Cambala, Camball, Camblan, Cambul, Cambula, Camel, Camelford, Camlan, Kamblan, Kemelen
The site of Arthur’s third and final battle between him and his usurping nephew Mordred, where Mordred was killed and Arthur mortally wounded. The romances tell us that Arthur was carried from the battlefield to be healed at Avalon. Malory has only Arthur, Bedivere and, for a very brief period, Lucan survive this battle. Arthur was sorely, perhaps mortally, wounded.
Some of the Welsh Mabinogion tales discuss Camlann in more detail. Culhwch and Olwen tells us that nine warlords planned the battle, including Gwynn Hyfar – Arthur’s seneschal of Devon and Cornwall – and that there were only three survivors: Sanddef (he was so beautiful that the warriors mistook him for an angel and refused to attack him), Morfran (he was so ugly that the warriors thought he was a devil and refused to attack him), and Cynwyl. The Dream of Rhonabwy informs us that the battle was caused when Arthur’s messenger Iddawg delivered a peace offer from Arthur to Mordred in rude and insulting tones.
This is the first mention in Welsh literature of Mordred as Arthur’s opponent at Camlann, and it must have been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account. Nennius failed to pick up the story of the battle, and Geoffrey of Monmouth was consequently the first chronicler to mention it. Wace and Layamon followed this tradition, and the battle of Camlann was soon firmly rooted in Arthurian lore. According to the chronicles, Arthur returned from the Roman War to deal with Mordred’s insurrection. During their final battle at Camlann, their armies obliterated each other, Arthur slew Mordred, and Mordred mortally wounded Arthur. Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister, bore his body away to Avalon in a barge. Others thought to have survived the battle were Saint Derfel and Saint Petroc.
Welsh tradition spoke of seven survivors. The date, as well as the location, of the battle has caused some debate. Neither Gildas nor Nennius mentions such a battle, it appears first in the tenth-century Annales Cambriae state it was twenty-one years after Badon, perhaps intending AD 515, 520 or 539.
"... the strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell"
Nothing is said here make Mordred a villain, or even to show that he and Arthur were opposed. Early bardic allusions are favorable to him. In the Triads, however, the enmity and tragedy are clearly emerging. Camlann is one of the three “futile battles,” in which Arthur not only fought Mordred but through some unexplained lapse of judgment allowed many of his troops to join his opponent. A strong and sad tradition makes the battle a massacre with so few survivors that they are individually named. The Welsh have much more to say about Camlann than about Badon.
Geoffrey claims it was in 542. The Irish Annals of Tigernach place it in 541 and the Spanish Anales Toledanos much later, in 580. As to the site, Malory favours Salisbury Plain. Slaughterbridge on the River Camel in Cornwall, is a traditional site, while Blackett and Wilson identify it with Camlan in Wales. The Didot Perceval places it in Ireland and even Cambridge has been suggested.
The name Camlann comes from Welsh tradition, where its extensive proliferation indicates an actual battle was probably fought at some place with that name. These bardic tales, annotated in the Triads, portray a different conception of Camlann than what we have come to accept through Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory.
One Triad mentions the warrior Alan Fyrgan, who was apparently killed there after his warriors deserted him. Another tells us that it was started when Guenevere’s sister, Gwenhwyfach (Gwenhwyach), struck Guenevere. A third suggests that Arthur’s defeat could be attributed to the method by which he divided his battalions. Some of these Triads probably developed after the Annales Cambriae, in which Camlann is listed in the year 537 as the battle where “Arthur and Medraut fell.” The Annales, contrary to later tradition, do not indicate whether Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) were fighting on opposite sides.
While Arthur’s involvement with Camlann could be authentic, it could also be one of many cases of his association over the centuries with battlefields and other sites up and down Britain. Geoffrey’s Camel location may itself be due to this process. There was indeed a battle beside the river Camel, Cornwall, and local legend grew up to be highly circumstantial about it, indicating a field near Slaughter Bridge a mile above Camelford. The battle, however, was probably one between the Cornish and the West Saxons, fought in 823. Layamon specifies the town of Camelford. A majority of scholars seems to accept this identification.
The Vulgate Mort Artu substitutes Salisbury for the location of the final battle, which Malory follows. Counterpart locations in other sources include Trent, Urbano, the Humber, Ireland, and Lyonesse.
The name corresponds to the British Camboglanna ‘crooked bank’ (i.e., of a river), or less probably Cambolanda ‘crooked enclosure’. There is a place called Camlan today, a valley in Merioneth with a small river flowing down it, but several rivers have the “crooked” element in their names. Geoffrey of Monmouth chooses the Camel in Cornwall. Another candidate is the Somerset Cam, which is nearby Cadbury-Camelot. Camboglanna belongs to a town in Rheged and has been proposed as the site of Camlann by proponents of Arthur as a northern hero. Camelon in Scotland is another possibility.
A multiple burial is said once to have come light in the fields below the hill. The original British form Camboglanna is actually found as the name of a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, allegedly though questionably Birdoswald, high above the River Irthing, which runs through a valley and is suitably crooked. Naturally, this fort has been favored as the site, but it raises a special difficulty, because the triadic version of Arthur’s quarrel with Mordred places this in Cornwall, with Arthur living at Kelliwic. Furthermore, the Mordred/Modred form of the name, which replaces the Welsh Medraut or Medrawd, is Cornish and implies a Cornish tradition. Geoffrey is at least looking in a plausible direction. But Birdoswald is a long way from Cornwall.
The problem is not made simpler by traces of another account of Arthur’s end. In the Prophetiae Merlini, which Geoffrey inserts in his Historia Regum Britanniae, he makes the prophet foretell Arthur’s career and predict a mysterious passing that seems to be in Gaul. When he came to write the actual story, Geoffrey introduced Camlann, but the denouement is still interwoven with events overseas, wholly foreign to the Welsh version, as is Geoffrey’s portrayal of Mordred as Arthur’s traitorous deputy. In the Vulgate Cycle and Malory, while Mordred’s villainy is retained, Camlann as such disappears again. The final and fatal battle is fought near Salisbury.
Wherever the battle was, it may be accepted as historical. The question is whether the involvement of Arthur is also historical. On the face of it, this is a different case from that of Badon, because bards would have wished to connect him with a victory but not with a dismal inter-British quarrel. Perhaps, then, the facts were too clear to set aside. Yet an Arthurian battle in 539 (no other source offers any alternative) seems very late; it is suspect because the same chronicle almost certainly errs about Badon; and it is further suspect in view of evidence from the Welsh saints’ lives that legend did come to involve Arthur in activities extending far into the sixth century, activities that were certainly fictious.
Nevertheless, some scholars have picked out the Camlann entry in the Annales as the one reliable Arthurian statement, partly because it is free from manifest legend, partly on the ground that, although it occurs in a tenth-century text, it was copied (or may plausibly be supposed to have been copied) from a contemporary record. But the form of the name tells against this argument. If it started as Camboglanna, it would have become Camlann in Welsh, but it would have passed through an intermediate form Camglann and taken a long time doing so. Hence, the Annales entry mentioning “Camlann” is not contemporary or anything like it. A copyist might have modernized the older spelling, but it cannot be proved that the older spelling was there for him to modernize.
Camlann probably happened; Arthur’s name was connected with it by the tenth century; and, if it was discreditable, there may have been a reason for that connection that was more compelling than pure fancy. On the other hand, all would-be reconstructions of a real Camlann with a real Arthur in it fall short of conviction. Also, there are grave obstacles to the belief that he was active so late. This difficulty might be overcome by the hypothesis of a minor Arthur, who perished in the battle and was absorbed into a saga originating from an earlier leader. Another possibility is suggested by a Welsh poem about a battle fought by the West Country ruler Geraint. Though this mention Arthur, it does not say that he was present in person, but an ambiguity in the wording has led to its being construed s saying that he was. An early bardic lament over Camlann might have introduced his name in the same way, with the same result.
Clearly there are many mysteries surrounding “Arthur’s final battle”. What does seem clear is that the battle of Camlann was a strife between two warring British factions – not between the British and the invading Anglo-Saxons. As Leslie Alcock points out,
"[Camlann] must have greatly facilitated the Anglo-Saxon advance. Whatever political history lies concealed here, the result must have been the fragmentation of a Britannia united under the sovereignty of a superbus tyrannus into a number of small British kingdoms. Most of these disappeared in the course of the next century without leaving the least trace..."
Culhwch and Olwen | Late 11th century
Triads of the Island of Britain (Welsh ”Triads”) | 11th century to 14th century
Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155
Brut | Layamon, late 12th century to mid-13th century
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Alliterative Morte Arthure | c. 1400
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
Britannia | William Camden, 1586
The Misfortunes of Arthur | Thomas Hughes, 1587
Scotorum Historiae | Hector Boece, 1527
Poly-Olbion | Michael Drayton, 1612