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King Arthur's Round Table

Caerleon's Roman amphitheatre

Caerleon Roman amphitheatre.
Caerleon Roman amphitheatre. [Image © Steve Burrow]

The Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon has been known as the site of King Arthur's court since the 12th century, but is there any evidence to prove this was the case?

In AD1405, the French army, which had landed at Milford Haven to support Owain Glyn Dŵr in his uprising against the English Crown, reached Caerleon in South Wales. Here they visited 'King Arthur's Round Table'. According to a French source (Chronique Religieux de St Denys), the French visited 'The Round Table' of Arthurian legend. The Round Table was in fact the Roman amphitheatre of the legionary fortress of Isca.

Geoffrey of Monmouth had identified Caerleon as the court of King Arthur in his fictional epic, the 'History of the Kings of Britain' in 1136. This identification, close to the area of his upbringing, has been described as 'the fruits of a lively historical imagination playing upon the visible remains of an imposing Roman city'. Some of Roman Isca was still standing in the 13th century.

Caerleon soon appeared in popular Welsh and French writings by Dafydd ap Gwilym, Chrétien de Troyes and others as 'Arthur's Court', sealing this identification.

Arthur's Round Table

Wheeler's excavations in the 1920s were sponsored by the Daily Mail.
Wheeler's excavations in the 1920s were sponsored by the Daily Mail.

Geoffrey of Monmouth did not actually mention Arthur's Round Table. That reference first appears in the 'translation' into French of Geoffrey's work by Wace of Jersey in about 1155. Wace's Round Table would appear to be derived from Breton fables, stories passed on by oral tradition.

When the Caerleon Excavation Committee was set up in 1926, the Director of the National Museum of Wales, Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976), made the most of the connection between the amphitheatre and 'Arthur's Round Table', as this was 'likely to attract the considerable funds required for a long-term programme of work'.

Shameless exploitation

View of the excavation of the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon, taken in 1927.
View of the excavation of the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon, taken in 1927.

Wheeler announced his project to the press and soon, the Daily Mail had signed an agreement to provide £1,000 for exclusive rights and daily reports on the uncovering of King Arthur's Round Table; in the end, their offer was trebled, and the newspaper carried regular 'sensational' reports. Wheeler was accused of shameless exploitation, but his strategy had produced the much-needed funding.

Early medieval activity

Metal pin from a brooch. Made between the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
Metal pin from a brooch. Made between the 6th and 7th centuries AD.

Wheeler's excavations focused on the Roman archaeology of the amphitheatre, and no early medieval remains were reported. However, a tantalising glimpse of possible activity within the arena during the early medieval period is provided by one copper-alloy find from the excavations: the upper half of a brooch pin, probably of 6th- or 7th century date. This may have been an isolated loss, but the recent discovery of early medieval timber buildings within the Roman amphitheatre beneath the Guildhall in the City of London indicate that such sites were sometimes reoccupied at a later date. Could the Caerleon amphitheatre have been re-used in the early medieval period? No convincing evidence was ever reported, and we are left to speculate on the original context of the brooch pin.

Background Reading

'Caerleon and the Archaeologists: Changing Ideas on the Roman Fortress' by Richard J. Brewer. In The Monmouthshire Antiquary vol. 17, p9-34 (2001).

'Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae and Brut y Brenhinedd' by Brynley F. Roberts. In The Arthur of the Welsh. The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature by R. Bromwich, A. O. H.Jarman and Brynley F. Roberts, p97-116. Published by Cardiff University Press (1991).

Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain translated by Lewis Thorpe. Published by Penguin (1966).

Mortimer Wheeler. Adventurer in Archaeology by Jacquetta Hawkes. Published by Weidenfield and Nicholson (1982).

Article Date: 30 April 2007

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Glossary

Amphitheatre
A public building of the Classical period (being particularly associated with ancient Rome) which was used for spectator sports, games and displays.

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