Saturday, 17 December 2011
Camelot - An Introduction
In the last blogpost we glanced at the argument that there is "no evidence" that Artuir mac Aedain (c. 559 - 594) was the original King Arthur. It's completely untrue, of course. There's quite an abundance of evidence that Artuir was Arthur 'the Emperor'.
Lambert of St Omer was a Benedictine monk, born in the latter half of the eleventh century, who in 1065 was chosen abbot by the monks of St-Bertin and the canons of St Omer in France. He is best known for his Liber floridus or "Book of Flowers", which he completed in about 1120. It is essentially a medieval encyclopedia, and it discloses some interesting information about Arthur.
Building on the work of the ninth-century Welsh monk known as Nennius, Lambert of St Omer wrote in his Liber floridus that -
"There is in Britain, in the land of the Picts, a palace of the warrior Arthur, built with marvellous art and variety, in which the history of all his exploits and wars is to be seen in sculpture. He fought twelve battles against the Saxons who had occupied Britain."
One or two things immediately stand out from this statement. Firstly, in referring to the 'palace of Arthur the warrior Arthur' (palatium ... Artuir militis) Lambert seems to have plumped for the Scottish spelling of Arthur's name - Artuir. Secondly, he locates this palace firmly in the 'land of the Picts', or what we would now term Scotland.
It has long been suspected that the 'palace' referred to by Lambert was the structure known, at least since 1293, as 'Arthur's O'en' or Arthur's Oven (Furnum Arthuri). This was a Romano-British temple, supposedly erected by Vespasian in honour of the Emperor Claudius, not far from Falkirk in central Scotland. The circular temple was later described as 'an old building in the form of a sugar-loaf, built without lime and mortar', and though it was destroyed in the eighteenth century an exact replica can be found among the stables of Penicuik House in Edinburgh.
The assumption that Lambert's 'palace of Arthur the warrior' was the Arthur's Oven temple is quite probably wrong. More likely, that 'palace' was a Pictish roundhouse which stood on raised tableland overlooking the River Carron a short distance away. One manuscript based on the ninth-century work of Nennius claims that a Roman commander built 'upon the bank of Carron a round house of polished stone, erecting a Triumphal Arch in memorial of a victory'. The same site seems to have been referred to by the sixteenth-century Scottish historian Hector Boece as the palace of one Cruthneus Cameloun, a supposed 'king of the Picts'. Today, the place is known as Camelon.
In the middle of the second century AD, the Roman army constructed a turf-and-stone rampart across the pinched waist of Scotland, from the estuary of the Clyde to that of the Forth. This wall, named after Antoninus Pius, passed a short distance to the south of the Pictish roundhouse which stood on the bank of the River Carron, and which would appear to have been commandered by Vespasian. Around it, a detachment of the XX 'Valiant and Victorious' Legion built a large fortress, which eventually grew to include two large encampments and ten smaller marching camps. The Romans called this place Colonia. The imperial army abandoned these impressive fortifications later in the second century, and no doubt the great fortress of Colonia was gratefully occupied by the local Picts.
Much of this 'little ancient city' still existed in Arthur's day. As late as the year 1720 it was recorded that 'We may still discern the track of the streets, foundations of buildings and subterranean vaults. The country people call it Camelon or Camelot.'
Twenty-five years earlier, in 1695, Edward Gibson, Bishop of London, revising William Camden's earlier Britannia, had remarked of the Colonia site: 'There is yet a confused appearance of a little ancient city ... They [the 'common people' of the locality] call it Camelot.'
Clearly, the ancient fortifications at Camelon were also known as Camelot. Camelon has two-syllables - 'came-lon' - and the place is known in the Scots dialect as Kemlin or Caimlin. In Gaelic, it is Camlan, a place of unparalleled consequence in the legends of King Arthur. The site of his last battle, in almost every telling of his tale, was Camlan.
It is also worth noting that the site of Arthur's Round Table, as explained in a previous post, was just nine miles away to the north, along what would once have been a Roman road. This road led into the wild lands of the native Picts from the Antonine Wall, which passed to the south of the Colonia fortress. The fortress had clearly been built to guard a ford across the River Carron, on what was at one time the very boundary of Pictish territory. Here was where the legionaries of Rome had come face-to-face with the tattooed Picts. An anonymous correspondent of 1697 provided the local knowledge that a paved (Roman) road had crossed the River Carron near this ancient fort. At the end of this road stood 'a great castle, called by the country folks the Maiden Castle'. The site was surveyed by General W. Roy in the eighteenth century: he noted that the 'town' must have been 'one of the most considerable stations belonging to the Romans in North Britain'. The particular mound beside the River Carron as surveyed by Roy was excavated during the twentieth century, when it was discovered that the mound, which was fortified by a several ditches and a palisade, supported two circular houses of timber. One of these was perhaps the 'palace of the Picts' described by Hector Boece in the sixteenth century; the other might have been the 'Maiden Castle' referred to in 1697. Both formed part of what was known locally as 'Camelot'.
Let us suppose, then, that the 'palace of Arthur the warrior' mentioned by Lambert of St Omer in 1120 was not the Arthur's Oven temple but rather the fortified roundhouse or 'palace of the Picts' nearby, which was also 'one of the most considerable stations belonging to the Romans in North Britain'. This was the very fortified enclosure or 'little ancient city' which was known locally, a thousand years after Arthur, as Camelot.
Lambert of St Omer's testimony concerning 'Artuir the warrior' in the land of the Picts is of great importance. His "Book of Flowers" appeared nearly twenty years before Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey's work can be thought of as the first Arthurian bestseller, but it played havoc with British history. It is to Geoffrey that we owe the myth that King Arthur was born at Tintagel in Cornwall, and that the climactic battle of his career was fought nearby on the River Camel. Geoffrey therefore placed his King Arthur a long way away from Pictland, although he did have Arthur fighting battles in and around the western end of the Antonine Wall. Geoffrey's account was in many ways the inspiration for subsequent versions of the legends; Lambert's account, by way of contrast, is barely known. But it is Lambert's reference to the Arthur's palace in the land of the Picts that is almost certainly the more accurate of the two.
The very obscurity of the Lambert reference is illustrative of the King Arthur conspiracy. It puzzles scholars - "How could Arthur's palace be in the land of the Picts?" - but only because it is anathema to them to admit that there was an Arthur in Scotland. Rather, they continue the false trails left by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Lambert also mentioned the existence of stone sculptures depicting the twelve legendary battles of Arthur. England - so far as I am aware - has nothing to compare with the many fantastic examples of Pictish stone carvings which display images of battle and which have been found over much of the Arthurian region in the province of the southern Picts, against whom Arthur would die fighting in 594. It is quite possible that some of these magnificent Pictish stone carvings actually relate to the historical Arthur's battles in central Scotland (I'm looking forward very much to Iain Forbes's The Last of the Druids: The Mystery of the Pictish Symbol Stones, published shortly by Amberley, to see what light he is able to shed on these fascinating carvings).
Once again, though, we find evidence for an Arthur in Scotland when no such hard evidence exists for one further to the south. Another plus for Artuir mac Aedain: the first, and probably the only, Arthur.