Camelot first appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ late 12th-century French romance Lancelot or The Knight in the Cart. Given that this story was very much his creation, the name is likely to have been made up, presumably based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Camblan’ or Wace’s ‘Camble’, with ‘-lot’ added to fit the rhyme (meaning ‘share’, ‘fate’).
The legend of King Arthur, a fifth-century warrior king who supposedly led the fight against Saxon invaders, continues to fascinate today. But how much truth is there to the legends of the ‘once and future king’?
There have however been numerous attempts to identify King Arthur‘s Camelot. Winchester was a candidate in the later Middle Ages, then South Cadbury Hillfort in the reign of Henry VIII, based presumably on nearby names such as the river Cam. Colchester in Essex and the Roman fort at Slack near Huddersfield have also been put forward as possible Camelots, because they were called Camulodunum (literally ‘fortress of the god Camul’) in Roman Britain.
Before taking any of these too seriously, we surely have to show that there is a good chance that Chrétien had drawn the name from a reliable and near-contemporary source. That seems highly unlikely.
Nick Higham is emeritus professor in early medieval and landscape history at the University of Manchester. His books include King Arthur (Stroud, 2015)