On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot
– Lord Alfred Tennyson, ‘The Lady of Shalott’
This is Tennyson’s Camelot, glowing and glorious, seen from afar by a doomed woman who could reach it only in death. If I’m honest, it is this poem – with all its lush tapestry of imagery, the reflection of a vibrant city glimpsed in a mirror – that played the biggest part in shaping my own vision of Camelot, and now I find it impossible to believe in anything else. But there are as many Camelots as there are King Arthurs, so I’m going to try.
Camelot, of course, is now inextricable from the story of Arthur – his city, the seat of his power, where his knights gathered around the famed Round Table – but one of the earliest named locations given for Arthur’s court, in the Welsh Triads, is in fact at Celliwig in Cerniw. Camelot does not get a mention. Many medieval texts place Arthur at Caerleon. In fact, the first time the name of Camelot appears is in Chrétien de Troyes’s poem Lancelot, and the tradition of Camelot being Arthur’s great city began in the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle.
In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, while the young Arthur was battling rival kings for his throne, he called a council: ‘all lords, knights, and gentlemen of arms, should draw unto a castle called Camelot in those days’. Later in the story, Arthur’s wedding to Guinevere also took place in Camelot, at the church of St Stephen’s. He held court in other places, including Caerleon and London, but Camelot was his principal city. As in Tennyson’s evocative poem, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle placed Camelot downstream of the town of Astolat, overlooking the river. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight, describes a scene of revelry in Camelot:
There tourneyed many a time the trusty knights,
and jousted full joyously these gentle lords;
then to the court they came at carols to play.
For there the feast was unfailing full fifteen days,
with all meats and all mirth that men could devise,
such gladness and gaiety as was glorious to hear,
din of voices by day, and dancing by night;
all happiness at the highest in hall and in bowers
had the lords and the ladies, such as they loved most dearly.
The poem’s description of Arthur’s hall includes a high table on a lavish dais, surrounded by beautiful tapestries, and below that the long tables where lesser lords were seated. Not quite in the spirit of the Round Table, where no one was placed higher than anyone else, but very much in keeping with the medieval glamour that infuses Arthurian legend.
But of course, the days of feasting and tournaments did not last forever. Arthur died; the fellowship of the Round Table was broken. In a fragmented romance called the Palamedes, King Mark of Cornwall marched on Camelot after Arthur fell at Camlann and razed the city to the ground. It was as if Camelot was an extension of Arthur himself, and could not outlive him.
So, was there a real Camelot once upon a time? It’s a question that rather relies on what you think of the evidence that Arthur himself was a historical figure. According to Malory, the site of Camelot later became the city of Winchester. Caerleon is another obvious candidate. Cadbury Castle in Somerset has been proposed as the true Camelot since 1542 and archaelogical exploration has confirmed that there was once a large fortress there, heavily refortified in the late fifth or early sixth century.
Perhaps one of these places really was King Arthur’s city – as close to it as history will allow, anyway. Or perhaps Camelot is somewhere else, a little way downriver, under a summer sky. A myth wrapped in the shimmering haze of once and future.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!
References: Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two – Sir Thomas Malory (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485), The King Who Was and Will Be: The World of King Arthur and His Knights – Kevin Crossley-Holland (Orion, 1998), http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/theme/camelot, http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/arthur_legend.shtml, http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/myths_mabinogion_culhwch.shtml, http://kingarthur.wikia.com/wiki/Camelot, Exploring King Arthur’s Britain – Denise Stobie (Collins&Brown Ltd., 1999), Worlds of Arthur: King Arthur in History, Legend and Culture – Fran and Geoff Doel, Terry Lloyd (Tempus, 2005), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo – J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins, 1995)