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King Arthur's Camelot

...the rain may never fall till after sundown. At eight AM the fog must disappear. In short there's simply not, a more congenial spot, for a happily-ever-aftering, than here in Camelot...

-Camelot, Alan Jay Lerner-Fredrick Loewe

The Arthurian Legends about Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table, and the quest for the Holy Grail, have been the inspiration to poets and writers from Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court) to Alfred Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King) to T. H. White (Once and Future King) to the comedy troupe of Monty Python (Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Was there a real King Arthur that ruled from his castle at Camelot?

We know Arthur first appeared in a Welch poem written by Gododdin around 600 AD. Later he is mentioned by the Welch chronicler Nennius at about 800 AD. By the 12th century he was considered a national hero to the English with dozens of folk tales to his credit.

If there was a real Arthur he could have lived no later than the 6th century, just before the first epics of his adventures appeared. It seems likely Arthur was probably a Celtic British King who fought against Saxon invaders. He apparently won several great battles, culminating in a victory at Badon. While Arthur was unable to stop the Saxons in the long run, he did delay their conquest. This, in turn, enabled the Celtics to preserve themselves in England as a distinct racial entity.

Arthur's battles occurred after the Romans, who had held Briton as a province for 400 years, withdrew following the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410 AD. Arthur was probably a Romanized Briton of mixed ancestry who had been educated and trained in Roman military techniques.

Unfortunately some of the most intriguing stories about King Arthur, like his ascension to the throne as a boy after magically removing a sword thrust through a stone, and his knight's pursuit of the Holy Grail, are clearly inventions of later chroniclers.

What about Camelot? Some would suggest that this also was an invention of poets to give Arthur a home base. One 14th century author, John Leland, though, claimed that the name came out of local tradition. Leland claimed that while visiting the village of Somerset he was told that 'Camalat' was the name of a hill by the village of South Cadbury and that King Arthur had 'much resided there.'

Examination of the hill, which rises 250 feet above the surrounding land, has shown that around the summit fortifications some 3,600 feet in circumference lay in ruins. As recently as 1723 the locals referred to the hill as 'Camelot Castle.'

In the 1950's a recognized expert on Dark Age Britain, Dr. Raleigh Radford, examined some pottery and coins found on the hill and determined that they belonged to Arthur's period. This lead to the formation of the Camelot Research Committee in 1965.

Under the direction of Leslie Alcock the hill was excavated. At the south-western gate exploration disclosed several successive chronological layers. The top levels were identified by pottery and coin to be Saxon. Digging in the lower level unearthed the bones of some thirty men, women and children jumbled together along with burnt weapons, pottery and Roman coins. The hill was apparently the sight of a massacre in the first century A.D. when the Romans attacked and overcame a number of hill forts in Briton.

In between the pre-Roman and Saxon layers were the remains of a fortress built in the Celtic style. The castle had been built around 450 to 500 A.D. during the Saxon advance across Britain. It had a number of large buildings suggesting it was an important center of commerce. The largest structure, a rectangular hall some 63 feet long and 34 feet wide, could have served as the feasting hall and home of a great Celtic chieftain, like Arthur.

No definite link between the hill at Cadbury and Camelot and Arthur has been found, but some of the circumstantial evidence is impressive. Nearby the hill is the river Cam, possibly the site of "Camlann," the battle where Arthur received his fatal wound. Twelve miles to the north is the abbey at Gastonbury Tor which is considered the traditional resting place of Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. There, in 1190, the reputed bones of the King and Queen were found enclosed in a hollow tree in a grave of great depth. The inscription found on a leaded cross above the grave read "Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon."

These relics were lost when the abbey was dispersed during The Reformation, but according to accounts the man's bones were of great size in keeping with accounts of Arthur's height.

Despite this, local tradition has it that Arthur wasn't in the abbey, but somewhere in a hidden cave in the hill at Cadbury. Legend has it that twice a year, on Midsummer Eve and Christmas Eve, you can hear him rise and ride down from Camelot to drink from the ancient spring that bears his name.

Copyright Lee Krystek 1997. All Rights Reserved.

 

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