City of the Legion, Fort of the Legion
Latin: Isca Augusta
Caer Llion, Caerleon-on-Usk, Caerleon-upon-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 historic town is sometimes called Caerleon-upon-Usk, the site of a Roman fort and amphitheatre – the locals calls it the “Round Table” – 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. Various sources name Caerleon-on-Usk as Camelot and the city where the Knights of the Round Table were first established.
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. Geoffrey, who sometimes calls it the “City of Legions,” suggests that it was the greatest city in Arthur’s realm. A number of different texts, including several Welsh stories, name Caerleon as Arthur’s main court, at least until the founding of Camelot.
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.
Arthur was crowned king in Caerleon by the Archbishop Dubricius. 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. The Arcbishopric of Caerleon passed from Tremonus, during the reign of Ambrosius, to Dubricius, and then to David. The city 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 at Whitsun, attended by representatives from all of Europe, 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.
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.
Caerleon | 100 BC to 1000 AD
Celtic Settlements | 100 BC to 1st century AD
Prior to Roman occupation, the area around Caerleon was inhabited by Celtic tribes, likely belonging to the Silures. The region had a history of Celtic hillforts and settlements.
Roman Settlement | Late 1st century AD
Caerleon, known as Isca Augusta in Latin, was established as a Roman legionary fortress around 74 AD during the Roman occupation of Britain. It served as a base for the Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Augusta) and played a crucial role in the Roman conquest and administration of Britain. The town was well-planned and included typical Roman features such as a fortress, amphitheater, baths, and a forum. It was an important administrative and military center for the Romans in Britain.
One of the most well-preserved and iconic features of Caerleon is its Roman amphitheater. It is one of only three such amphitheaters in Roman Britain. It could hold around 6,000 spectators and was used for various events, including gladiatorial combat and entertainment.
End of Roman Rule | 4th to 5th centuries AD
With the decline of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, Roman authority in Britain weakened. Caerleon, like other Roman settlements, saw a decline in Roman influence and maintenance.
Post-Roman and Anglo-Saxon Period | 5th to 9th centuries AD
After the Romans withdrew from Britain, Caerleon likely experienced a period of transition and changes in governance. The town may have been inhabited by Celtic Britons and later influenced by Anglo-Saxon settlers, especially after the Anglo-Saxon migrations into Britain. The historical record during this transition from Roman to post-Roman times is limited, and the specifics of Caerleon’s history during the early medieval period are not well-documented.
Viking and Norman Periods | 9th to 11th centuries AD
During the late ninth and tenth centuries, Viking raids and settlements impacted various parts of Britain, but the extent of their influence in Caerleon is not extensively recorded.
Norman Influence | 10th century
The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 also had repercussions in Wales. It was when the Normans invaded into Wales that a castle was built here. Norman control increased in the following centuries in Britain, leading to changes in governance and the construction of Norman castles.
Caer is a Welsh name for a wall or mound for defence – a city or castle wall, a fortress.
The root to this word might be cau, to shut up, to close, to fence, to enclose with a hedge. Cue means a field enclosed with hedges. When the Britons began to build cities they built a fortified wall to surround them, which were called caer.
The name Chester is a Saxonized form of the Latin castruni, a fort (and one of the few words recognised as directly inherited from the Roman invaders), is a common prefix and suffix in English place-names, such as: Colchester, Manchester, Chesterford, Chesterton. In the Danish and Anglian districts “Chester” is replaced with “caster”, such as: Doncaster and Lancaster, but both forms are allied to casirum, a Latinization of the Celtic caer.
Culhwch and Olwen | Late 11th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Owain | 13th century
Peredur | 13th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470