The Future of History

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Camelot - City of the Legion

In the last blogpost we considered the information divulged by Lambert of St Omer in 1120 that the palace of Arthur the warrior was in 'Pictland'.  We noted that the massive Roman military encampment of Colania - now the Camelon suburb of Falkirk in Scotland - was known locally, at least as late as the eighteenth century, as "Camelot".

The earliest literary reference to Arthur's Camelot comes down to us from the romance of Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart by the French poet, Chretien de Troyes:

Upon a certain Ascension Day King Arthur had come from Caerleon, and had held a very magnificent court at Camelot as was fitting on such a day.

Chretien seems to have based his vision of Camelot on the Roman city of Camulodunum, now Colchester in Essex, which had been the capital of Roman Britain in the first century AD and the first major settlement to be razed by Boudica's violent uprising of AD 60.  The name Camulodunum came from Camulos, a Celtic god of war, analogous to the Roman Mars.  The city of Camulodunum was also the site of a colonia - a sort of retirement home for Roman army officers.

It does not require too much imagination to see how Camulodunum could have been romanticised by a French poet of the twelfth century, becoming the fabled city of Camelot.  It is also not difficult to see how the Roman colonia at Colchester might have been confused with the Roman fort of Colania just north of the Antonine Wall.

Even more striking, though, is an age old association of the Colania encampment at Camelon (or 'Camelot') with a place called Camulodunum, the Fort of Camulos, the War-God.

George Buchanan was a Scottish historian of the sixteenth century and tutor to the future King James I of England.  Very much a figure of the Scottish Reformation - a dour, Calvinist affair - Buchanan was not a man to be carried away by romantic notions.  He wrote of the Antonine Wall which created a barrier across central Scotland, from the Forth to the Clyde, and noted that "where it touched the River Carron, [it] had a garrison or fortress which, by its situation and the termination of a number of roads there, had the appearance of a small city, which some of our writers falsely imagine to have been Camulodunum".  Buchanan preferred to think of this ancient "small city" as the city referred to by Bede, the eighth-century historian of the Angles, as Caer-Guidi: the City of the Men of the Forth.

But Buchanan's belief that the fortress beside the River Carron could not have been Camulodunum wasn't shared by everybody.  Robert Sibbald, in his Historical Inquiries of 1707, did wonder whether the ancient city couldn't have been "Camulodunum Brigantium, which the vulgar call at this day Camelon near Falkirk".  This is an interesting remark.  Sibbald seemed to be arguing that, while Buchanan had been right - Camelon was not Camulodunum, because that had been Colchester, many miles to the south - it was still possible that Camelon had been Camulodunum Brigantium or, if you prefer, the Camelot of the North.

Brigantia was a major mother-goddess, a sort of Celtic Venus.  She came to be venerated in Ireland as Brighid (later St Bridget) and in the Hebrides as Bride (pronounced "breed": the Hebrides were the "Islands of Bride").  She is similarly remembered throughout much of Britain in the various Bridewells and St Bride's, and she seems to have been the particular patron of the Britons of the Pennines, a tribal federation known in Roman times as the Brigantes.

If Sibbald was right, then the Camelon fortress - just nine miles south of Arthur's Round Table at Stirling, and very much on the front line of sixth-century Britain - was a remarkable fortified city dedicated to two Celtic war gods, Camulos and Brigantia.  It would also help to explain how Arthur's main military stronghold in central Scotland came to be thought of as "Camelot".  It was a Camulodunum in its own right, a mighty citadel as impressive as the other Camulodunum of Essex, only it was the mainstay of the North Britons and easily one of the most important military stations in the Old North.

Chretien, in his romance of Lancelot, seems to have implied that "Camelot" was another name for "Caerleon".  Here's where things tend to get confusing.  If Chretien modelled his Camelot on Colchester in Essex, then how could it have been the same place as Caerleon, which many scholars have assumed was the old Roman fortress of Isca, now Caerleon-on-Usk in south-east Wales?  The two places are simply too far apart to have been the same - and, what is more, neither is properly connected with the historical Arthur.

In fact, Caerleon simply meant the City or Fort of the Legion (Caerllion, in Welsh).  As we saw in the last blogpost, the Colania fortifications at Camelon had been constructed by a detachment of the XX Legion; it was there that (in the words of the Roman poet Claudian) the imperial legionaries had curbed the "savage Scot" and scanned the "lifeless patterns tattooed on the dying Picts".  Furthermore, the City of the Legion was remembered as the site of one of Arthur's major battles.  The Welsh monk Nennius, writing early in the eighth century, noted that Arthur's ninth victory was won in a battle "in the City of the Legion".

The likelihood is that this battle was triggered by an attempted invasion of Irish warriors from Ulster.  The Irish Annals record the "first expedition of the Ulaid to Manau" in 577.  Manau Gododdin was the western spur of the British-held territory of Lothian - that is, it was the volatile region around Stirling, immediately to the south of the River Forth.  The Ulaid, who gave their name to the province of Ulster, were the long-time enemies of Arthur's people (the tribe of Riata) in Ireland, and for some reason they decided in 577 to cross the Irish Sea and, under the leadership of their chieftain Baetan mac Cairill, to seek to wrest the strategic bulwark of Stirling and the borderland between the Britons and the Picts from Arthur and his family.

A few posts back, I showed that it was possible to date Arthur's twelfth battle ('Mount Badon') to the year 580, when Arthur successfully defended the Highland kingdom of his kinsman Bruide against an attack by the southern Picts.  The year 577 would therefore be about right for Arthur's ninth battle, fought in defence of his principle fort in Manau Gododdin, the enemy on this occasion being the warriors of Ulster and their king, Baetan, whom medieval genealogists in Ulster would cheerfully - if erroneously - describe as ri Erenn ocus Alban: "King of Ireland and Scotland".

Arthur's ninth battle at the "City of the Legion" - Caerleon, or Camelot, as Chretien de Troyes knew it was also called - was evidently a success for Arthur the warrior.  The warriors of the Ulaid returned to Ireland the following year (there appears to have been another battle fought between Arthur's coalition and the Ulaid in 578, probably at the Fords of Frew near Stirling, a few miles to the north of Camelon), and another enemy was chased out of North Britain.  It all added to Arthur's fame as a brilliant military commander, the land-holder of Manau, whose main stronghold stood between the Antonine Wall and the River Carron.

The place we came to know as Camelot.

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