Friday, June 22, 2018

That Little Matter of King Arthur and Camelot

by Helen Hollick

“There’s no congenial spot, for happy-ever-aftering…. than here, in, Cam...e...lot!”
DVD Cover 

Camelot: turrets and towers, ladies in flimsy wimples and multi-coloured gowns. Chivalric knights in gleaming armour. Camelot, where the wind whisks the leaves into neat little piles, it never rains until after sundown and the snow must melt at a designated time.

Except, if Arthur had existed, and if he'd had a headquarters it would not have been a castle with flags fluttering from the turrets, a drawbridge and portcullis, a bailey – stone walls, and dungeons (and no dragons). The romantic view of King Arthur’s Camelot is a fairy-tale type Disney castle, with jousting, courtly behaviour and a round table in the magnificent tapestry-adorned Great Hall. The movie starring Richard Harris was fun. But history it wasn't.

Unfortunately, no one is certain whether Arthur existed or not; if he had been a genuine historic character he would have lived in Britain in the mid-to-late 400s or early 500s, between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo-Saxon English. His realm would have been Britain, not England – Arthur's Britain is what we today call England and Wales combined, perhaps with the lowlands of Scotland included as well. In Arthur’s time, the Welsh were Britons, the Scots were Irish, the English were Germanic and the Romans were… well, in general, were from anywhere except Rome!

And Arthur’s Castle? We don’t know about that either, although there is a mass of speculation. Probably such a headquarters would have been a semi-derelict Roman Fort, or a re-vamped iron-age hillfort. Caer Leon in South Wales has been suggested. Chester on the border of North Wales and England – Arthur’s Seat in Scotland, Tintagel in Cornwall; Winchester, even London….  there are dozens of possibilities. It is almost a case of 'pick your own favourite.'

Tintagel, Cornwall
(photo Kathy Hollick-Blee)
Cadbury Castle near Yeovil in Somerset is one of the main contenders, and the one I used for Arthur’s main fortress in my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. Excavations discovered that the place - once an Iron-Age fortress - was indeed occupied in Arthur’s period (again assuming he did exist!) of mid-fifth to mid-sixth century, the period popularly known as the Dark Ages (and rightly so, as we are still very much in the dark about this era of immense upheaval.)

Anything connected with King Arthur is conjecture; there is no factual proof of evidence for his existence, which is why so many historians / authors / enthusiasts argue like mad about the various theories, everyone insisting their idea is the truth. The only fact in all of it being that we all disagree with each other.

If Arthur had existed, was he pre-Roman, Romano-British, post Roman or early British-Saxon? The only certainty (probably!) is that he was not a king nor a knight in armour belonging to the 12th or 13th centuries. If he had been of this later period we would have had at least some historical, factual, reference to him, not just the Medieval tales - the early equivalent of historical fiction.

'Camelot'? er no...
more like 'Certainlynot'!
(image: Pixabay)
The scanty - somewhat dubious - 'historical' references we do have (Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth in particular,) are, at base level, fairly accurate records of the fifth/sixth century, but like the exaggerated stories of Robin Hood, they have become embellished during later years from Medieval monks to the Victorians and the New-Age hippies of the 1960s, with so many facts altered that the truth has now become vastly distorted. Alas. (Glastonbury in particular was affected by an upsurge of myth and magic in the 60s: nearly every shop in the High Street sold crystals and embraced 'Flower Power'. I'm not entirely certain what it all had to do with King Arthur though...)

Arthur’s Camelot (assuming he had one!) would have been a fortified hill-fort built primarily of timber, with a wattle-and-daub long house. But whether it was fortified to keep out the Saxons, the Scotti or an almost infinite variety of different foreign invaders is speculation. My money is on a warlord attempting to preserve what little was left of the crumbling Roman existence in Britain against the encroachment of settling Anglo-Saxons. Maybe the West Country or what is now Essex, Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Sussex. There again, I might be wrong.

For my Arthurian trilogy I stripped away the Medieval myth and looked closer at the early Welsh legends. My Arthur is a warlord, a no-nonsense man who had to fight hard to gain his kingdom - and even harder to keep it.  I have deliberately made him a pagan, a non-Christian, because I wanted to get away from the Christian-based 'Holy Grail' tales. My Arthur puts his faith in his sword not a god. I do use the term 'king' for him because I felt readers would be more comfortable with a more familiar term of leadership (as opposed to something like Dux Bellorum).

The Boy:
Who became a Man:
Who became a King:
Who became a Legend.

Whatever the truth, the good thing about Arthur is that he is an absolute delight for fiction authors. We do not know the facts so we can make it up - and no one can prove us wrong. So huzzah for imagination, a good storyteller and long may Arthur  of Camelot (wherever it might be) reign as the King of Fiction!

For a full bibliography of books used while researching the Pendragon's BannerTrilogy:

What are your views on King Arthur? You are welcome to leave a comment below.


Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction which is due to be published in 2018. 

Helen is also the founder of Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, submissions welcome.

Main Blog:
Twitter: @HelenHollick
Amazon: (universal link) 


  1. Arthur has always been my favourite 'historical' figure since I read Carola Oman's 'Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table' back when I was in Primary school. I was roundly cheered by class mates after I had read Chapter 5 to the class! I have lapped up many novels on the subject, but only two authors (yourself and Mr Cornwell) seem to have made the transition from fantasy to neo-realism; I'm sure there are others, but these are the best by a long way. Hollywood helped perpetuate the inaccuracies of armour and chivalry and so on (as the abominable cartoon version of T H White's 'Sword in the Stone'. more recent films have at least tried introduce more logical versions, mixing old and new takes on the legends.
    Excellent piece, Helen; thank you

  2. Thank you Richard - White's title of 'The Once and Future King' sums Arthur up nicely for the world of fiction!

  3. Considering that it was this particular series of books that brought us together, it will always remain my favorite of all Arthurian-based fiction. I have been reading Author legends ever since I can remember - but they had all been based on the myth, Magic and dragons - while fun to read, I had always wondered “what if” in the context of actual history - and your books answered that question for me - Arthur as “human”, flaws and all, with a very real historical backdrop without Merlin, the magic or the Grail. So, thank you for that “alternative” view of such a mythic character.

    1. thank you Kelly, I originally started writing what I thought would be one novel as I wanted to delve into Gwenhwyfar's story... except Arthur sort of took over ...

  4. Just like Kelly, I was led to you by my own love of all things Arthurian - I've read numerous novalizations and many books claiming to have sorted out the truth about Arthur as well. But your trilogy quickly became my favorite, along with Cornwall's trilogy, of who Arthur truly might have been. I thank you for writing such a masterful story - and I'm so grateful that your books led to such a strong friendship for us! It truly is a pity that we have no hard evidence about 'Arthur' - but as you said, proper records from the Dark Ages are scarce and not entirely reliable either. So we continue to fantasize about Arthur ourselves. It is fun contemplating who he might have been 'IF' he had truly existed. Excellent article, as always.

    1. and of course if ever 'the truth' is uncovered that will be a lot of authors left with inaccurate novels :-)

  5. Thanks, a brief but informative Arthur post, with a fair bit of common sense to put against the usual myths and Hollywood productions (although I did enjoy the 'King Arthur' film from a few years ago with Clive Owen, Keira Knightly and a mainly European cast : at least they had Britons and Saxons, and made an effort to put some historical accuracy in it!).

    I admit I haven't read any of Helen's books but will certainly keep a lookout.

    There a loads of Arthur books, some such as the Bernard Cornwell series, already mentioned. Just now I am reading ""Arthur the King" from Alan Massie, which puts a great spin on the tale. It still has a bit of gallantry, chivalry and like, but its written from the perspective of a 12th Century 'Merlin'( Michael Scott ) so adds its own idiosyncratic viewpoint.

    Jack Whyte also wrote a half-decent series re-imaging an Arthur in the post-Roman Britain, although it is a long series and chunky books. Perhaps a bit too much emphasis on "how", rather than telling a good tale.

    However, for something much more to the point, in my opinion, Henry Treece's "The Great Captains" is difficult to beat.

    Real people, real thoughts and actions, imagined and told from the point of view of the those 5th century characters and the somewhat brutal way they may have lived. Its part of his tetralogy of Celtic Britain and all 4 are excellent reads. Sadly no longer in print but any of Henry Treece's work is well worth searching out, even the children's books !

    1. Thank you Signalman for leaving a comment - Blogger has been having a tantrum so I did not realise you had left it. Totally agree about Treece, I still love his books, even now I'm in my 60s! Do try mine though...

  6. Rosemary Sutcliffe is my favourite of the “real” Arthur novelists. Mary Stewart for Geoffrey of Monmouth. T.H White for the Malory version. And Bernard Cornwell and Parke Godwin just because!

    I do have the first of your trilogy, Helen, bought it years ago. Is the trilogy still in print?

    1. Rosemary Sutcliff is still my favourite (LOL outside my own!) Mary Stewart was the inspiration behind my version: until reading Crystal Cave / Hollow Hills, almost 40 years ago now, it hadn't occurred to me that Arthur could have existed post-Roman, I'd only ever thought of him as a Medieval Knight (which I have never felt 'comfortable' with) Stewart's books sent me to researching post-Roman Britain and that possible view of Arthur, which led to my Trilogy. And yes they are still in print - go to my page on Amazon Find Me On An Amazon Near You (MUst be honest, personally I prefer the UK versions over the US ones.)


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