059/THWPP-059-009

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Amy Mogensen

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