Popularized in literature and film, Camelot draws to mind Gothic castles, with stone walls, proud spires and impenetrable drawbridges. Many such structures still exist in the UK, from inhabited fortresses still in pristine condition, down to mere remnants and outlines of walled keeps, shrouded in weeds and found only with ground-penetrating radar.
On my quest to discover the truth behind the legends of King Arthur, I quickly discovered that these one-time massive, stone-shielded strongholds were most likely NOT a consideration for the city on a hill, governed by Arthur.
Like most Americans who grew up associating King Arthur with the romantic notions of knights in armor, courtly jousts, and castles gleaming in the sun… finding out that it was all a fabrication and embellishment on reality stung a bit.
To begin with, we must rightly turn to historical fact to clear up our dreams of that idyllic age. To most of western culture, the Middle Ages was merely a mishmash of everything we’ve ever seen in the movies or read in fiction. Much the same way a European might assume that every indigenous tribe of Americans made totem poles and lived in teepees, we need to understand that stone castles and shining armor weren’t a reality in England until about 500 years after the time of Arthur.
Earliest indications are that the person we associate with Arthur was alive during the 5th century A.D. Yet, it wasn’t until the 11th century that the stone castle became the norm. While fortified settlements have been around for over 2000 years, it was the Romans who spread the concept of massive defensive structures, coastal forts, and fortified towns with flanking round towers.
Yet, while the Romans were present before the character of Arthur appears, and while stone was used in many important building projects… the task of harvesting, shaping, and transporting stones for these grandiose projects was too costly to be as prolific as we assume. In addition, at the time of Arthur, there was no need for stone walls, as the enemy’s means of assault had not yet mandated the need for stone.
At the time of the Roman occupation of Britain and the time of Arthur, the earliest fortified settlements had probably evolved from camps surrounded by ditches and earthen embankments to what is known as a motte and bailey. The motte was a constructed hill with extremely steep sides, usually man-made by piling up earth. It could reach as high as 30 meters with a diameter of around 90 meters. In many cases, however, since creating such a mound required massive amounts of dirt and human effort, sites with existing hills were used and ditches were carved around them. One primary example of this is Cadbury Hill (once a strong candidate for Camelot). The top of the motte was then leveled and a wooden keep built on top.
The Keep on top of the motte was the last best defensive structure and residence of the local lord and lady. In addition to the residence, there might have been granaries, barracks, a chapel, cellars, or other vital structures, depending upon the size of the motte. All would have been surrounded by a fortified wooden wall and, again depending upon the size of the motte, perhaps defensive towers.
At the bottom of the motte (usually to its front) existed the bailey. It was a flattened area or yard surrounded by another wooden wall called a palisade. On the outside of the palisade the entire complex would have been surrounded by a ditch created for defensive purposes. The bailey was more like the local village and was the center of domestic life and trade. Whatever was not built on top of the motte would have been found here: halls, kitchens, stores, markets, stables, workshops and again chapels and barracks.
In some cases, the bailey was connected to the motte by a flying bridge that could have been swung into place or lowered… or steps were simply carved into the slope of the motte. As you’ve probably guessed, the ditch surrounding the bailey could be filled with all manner of defenses, from spiked poles to slow down advancing troops, to water, perhaps diverted from a nearby stream, creating a moat.
During Arthur’s time, the motte and bailey would have been the most likely means of fortifying an important central capital. The Roman additions may have added stone for palaces and temples… but more than likely those would have been in centers not fearing major assaults. In addition, when given the choice, a Roman legion would have preferred the wooden stockade in that no materials needed to be transported any farther than the local forest. They were so skilled at building these fortifications, in fact that an entire fort could be constructed in one or two days… as opposed to months of working with stone.
It would be another 500 years after Arthur’s time that stone fortresses and castles became the standard. Both costly and difficult to build, they were a necessary replacement for the motte and bailey. Primarily because the siege engines, catapults, and trebuchets became much easier to build or transport, and fire was launched great distances, burning the wooden structures to the ground. Stone fortresses were resistant to fire and proved difficult to raize without a time-consuming siege.
In effect, fortification design evolved as assault methods changed to besiege them. So, to imagine King Arthur’s Camelot as a stone keep, stone-walled castle is too premature. If it were a stationary location, it would have most likely been a motte and bailey (using an existing hill) style fortification, or at best, it included Romanesque buildings made of stone.
But, we cannot fully understand WHAT Camelot was, until we understand WHY Camelot was.