South Cadbury Castle, potential Camelot?

   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.