The Official Response

This is the official letter that is sent out by the museum when the question of a link with King Arthur, Camelot and Colchester is raised. Please bear in mind that it gives a one sided view of the subject as it omits contrary opinion by worthy scholars.

 

Dear ..........

In respect to your enquiry concerning possible links between Camelot and Colchester I can state the following:

The subject of Arthurian links with Colchester is one that keeps cropping up over and over again. Unfortunately most of the claimed links are spurious but there are a small number of real connections with Arthurian literature, as I will outline later.

The first question we have to ask is whether Arthur was, in fact, a real historical character. If he did not exist then, of course, linking him to any real location would be largely meaningless. Unfortunately we have to face the fact that in the small number of contemporary, or near contemporary historical written accounts no mention is made of a figure called Arthur. The earliest references occur at least two hundred years after the period when Arthur might have lived. These early references consist of little more than a few sentences. It is only in later works that the story of Arthur really develops by which time all sorts of stories and characters are being linked to him. Some of these stories and characters can be seen to have had independent, earlier, origins but were later incorporated into the Arthurian legend. In some instances some of the stories and adventures originally formed part of traditional tales related to other people but medieval writers found it convenient to change these and replace the original hero or character with Arthur or other characters in the Arthurian circle, such as Merlin. It seems highly probable that Merlin himself, whom we today would see as being one of the main elements of the Arthurian stories, originally occurred independently in tales that had no connection with Arthur. Once you start removing all these later and independent elements what you are left with is incredibly meager and this has certainly led some scholars to conclude that there is no strong case for an historical figure called Arthur.

Even, however, if we accept that Arthur was an historical figure, which I personally do, it would be impossible and inconceivable to link him to the Colchester area, or to Essex more generally. Eastern England lay in the heart of the region first occupied by the Saxons and so cannot have been the area in which Arthur operated. Acting as a military leader of the Britons fighting the invading Saxons, any historical Arthur would have had to have been operating outside the area of primary Saxon settlement. He would have to have been operating in western or northern Britain, which not surprisingly is where many of the legends/stories related to Arthur are based. Incidentally, we also know from archaeological evidence that during this time Colchester itself was largely deserted.

Now we come to the question of Camelot. The name is first known to occur in the works of the French writer Chretien de Troyes, who was writing in the period 1180-90. The name Camelot does not occur in any of the earlier accounts of Arthur and it seems quite clear that it was an invention by Chretien. Camelot is therefore a relatively late, medieval, addition to the Arthurian story and as a location is totally fictitious. From then onwards, of course, it has became an established part of the legend.

Speculation has arisen, among modern scholars, as to where Chretien de Troyes derived the name Camelot. There is no direct evidence concerning this but it has been suggested by some that Camulodunum, the ancient Iron Age and Roman name for Colchester, may have been the inspiration. Some of the surviving Roman texts were certainly beginning to become known again around this time and it is conceivable, though we can never really know, that Chretien had access to some of the texts and so may have been familiar with the name Camulodunum.

However, even if Chretien de Troyes was familiar with the name Camulodunum he would certainly not have linked it with the contemporary town of Colchester. At that time knowledge of the whereabouts of Camulodunum had been lost. It was only in the latter part of the 18th century, after a lot of debate about its location, that the link was firmly re-established between the ancient name of Camulodunum and the modern town of Colchester.

This is of course all rather disappointing for anyone trying to establish Arthurian connections with Colchester. On the more positive side, however, there are some real, though minor, links with Arthurian literature.

Colchester appears, under its modern name, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain which first appeared around 1138. This was the first great piece of Arthurian literature and the foundation stone of much of the later Arthurian legend. In this book the town of Colchester is mentioned as the home of King Coel. King Coel, who is supposed to have reigned in the 4th century AD, is purely a figure of popular legend and has no basis in historical fact. Of course, Geoffrey of Monmouth, along with earlier and contemporary writers, makes no mention of Camelot as the name had yet to come into existence. Geofrey, using many real geographical locations, firmly has Arthur based in the west of Britain.

Geoffrey of Monmouth also describes a king called Cymbeline who ruled in Britain just prior to the Roman invasion. Though he did not link this king with Colchester he is in fact a real historical character who ruled from here. The name Cymbeline was a corruption of the name Cunobelin, caused by inaccurate copying of manuscripts by medieval scribes. Cunobelin, who is mentioned in several Roman texts, was the greatest of all the pre-Roman kings. He ruled from around AD 10 - AD 40 and the centre of his kingdom was Camulodunum, ancient Colchester. Shakespeare also knew him under the name Cymbeline and he was, of course, the subject of the play of the same name. Shakespeare, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, did not recognise any link between Cymbeline/Cunobelin and Colchester as this, as I have already mentioned, was only re-established in the latter 18th century.

The final link with Arthurian literature concerns Thomas Mallory of Newbold Revel. Mallory wrote, in the 1460s, what is arguably the greatest piece of Arthurian literature, Le Morte d'Arthur (the death of Arthur). It is from Mallory's book that most of the modern popular ideas about Arthur derive. There is no reference or link to Colchester or any Colchester associated person in the book but Mallory himself has an association with the town as he was briefly imprisoned in Colchester Castle in October 1454.

I hope that the above has sufficiently answered your inquiry concerning Colchester and Camelot. If you want to read further on the matter I would personally recommend the following two books: Excalibur - The Search for Arthur by Gwyn A. Williams (1995 - published by BBC Books); King Arthur - Hero and Legend by Richard Barber (1986 - published by the Boydell Press). If you want to know more about Mallory there is the excellent book The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Mallory by P. J. C. Field (1993 - published by D. S. Brewer).

Yours sincerely,

......

 

In December 2000, a T-Shirt appeared in town which indicated a possible link between King Arthur, Camelot and Colchester. The museum authorities were quick to condemn the product on the grounds of there being no link whatsoever. Has the question been resolved? Of course not - nor will it ever be!

 

See the T-Shirt at www.camulos.com/shirt/detail.htm