South Cadbury Castle,
The association of South Cadbury with the
fabled court of King Arthur was made by two prominent Tudor antiquarians, John Leland and
William Camden. In 1533 or 1534, John Leland (his gravestone was reported to have recorded
the name as Leyland) received a royal commission "to make a search after England's
Antiquities, and peruse the Libraries of all Cathedrals, Abbies, Priories, Colleges, etc.
as also all places wherein Records, Writings and secrets of Antiquity were reposed."
The diary of his travels while performing this commission provide us with the earliest
descriptions that we have of historical sites in England at the end of the middle ages.
One of his trips through England took him to South Cadbury in the county of Somerset,
where he encountered a hill with a tradition associating it with Camelot. The description
of the site is as follows:
"At the very south ende of the chirch of South-Cadbyri standith
Camallate, sumtyme a famose toun or castelle, upon a very torre or hill, wunderfully
enstrengtheid of nature, to the which be 2. enteringes up by very stepe way: one by
north est and another by south west.
"The very roote of the hille wheron this forteres stode is more then
a mile in cumpace. In the upper parte of the coppe of the hille be 4. diches or trenches,
and a balky waulle or yerth betwixt every one of them. In the very toppe of the hille
above al the trenchis is magna area or campus of 20. acres or more by estimation,.wher
yn dyverse places men may se fundations and rudera of walles. There was much dusky blew
stone that people of the villages therby hath caryid away.
"This top withyn the upper waulle is xx. acres of ground and more,
and hath bene often plowid and borne very good corne. Much gold, sylver and coper of
the Romaine coynes hath be found ther yn plouing : and lykewise in the feldes in the
rootes of this hille, with many other antique thinges, and especial by este. Ther was
found in hominum memoria a horse shoe of sylver at Camallate. The people can telle nothing
ther but that they have hard say that Arture much restorid to Camalat.
"The old Lord Hungreford was owner of this Camallat. Now Hastinges the
Erle of Huntendune by his mother. Diverse villages there about bere the name of Camalat
by an addition, as Quene-Camallat [Queen's Camel], and other.
"The hylle and the diches depe well now viij. shepe. Al the ground by
south west and west of Camalat lyith in a vale, so that one of 2. wayes it may be sene
far of. "
South Cadbury Hill was a heavily fortified hill-top settlement which
yielded strong evidence of sixth-century activity. There are several factors that have
led to its association with Camelot by its most recent excavator, Leslie Alcock. Most
obvious is the sheer size of the hill, rising over 500 feet above the surrounding
country, with steep sides that were defended by five massive ramparts enclosing a
plateau of about 18 acres. Ian Burrow in 1981 estimated that it would have taken a
force of about 870 men to defend and maintain the ramparts alone.
What Alcock terms the "Arthurian" period of occupation is dated
by the abundant finds of imported pottery, including fine red bowls, Mediterranean
amphoras, and grey bowls and mortaria from the Bordeaux region. Sealed and scattered
pottery were found in the post-holes and wall-trench of a rectangular structure on the
summit of the hill. This building, about 19m long by 10m wide, was interpreted by
Alcock as the principal building of the fort, probably a feasting hall. Such halls
feature prominently in the poetry of the British Heroic Age. Other post-holes suggest
interior divisions and an antechamber which convinced Alcock to suggest that the model
for the Cadbury hall was not the Germanic feasting hall but rather the aisled houses of
villa complexes in later Roman Britain. Another possible model might be the massive
timber building complexes constructed at the basilica in sub-Roman Wroxeter. Only one
other pottery-dated structure was excavated for the Arthurian period, that of a small
(4m x 2m) rectangular building near the northern door of the hall which has been
interpreted as a kitchen.
In all, the defensive circuit spans nearly 1200m, the same as the perimeter
of the Iron Age fort. The size of the Cadbury defenses is without parallel among
contemporary hillforts in Britain.
"The hill-top had been re-fortified with a timber fighting
platform," writes Alcock, "faced with dressed stone and anchored down with
rubble." Stone for the ramparts had been quarried from derelict Roman buildings
and was re-used unmortared in the non-Roman fashion of dry masonry. The absence of
nails suggests wooden pegged joints were used, a somewhat sophisticated carpentry
technique. The timber gate-tower constructed at the south-west gate was seemingly based
on the simple Roman auxiliary fort gate model, and showed signs of repair in the later
sixth century. It likely contained two double-leaved doors, an interior bridge, and
possibly a light tower.
A recreation of the wall and gatehouse of the fifth century Cadbury
caer. A possible recreation of the partially built cruciform church whose foundation
was uncovered on the Cadbury Castle hill site.
Geophysical Survey maps of the Cadbury Hill complex.