Search for King Arthur and Camelot: History of the Search Part 2

About the search for King Arthur and the city of Camelot, history and background of the English legend.

The Continuing Search for . . . Camelot

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, with its characteristic caution, lists 4 possible sites for the location of Camelot, and these all derive from sources written long, long after the event and are better described as literature than as history. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain dating from 1130 to 1140, sets Arthur's court in Caerleon-on-Usk, the city of the Roman legions, where Legio II built and garrisoned his fortress in 50 A.D. to command the coastal approach to South Wales. In 1926 the National Museum of Wales began systematic exploration and excavation of the area and while they found much of historical value, they did not find Camelot.

Another document of the day, the Welsh Triads, as quoted by C. Henderson in his book The Cornish Church Guide and Parochial History of Cornwall, locates Camelot in the little town of Camelford on the Camel River in Cornwall and the site of the Battle of Camlan in 537 where Arthur was killed. Camelot itself was never found here, although certain linguistic satisfaction can be derived from connecting Camlan and "Camel," since camels are unknown in that part of the world.

By the 15th century, the location of Camelot becomes more specific. Sir Thomas Malory in his celebrated romance Le Morte d'Arthur, written while he was in prison in 1460 serving a term for rape and robbery, pinpoints Camelot as Winchester near the port of Southampton. His "evidence" was the existence of Arthur's tabletop, the so-called Round Table, which still hangs today in Winchester Castle. We now know that it dates only from the 12th century and is, as the De Camps put it, "a fake antique, but so old a fake as to have become a valued antiquity in its own right." Malory also blithely ignored the disparity between Arthur's "true" Round Table, which could accommodate 150 knights (and which would have to be at least 125' in diameter), and the Winchester table, which is scarcely the size of a large dining room table.

Malory also ignored the fact that he depicted knighthood and chivalry some 6 centuries before they came into fashion and dressed his knights in armor, an anachronism of some 800 years. Sixth-century generals and soldiers were wont to smite off their ladies' heads and many, Arthur included, kept mistresses--some of whom were sisters or half sisters to their lovers. In any event Malory laid the groundwork for Tennyson, who later has Arthur say to Guinevere, "I was ever virgin save for thee," a statement as implausible in the 6th century as a miracle in a saint's life in the same period.

Malory's editor and printer, William Caxton, declined to accept Winchester as Arthur's Camelot. Instead, he placed it "in Wales, in the toune of Camelot, which dyvers now lyvyng hath seen," by which he probably meant Caerleon-on-Usk.

The 4th and last acceptable identification of Camelot with an actual place is owed to Sir John Leland, antiquary to King Henry VIII in 1542. In his Assertion of Arthur he places it at Queen's Camel, a village near Cadbury Castle, a large hill-fort in South Cadbury, Somerset. Leland wrote:

At the very south ende of the chirch of South-Cadbyri standith Camallate, sumtyme a famous foun or castelle, apon a very torre or hille, wunderfully enstrengtheid of nature. ... The people can telle nothing ther but that they have hard say that Arture much resortid to Camalat. ... Good Lorde, what and howe many most deepe Ditches are there heere? How many vallyes are there heere out of the earth delved? Againe what daungerous steepenesse? And to end in fewe wordes, truly me seemeth it is a mirackle, both in Arte and nature.

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