Camelot: where was King Arthur’s court and castle?

Camelot, the legendary court and castle of King Arthur, was a peerless seat of chivalry. But did it actually exist?

King Arthur and his knights return to Camelot (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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’).

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An illustration of King Arthur's coronation, from the 13th-century Flores Historiarum. Taken from ‘The Island Race’, a 20th-century book written by Sir Winston Churchill that covers the history of the British Isles from pre-Roman times to the Victorian era. (Photo by World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

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)

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This content first appeared in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine