Discussion of Caerleon's Arthurian Connections
David Nash Ford
C A E R L E O N
Age Capital of Wales?
town of Caerleon is mentioned so often in King
Arthur's story, that it has become synonymous
with his very name. If it were his Capital City,
surely it is the true Camelot.
Tradition: Stories of King Arthur holding
court at Caerleon stretch back to the time of Geoffrey
of Monmouth and further still to the oral
traditions set down in the Mabinogion.
Geoffrey says of Caerleon:
as it is in Morgannwg, on the River Usk, not far from
the Severn Sea, in a most pleasant position, and being
richer in material wealth than other townships, this
city was eminently suitable...The river which I have
named flowed by it on one side, and...On the other
side, which was flanked by meadows and wooded groves,
they had adorned the city with royal palaces, and by
the gold-painted gables of its roofs it was a match
for Rome. What is more, it was famous for its two
churches. One of these, built in honour of the martyr
Julius, was graced by a choir of most lovely virgins
dedicated to God. The second, founded in the name of
the blessed St. Aaron, the companion of Julius, was
served by a monastery of canons, and counted the third
metropolitan see of Britain. The city also contained a
college of two hundred learned men, who were skilled
in astronomy and the other arts and so by their
careful computations prophesied for King Arthur any
prodigies due at that time."
Caerleon was especially
noted for "Arthur's Table", a huge
grass-covered raised oval hollow around which King
Arthur and his knights often sat. At one meeting
there, King Arthur appointed St.
Dyfrig as Archbishop of St. Aaron's Cathedral
in Caerleon. He was later succeeded by St.
Dewi (David) who removed the archdiocese to
Mynwyr (St. Davids). It was to St. Julius' that Queen
Gwenhwyfar retired after the Battle
of Camlann, and here she apparently died.
Caerleon is also one of
the possible sites of the well-known hidden cave where
King Arthur and all his knights are said to sleep,
waiting to be called upon to rescue their country in
its hour of need. A local Caerleon farmer once met a
mounted man in a three-cornered hat who took him to
the middle of a large wood, promising to show him an
amazing site. The man stopped at a sheer rock face
where he pushed a great boulder aside to reveal the
entrance to a long dark passage. The two entered
within and followed the path to a series of steps
above which hung two huge bells. From here they
descended into a large underground cavern. All around
them slept upwards of a thousands ancient knights and,
at their head, the guide pointed out King Arthur
himself. On leaving this solemn scene, the farmer
accidentally knocked one of the great bells. Its loud
clang awoke the sleepers, who immediately asked,
"Is it time?". "Not yet," replied
the stranger, "sleep on." The knights
returned to their slumber and the two companions left
for the surface. The stranger mounted his horse and
departed without a word. The farmer often searched for
the cave, in the years to come, but was never able to
find it again.
Archaeology: Caerleon appears repeatedly in
ancient Arthurian writings as one of King Arthur's
major residences. It was originally the Roman fortress
of Isca Silurum, home of the 2nd Legion. However,
despite many of its grand buildings surviving well
into the 11th century, indications of occupation
extending into the Dark Ages are slight. The so-called
"Round Table" was fully excavated in 1926.
It revealed the remains of the ancient Roman
amphitheatre. However, one wonders if the methods of
the time were sophisticated enough to recognise 6th
century settlements such as those discovered in the
amphitheatre at Cirencester. The Churches of SS. Aaron
and Julius certainly appear to have existed: the
latter at St. Julians, just west of the town, and the
former at Penrhos to the north-east. Like other Roman
towns in Britain, Caerleon may have become an early
monastic centre as indicated by dedication of the
parish church to St.
Cadog. This is, apparently, a corruption of St.
Cadfrod, its late 4th century founder. Caxton,
however, did clearly state in his introduction to Sir
Thomas Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur"
that Camelot was in Wales. Could he have been
referring to Caerleon?
Conclusions: Despite Caerleon's strong
Arthurian associations, it is unlikely to have been
the original Camelot. Certainly not in name and
probably not in inspiration either. Indeed, Chrétien
De Troyes, who first mentioned the romantic
place-name, treats the two places as completely
separate. It seems more likely that, during the Dark
Ages, Caerleon was an ecclesiastic rather than a major
secular centre. Perhaps, as such, it was seen as an
appropriate meeting place for Royal councils. Such
gatherings often met in circles in Celtic society, so
what better meeting place than the old Roman