Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort beside the village of South Cadbury in Somerset, has three features of Arthurian interest: first, its longstanding designation by the name Camelot; second, a miscellany of local folklore related to this; and third, its proved reoccupation and refortification during the period withing which Arthur supposedly lived.
There was never a castle here in the medieval sense. The hill itself is the castle, being made so by its huge system of earthwork ramparts, now largely overgrown with woods, but still exposed in places. The topmost bank of the four encircles an eighteen-acre enclosure, rising to a summit plateau 500 feet above sea level. John Leland, in his Itinerary (1542), wrote:
At the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle... The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard say Arthur much resorted to Camalat.
Leland uses the name as if it were an accepted one. Arguably, he is merely speculating, prompted by the place-name Camel that occurs in the neighborhood. By itself, this hardly seems a sufficient explanation, and folklore may also have played a part. A version of the Arthurian cave legend probably already existed here. In its modern form, it asserts that a pair of gates concealed in the hillside swing open once a year, revealing the sleeping king. There is sixteenth-century evidence for the highest part of the hill being known as Arthur’s Palace. Further legends, recorded in more recent times, may or may not be old. On Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night or Christmas Eve (it is doubtful which, and it may be only every seven years), the ghosts of Arthur and his knights ride across the hilltop and out through the ancient gateway in the fortifications. Below, a track running toward Glastonbury is Arthur’s Hunting Causeway, and on winter nights, it is said, spectral riders and horses can be heard on it. The nearby River Cam is eligible as Camlann, the scene of the battle in which Arthur fell.
After Leland, other antiquaries, such as Stukeley, take up the “Camelot” theme, and the name appears on maps, justifying its use to distinguish this Cadbury from others. Any deeper significance must depend on definitions. The Camelot of the romancers who created it is a medieval dream-city that would be futile to seek anywhere. It has, however, the special attribute of being peculiarly King Arthur’s capital; no other monarch reigns there; and Cadbury could be claimed as “the real Camelot” so far as anything ever was, if it were connected in some way with the original Arthur, having (for example) been refurbished as his personal citadel. It would be the far-off reality behind the Camelot of the romancers. This is a possibility that the archaeology of the site may be held to raise.
The principal excavation was carried out during 1966-1970 under the direction of Leslie Alcock. It confirmed an Iron Age settlement on the plateau, with which the defenses were associated. Theis survived undisturbed for some time after the Roman conquest of southern ero. Then the hill was stormed and captured. The inference is that Cadbury was a center of resistance in some unrecorded British revolt, possibly an offshoot of Boudicca’s in AD 60-61. The Roman period was followed by a complete gap, after which the dating evidence of imported pottery attests reoccupation.
This phase of the side – Cadbury 11, in Professor Alcock’s terminology ‘ may have begun ca 460 or at any time over the next few decades, but not much after 500. Buildings belonging to it include a timber hall on the plateau, in the “Arthur’s Palace” area, and a gate-house reminiscent of Roman auxiliary forts. However, the most striking feature is embedded in the topmost bank: a drystone wall about sixteen feet thick running around the entire perimeter, a distance of nearly three-quarters of a mile. This massive enhancement of the rempart incorporated pieces of Roman masonry and was bound together by a framwork of wooden beams. Celtic, not Roman, in style, it was fairly sophisticated structure embodying an impressive amount of labor.
At the time of its discovery, Cadbury 11 was interpreted as an army base. Since the scale and elaborateness of the refortification were archaeologically unmatched in that period, the result permitted a connection with Arthur conceived as the war-leader of Welsh tradition. Over the next few years, it was widely assumed that Cadbury’s apparent uniqueness was accidental, and the excavation of other hill forts would refute it. This did not happen. Reoccupation during the same period was proved in various places, but the stone-and-timber defensive work remained without a contemporary parallel in the archaeology of England and Wales. Comparable structures were found in Scotland but were markedly smaller. In a 1982 reassessment, Alcock suggested that Cadbury was a political center rather than a military one, the seat of a king with resources of wealth and manpower unequaled – on the existing evidence – in the Britain of his time.
Considered historically, such a view raises the issues of the British high kingship that appears to have existed at least in name during much of the fifth century. It is interesting that Vortigern, a holder of this office, is portrayed by Nennius as trying to build himself a personal fortress on a hill in Wales. Moreover, he uses “timber and stones” as at Cadbury. Though the story may be ficitious, it hints that “timber and stones” were regarded as a proper materials for a high king’s citadel. A project like the one ascribed to Vortigern might have been actually undertaken at Cadbury by a successor.
Whether this successor can be meaningfully equated with Arthur is a question outside the scope of archaeology. But the nature of Cadbury 11 makes it less likely that Leland’s Camelot identification was a pure guess. Somehow, he hit on what is easily the most appropriate site throughout Britain. Even a modern archaeologist could not have picked it out on a visual appraisal alone, without excavation. As perhaps at Castle Dore and Tintagel, some kind of tradition is probable. The actual romantic name need not have been part of it, since by the sixteenth century “Camelot” was familiar as the name of Arthur’s home, and Leland could simply have applied it to a place where he understood that home to have been.
A literary by-product of the work at Cadbury was the choice of this location for Camelot by novelists, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, Catherine Christian, and Mary Stewart.