The Battle of Camlann is special in that it is one of the only events in the Arthurian legends that can be considered probably-historical. But unlike the historical Battle of Badon, the events at Camlann were far from positive for King Arthur.
In this article, we will see:
- What the Battle of Camlann was
- What caused it
- Who fought in it
- Where it occurred
Also be sure to check out my Arthurian Hub for a collection of information about the Arthurian Legends.
What Was The Battle Of Camlann?
The Battle of Camlann was, according to the available records, King Arthur’s final battle. It was the climax of a civil war caused by the rebellion of his nephew/son, Mordred.
It was an extremely bloody battle, with Arthur losing many of his men. However, though the battle was difficult, Arthur eventually managed to defeat his nephew.
But the Battle of Camlann was not a complete victory. It was Arthur’s last battle because Arthur himself ended up being severely wounded during his final confrontation with Mordred.
Because of this, Arthur was said to have abdicated and left the throne to King Constantine of Dumnonia, while Arthur himself was taken to the Isle of Avalon to be healed.
Combatants Of The Battle
Unlike Arthur’s famous twelve battles, Camlann was not part of a foreign campaign. Rather, it was a civil war.
On one side, the leader was King Arthur. According to most versions of the legend, on his side were most of the kings who had been loyal to him throughout his reign.
In the later French chivalric romance tradition, such as the Mort Artu in the Vulgate Cycle, these kings are portrayed as ‘Knights of the Round Table’. But they are really Arthur’s allied kings. Some of them had died during the Grail Quest by the time the Battle of Camlann occurred.
But of those who remained, most of them were still loyal to Arthur. Some specific individuals named in the earliest account of the battle are:
- Augusel (Arawn) brother of Urien
- Gawain son of Lot
- Owain son of Urien
- Olbrict, king of Norway
- Aschillius, king of Dacia
- Cador Limenic
The leader of the other side of the conflict was Mordred. He was the son of King Lot of Lothian. As such, he was part of a powerful dynasty. His uncle was King Urien of Rheged, historically one of the most powerful kings of the sixth century.
However, it seems that none of his family supported him in his rebellion against Arthur, at least as far as the available records tell us. His uncles Arawn and Urien, and Urien’s son Owain, all seem to have been on Arthur’s side.
Therefore, Mordred is said to have primarily used foreign soldiers in his rebellion. He is said to have called on a certain leader of the Saxons named Cheldric and asked him to gather as many soldiers from Germany as he could.
Mordred also called on the Scots and the Picts. The Scots were the Irish, and these may have come from Ireland itself and also from the Irish kingdoms in the north of Britain (such as the kingdom of Dal Riada).
The Picts, on the other hand, were essentially just the non-Romanised Britons living north of Hadrian’s Wall. It makes sense that Mordred’s army would have been composed largely of those from the north of Britain, since that is where Mordred himself was based.
The earliest account of the battle says that Mordred called on ‘all others whom he knew to be enemies of his uncle’. This would have undoubtedly included some kings from elsewhere in Britain who opposed Arthur’s rule.
One ally who turned traitor was Gwyn Hywar, the governor of Dumnonia and Cernyw (possibly Gwent). He is mentioned in the Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen as an ally of Arthur, but the text notes that he was later one of the men who instigated the battle of Camlann.
Some of the leaders specifically named by Geoffrey of Monmouth are:
The Legend Of The Battle Of Camlann
The legend of the Battle of Camlann is fairly consistent across the sources which describe it. The earliest source which presents a full account of the battle and the events leading up to it is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.
For this reason, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account can be viewed as the closest thing we have to a ‘definitive version’ of the battle. Nonetheless, it was written centuries after the event in question, so the details are obviously suspect.
Arthur’s Leaves Britain
A common feature among virtually all accounts of the legend is that Arthur left Britain for a time. In the HRB, this is due to his war with the Romans.
Arthur raised an enormous army, taking with him almost all his allied kings, and went out to fight against the Romans in Europe. After a difficult and bloody battle, Arthur won.
After Lancelot is introduced into the Arthurian legends, some later versions make him the reason that Arthur left Britain. Due to his affair with Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, a war breaks out between Lancelot and Arthur.
Arthur pursues Lancelot to Gaul, where the war continues for a time, although Arthur has to return to Britain before he can fully resolve it.
In essentially all accounts, Arthur is shown to have left Britain for a period. And while he does so, he entrusts the kingdom to Mordred.
Mordred had been entrusted with governing the kingdom while Arthur was away. However, he evidently craved more power, so he attempted to make himself king.
The Historia Regum Britanniae explains that after Arthur’s victory against the Romans:
“he had news brought to him that his nephew Modred, to whose care he had entrusted Britain, had by tyrannical and treasonable practices set the crown upon his own head; and that queen Guanhumara [Guinevere], in violation of her first marriage, had wickedly married him.”
Due to this, Arthur hurried back to Britain.
Some of the later legends expand on how Mordred declared himself king. For example, the Mort Artu explains that Mordred announced the death of Arthur, thus giving a reasonable pretext to him taking the crown for himself (since he was already the de facto leader, after all).
Alternative Versions Of The Outbreak Of The War
Although the English and European romance tales are fairly consistent about the cause of the battle, the Welsh texts are less so.
The Welsh Triads contain several references to the Battle of Camlann. At least two of these mention how the battle occurred in the first place.
One triad mentions the ‘Three Harmful Blows’, one of which was Gwenhwyfawr (Guinevere) being struck by her sister, Gwenhwyfach. The triad states that this is what led to the battle, since Gwenhwyfach was the wife of Mordred (or ‘Medrawd’, as his named is spelled in the Welsh texts).
This is rather different from the way things are portrayed in the HRB, where Arthur’s wife unfaithfully marries Mordred. Nonetheless, both versions involve the war starting (at least partially) due to some kind of dishonor involving Guinevere.
The idea that the war had something to do with Arthur’s wife is further supported by a 14th-century copy of the Welsh Law, which directs bards to sing a song concerning Camlann to the queen.
This indicates that Camlann served as some kind of advisory tale for queens. This seems to point more towards the idea that Guinevere was known for being unfaithful than for being struck by her sister and having her husband go to war to defend her honor.
Welsh Texts In Agreement With The European Versions
Some Welsh texts do directly support the narrative presented in the HRB and subsequent legends. For example, the tale Culhwch and Olwen states – as mentioned earlier – that Gwyn Hywar was one of the men who instigated the battle of Camlann.
Specifically, he was said to have been one of nine men. Since he was a political leader, and since this reference indicates that he conspired with eight others, this indicates that the rebellion that culminated in Camlann was a political power-grab.
Notably, this tale almost certainly predates the Welsh Triads. Far from contradicting the narrative presented in the HRB, the bulk of evidence from Welsh tradition is consistent with it.
One triad even explicitly describes Arthur as campaigning against the Romans on the continent, during which time Mordred rebelled.
Some scholars argue that this is simply derived from the HRB rather than being independent of it, but the account of Arthur’s Roman war is different enough that it indicates it has a separate origin.
When Arthur tried to return to Britain, Mordred did not let him get ashore easily. The HRB explains that he opposed the landing of Arthur’s fleet.
Supposedly, this was at the ‘port of Rutupi’ (Richborough, Kent), but this must be a mistake for some other port, since Rutupi was deep in Saxon territory in the sixth century.
One suggestion is that this was the same battle described in the elegy known as Gereint son of Erbin. This describes a battle on a shore at which Arthur was present.
Gereint was said to have died at this battle, while the Life of St Teilo presents Gereint as dying at a time when some Britons were returning to Britain after being away for several years. This supports the idea that it is the same as the battle between Arthur and Mordred referred to by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
If we can identify these two battles as the same, then that means that Arthur actually landed at the ‘Llongborth’ mentioned in Gereint son of Erbin. This has been identified as Portsmouth by some scholars, but the place simply known as Llongborth in Ceredigion is more likely.
According to the HRB, many of Arthur’s men died at this initial conflict. One of these was ‘Walgan’, better known as Gawain. Another was ‘Augusel’, better known as Arawn son of Cynfarch.
Siege Of Winchester
After Arthur managed to force his way ashore, Mordred’s army fled to Winchester. It is possible that this is a mistranslation of ‘Caerwent’, which would at least be in the same region of Britain as Llongborth in Ceredigion.
Arthur first buried his dead, and then he led his army in pursuit of Mordred. They arrived at the city and besieged it.
Mordred evidently did not want to have a long, drawn-out siege, so he quickly led his army outside the city and attacked his uncle.
The account says that many perished on both sides, but Mordred’s army suffered more, so they fled again.
The Final Stand At Camlann
Arthur and his forces continued pursuing Mordred. Eventually, beside the River Camel in Cornwall, Mordred decided to stop fleeing; rather, he would make a final stand and either defeat his uncle once and for all, or die.
In the Vulgate Cycle, the final stand takes place at Salisbury, not Cornwall.
After giving some words of encouragement to his generals, Arthur’s army attacked the rebels. This final battle was fierce and especially bloody.
Eventually, Arthur took a detachment of his men and pushed through to the part of the battlefield where he knew that Mordred himself was. At last, Arthur managed to kill his nephew.
The account in the HRB only mentions Arthur being mortally wounded later in the description of the battle. But according to most of the later versions of the legend, such as in Malory, Arthur was mortally wounded during this final push against Mordred.
The two leaders clashed against either other, with Arthur giving a fatal blow against his enemy. But at that very moment, Mordred likewise managed to strike Arthur. While Arthur did not die instantly, unlike Mordred, it was still a fatal blow.
The End Of The Batlle
In any case, Geoffrey’s account explains that Mordred’s men did not lose courage after their leader was killed. Rather, they kept on fighting ferociously.
Despite the intensity of their fighting, the rebels were eventually defeated. Geoffrey notes that ‘almost all their commanders and their forces were killed’, although the account implies that much the same could be said for Arthur’s side too.
Given that he was severely wounded, Arthur abdicated from the throne and appointed his kinsman, Constantine of Dumnonia, son of Cador, as the new king of Britain.
Arthur, then, was carried away to the Isle of Avalon. So while he won the battle, it was a pyrrhic victory. Even the Mort Artu of the Vulgate Cycle says that ‘Arthur’s kingdom… was doomed to destruction’ as a result of the battle.
A big question is: Did the Battle of Camlann actually happen?
The simple answer is that we do not know. Unlike with the Battle of Badon, we do not have a contemporary source referencing this event.
The earliest source which mentions Camlann is the Annales Cambriae, written in the tenth century. In the context of the study of early Post-Roman Britain, this is quite an early and valuable source.
Therefore, this is a good indication that Camlann may have been a real battle. Nonetheless, it is still a source that was written centuries after the events it purports to describe, so this cannot be used as definitive evidence.
However, it is very consistent with what our one contemporary source (Gildas) did say. He wrote that the generation that rose up after Badon did not appreciate the present peace from foreign wars. Because of this, they ended up causing civil wars.
The information provided in the HRB strongly implies that Mordred was of the generation which grew up after Badon. Therefore, this corresponds well with the contemporary information provided by Gildas.
Sources For The Battle Of Camlann
The earliest source which mentions this battle is the Annales Cambriae, a tenth-century chronicle of events that occurred in medieval Britain.
This source refers to it as the Strife of Camlann and mentions that Arthur and Medraut fell at this battle, although it does not say if they were on the same side or opposing sides.
The Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, probably written about the year 1000, makes a passing reference to Camlann.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written in c. 1136, is the earliest work which presents a full account of the battle.
The medieval Welsh Triads contain several references to the battle at Camlann, providing information not found elsewhere.
The Battle Of Camlann In Modern Media
Since the Battle of Camlann is such a prominent part of the story of Arthur, it has been featured in numerous pieces of modern media. Some examples include:
- Excalibur: This 1981 movie by John Boorman features the Battle of Camlann as the climax of the plot.
- The Mists of Avalon: This final battle of King Arthur serves as the climax of this 1983 novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
- The Legend of Prince Valiant: This 1991-1993 animated series presents Mordred’s rebellion as the main conflict of the second season.
- Excalibur: This 1997 novel by Bernard Cornwell features the Battle of Camlann, placing it in Dumnonia.
- Merlin: This 1998 two-part NBC miniseries features the Battle of Camlann near the climax of the plot.
Frequently Asked Questions About The Battle Of Camlann
How Long Did The Battle Of Camlann Last?
According to the Historia Regum Britanniae, the Battle of Camlann only lasted one day.
Who Won The Battle Of Camlann?
Arthur won the battle of Camlann, although it was a pyrrhic victory in that he died or was fatally wounded and the peace established by his kingdom could not be restored.
When Did The Battle Of Camlann Happen?
The Battle of Camlann is said to have taken place in the year 537 or 539 in the Annales Cambriae. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB dates it to 542. However, the fact that Mordred was the nephew of Urien Rheged would indicate it took place in the second half of the sixth century.
Was The Battle Of Camlann Real?
No one can say for sure, but it is mentioned in a relatively early source for the period (Annales Cambriae), and it is consistent with Gildas’ contemporary comments about civil wars in the generation after Badon.
Where Did The Battle Of Camlann Take Place?
The site of Arthur’s final battle is usually placed at the Roman fort of Camboglanna (present-day Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall, or at Camlan in Dolgellau. Occasionally, Cadbury is proposed. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace placed it at Camelford on the River Camel in Cornwall.
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur
See also my ever-expanding list of primary and secondary sources.