CARDIGAN CASTLE AND KING ARTHUR.
Was Cardigan Castle the site of King Arthur’s Camelot?
This is not the sort of question which I would usually pose, but I thought I’d stoke up the fires of debate with something that the Cardigan Castle campaign and publicity has so far almost completely neglected to mention. Chretien de Troyes, the man who popularised the Arthurian romances in France and added Sir Lancelot and other characters to the story, wrote the popular tale of “Erec and Enide”, which opens with a reference to King Arthur’s court at his castle of Cardigan, where part of the narrative takes place. “Erec” was alternatively known as Geraint, and the old name for Old Castle, Cardigan, was ‘Din Geraint’.
This tale was written about the year 1170, when Lord Rhys was the very epitome of a cultured Celtic ruler, perhaps reminding Chretien de Troyes of Arthur, and appealing to his ideals of chivalry and culture. It is alleged, though not accepted by many historians, that Henry II was entertained with tales of the Arthurian romances at Cilgerran Castle in 1172. Whether or not the story is true, it is interesting to note another link between Rhys and the legend. Was de Troyes the story teller on that occasion? If Chretien de Troyes was writing after this event, the Cardigan reference would have made even more sense – Cardigan Castle was being rebuilt by Lord Rhys in 1171-76, and the building of a stone and lime castle by a Welshman was not recorded earlier than this. Perhaps de Troyes was reminded of Arthur building Camelot and decided to link the two. The first recorded National Eisteddfod held at Cardigan Castle at Christmas 1176 would have given him further food for thought.
The first Eisteddfod was used by Rhys as a means of showing to his friends and enemies alike that he was a force to be reckoned with – a great military and political strategist and a great law-giver, a fiercely independent and traditional Welshman, yet a great diplomat, statesman and innovator. He showed the world that the Welsh were skilled, civilised, God-fearing and cultured, and it was this presentation of courtly finesse and splendour that would have appealed to the likes of Chretien de Troyes. Could de Troyes himself have attended the event and perhaps even competed? If he was won over by the image Rhys presented of the noble Celt, it might have inspired him to set his fictions in Cardigan. Could de Chretien’s Arthur have been modelled on Rhys himself? Certainly Lord Rhys himself was the greatest living example of a wise and courteous Welsh leader, with a fierce military past.
In a similar vein, in the ‘Mabinogion’ we hear of Prince Pwyll setting off for a day’s hunting from his court at Arberth to Glyn Cuch. If ‘Arberth’ really was at Narberth it was a ridiculous distance to go for a day’s hunting, and Glanarberth near Llechryd, on the banks of the stream ‘Arberth’ seems a much more likely location for Pwyll’s court than the mid-Pembrokeshire town. In a similarly practical sense, if the name “Merlin” can be accepted as a corruption of “Morddin” – the Welsh version of Moridunum alias Carmarthen, does Cardigan seem any less likely a spot for Camelot that the hotly-fancied Tintagel? Certainly I doubt that Tintagel has a stronger case to be Camelot than Cardigan does. Interesting to note that the Welsh name of nearby Monington is ‘Eglwys Wythwr’ – is this a reference to Uther Pendragon? Also of interest is an early Christian stone in St. Thomas’ Church in nearby St. Dogmaels. It depicts a cross-stem that looks remarkably like a sword hilt – the sword on the stone perhaps? Of course, the whole Arthurian story could be complete and utter bunkum!
Or was Cardigan Castle the site of King Arthur’s Camelot?
Glen K Johnson, Tivy-Side Advertiser, December 2011