Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In Which We Discover "Camelot" at South Cadbury

I know, I know. Camelot was an invention of some crazy French guy 600 years after the possible historical period of anyone who could have closely resembled a King Arthur figure in the reality of British History. (And my professional historian friend Ardis still won't share that handout she got at church about how King Arthur had the priesthood taken away because he didn't follow Merlin's prophecies!) But take a look at this and tell me there wasn't just one, brief, shining moment!

South Cadbury Hillfort, Somerset, England

Bird's eye view of the rampart ruins of Cadbury Hillfort
Last summer, I planned a few side trips beyond the visit to the southern Welsh Marches where we found the traces of our ancestors. As it was our first visit to England, we had to see Stonehenge. And I noticed on the maps that one of the likely candidates for an actual Camelot was between the two areas in southwest England, so I planned to pass by there if we had the chance in our busy tourist schedule.

Our hostess at the B&B in Avebury thought surely we would go to Salisbury as tourists usually do and was surprised that we went all the way to Glastonbury. But it wasn't as far as say, Ogden to Provo. England just doesn't have a direct freeway that takes you there. They don't drive as much as we western Americans (there might be a reason for that with their roundabouts and country lanes, but I digress). So after visiting Stonehenge early before the crowds, we headed to the west along the A303. Cadbury Hillfort was just off the A303 not far from Glastonbury.

I don't know what happened to my detailed map of the area, but it was on our main highway map. So feeling confident after a whole week and a half of driving in Britain, I thought we could find it and I wasn't embarrassed to ask (I'd had enough practice). We pulled off the A303 and stopped at a very nice, new inn. There was a boy we asked if he knew the way to South Cadbury. He told us to wait a minute and went in to get an older man, probably his granddad. The older gentleman asked if we wanted the direct route or the scenic route and he apparently gave us the scenic route as he sketched it out on a piece of cardboard. He asked us if we were going to "hike up the hill" and sounded like an enthusiast. He lamented that it was raining because it could get muddy up there.

We headed on out the country lanes as the sun broke through brightly and came to a pretty little town which I thought could be South Cadbury but turned out to be the interestingly named village of Compton Pauncefoot. There was a grassy mound at the north end of the village thirty or forty feet high which was the sort of thing I was expecting having seen other castle ruins like that out in the Marches. I checked around the church trying to figure where we were, seeing the tantalizing notices of "Camelot's Parish." Well, we had to be close. My wife was getting a little uncomfortable with me not far off on the eternal quest for the public restroom. There was no pub in Compton Pauncefoot. I tried to follow the signs at the crossroads and headed up a narrow lane to a wooded hill. That didn't seem right. I drove back down into the village and tried another couple of lanes out, circling around and seeing the same quaint houses. Then we came upon some cyclists. Startling one as I lowered the window to ask him if he knew where South Cadbury was, he said that's where they were heading so we could follow them. Somehow, it just didn't seem odd driving behind a couple of bicycles through the British countryside. We were only a mile off route.

South Cadbury was another quaint little village and full of trees or at least a hillside of trees so would couldn't see at first the huge hill behind the town. There was a handy car-park with signs to the public access through the private property of the hill. I first had to run down to find a restroom or I would have been in big trouble. There was a tea house we had passed, but in my excited panic I saw an elderly couple getting into a car and I hollered "Is there a pub in the town!?" They politely pointed out the one on the corner kindly not revealing that they probably thought I was some kind of American lunatic.

And it was a nice pub. So with that taken care of, we headed up the hillside. In contrast to many other tourist sites we had visited, the sardine-packed Westminster Abbey coming to mind, we were pretty much on our own. We saw one guy walking down who looked like a local as he had on his Wellington boots and was carrying a shovel. We cleared the top of the rise and were all alone (with the cows) on a broad field  with absolutely amazing views of all the south of England, the Cornish Hills to the west and a hint of Wales across the Bristol Channel to the north. We could see down to empty space to the south that was probably beyond the sea. The wind was strong and pulled our breath out as the excitement quickened our hearts. Pictures don't do it justice.

23 August 2010, Cadbury Hillfort
23 August 2010, Cadbury Hillfort

I just can't help it. You see, I was a Knight of the Round Table.

Knighted by King Arthur
 (AKA Steve Reid) circa 1966
The Black Knight (me) on the right.
My little brother on the left
At the time of this Cub Scout King Arthur Pack Meeting extravaganza (they just don't do it like they used to!), we were also exposed to Disney's Sword in the Stone and my Dad was working on the greatest Christmas present he ever gave us. He built a castle for our three-inch toy knights. I wish I could find a picture of that castle. It now lies in romantic ruin in my brother's storage barn. But here is a picture of what our toy knights looked like:

Timpo Crusader Knights, Mid-1960s Vintage.
No wonder I'm a sucker for Crusaders.
And I know there is no certain, historical evidence of a King Arthur. However, there are numerous historical candidates from that period after the lights of Roman Civilization and early Christianity were driven farther and farther to the West in face of a barbarian Saxon onslaught.

The Candidates from my reading of which you can find all kinds of info on-line if so inclined:

1. Geoffrey Ashe theorizes that a historically documented figure named (or titled) Riothamus may have been Arthur. He is chronicled as a King of the people from Britain who led an army to the continent in support of the collapsing Roman Empire who disappeared, presumabely died, interestingly enough, near Avallon, now France. And those Celtic Bretons had to get over there somehow.

2. There was a Sarmatian Cavalry General named Lucius Artorius Castus who served the Empire on the Northern British Borders against the Picts in the Second Century, A.D. Remnants of that cavalry mixed with local Britons could have recalled that name and created myth as they fought against the Saxons.

3. There is the recently discovered inscription "Artognou" as a name on a shard of 5th Century pottery found at Tintagel in Cornwall. Recent archeology there evidences a thriving royal seat at the right historical era. And there are clear, archeological links between Tintagel and Cadbury Hillfort, at least in the style of shards.

4. There might have been a certain Arthrwys ap Meurig who appears on some Welsh geneological lists (I think including mine) who some amateur archeologists claim to have identified in Wales through certain questionable artifacts.

5. Ambrosius Aurelianus (or Aurelianus Ambrosius) was the last, identified Roman official in Britain who, besides having a cool name, also linked to the Merlin (Myrddin) legends, could have been the basis of later created stories - well, along with the "bad guy" Vortigern himself, who could have been a "good guy" too depending on who was telling the histories. He was an ancestor of the Kings of Powys.

6. The Scots claim an Artúr MacÁedáin who with the cool accent marks, shows up in northern lineages and is said to have fought the Picts for the Kingdom of Dal Ríata when the Empire fell apart in Britain.

7. There is an intriguing character in Tewdric, King of Gwent. While the name doesn't match, the interesting circumstance of the Battle of Tintern Crossing may have been the true historic event that stopped the western progress of the pagan Saxons. This could have been mixed in with other poems and stories of a king of a golden age. And it was at the Wye River of my ancestral lands.

8. And there are other candidates, some more fanciful than others.

Geoffrey Ashe is one of those promoters of cultural archetypes. He really wants to believe and find a historical Arthur. It is most likely that the stories, poems, myths, and legends arose from the garbled exploits of these historical figures combined with an inspired ideal. He understands that it is all symbolic of a mythic Golden Age that we all strive for. But what if it is no myth? What if it is a remnant of something real? A real ideal of a Garden of Eden or a Zion-like, Christian People from Enoch's Day before the flood or a time of peace at the Lord's first coming and the founding of a primitive and pure Christian Church?

So, I don't believe exactly the same as I do my professed religious tenets. But there just could be something there. On top of the ruins of Cadbury Hillfort as a storm blew in, I was taking pictures in all directions. I was shocked when I looked to the northwest and saw the prominent rise of Glastonbury Tor with St. Michael's Tower on top.

Glastonbury Tor and St. Michael's Tower from Cadbury Hillfort. 23 August 2010
Strip away all the unprovable mythology of Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail ,and certainly the Monks' fraud of the grave site of Arthur and Guinevere. Archeologists have little doubt that Glastonbury along with nearby Cadbury Hill were inhabited before the Christian Era and during the Roman age as well as the dark times that descended with the loss of Roman Civilization. There were Christians in Fifth Century Britain. If there is any basis at all to believe Glastonbury was an ancient, Christian, sacred site continuing from the pre-Christian religions, and if I were a Christian leader of a post-Roman, British remnant trying to defend that sacred site from the pagan hordes of Germania, Cadbury Hill is exactly where I would make my defense of the civilization I had lost and hoped to regain.

I remain a Knight of the Table Round. Thanks, Dad!

July 29, 2012
For more on Glastonbury, see here.


Ashe, Geoffrey, The Discovery of King Arthur (Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York 1985)

Ashley, Mike, A Brief History of King Arthur: The Man and the Legend Revealed (Running Press, Philadelphia 2010)

Barber, Richard, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004)

Davies, John, A History of Wales (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, London, 1993)

Snyder, Christopher, The World of King Arthur (Thames & Hudson, London, 2011)

Wood, Michael, In Search of the Dark Ages (Facts on File Publications, New York, 1987)


  1. Even though there is great mythology surrounding Glastonbury, I was disappointed to hear that vandals cut down the Glastonbury Thorn last winter - the tree that supposedly grew from staff planted by Joseph of Arimathea.

    Very cool post - especially when you've been there. Thanks.

  2. MMM- Yeah. It's too bad they took out that tree sprung from the staff Joseph carved from the same thorn tree that produced the Lord's crown. The British have some fascinating historical claims regarding Christianity in some oddly geographic ways. (And people think we Mormons are funny that way!)

  3. Thankyou for your story. I live in Bristol. I was just idly googling on a whim before bedtime...I have often seen such thought provoking features in the landscape when travelling up and down the M5. I thought I would just Google "Camelot".

    We lho live in these parts conduct such prosaic lives yet are so near by to a tapestry of profound mystery and almost mystical poetry. Trying to see it through the eyes of an American really amplifies it.

    Oh and BTW, I too had Timpo crusaders when I was a kid. I still cant figure out how the differently coloured plastics were moulded so neatly into one piece. They are quite collectible now.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thank you, Anonymous for your kind comments. We didn't quite make it to Bristol on our short holiday. We did make the Severn Crossing at the great, new bridge. There are so many more things I want to see in Britain. We need to return.


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