Cadbury Castle, Somerset

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Cadbury Castle

Cadbury Castle is a large Bronze Age and Iron Age hillfort by South Cadbury in Somerset, crowning Cadbury Hill.

The fort has frequently been associated with King Arthur's supposed court at "Camelot". The eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukely insisted that it could be called 'Camalet', which has been followed by others.[1]

The fort is a scheduled monument.[2]

The hill fort is formed by a 18-acre plateau surrounded by earthen ramparts on the surrounding slopes of Cadbury Hill. The site has been excavated in the late 19th and early 20th century by James Bennett and Harold St George Gray. More recent examination of the site in the 1960s by Leslie Alcock and since 1992 by the South Cadbury Environs Project. These have revealed artefacts from human occupation and use from the Neolithic through to the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The site was reused by the Roman forces and again from c. 470 until some time after 580.

In the 11th century the hill temporarily housed a Saxon mint. Evidence of various buildings at the site have been identified including a "Great Hall", round and rectangular house foundations, metalworking, and a possible sequence of small rectangular temples or shrines.


Earthworks at Cadbury Castle, 1911 map

Cadbury Castle is five miles northeast of Yeovil. It stands on the summit of Cadbury Hill, a limestone hill on the southern edge of the Somerset Levels, with flat lowland to the north. The summit is 502 feet above sea-level on lias stone.[3][4]

The hill is surrounded by terraced earthwork banks and ditches and a stand of trees. On the north-western and southern sides there are 4 ramparts, with two remaining on the east. The summit plateau covers 18.0 acres,[5][6] and is surrounded by the inner bank which is almost a mile long.[7] The hill fort is overlooked by Sigwells, a rural plateau rich in archaeological remains. Due to scrub and tree growth the site has been added to the Heritage at Risk register.[8]


Excavation at and around the site has discovered Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon artefacts. Excavations were undertaken by the local clergyman James Bennett in 1890 and Harold St George Gray in 1913 followed by major work led by archaeologist Leslie Alcock from 1966–1970.[9][10][6] He identified a long sequence of occupation on the site and many of the finds are displayed in the Museum of Somerset in Taunton.[11]

Since 1992 geophysical surveys and test pits have been used by the South Cadbury Environs Project, which included local volunteers South East Somerset Archaeological and Historical Society and the Yeovil Archaeology and Local History Society, assisted by academics and archaeologists from the universities of Bristol, Glasgow, Birmingham and Oxford.

Prehistoric occupation

Yetholm-type shield from South Cadbury

The earliest settlement was represented by pits and post holes dated with Neolithic pottery and flints.[12] A bank under the later Iron Age defences is likely to be a lynchet or terrace derived from early ploughing of the hilltop.

The site was also occupied in the Late Bronze Age, from which ovens have been identified,[13] and throughout the Iron Age.[5]

The fort itself is a multivallate hillfort built around 400 BC. Large ramparts and elaborate timber defenses were constructed and refortified at least five times over the following centuries. Excavation revealed round and rectangular house foundations, metalworking, and a possible sequence of small rectangular temples or shrines,[14][15] indicating permanent oppidum-like occupation.[16]

Archaeologists have found bones radiocarbon dated to 3500 and 3300 BC and showed the area to have been very busy during the second millennium BC.[6] Finds include the first Bronze Age shield from an excavation in northwest Europe, an example of the distinctive Yetholm-type. Although carbon dating implies that the shield was deposited in the 10th century BC, metallurgical evidence suggests that it was manufactured two centuries earlier.[11] A metal-working building and associated enclosure, roughly contemporary with the period of manufacture, was discovered a mile southeast of the hillfort.[17]

The ramparts

There is evidence that the fort was violently taken in around AD 43: this would presumably have been a Roman assault during the resistance by the Durotriges and Dobunni to the second Augusta Legion under the command of Vespasian.[18] It appears that the defences were further slighted later in the 1st century after the construction of a Roman army barracks on the hilltop.[19][20] A report of the prehistoric and Roman activity identified by Alcock's excavations was published in 2000 which somewhat modified his earlier conclusions.[21]

Historic occupation

Following the retreat of the Roman administration, the site is thought to have been in use from around 470 until some time after 580.[6] Alcock revealed a substantial "Great Hall" and showed that the innermost Iron Age defences had been refortified, providing a defended site double the size of any other known fort of the period. Shards of pottery from the eastern Mediterranean were also found from this period, indicating wide trade links.[19][20][22] It therefore seems probable that it was the chief caer ("fort") of a major British ruler and his court and wariors.

Between 1010 and 1020, the hill was reoccupied for use as a temporary West Saxon mint, standing in for that at Bruton.[19][20][6][23][24] Some small-scale fortification of the site may also have occurred in the 13th century.[25]


"Prospect of Camalet Castle" - engraving by William Stukeley (1723)

The suffix -bury usually refers to a fortification; the Old English byrig (dative or genitive singular), or possibly from beorg meaning 'hill'. The prefix 'Cad' may be older, from the British language. Below the hill flows the River Cam with the villages of West Camel and Queen Camel in proximity, which echoes the name. The name Cadbury may be derived from "Cada's burg". Other scholars suggest a derivation from some figure named "Cado".[26]) It is one of three sites in Somerset to include the Cadbury name, the others being Cadbury Camp, near Tickenham and Cadbury Hill which is also known as Cadbury-Congresbury to distinguish it from the other sites.

Local tradition, first written down by John Leland in 1542, holds that Cadbury Castle was King Arthur's Camelot.[27] The site and the Great Hall are extensive, and the writer Geoffrey Ashe argued in an article in the journal Speculum that it was the base for the Arthur of history.[28] His opinion has not been widely accepted by all students of the period.

Militarily, the location makes sense as a place where the Britons of Dumnonia could have defended themselves against attacks from the east. Refortification may have been a response to the intensifying Saxon raids the late fifth century.[29]

Bishop Ussher believed Cadbury Castle to be the Cair Celemion which Nennius listed in his Historia Brittonum[30] as one of the 28 cities of Britain.[31]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Cadbury Castle, Somerset)


  1. Phelps, William: The History and Antiquities of Somersetshire; Being a General and Parochial Survey of That Interesting County, to which is Prefixed an Historical Introduction, with a Brief View of Ecclesiastical History; and an Account of the Druidical, Belgic-British, Roman, Saxon, Danish, and Norman Antiquities, Now Extant, Vol. II, Ch. VI, §1: "Camalet or Cadbury", p. 118. J. B. Nichols & Son (London), 1839
  2. National Monuments Record: No. 199646 – Cadbury Castle
  3. Haslett 2010, pp. 72–76.
  4. Barrett, Freeman & Woodward 2000, p. 11.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Iron Age Hillfort, South Cadbury Castle". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 National Heritage List England no. 1011980: Large multivallate hillfort and associated earthworks at South Cadbury (Historic England)
  7. "The South Cadbury Excavations". University of Oxford. Retrieved 4 July 2015. 
  8. Large multivallate hillfort and associated earthworks at South Cadbury, South Cadbury – Register of Heritage at Risk (Historic England)
  9. "South Cadbury Hillfort". Digital Digging. Retrieved 4 July 2015. 
  10. "Cadbury Castle". Mysterious Britain. Retrieved 4 July 2015. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 "South Cadbury Shield". Museum of Somerset. Retrieved 4 July 2015. 
  12. "Cadbury Castle — Neolithic settlement, South Cadbury". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  13. "Cadbury Castle — Bronze Age settlement, South Cadbury". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  14. Dunning 2003, p. 10.
  15. Adkins & Adkins 1992, pp. 201–103.
  16. Leach 2001, p. 12.
  17. Tabor 2008, pp. 61–69.
  18. Havinden 1981, pp. 58–59.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Alcock 1972, p. ?.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Alcock 1973, p. ?.
  21. Barrett, Freeman & Woodward 2000, p. 10.
  22. Tabor 2008, pp. 169–172.
  23. Alcock 1995, p. ?.
  24. "Cadbury Castle — Saxon burh, South Cadbury". Somerset County Council. Retrieved 4 July 2015. 
  25. "Cadbury Castle, Castle and later activity, South Cadbury". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  26. Bush 1994, p. 154.
  27. "Cadbury Castle (Camelot?)". The History Files. Retrieved 4 July 2015. 
  28. Ashe, Geoffrey (1981). "A Certain Very Ancient British Book: Traces of an Arthurian Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History". Speculum (Speculum, Vol. 56, No. 2) 56 (2): 301–23. doi:10.2307/2846937. 
  29. "Cadbury Castle". Photographers Resource. Retrieved 9 September 2012. 
  30. Historia Brittonum, VI. CIVITATES BRITANNIAE
  31. Newman, John Henry & al. Lives of the English Saints: St. German, Bishop of Auxerre, Ch. X: "Britain in 429, A. D.", p. 92. James Toovey (London), 1844.