Caer Llion, Caerleon-on-Usk, Caerlion, Carlion, Carlioun, Carlyon, Cayrlyon, Clarion, Karlion, Karliun, Karlyon, Kerlioun
Located on the Usk River above the Severn estuary in Monmouthshire, Wales, Gwent, this city is sometimes called Caerleon-upon-Usk, the site of a Roman fort and amphitheatre, which demonstrates some importance in Roman and post-Roman times. It was one of the most important cities within the realm of King Arthur.
By Vulgate III, this was Arthur’s favorite city in which to hold court. After Camelot, it is still possibly Arthur’s most famous court city. In some romances, indeed, it eclipses Camelot. As a fortress, Malory tells us that it “has a strong tower”. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Arthur held court at Caerleon which was based on many Celtic legends.
In the Vulgate Merlin, Arthur’s coronation at Caerleon is interrupted by a rebellion, and a battle is subsequently fought and won by Arthur outside the city. A number of other texts, including several Welsh stories, name Caerleon as Arthur’s main court, at least until the founding of Camelot.
In his Lancelot, Chrétien de Troyes mentions that King Arthur has just left Caerleon to hold court at Camelot, making it sound as though the two are in geographical proximity. Again, he makes it the city in which the Haughty Knight of the Heath and his damsel find Arthur holding a small and intimate little court of only 3,000 famous knights.
The town of Caerleon was the location of a Roman fortress built around AD 74 and the headquarters of the Second Augustan Legion. Locals call the amphitheater the “Round Table”. Its name means “City” (originally ‘Fort’) “of the Legion”. As the Roman Isca Silurum, it combined a military establishment with a center of civilian population. It has been proposed as the “City of Legion” that is the scene of Arthur’s ninth battle in Nennius. In this context, however, Caerleon is a less probable candidate than Chester, the Roman base near the northern end of the Welsh borderlands. Geoffrey claims it was founded by King Belinus, perhaps the Beli Mawr of the genealogies. He also says that Dubricus (Dubric) was its archbishop. The Arcbishopric of Caerleon passed from Tremonus, during the reign of Ambrosius, to Dubricius, and then to David. It was also the home of Arthur’s fool, Sir Dagonet.
Caerleon’s chief importance in Arthurian literature is as the place where Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur hold a plenary court, after organizing the conquests made in his first Gallic campaign. Geoffrey may have chosen it simply because it was near his native Monmouth and he had seen the ruins, which in the twelfth century were still conspicuous. In fact, he mentions them. His lavish description of the court prepares the way for the romancers’ concept of Camelot as a special Arthurian capital. Here also, he locates the convent to which Guenevere retires.
Its location on the borders of Wales and England made it a place often fought over by the Saxons, Vikings and Welsh. It was when the Normans invaded into Wales that a castle was built here. If Caerleon-on-Usk is the City of the Legion, then it was here that Arthur held his plenary court at Whitsun, attended by representatives from all of Europe. Various sources name Caerleon-on-Usk as Camelot and the city where the Knights of the Round Table were first established.
Today, thanks to excavation and preservation, a large part of the complex of Roman buildings has survived. The amphitheater is the finest specimen in Britain. Before it was restored to daylight, it was covered by an accumulation of earth that concealed the structure but kept the shape, a hollow oval. The resulting mound was claimed locally as the true Round Table, the idea being that the knights sat facing inward as the original spectators did.
Caerleon has a version of the cave legend. A mysterious stranger in a three-cornered hat guided a farmer to a cave where a thousand of Arthur’s soldiers lay asleep, waiting till they should be needed. One detail, that their heads were resting on guns, suggests that this tale is hardly one of the earliest forms of the legend.