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.

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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?