What Did Camelot Really Look Like?

Think this is what Camelot looked like? Think again.

Think this is what Camelot looked like? Think again.

When I say the word “Camelot” what do you think of?

Probably a grandiose medieval castle made of stone with turrets and spires, something out of a fairy tale. And that is how it has been portrayed in drawings, movies and TV shows.

(Full disclosure, my Camelot does have some of these elements, but I’ve also given you a logical explanation of why it could be possible. In that, I’m invoking the fantasy side of the genre of historical fantasy. But all of the other castles in my books are true to the time period.)

But the reality of Celtic castles, if we assume King Arthur lived somewhere in the late fifth to early sixth century, is very different. In fact, the word “castle” really doesn’t even accurately describe them. They were more like fortifications than homes. For the most part, rulers didn’t have permanent residence there. The castles were protection for the surrounding populous and their livestock in case of attack.

Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which some believe to be the real location of Camelot. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which some believe to be the real location of Camelot. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Most Celtic castles were likely hillforts, which kind of resemble what would later become the motte and bailey style of castle. They were based on large earthenwork hills. The castle itself was at the top in the center, surrounded by one or more wooden palisades, and usually at least one earthen wall or ditch. There are many where the hill is terraced and each terrace has wooden walls and earthen ditches or ramparts to make it even more difficult for the enemy to succeed in siege.

The castle itself was likely to be wooden because timber was readily available. The exception is that stone was plentiful in Highland Scotland, and some British rulers, especially on the western coast, were thought to have fortified their wooden castles using stone. But they didn’t build them the way we picture until the 10th century. In fact, castles as we think of them didn’t come into prominence until the reign of Edward I, who is credited with building the great castles of Northern Wales.

These hillforts would have been defended with arrows, swords, axes and spears, along with sling shots. In order to conquer one, the enemy (depending on what technology they had available) may have used ballista bolts in addition to pure manpower.

Examples of hillforts in Arthurian legend include Traprain Law (King Lot’s capital in Lothian), Badon (if one takes Solsbury Hill outside of Bath to be the location of the battle of mount Badon), Maiden Castle (which is linked to several Arthurian stories), and Cadbury (which Geoffrey Ashe and many other scholars believe is the true location of Camelot).

Tintagel, long thought to be Arthur's birthplace. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tintagel, long thought to be Arthur’s birthplace. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But what about Tintagel, you might ask?  It’s the most famous surviving castle linked to Arthurian legend (Arthur’s birthplace) and it’s made of stone. We know the site was occupied during what I’ll call the Arthurian period, but the castle itself dates to the 13th century. I’ll be visiting Tintagel in less than a month, so I can tell you more when I get back.

PS – Scholars can’t agree on if Camelot existed, much less where. Someday I’ll do a post on some of the possible locations. What I’ve described here is typical of the time period, but we may never know for sure what Camelot really looked like.

—–

Sources
British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam
Strongholds of the Picts by Angus Konstam
Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World by Matthew Bennett and Jim Bradbury, et al
There are probably more because I wrote most of this post from memory. Please check my research page for more possible sources.

How do you picture Camelot? What have you seen portrayed in movies, books or TV? Are there any other Arthurian castles you’re curious about?

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8 thoughts on “What Did Camelot Really Look Like?

    • Hi Jay,

      It probably was! The Dark Ages are not known for their civility. And yes, I will take lots of pictures. You guys will get more blog posts than you know what to do with when I get back!

  1. Nicole has brought up a subject close to my heart so I cannot help but comment. I personally think there is a place for both the romantic Arthurian castles and the more likely fortified hill forts or reused Roman towns or cities of ancient Britain. It all depends what the author wants to write about and, more importantly, what the reader wants to read about.

    However, from an historically accurate perspective I tend to believe that ‘’Camelot’ would have been based on an existing central Britain location simply because of the continual invasions of that period from the coasts towards the centre. This makes me to think that ‘Camelot’ was either Caer Guricon (the Roman city of Viriconium in present day Shropshire) or at Caerlleon (the present day Chester). Both places having seen extensive post-Roman reconstruction and occupation.

    I feel it unlikely that the reconstruction would have been the Holywood style of Camelot simply because that era was one of severe deprivation and poverty in a country threatened by invasion, dramatic climate change and no sustainable currency. Instead, reconstruction would have been simple but the surroundings would have retained all the glamour of Roman construction.

    Renowned Arthurian scholar Ernst Brugger suggested that Camelot was a corruption of Camlann, the site of Arthur’s final battle. Roger Sherman Loomis suggest Camelot was a corruption of Avalon. Loomis also suggests that Camelot became Arthur’s capital (in legend) due to confusion with Arthur’s other traditional court at Caerlleon. Obviously we will never know but we can disprove many suggested places and that is what makes the research and the writing so enjoyable to scholars and authors.

    In my book ‘The Cyfarwydd’ published as a paperback on Amazon and as an ebook on Kindle, I have taken real-known historical figures and woven a story which is basically Historical Fiction. I leave it to the reader to decide who or what could be the people and events that the Arthurian Legends were based on. As I say in my Author’s notes.

    ‘King Arthur is a legendary character though perhaps based on those who once lived in a land cursed by invasion and desperation of all who lived within its borders.

    Was he Emrys? A man descended from Roman aristocracy. Or was he Owain ap Einion, known as the bear, Ur Arth? Both are recorded as leading the people of troubled Britain in its hour of need Or perhaps he was an amalgam of the two or even yet others I have not mentioned, for Arthur, Arthuis, Arthwys and Artwys were common names and all derived from the Celtic word for ‘bear’.

    Was the fabled Camelot Caer Guricon or Caerlleon? Both retained their Roman heritage in their buildings and would stand out as legendary cities, for virtually all other cities in Britain had already been destroyed by invaders?

    Was the fabled Avalon the Isle of Apples? (Ynys Enlli – Bardsey Island) There are some historians who say that the name ‘Avalon’ is derived from the words ‘Afal Enlli’. The legendary Avalon was where the legendary Arthur was taken by Guinevere and Morgan le Fay after the Battle of Camlann. Is it coincidence that the wounded Owain (aka Arth) would have been found by Morgana and Gwenhyfar? The truth is we shall never know.’

    But if it makes an enjoyable story to read, who cares?

    Tim Carrington
    http://www.tim-carrington.co.uk

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your insightful reply. Sorry it took a little while to show up on my site; your comment was caught in my spam filter (no idea why). In my books, I have my Arthur as a northern king and have based Camelot not far from Carlisle, as in the theory posited by David Day. That’s really jsut because it suits my plot. I don’t personally have any stake in where the historical Arthur may have lived. I’m anticipating recounting what I hear on my trip (which is an Arthurian legends tour of southwest Britian). Geoffrey Ashe is one of the guides, so I’m sure it will be heavy on Caburby as Camelot, but I’m curious to see if any other theories are mentioned. You are one of my best commentors because you always bring such great knowledge to the table. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! And I agree with you, if it makes a great story, who cares?

  2. My first taste of Arthur was a children’s version of the romances, so I was brought up on the medieval castle version of Camelot.

    In later years I got to know my history a bit better and I guess I’d go with the hillfort version in preference to a Roman town (just about). As to where, I’d guess at the south-west, with Cadbury as good as anywhere.

    I visited Cadbury as a teenager, clutching my copy of Alcock’s book about the excavation that I’d read from cover to cover (sad or what?). I bored my father by walking all over the fort looking at where the trenches had been. Alcock was my hero at the time and I think I was more excited about walking where he had trod rather than where Arthur might have!

    • Hi Andrew,

      I’m going to be visiting Cadbury in less than a month! I’m very excited. Geoffrey Ashe is going to be one of our tour leaders, so I’ll be walking around clutching his book just like you were with Alcock.

      Alcock has been one of my strongest sources for these books (and blog posts), so I can certianly see why you admire him.

  3. Pingback: The Celts in Britain circa 470 AD | Through the Mists of Time

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