History Files

Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


Cadbury Castle (Camelot?) (Romano-Britons)

FeatureWith the expulsion of Roman officials in AD 409 (see feature link), Britain again became independent of Rome and was not re-occupied. The fragmentation which had begun to emerge towards the end of the fourth century now appears to have accelerated, with minor princes, newly declared kings, and Roman-style magistrates all vying for power and influence while also facing the threat of extinction at the hands of the various barbarian tribes which were encroaching from all sides.

Visible from Glastonbury Tor to the north-west, Cadbury Castle is the site of an Iron Age hill fort, as well as being the most likely site for Camelot, forever linked to 'King' Arthur thanks to medieval revisions of earlier texts. During fifth century Britain, it was probably located close to the borders of Caer Gloui to the north, Caer Gwinntguic to the east, and Dumnonia to the west, and was more than likely just within Dumnonia's borders.

Lying above the village of South Cadbury, the site shows signs of British Neolithic visitation, and was inhabited regularly from the Late Bronze Age onwards. There was never a castle here in the traditional sense, but the hill fort site was defended by earthwork ramparts and ditches. These were created around 400 BC by the local tribe, probably the ancestors of the Dumnonii before they were pushed farther west by the arrival or formation of the Durotriges tribe.

FeatureThe hill fort consists of four huge ramparts and an enclosure which rises to the plateau which is roughly level with the summit of Glastonbury Tor (see feature link). Beyond the tor is another hill fort, Brent Knoll, and in a straight line leading across the Bristol Channel is the hill fort of Dinas Powys (in Cernyw), all four of which are in more-or-less of a straight line. They probably formed part of a chain of communications before the coming of the Romans.

Part of the summit of the enclosure has been badly chopped up by medieval ploughing, and archaeology presents itself in a jumble of odds and ends of various periods. Even so, it is copious archaeology, showing everything from flints and pottery shards to high quality non-British ware for wine or oil which was imported from the eastern Mediterranean (ie the Eastern Roman empire).

The Tudor traveller John Leland stated in 1542 that the hill fort had been the headquarters of Arthur, and he seemed to be relating a long-held local tradition that the site was 'Camallate or Camalat'. Some think that the claim is simply due to the nearby village of Camel, but Leland's spelling with an 'a' as the last syllable may echo a local pronunciation which can still be heard, with the 'a' as in 'car' in a southern English accent. It sounds very similar to 'Camelot'.

The tradition which states that Arthur sleeps in a cavern which lies behind closed iron gates, waiting to emerge at the moment of the country's deepest need, is also tied to Cadbury. The cavern is supposed to be underneath the hill fort. There may actually be a silted-up cave in the scarp on the southern side of the plateau. On the left of the ascent is Arthur's Well, while the highest part of the plateau has been known as Arthur's Palace since at least 1586.

Arthur was most likely the 'battle-leader' of the late fifth century Britons, and has long stood as a candidate for a Romano-British high kingship. The reoccupation of the hill fort in the mid-fifth century AD was of a scale which could only be undertaken by a prominent leader, such as a regional king, a high king, or a battle leader of the likes of Arthur himself. Arthur or his predecessor (Ambrosius Aurelianus) must be prime candidates. A small river, the Cam, flows between Cadbury and Sparkford. This has been proposed as the Camlann, the 'Crooked Bank', of Arthur's last battle.

Absurdly, those who remain staunchly resistant to the idea of Camelot itself, let alone a belief in the existence of Arthur, continue to persist with the notion that Cadbury's paths and terraces were formed by natural geological causes, or medieval agriculture, or anything else but the most obvious cause - focused refortification of a hill fort.

Other hill forts in Britain were also reoccupied, but so far nothing has appeared on such a grand scale of refurbishment and rebuilding (apart, perhaps, from the equally controversial site of Tintagel). A few examples in British and Pictish territory in Scotland are smaller, especially the British ones, and none have a gate house. Cadbury remains a unique example of post-Roman hill fort use.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Landscape of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Collectiana, John Leland (1542), from The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, Cassiodorus Jordanes (Dodo Press, 2007), from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Anne Savage (translator and collator, Guild Publishing, 1983), from A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), and from External Link: Where was Camelot? (Myth Bank).)

mid-60s AD

Cadbury Castle is stormed and captured by the invading Roman legions. Its late occupation in Durotriges tribal territory approximately two decades after the tribe has been conquered by Rome is a bit of a puzzle, but not if it figures as part of a last gesture of defiance at the time of the Boudiccan rebellion by the Iceni tribe.

The possibility exists that a chief of the Durotriges, chaffing at the loss of his domains to these invaders, jumps at the chance to oppose them again in the true spirit of a British warrior. After the final battle, the inhabitants are resettled at the base of the hill fort.

Cadbury Castle
Even today, Cadbury Castle presents the image of a powerful and defensible location, with views across the whole of Somerset giving it a level of strategic importance

c.450 - 460

Occupation of Cadbury Castle is re-established after about four centuries of disuse, perhaps selected not only for its defensive capabilities in these troubled times following the expulsion of Roman authority in Britain, but also because it had previously been a British Masada, the scene of an heroic last struggle.

Its reoccupation is not in the form of a city or an established seat of government for successive rulers. Instead it seems to be a place at which a British leader of stature, perhaps Arthur or his immediate predecessor, Ambrosius Aurelianus, makes his personal headquarters.

Intriguingly, archaeology later discovers, near the south-east bend of the top rampart, a human sacrifice, a young male skeleton rammed head-downwards into a pit with further rampart building on top. The purpose of such a sacrifice, this one occurring before the arrival of the Romans, would be to add supernatural support to the wall, and the tradition of Merlin sees him introduced as an intended sacrifice for the very same reason, suggesting the post-Roman continuation of a pagan custom.

St Germanus of Auxerre
The 'Alleluia Victory' saw St Germanus lead the Britons to a bloodless victory over marauding Saxons, perhaps demonstrating that the country was finally managing its own defence

c.460s - 470s

A timber hall is built on the plateau, and a gatehouse is built on the south-western entrance to the enclosure. This is some considerable distance from the site of the hall, giving a level of authenticity to Arthurian stories such as Culhwch and Olwen.

In this, Culhwch arrives at the gate house but the gate keeper refuses to make the journey to the hall where his lord is already sitting down to eat. The hall is a hundred metres away, up a steep slope, so the gatekeeper's refusal at the end of the day, and especially if it is raining, is understandable.

A new system of defences is established, superimposed on the top bank. It consists of a wall which is about five metres thick which encircles the entire perimeter of 1.2 kilometres. The work consists of unmortared stone and incorporates pieces of Roman masonry, all of which is bound by wooden beams. The various breastworks, platforms, and watchtowers have not survived to be studied. The structure is Celtic in style, and fairly sophisticated, and must call on considerable labour to build it.

Dumnonia in Maps - Map 2 c.AD 400
By this time, Dumnonia and its territories in Cornwall had probably extended into the former lands of the Durotriges in neighbouring Dorset (click or tap on map to view full sized)

? - 469


Ambrosius Aurelianus? Prince Riotham of Dumnonee?

468 - 469

FeatureRiothamus, 'King of the Britons' (see feature link), crosses the English Channel to Gaul, bringing 12,000 ship-borne troops. 'Riothamus' is a title rather than a name, apparently meaning 'supreme king', which raises the possibility that he is Ambrosius Aurelianus. Whoever the owner of Cadbury Castle may be at this time, he is clearly a very powerful man, which places Ambrosius, Riothamus, and even Arthur as very strong contenders for the role.

c.480 - 510

Datable to this period are finds of high quality non-British pottery which is used for expensive goods such as wine and oil, which has been imported from the eastern Mediterranean. Its presence here implies occupation by a household of wealth and standing, and very likely a princely or royal household, at more or less the time of Arthur.

c.480 - 511

Artorius / Arthur Pendragon

Dux bellorum, 'battle leader'. Possible emperor of Britain.


FeatureThe existence of Arthur as the British battle leader is highly controversial butm given the odds, and all the early material which contains appearances by him, his existence is more likely than not (see feature link).

Just as controversial is the existence of Camelot as Arthur's personal headquarters (as opposed to being the country's administrative centre). Cadbury Castle is by far the best candidate for the role, and its location in the modern county of Somerset would just about place it within the borders of Dumnonia at this time.

Glastonbusy Tor
Glastonbury Tor is easily visible across the Somerset flats from Cadbury Castle, and probably formed part of a chain of communications between several prominent locations

Traditionally, Arthur's wife is Guinevere, a medieval form of a Cornish name which is probably Veneva (and which descends as the modern Jennifer). She is a princess of Dumnonia, and possibly a sister to King Gerren. It seems reasonable that Arthur would find a home in the land of his wife (especially given his own, again traditional, potential origins in distant Armorica).


Some say that, when Arthur has gone, the 'evil King Mark of Cornwall' marches on Camelot and destroys it. This would be Cyn-March ap Meirchion of Cornubia, but his reputation for being evil is a far later addition in the Tristan & Iseult romance.

In fact the site remains in use until around 580, which would tie its abandonment very closely to the fall to the West Seaxe of the three cities of Caer Baddan, Caer Ceri, and Caer Gloui in 577, a century or so after the death of Arthur, and the loss of much of this region of Britain to the invaders.

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