Let’s Not Go to Camelot…

…tis a silly place. 

Another OTT headline for you;

‘King Arthur’s round table may have been found by archaeologists in Scotland’

Pretty earth-shattering stuff. Except it isn’t, really. It’s an interesting piece of archaeological fieldwork on a well-known, well-documented site (the ‘King’s Knot’) that confirms that, as one eighteenth century source stated, it was ‘of great antiquity’. The suggestion that it might be King Arthur’s round table is a very old one. French chronicler Froissart was told that Stirling had been Camelot and the mound the round table. Barbour’s c1377 poem about the Battle of Bannockburn reinforced this claim;

Ver. 360. Of Stirling.


* Tharfor comfort yow, and rely

‘Your men about yow rycht ftarkly; 
‘And halds about the Park your way,

* Rycht als fadly as ye may.

‘For I trow that nane fall haff mycht,

* That chaflys, with fa fele to fycht.’

And hys cunfaill thai haff doyne; 
And benewth the caftell went thai fone, 
Rycht by the Round Table away; 
And fyne the Park enweround thai;

As did William of Worcester in his 15th Century Itinerarium (quoted here):

‘Rex Arthurus custodiebat le round table in castro de Styrlyng aliter Snowdon West Castle.’

Or; ‘King Arthur kept the round table in Stirling Castle, otherwise called Snowdon West Castle’.

But by the enlightenment, (see Nimmo (1777)) it was recognised that this was highly unlikely to be the actual site of what was in all likelihood a wholly mythical feature. After all, if there was an historical figure behind the Arthur myth, he would have lived hundreds of years previously, making oral tradition suspect to say the least. These later historians suggested that it had been traditionally named for a chivalric ‘pastime‘ (in this context, a game or sport) itself inspired by the Arthurian romances (see Pinkerton’s footnote in this edition of Barbour, and this source for more on the spread of Arthurian influence in C14th Scotland). Even arch mythmaker Sir Walter Scott called it a ‘romantic legend‘.

But bythe 1990s we had come full circle, and myth was again confused with history as the table, and the Stirling site, were claimed as the real deal by speculative authors. That various places around Britain have been suggested over the years need not trouble the believer – Arthur just liked to move around a lot, as that last linked source suggests! In any case, the fact that one of these proposed sites turns out to be old enough to have been around when – or rather if – an historical ‘Arthur’ was around, really means very little. The traditional association is very interesting in the context of medieval history. But as far as any ‘real’ Arthur is concerned, is ‘King (Arthur)’s Knot’ really any more significant a placename than Robin Hood Airport?

And in fact if we look at what’s being said in that Telegraph article, it’s really only the local history society chap who even mentions the Arthurian connection – and he is not suggesting that they’ve found the actual table. Far from it;

‘The finds show that the present mound was created on an older site and throws new light on a tradition that King Arthur’s Round Table was located in this vicinity.’

Throws new light. On a tradition. Not ‘King Arthur’s round table found’. I have no issue with his statement at all – only that it’s being misunderstood/misrepresented by the media in order to find an ‘angle’ to sell the story. Though you’ll note that the professional historians and archaeologists steer clear of any mention of Arthur. I wish the project all the best with any extra publicity this gets them. Updates can be found on the Society’s blog.

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