Camelot

“Many-towered Camelot” Tennyson called it:

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.

Who was “he”? Lancelot, of course, darling of the ladies – in this case the unfortunate Lady of Shalott. And what or where was “Camelot”?

I am, at least by birth, a West Country man (I was born in Bournemouth, which was at that time in Hampshire) but I have to say at once (and risk offending an awful lot of people) that the claims of South Cadbury “Castle” on Cadbury hill to be the site of the City of Camelot are the least well-founded of all. Excavations there have revealed Iron Age earthworks and superimposed on them a substantial fifth or sixth-century fortress or redout with walls composed of wooden stakes. Inside was a small village of wattle-and-daub huts. There are the remains of some stone walls and the foundation trenches of what seems to be a small cruciform church that was never actually built, but these belong to the time of the “abortive burh” of Ethelred the Unready, who set up a fortified mint there at the beginning of the eleventh century and then abandoned it; maybe it was abandoned when Canute succeeded Ethelred as King.

Camelot? I don’t think so.

On the dust jacket of Alistair Moffat’s Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, I found the following remark, which is very much to the point: “Historians have failed to show convincingly that King Arthur existed, for a good reason: they have been looking in the wrong place, in Wales or the West of England.”

We must look elsewhere.

Carlisle is the choice of Norma Lorre Goodrich, author of two very original books, namely Guinevere and King Arthur. While I suspect that Modred (and maybe even Arthur himself) was half-Pictish, I cannot go along with her location of the whole saga in northern Scotland. Alistair Moffat (quoted above) is another supporter of the Scottish claims; however, he places Arthur and company in southern Scotland among the P-Celtic (i.e. Welsh)-speaking Gododdin and locates Camelot at Roxburgh, with its great castle, outside Kelso in the Border Country. “In a brilliant campaign, fought mostly in Scotland, Arthur defeated the Picts to the north and the Angles to the south. He halted the tide of invasion for a generation and gave Celtic Britain a breathing space to regroup and for parts of it to survive.”

Now the problem here is that Arthur was not fighting the Picts and the Northern Angles, who were anyway at war with each other. His enemies were the Saxons and Southern Angles who were spreading like a pest over south-eastern England.

I agree that Wales and the west of England is the wrong place to look. I suspect that Scotland is also the wrong place.

We need to look in the east, where the invaders were to be found in strength. Only there would defeating them have had any real purpose or effect; anywhere else would have been mere skirmishes. At the Battle of Badon, fought in 516 or 518, Arthur defeated a great army of Saxons. They were driven back, and as a result large areas were cleared of Saxon settlers for at least as long as Arthur was Guledig (War Lord and de facto High King). But what large areas exactly?

Only one historian has really addressed this question: John Morris, in his magisterial three-volume work The Age Of Arthur.

In Vol I, Roman Britain and the Empire of Arthur, he tells us that after the Battle of Badon, the population of certain areas such as Essex, “was either removed or subjected to such great restraints that it was unable to bury its dead with normal grave goods or in normal cemetaries.”  The evidence for this is that while in Kent, for instance, and Suffolk and Norfolk, burials continued from the fifth century into the sixth century without interruption, in Essex there were fifth-century and later-sixth-centrury burials but no evidence of burials during the early sixth century. Norma Lorre Goodrich is quite wrong when she says, in King Arthur, that “Arthur could not have won his battles in England, because [historians] know from the several manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the Saxons conquered England in King Arthur’s lifetime and that it has been English territory ever since” as though they never lost a battle, never suffered any setbacks. In fact, as Geoffrey Ashe points out in The Quest For Arthur’s Britain, “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, while it ignores the Anglo-Saxons’ defeats, sheds a little light by the petering out of their victories. […] Archaeology is consistent with a major Saxon retreat early in the sixth century …

On the subject of the site of Camelot, John Morris points out in The Age Of Arthur that many places “preserve in recognisable form the names they bore in Roman times” (e.g. Londinium – London, Lindum – Lincoln, Glevum – Gloucester), and continues: “A similar origin must be sought for Camelot, represented as among the most important of several cities where Arthur held court. Nearly all the others were large towns of Roman Britain, Chester, York, Gloucester and others, set down in their medieval spelling. Camalot, the more usual early form of the name, is therefore plainly a medieval spelling of the Latin name of a large Roman town in Britain. The only town with such a name is Camulodunum, Colchester. [In Essex.]

“Colchester had obvious advantages as a political centre in reconquered Britain. It was well sited to observe and to intimidate the two most formidable English territories, East Anglia and Kent. Easy roads linked it with the British north and west; and shipping from its harbours might reach Europe without approaching too closely the coast of English Kent …”

And so it is Colchester/Camulodunum that I take to be Camelot in my novels The Undeparted Dead and (the forthcoming) Colum’s Day. This is Blanche (in The Undeparted Dead) speaking of Merlin:

This is the very area in which Arthur and Merlin flourished. Forget all that nonsense about Camelot being somewhere on the Scottish border or in Scotland, or over in the west of England, near Avalon. Camulodunum, the city of Camulos, a Celtic god, which Arthur knew as Camelot, lay in the heart of the territory occupied by the invaders, the Angles of East Anglia and the Saxons of Essex and Middlesex and Sussex. This, the Deben, the Orwell, the Stour, the Colne, the Blackwater, the Crouch, the Thames itself, was where they were flocking in and had already settled in their tens of thousands during the misrule of Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus. And it was from his fortress, his city, of Camelot, with its great Roman Walls – the walls we still see there today – that Arthur fought and overcame them and sent them fleeing back across the North Sea whence they came, not from the top of some bare hill hundreds of miles away. The forests and marshes around here were home to Merlin for many years, and the Island of Canvey, on the Thames estuary was his place of seclusion, his retreat …

This map of medieval Colchester clearly shows the Roman Wall all round the city, as it would have been in Arthur’s time. And the photo below shows a section of that same wall, much of which is still standing today.

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