Cadbury Castle is a significant hillfort site and a lovely place to visit on a good day (take a picnic). The atmosphere here is quite friendly. It stands atop a free-standing hill with enough space on top (18 acres) for a settlement housing several hundred people. Its defensive capability is clear - a succession of steep banks going down the hill which would have forced any attackers to climb a difficult slope and render themselves vulnerable to arrows and stones as they topped each ridge. It was the scene of a last stand of the British against the Romans, who had to lay seige for a long time before beating the inhabitants.
It was first built around 500 BCE. Cadbury is unique inasmuch as it was rebuilt in the post-Roman period. This gives weight to the tradition that it was the legendary King Arthur's Camelot. It lay above the ancient road from London to Cornwall (now the A303, which also passes Stonehenge). It had a fine view of Glastonbury Tor and, behind it, Brent Knoll - on a clear day you can see Wales. Fine as a beacon hill.
It was certainly occupied during the Arthurian period, with signs of wealth such as a large hall close to the highest point. The hill was occupied for centuries in pre-Roman times and for some time in post-Roman times, with the ramparts being rebuilt in several phases. Legend has it that King Arthur and his knights ride out from Cadbury on fullmoon nights or at summer solstice, and their horses' hooves can be heard. Quite a lot of archaeological research is done here (see South Cadbury Environs Project
Well worth a visit. Accessability reasonable, involving an uphill walk on a cobbled, slightly muddy path. Go to South Cadbury, find the car park and walk up from there. Walk around the sides of the ramparts too, to experience some fine dingly woods and the two springs emanating from under the hill.
An extract from The Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain by Geoffrey Ashe, published by Gothic Image, Glastonbury.
Best known and most interesting of the reputed sites of Camelot. A hill-fort beside South Cadbury, down a small road which leaves the A303 at Chapel Cross, 1½ miles east of Sparkford.
The road passes through South Cadbury village and, a short distance beyond the church, comes to the foot of the only path up the hill. This is marked by a notice-board. There is a small parking space, and a much larger one farther on. The path climbs gently to a gate in a wall, and then more steeply through woods, till it emerges in she enclosure on top. After rain it is apt to be muddy and slippery.
Cadbury is an isolated hill of limestone and sandstone. The summit is about 500 feet above sea-level, with a wide view of central Somerset, including the Tor at Glastonbury 12 miles away, and, in clear weather, Brent Knoll beyond. It has four lines of bank-and-ditch defence. For most of the way round they are densely wooded, and, in spring, full of bluebells and primroses. Wherever the trees have grown, as they have in the place where the path goes up, the banks have crumbled and lost shape. But towards their south-east bend – reached by turning left when you enter the enclosure – they come out into the open, and you can look down and see them as they once were all round the hill, a formidable system. They surround a defended area of 18 acres, rising to a long, level central plateau. A break at the south-west above another village, Sutton Montis, is the original gateway.
The first known author to refer to Cadbury as Camelot is John Leland in 1542. He says: "At the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle.... The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard Arthur much resorted to Camalat." Sceptics have argued that there was no real local tradition, or perhaps a vague tradition of Arthur only, and that the evocative name is a guess of Leland's prompted by the villages of Queen Camel and West Camel not far away. Yet he speaks of Camelot without any discussion as a recognised fact, and his spelling with an a instead of o in the last syllable may echo a local pronunciation. This can be heard today; the a is sounded as in "father". It may have some bearing on the case that the first printed edition of a work by the classical geographer Ptolemy, which Leland could have read, notes a place called "Camudulanum" in this part of Britain.
Whatever the people of the neighbourhood were saying in 1542, they have certainly cherished Arthurian lore since then. Cadbury hill has its version of the cave-legend, which, in fact, can be documented earlier than any other, as far back as the sixteenth century. Arthur lies asleep in a cavern closed by iron gates, or maybe golden ones. Sometimes they open so that the fortunate wanderer can glimpse him inside. A party of Victorian archaeologists were asked by an old man if they meant to dig up the king. A well on the left of the path as you go up it is Arthur's Well, and the highest part of the hill is Arthur's Palace, a phrase on record as early as 1586. On Midsummer Eve, or Midsummer Night, or Christmas Eve (opinions differ, and some say it is only every seventh year), Arthur and his knights ride over the hilltop and down through the ancient gateway, and their horses drink at a spring beside Sutton Montis church. Whether or not they can be seen, their hoofbeats can be heard. Below the hill are traces of an old track running towards Glastonbury, called Arthur's Lane or Hunting Causeway, where a noise of spectral riders and hounds goes past on winter nights.
One theory about the name 'Cadbury' is that this itself is a link with Arthur, because it means 'Cadwy's Fort', and we find Arthur as the colleague – perhaps early in his career – of a prince named Cadwy at Dunster. He could have taken over Cadbury through some arrangement with its owner. But the derivation is dubious, and so is the argument, if only because there are other Cadburys.
The word 'castle' suggests a medieval fortress with towers and battlements. The same warning applies here as at Liddington and elsewhere: Cadbury never had a castle like that. The fortified hill itself was the castle. Since nothing was ever here like the Camelot of romance (which, moreover, has no real geography), in what sense could Cadbury deserve the name? Solely in the sense of having been Arthur's headquarters and principal citadel, the far-off reality underlying the fiction. But that in itself is an impressive thing to be, and the nearby 'Camel' place-names suggest how traditions of the Cadbury area might have helped to shape a name for the dream-city remotely recalling it.
Antiquarian writers from Leland on simply call Cadbury 'Camelot' (variously spelled) without drawing such distinctions, and speak of Roman coins and fragments of buildings. No such fragments were left when the Rev. James Bennett, Rector of South Cadbury, carried out the first small excavation. In a paper published in 1890 he told how he had cut a trench through the top rampart, and judged that it was built up in layers over a long time. We now know that this was correct. On the plateau he dug down to a pit in the bedrock with scraps of pottery in it, and half a quern. The pit had a large flat stone at the bottom. A workman who was helping thought this covered a manhole leading down to the cave, but when they lifted it they found only another large flat stone. In 1913, H. St George Gray excavated again, chiefly near the south-west entrance, finding objects which showed that people were on the hill in the late Iron Age just before the Roman conquest.
The crucial step from an Arthurian point of view did not come till the middle 1950s. Part of the enclosure was ploughed, and a local archaeologist, Mrs Mary Harfield, picked up the flints and potsherds which appeared on the surface in the upturned soil. Among these Dr Ralegh Radford recognised pottery of the type he had found at Tintagel, which proved that somebody had lived here at about the time of Arthur, and most likely a 'somebody' of wealth and standing who could import luxury goods. The interest thus aroused led to the formation of the Camelot Research Committee, which carried out large-scale excavations in 1966 – 70 under the direction of Leslie Alcock.
The results were copious. It became clear that British Celts of the Iron Age had not only built the earthwork defences, but reconstructed the top bank several times, as Bennett suspected. A village flourished on the plateau for hundreds of years. Then the Romans stormed Cadbury and evicted the survivors, resettling them at the foot of the hill so that they could not make it a strongpoint in any future rebellion. During most of the Roman period the enclosure was empty. However, a temple may have been built during a pagan revival which is known to have spread through Britain in the fourth century AD. After that comes a phase of total obscurity, and after that, the Arthurian period. For this the archaeological haul was richer than anyone had expected, or dared to predict.
In a central and commanding position, on the high part of the hill called Arthur's Palace, the foundations of a timber hall came to light. It was 63 feet by 34. Its walls were marked by post-holes cut in the bedrock. A trench running across it, closer to one end than the other, showed where a partition had divided it into large and small rooms. In outline it resembled the hall at Castle Dore, but there were grounds for inferring more skilful workmanship – quality rather than size. In this building the chief warriors would have assembled, feasted, listened to minstrels, planned campaigns. A smaller building close by could have been the kitchen, and others may also have belonged to an Arthurian complex, though it was only with the hall that dating was certain.
Cadbury Castle, showing excavation sites
Cadbury Castle, showing excavation sites
At the south-west entry were the remains of a gatehouse of the same period. A cobbled road ten feet wide climbed into the enclosure. It passed through double doors into a nearly square wooden tower, and out through similar doors the other side. All this, of course, has now been buried again and only the gap in the bank is visible, far shallower than it was.
Most important of all was the discovery which was made in that bank, the three-quarter-mile perimeter of the hill. Cuts through it in several places – now refilled like the entrance – revealed a cross-section like a layer cake, with strata one above another showing how the rampart had been rebuilt at various times over the centuries. In Arthurian times it had been rebuilt grandiosely. On top of the earth at that level was a drystone bank or wall 16 feet thick. Gaps where ancient timber had rotted marked the places where massive posts had upheld a breastwork on the outside, protecting men who stood on the wall. Beams had run across, binding the structure together and supporting a platform, and perhaps, at intervals, wooden watchtowers.
This defensive system surrounding the hill made an impression in keeping with the period. The wall itself, with its timber bracing and superstructure, was very like what the British Celts were building before the Roman conquest. It incorporated fragments of Roman masonry, salvaged from derelict buildings, but it was strictly a national piece of work. On the other hand the gatehouse had Roman touches. When Arthurian Cadbury was formed, Britain's heritage of Roman architecture was seemingly almost forgotten, but not quite. By the later fifth century that might well have been the state of affairs.
Cadbury Castle: artist's reconstruction of the Arthurian timber hall, with roof cut away to show the internal framework.
Nothing was found with Arthur's name on it, and it would have been foolish to hope for that. What the project did prove was that Cadbury was reoccupied by the right sort of person, at approximately the right time. A leader with uncommon resources took possession of this vacant hill-fort and refortified it on a colossal scale. He was (as somebody phrased it during the excavations) an Arthur- type figure, if no more. At the centre he set up at least one fair-sized building and probably several smaller ones. He may have had others; even in 1970 after five seasons of digging, only a fraction of the site had been opened up. But quite possibly his soldiers used tents or huts leaving no lasting traces. When they were at Cadbury, their encampment held fully 1,000 men, plus ancillary staff, followers and families. During the campaign season the base may have been looked after by a garrison only. But it may have been a regional centre of government with a permanent civilian establishment.
The point about Cadbury-Camelot is not only that this hill-fort was converted into a vast citadel at the right time, but that there is no other known instance in ex-Roman Britain of such a thing having happened. A number of hill-forts were reoccupied, but simply as protected places of residence for a household. The areas resettled within their ramparts were much smaller; none became a base for substantial forces; and while, in a few, a little feeble wall- building was carried out, none acquired a new fortification remotely like the stone-and-timber rampart of Cadbury, with its gatehouse and implied use of the whole 18-acre enclosure. It is hard to believe that when Leland called this place 'Camelot' he was merely guessing, rather than drawing on a valid tradition. A mere guess would have been most unlikely to pick on the one known place throughout Britain with the right characteristics. Even a modern archaeologist could not have made such a guess, simply by looking at the hill, with any confidence of being correct.
The Camelot Research Committee, of course, turned up material of value and interest covering a far longer stretch of time than the brief Arthurian period. Some of it still had an indirect bearing on the Arthurian Legend itself, or on stories related to it.
Cadbury entrance gate
For instance, at the south-east bend of the uppermost rampart, a human skeleton was found. It was the skeleton of a young man rammed head-down into a pit, his knees drawn up to his chin. Fresh rampart-building had been done on top of him. The bones showed no physical defect, and the likeliest explanation is that this was a human sacrifice, performed for divine strengthening of the wall in a pre-Roman phase of its reconstruction. That calls to mind the tale of Vortigern's stronghold and the Druids' advice about sprinkling its foundation with a boy's blood. Whoever first told that story knew something of pagan Celtic customs, and rituals which might have survived on the wild fringes of fifth-century Britain.
Again, one surprising outcome of the excavations was the discovery of evidence that the Iron Age village was not stormed by the Romans, its people were not deported, till a considerable time after this part of Britain was officially conquered. It was a centre for some last stand,'some unchronicled resistance. Historians have nothing to say about this. But the Roman poet Juvenal speaks briefly of a British leader named Arviragus who would have been known or at least remembered in about AD 80–90 for causing trouble. Now in accounts of the Grail-bearer Joseph of Arimathea and his coming to Glastonbury, he and his companions are said to have been granted land there in AD 63 by a local king not subject to Rome. In some versions this king is named, and his name is Arviragus. Could that detail show a hazy awareness of traditions about a real person, a British Hereward the Wake who maintained a miniature kingdom in the hills and marshes of central Somerset, till the conquerors moved in on his strongest hill and dispersed its inhabitants?
While the archaeologists left the cave-legend alone, their project may have shed accidental light on it. There is no cave now. In such cases there seldom is. But a visitor who knew the hill well pointed out a place in the scarp on the south side of the central plateau, where a metal rod could be thrust horizontally far into the soil without hitting bedrock. Possibly a recess once existed there, and was filled in by crumbling, leaving a folk-memory which exaggerated its size and depth.
Lastly – though this was no part of the project – an amateur group which took an interest in it tested the 'beacon' theory by building a large fire on the summit and posting observers on Glastonbury Tor, who reported that when the fire was lit after dark, they could easily see it across the low-lying country between.
NEXT: Muchelney Abbey