“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.

Richard Fletcher’s BLOODFEUD (Book Review)

The Anglo-Saxon Period

Northumbria was governed, under the King, Ethelred II, by an earl named Uhtred. He belonged to one of the great magnate families of northern England, had held his office of earl for at least ten years, was famed for his military prowess, and was the lord of extensive acres and many retainers. What is more, he was connected by marriage to the royal family: his third and current wife, in 1016, was a daughter of King Ethelred II. Earl Uhtred was, thus, a figure of immense wealth, power and prestige; quite simply, the most important man in the north of England. It was essential for Canute to secure his submission and gain his loyalty.


Earl Uhtred came to the meeting accompanied, as a great nobleman should be in a display of status, by an escort of military retainers – forty of them, we are told, and though the figure be both round and biblical we are not required to disbelieve it. As befitted a ritual exchange of peace, and given the guarantee of safe-conduct, weapons and body-armour would have been left with the horses outside, in the care of grooms and servants. Uhtred and his men entered the hall and stood in a body before Canute. If it were one of those brightly sunny days that you sometimes get in northern England in early spring they would have needed time for their eyes to accustom themselves to the gloomy interior.

Treachery was afoot. Another northern magnate, an old enemy of Uhtred’s named Thurbrand, had prepared an ambush with Canute’s connivance. Suddenly, armed and mailed men sprang out from concealment behind the hangings and slaughtered Uhtred and his men, every one. After a desperate and bloody mêlée which lasted perhaps only a few minutes, forty-one corpses lay among the rushes on the floor.

This act of treachery and slaughter set in motion the chain reaction of counter-violence and yet further violence, a bloodfeud that lasted for three generations and almost sixty years, which is the subject of this book.

This book is ostensibly about Earl Uhtred of Northumbria, son in law of King Ethelred II and “most important man in the north of England”, but like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, it is really a history of a place and period made more accessible (more reader-friendly) by focussing like a biography on one key figure. That key figure, Earl Uhtred, was treacherously murdered in 1016, setting in train a bloodfeud that spanned the closing years of Anglo-Saxon England and the early years of Norman rule.

The first chapter explains exactly what a bloodfeud was and was not, setting it in context as something familiar and normal and “right” in an age when “justice” was hard to come by. This is followed by the best brief history of Anglo-Saxon England I have ever read, taking us from the original settlements to Alfred and Wessex and the Danes, the emergence of the Wessex dynasty as Kings of all England, and so to the great King Edgar (excellently depicted, by the way, in Anya Seton’s Avalon).

The focus then switches to the north and the history of Northumbria and the northern context before returning to the south and Edgar’s son Ethelred the Ill-advised (more often known as the Unready, but Ill-advised is a better translation) and Athelstan and Edmund Ironside, and how the situation in which Canute was able to demand the attendance, unarmed, of such a man as Uhtred, came about.

It is not just a story of a bloodfeud, it is a whole history of the period up to the Conquest by one who, again like Barbara Tuchman, is both an entertaining and fluent writer and an historian with an intimate knowledge both of his chosen period and of the man and the sequence of events that in his view best represent and embody that period.

Highly recommended both to those already hooked on the Anglo-Saxon period and to newcomers.


A brief history of the Knights Templar, who, though they play no active role in these novels (the Order was dissolved before Mariana was born) are very prominent in the background (in The Rose of Sharon) when Ferchard returns from Outremer (the Holy Land) to France then turns south and commences his scouring of Spain in search of his old friend Sir Andrew MacElpin, which results in his finding and joining up with Sir Andrew’s daughter Mariana soon after she is given her freedom by her master, Abderrahman ibn Khaldoun.


Foundation and Growth

This celebrated order of soldier-monks was founded in Jerusalem at the beginning of the twelfth century by a group of nine French knights led by Hugues de Payen. According to Guillaume de Tyre, the date was AD 1118, but it was probably several years earlier. They were known originally as the Poor Knights of Christ, and their symbol was two knights on one horse.

They were recognised initially by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and King Baudouin (Baldwin) II of “Outremer” – Jerusalem and “overseas”.

One of the nine knights was André de Montbard, uncle of the extremely influential abbot who would later become St Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard supported them in their early years and it was almost certainly he who drew up their Rule in 1129, when they were recognised by the Pope at the Council of Troyes.

arn-dyingThe Order had four groups of members: Knights (of noble birth), Sergeants (who were commoners), Chaplains (only these were priests), and Servants. Of these, only the knights took perpetual vows (of poverty, chastity and obedience).

In 1139, Pope Innocent III (formerly of Clairvaux) declared in a Papal Bull that from now on the Templars would owe allegiance to no one but himself, thus making them independent of kings, governments and Church authorites.

Their fame spread and the numbers joining their ranks grew. As Patten and Mackness point out in Sacred Treasure, Secret Power, “A potent mix of military virtues, such as courage, discipline, fortitude, and strength, together with the spiritual values of self-sacrifice, compassion, charity and chivalry, form a powerful archetype, which may explain something of the Order’s appeal.” And they prospered. Their fortresses made good safe-deposits, and in other ways they acted as bankers: they could convey money securely, and they had money to lend. In the thirteenth century, the Paris preceptory was (in effect) the Royal Treasury.


Their downfall was sudden. After the Fall of Acre (1291), the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and Outremer was no more; in the eyes of the world, the Templars had lost their prime purpose, though they themselves set up headquarters on Cyprus and planned a return to Palestine.

In 1307, the new Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, moved the Order’s headquarters to France. There, on Friday 13th October, 1307, Philip IV (the Fair) ordered the arrest of all Templars in France. He already had the papacy in his hands: between 1303 and 1305 he had got rid of two popes (Boniface VIII and Benedict IX) in order to get his own man, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, elected as Clement V.

The arrest of the Templars was not an entire success. They must have been forewarned, for no ships of the Templar fleet were taken – they had all sailed away and were never seen again; nor were most of the knights; nor was most of the “treasure”. This latter may have been because in the Languedoc, Philip’s order to seize the Templars and their Houses was not obeyed, and it was probably there that the treasure was stored.

Philip’s reasons for persecuting the Order are clear. An unpopular king, he had once had the embarrassing experience of having to take refuge in the Templar preceptory in Paris when he was being hunted by the mob. While there, he was able to compare their palace with his own. He then applied for membership of the Order (no doubt intending to become Grand Master and lay his hands on all their wealth and their secrets) but was turned down, no reason given. He owed them vast sums of money (as he had the Lombards and the Jews: he had reneged on his debts to the Lombards and had expelled all Jews from France). Their military might and organisation was vastly superior to his won. They planned to carve out their own independent state in the Occitan (Languedoc) – no doubt de Molay’s reason for the return to France.

de-molayA former member of the order testified that had been covert Muslims for years and had also practised sodomy. Under torture, De  Molay confessed to blasphemy, including denying Christ and spitting on the Cross, and worshipping a devil called Baphomet. Other Templars confessed to prostrating themselves before “a head”. On March 22nd, 1312, the Order was dissolved by the Council of Vienne under Pope Clement V.

De Molay later recanted, and was burned at the stake in front of Notre Dame in Paris in March 1314.

All the kings in Europe were instructed by the Church to follow suit. Not all did.

Edward II of England at first defended them, then under extreme pressure, arrested a few, but these were given light prison sentences which they served in abbeys under generally comfortable conditions. (This may indirectly have led to his deposion and death: his wife, Isabella, was was the sister of Philip IV. On a visit to her brother’s court in France, she met Roger Mortimer, an English nobleman living in exile: it was with him that she later invaded England and deposed her husband.)

Robert Bruce of Scotland had already been excommunicated himself. The Order was never dissolved in Scotland.

The Duke of Lorraine (Lorraine was not part of France then) supported them loyally.

In Portugal they were reborn as the Knights of Christ: both Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were Knights of Christ, and Prince Henry the Navigator was the Grand Master.

In Germany, most Templars joined the Order of Teutonic Knights – who later supported Martin Luther: revenge indeed!

The Mysteries

The first mystery is the founding of the Order. Guillaume de Tyre seems to have many things wrong – including the date, which was probably 1111 or 1112, not 1118. Was the whole story of the nine poor knights either a legend or a cover-up? (For a thorough sifting of all the evidence see pp85-86 in The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, and for a full discussion of its relevance to the “Temple Treasure”, see Sacred Treasure, Secret Power.)

Asrly as 1208, at the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade, Pope Innocent III called them “unChristian” and “necromancers”. Why? Was it true, and known, even then? Or was it because they refused to support the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars? “The Grand Master at the time … made the Order’s position clear when he declared there was only one true Crusade – the Crusade against the Saracens.” (The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail)

Another mystery is how close they really were to the Cathars? Templars and Templar castles, houses and fortresses, were thick on the ground in Languedoc, the heartland of Catharism. They provided refuge for Perfects during the Albigensian Crusade. Many of the noble families of the area who supported Catharism also had Templar knights in the family. Bertrand de Blanchefort, fourth Grand Master of the Templars, came of a Cathar family, and his descendants fought with the Cathars against the Albigensian Crusaders. The Blanchefort lands in the Razès are also mentioned in Sacred Treasure, Secret Power in connection with the Visigoth treasure.


Then there is the question of the accusations against them, especially that of worshipping Baphomet. Was “the head” Baphomet? There does seem to have been a head, but whose? That of Hugues de Payen, the Founder? Or was it believed to be the head of John the Baptist? Were they Mandaeans (a heretical sect who believed that the true Messiah was John the Baptist not Jesus of Nazareth)? There were still Mandaeans in the Jordan area, and the Templars must have come across them. It is possible, but in my opinion unlikely: for a start, it is incompatible with the Templars’ close links with Catharism. Could it have been a copy of the head of the Turin Shroud, which was in the Templars’ possession until 1307? And was the so-called “repudiation of Christ” really only a repudiation of the Cross (which was also abhorrent to the Cathars)?



Is magic fact or is it simply something we like to indulge in the concept of, to fantasise about in books such as those I write?

Much will depend on our definition of the word “magic”, our understanding of the mysterious and the miraculous. Is a mystery simply something we do not understand yet? Is a miracle a wonder that goes clear against the laws of nature – or one that merely seems to go against the laws of nature because we do not yet fully understand those laws?

Our Prejudices 

Our answers will be dictated to some extent by our personal preferences. Some people wish to believe, others refuse to, no matter what the evidence. This latter group includes, of course, the kind of doctor who dismisses even homeopathy as absurd because it cannot be explained, only witnessed; the kind of scientist who refused to attend the first flight by a heavier-than-air vehicle, the first demonstration of television. On the other hand, those who wish to believe are only too likely to be taken in by charlatans. We must, then, try to approach the subject with an open mind.

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson did so in The Occult.


In Part One, he introduced the concept of “Faculty X”, “the latent power to reach beyond the present to other realities”. Part Two is a comprehensive history of magic, very relevant to our needs on this site, and in Part Three he has a long section on witchcraft and shape-shifting.

Mysteries cover

In Mysteries, he probed even deeper into the world of the paranormal, dealing with phenomena such as dowsing and divination, and explaining the views of Jung, Ouspensky, William James and Aldous Huxley, as well as those of poet/mystics Blake, Yeats and (a favourite of mine) F.W.H. Myers.

Beyond cover

Finally, twenty years later, in Beyond The Occult, he demonstrated that “the world picture of the modern occultist is as consistent and comprehensive as that of the scientist”.

All three books highly recommended to those seriously interested in investigating the fact behind the fantasy.

Witches and Witchcraft

As we have seen, Wilson discusses witchcraft in The Occult, but for those who wish to go deeper into the subject there is Julio Caro Baroja’s classic work The World of the Witches.

World of the Witches

This book focuses principally on Spain (where “witches were condemned to be burnt as early as AD 943”) but it covers the growth and understanding of witchcraft in the Middle Ages throughout western Europe and gives a fascinating “in-depth account of the crisis of witchcraft in the Basque country at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.”

Among other subjects he discusses is man’s innate fear of the power women have over them (what we see for instance in the myth of Circe), and the mysogyny not only of the Christian world (Eastern at least as much as Western) but also of medieval Judaism: “the authors of the Talmud,” he points out in commenting upon Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), “frequently made statements like ‘Women are naturally inclined to witchcraft’, ‘the more women there are, the more witchcraft there will be’, ‘most women are witches’, and so forth.”

An important and thoughtful book in which every theory of witchcraft is considered.

Another gem is the Cassell Dictionary of Witchcraft, which is especially good on named witches (such as Gowdie, Isobel) and witchcraft in specific places, such as St Osyth. (St Osyth figures largely in Mariana 3, The Undeparted Dead.)

Dictionary cover


The Merlin-Gandalf archetype does seem to be a figure of fantasy. Yet how did it come to be an archetype? In prehistoric times, the mage-shaman-wizard, the outsider who understood and moved in the world of the spirits, must have occupied a key place in every society.

Magic for You

The best way of learning about a subect is to practise it. For those interested in exploring the subject for themselves, there is Julie Soskin’s Are You Psychic?

Are you Ps cover

This wonderful – and beautifully illustrated – book contains sections (each with practical exercises) on, for instance, “Exerting Mind over Matter”, “Developing Clairvoyant Vision”, “Could You be a Shaman?” and “Amulets and Talismans”. Superbly produced and highly recommended. I loved it – and learnt more from it than from twenty other books. (Her website address is if you’d like to find out more.)



The Medieval World and the Medieval World View


The Medieval Period stretches from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance, or more precisely from the abdication of the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476, (which marked the advent of the medieval papacy and the coming of the Dark Ages) to the death of Richard III, the last Plantagenet (and last medieval) king in 1485 and the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty in England – or alternatively (for these are necessarily local dates) the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain and the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, or the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and its rebirth as Istambul, or the setting-up of the first printing press in 1450 at Mainz in Germany; to the Renaissance in Italy, the Reformation in the north …

A thousand years, a millennium, brought to an end, suddenly, by a period of great change.

What was life like in those thousand years? How did it change as the centuries passed? And to what extent did it vary from place to place?

The People Were The Same

As I have observed elsewhere, HF (Historical Fiction) is similar in many ways to SF. The people are the people we know; the setting is (or should be) radically different: it should wake you up, set you free – or at least set the writer free.

In the Middle Ages, people were the same as they are now. Their world view was different. Why? Because their world was different? Not really.

Riddley Walker coverIt is an interesting fact that post-catastrophe SF – SF set in a world almost totally destroyed by war or epidemic or pollution or natural disaster – always comes out more or less “medieval”. (One of the best examples is Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker of which Anthony Burgess wrote “This is what literature is meant to be” and which I would give six stars on any five-star scale.)

Take away electricity, and along with it industry, transport, communications. No ‘law and order’ except on a local scale and by virtue of ‘might is right’. No knowledge of anything except that handed down by (a) religious groups (who would surely proliferate); (b) farmers; (c) certain other tradesmen; and (d) healers. We will never go back to classical times, but we could all too easily find ourselves back in the Dark Ages, having to pass again through the Age of Belief, and emerge into the light of the Renaissance as we stumble once more on forgotten knowledge.

That is what life was like. The Fall of the Roman Empire should be seen as a disaster from which it took men hundreds of years to recover.

My books are set towards the end of the 14th century, the century which might be seen as “the dark before the dawn” of the renaissance, and as an introduction to this period there is no book better than Barbara Tuchmannn’s A Distant Mirror, which I have reviewed elsewhere and and will post a copy of that review on this site.

For a fascinating view of the east, I recommend Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. Till I read this, I thought I knew something about the Silk Road: after I’d read it, I did.

Another excellent work is Margaret Wade Labarge’s Women in Medieval Life, which deals in well-researched detail with every aspect of its subject, from the lives of women at the centre of things – queens and noblewomen – through that of nuns, recluses and mystics, and that of women who toiled, the wives of peasants and tradesmen, to the life led by women on the fringe – witches and prostitutes. Invaluable to me, of course, when I first started researching Mariana, my medieval sleuth, the heroine of these stories.