Cadbury Hill

In 1542, an antiquary named John Leland traveled to Cadbury Hill in Somerset. Leland was the foremost antiquary in his day, and had written extensively on King Arthur before. He later recorded that the locals had a legend that the hill had been King Arthur's "Camallatte."

Historians have long thought Leland was just repeating a bit of folklore, or perhaps that he had made it up himself based on the surrounding geography. Nearby are two hills called Queen Camel and West Camel. But in the 1950s, Cadbury Hill was ploughed over, and an archaeologist walking her dog nearby found some pieces of pottery and flint that had come loose. The pottery was dated to pre and post–Roman times.

Between 1966 and 1970, portions of the hill were excavated by a team of archaeologists led by Leslie Alcock. The team found that a hillfort had stood there in the late Bronze or early Iron Ages, and it had been occupied by the Romans as well. But in about the fifth century, someone had reoccupied the hill, and had it refortified. Whoever had done so must have had access to huge amounts of resources, unparalleled in his day. The fortress was twice the size of any other fort from the same period. Outside, it had been surrounded by large, concentric ramparts which workmen had carved out of the earth. Guards would have patrolled atop them, on the lookout for anyone who approached.

From afar, travelers would have seen an old Roman wall, 16 feet thick, surrounding the hilltop. Wooden beams had run along it, holding it together, and possibly supporting wooden towers placed at intervals along the outside. Gaps in the wall show where large timber posts, now rotted away, once supported a breastwork, from which archers would have fired at approaching invaders.

Visitors to the fortress would have ridden in on a cobbled road, and through large double doors which passed into a wooden gatehouse. Inside, the remains of a Great Hall could still be seen. It had been built of timber, and had signs of skilled craftsmanship. A large trench showed where the hall had been divided into large and small rooms. A smaller building outside might have been the kitchen, in which food would have been prepared for great feasts where bards sung of their patron's victories, and warriors met to plan future campaigns.

The entire fortress showed signs of Roman masonry, but had a predominantly Celtic design. The implication was clear: someone with a knowledge of Roman building techniques had reoccupied the hill and had it refurbished in the fifth or sixth centuries. The structural knowledge was Roman, but the workmen had been Britons. The remains of luxury goods imported from the Mediterranean, found inside and dated to about the right time, showed that this individual was a person of high status, perhaps a king. Leslie Alcock would later go on to say that Cadbury Hill was more consistent with the type of fort built for a king than a war chief. The only other hillfort which compares is in Scotland, and is known to have belonged to a king.

This discovery led to the excavation of a series of other hills. Several more hillforts were discovered, which had also been refortified at about the same time. But none on the scale of Cadbury Hill. Cadbury was clearly something special. Interestingly, Cadbury Hill is known to have been empty of any buildings in the thirteenth century. But a thirteenth–century map marks the hill with a drawing of a castle. It seems Leland had heard of an ancient tradition that the hill had once been Arthur's stronghold.