Camelot, the legendary castle associated with King Arthur, first appeared in early 12th-century French romances.
Most authors believe that Camelot is a fictional kingdom with no specified location, making it an ideal setting for medieval romance writers. However, there have been debates about the location of the “real” Camelot since the 15th century, and this belief has continued in modern works.
Camelot is widely known as a mythical castle located in Great Britain, where King Arthur held court. It was the center of the Kingdom of Logres and, in Arthurian romances, was the location of the Round Table and accommodated approximately 150 knights.
While Camelot’s existence as a physical place remains uncertain, its legacy lives on as a symbol of the ideals of chivalry, bravery, and nobility that continue to inspire and captivate people around the world.
By the way, be sure to check out our Arthurian hub for all things King Arthur-related.
The Origins of Camelot: A Look at the Theories
There has been much speculation about the origins of the name Camelot, and while no one knows for certain where it came from, there are several theories.
Before we get into those theories though, know that the origin of its name is ultimately unknown, and it has been spelled in various ways in French Arthurian romances, including Camalot, Camaalloth, Camahaloth, Kamaalot, Camaalot, Kamelot, Kaamelot, Cameloth, Camelot, Gamalot, and Kamaelot.
The God Camulus Theory
One leading theory suggests that Camelot originated from the ancient God of War, Camulus. This deity was widely worshiped in ancient times from Gallia to Britannia, and around the 1st century, the settlement of the Trinovantes tribe of Britons was a holy place called Camulodunon, where the God Camulus was enshrined. After the Roman conquest of Britannia, Camulodunon became the capital of the province of Britannia and was renamed Camulodunum.
The Roman Theory
Camelot may have been a variation of Camulodunum, the Roman name for Colchester. The castle likely derived its name from many rivers with the root word “Cam,” meaning “crooked,” which was certainly the source of Camlann.
The Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart Theory
Another theory suggests that the name Camelot first appeared in the story Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes, written from 1170-1180. In this tale, King Arthur departs from Carrion towards the land of Camalot to hold a splendid court meeting in keeping with the festival. While Camelot is only mentioned once in this story, it became more prominent in later Arthurian tales.
Camelot in Arthurian Tales
Camelot first began to be mentioned more frequently in the 13th century in a group of King Arthur tales called Lancelot-Grail. In the chapter “The Story of the Holy Grail,” Josephus, the son of Joseph of Arimathea, visited Camelot, converted the local population to Christianity, and Saint Stephen built a church. After that, Camelot became the main city of King Arthur’s kingdom in the “Vulture Book Cycles” series, located along the river below the fictional city of Astolat.
In the “Post-Vulgate Cycle” (set around 1230-40), following the “Vulgate Cycle”, after the death of King Arthur, King Mark of Cornwall invaded Camelot. It is said that they fought against the enemy and all died. King Mark then entered Camelot Castle and destroyed the Round Table.
Camelot in The Death of Arthur
One of the most famous ancient books on King Arthur is Thomas Malory’s The Death of Arthur, written in 1485. It contains a collection of Arthurian stories that Malory combined and reworked. The stories come from France and England and cover the birth, life, and death of Arthur.
Camelot’s first appearance in The Death of Arthur is Volume 2, Chapter 1. After the death of his father, King Uther Pendragon, King Arthur was given a report that King Lyens of North Wales had invaded, and he ordered the lords to be summoned to Camelot Castle.
Famous Landmarks in Camelot
Camelot is home to St. Stephen’s Church, where the 12 kings defeated by Arthur were buried. The wedding of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere also took place here, according to Book 3, Chapter 5.
Camelot is also located close to the coast. Lord Tristran was shipwrecked and washed ashore while trying to cross into Ireland. Additionally, there is a river that flows through Camelot with a stone like red marble that has a splendid sword stuck in it. This was the knight Balin’s sword, which Merlin had fitted using magic. The Knights of the Round Table were unable to retrieve it, but Sir Galahad was able to. It is also said that there is a castle called Jagento Castle near Camelot.
The image of Camelot
The image of Camelot was elaborated on by the work of the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-92), “The Lady of Shalott” published in 1832.
“On both sides of the river stretch
endless fields of barley and rye,
that become wide plains. Beyond the horizon, a
single path crosses the fields that lead to the Castle
of Camelot with many towers”.
Camelot was depicted as a multi-towered castle. Travelers visit Camelot using boat transportation using the river that flows into Camelot and the road along the river bank with fields stretching around it. Camelot Castle is surrounded by gray walls on all sides, with four gray towers looking out over a field of flowers.
Where Was it Located?
Camelot is a legendary place associated with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. While it is a fictional place, there are several locations that have been associated with Camelot throughout history.
Most important are the following:
- Cadbury Castle
Let’s dive into all three.
1. Winchester: Home of the Round Table
Winchester is an ancient city located in the south of England. During the Seven Kingdoms, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Wessex and was held by Alfred the Great in the 9th century.
According to legend, Winchester was chosen as the location of Camelot because of the Round Table at Winchester Castle. This round table was built around 1290 by King Edward I of England, based on the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
2. Cadbury Castle: A Hilltop Fortress
Cadbury Castle is an Iron Age hillfort located in Somerset, south-west England. It is the location most traditionally associated with Camelot.
It is believed that the area was associated with Camelot because there were many place names associated with it.
In 1542, historian John Leland presented an anecdote that Cadbury Castle was thought by locals to be the site of Camelot.
3. Caerleon: A Roman City
Caerleon is a city in the southern part of Wales that dates back to the period of the Roman Empire (1st to 5th century). In the 9th century History of the Britons, Caerleon is listed as one of the major cities of Great Britain and flourished as the administrative center of the medieval kingdom of Gwent.
While the city has no direct association with Camelot, the ruins of the Carrión amphitheater, built around the year 80 AD, were long associated with the Round Table of King Arthur.
The Story of Camelot
Now that we’ve discussed the real-world origins of Camelot, let’s take a look at the overall fictional narrative.
Early Days of Camelot
The Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal recounts the story of an evil pagan king who ruled over a city during the time of Joseph the Arimethea. The tale of Camelot begins with Joseph, who, according to the Bible, donated his tomb for the burial of Jesus. In the Vulgate story, he journeyed to Great Britain and assumed that Camelot was an Islamic city.
Joseph described Camelot as the richest of the Saracen cities in Great Britain, and the most important place where pagan kings were crowned. He converted over a thousand natives of Camelot to Christianity, including King Agrestes, who was initially converted falsely. After Joseph left Camelot, King Agrestes persecuted all Christians and eventually threw himself into the fire.
When Joseph returned to Camelot, he found that the city had fully converted to Christianity. He had the Church of St. Stephen the martyr built in the middle of the city, which remained the largest church in Camelot throughout the Vulgate Cycles, with several smaller churches following.
It is unclear why the unknown authors of the Vulgate Cycle claimed that Camelot was originally an Islamic city, as Islam did not exist in the first century. The Post-Vulgate Questeldel Saint Graal introduces a different biblical era king named Camalis, after whom Camelot was named.
Tennyson also agrees that Camelot was an ancient city, not established by Arthur.
Camelot During Arthur’s Time
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of Caerleon portrays Camelot during Arthur’s era as an impressive city with great architecture, numerous churches, chivalry, and inhabitants. He drew inspiration from the Welsh oral tradition, which glorified Arthur’s court.
In Chrétien de Troyes’ poem, Camelot was not emphasized as it is in modern works. In his work, Arthur’s main court was in Caerleon, Wales, which served as his primary base.
According to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Camelot during King Arthur’s reign was a kingdom or city surrounded by forests and savannas, with ample open space to host tournaments for knights. One of the many tournaments held there included Sir Gawain’s battles against the Saxons and many other adventures. Its primary church, St. Stephen’s, held the remains of Arthur’s greatest warriors.
Texts mentions that the city of Camelot was wealthy and well-provided, but small enough that during lavish courts, many barons, nobles, and knights could not be fully accommodated.
Arthur often held court in the castle, which was furnished with a main courtyard, bedrooms, spaces for celebrations, and the Round Table.
Though tournaments were held frequently, the people of Camelot also enjoyed other less-fatal games. In one story, Lancelot gifted King Arthur with a fine chess set because he knew that Guinevere, his lover, was a skilled player.
Camelot remains one of the most captivating and enduring myths in Western culture. Despite the lack of concrete evidence regarding its existence, the legend of Camelot has inspired countless writers, artists, and filmmakers over the centuries.
The city represents a utopia of sorts, a shining beacon of chivalry, honor, and nobility, where great knights and noble ladies gathered to celebrate their achievements and pursue noble causes.
Whether Camelot was a real place or not, its legacy has left a profound impact on our collective imagination, reminding us of the timeless power of myth and storytelling to inspire and enrich our lives.
- 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.