Camelot is the most famous castle and court associated with the legendary King Arthur. Later romance depicts it as the fantastic capital of Arthur's realm, from which he fought many of the battles and quests that made up his life. Camelot as a place is associated with ideals like justice, bravery and truth, the virtues Arthur and his knights embody in the romances. The stories locate it somewhere in Britain and sometimes associate it with real cities, though Camelot is absent from the early material. Most modern academic scholars regard it as being entirely fictional, its geography being perfect for romance writers; Arthurian scholar Norris J. Lacy commented that "Camelot, located no where in particular, can be anywhere. Nevertheless arguments about the location of the "real Camelot" have occurred since the 15th century and continue to rage today in popular works and for tourism purposes.
Nothing in Chrétien's poem suggests the level of importance Camelot would have in later romances. For Chrétien, Arthur's chief court was in Caerleon in Wales; this was the king's primary base in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and most subsequent literature. Chrétien depicts Arthur, like a typical medieval monarch, holding court at a number of cities and castles. It is not until the 13th-century French prose romances, including the Lancelot-Grail and the Post-Vulgate Cycle, that Camelot began to supersede Caerleon, and even then, many descriptive details applied to Camelot derive from Geoffrey's earlier grand depiction of the Welsh town. Arthurian romances of this period produced in English or Welsh such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight did not follow this trend; Camelot was referred to infrequently and only in translations from French. In Britain Arthur's court continued to be located at Caerleon, or at Carlisle, which is usually identified with the "Carduel" of the French romances. It was not until the late 15th century Thomas Malory created the image of Camelot most familiar to English speakers today in his Le Morte d'Arthur, a work based mostly on the French romances. He firmly identifies Camelot with Winchester, an identification that remained popular over the centuries, though it was rejected by Malory's own editor, William Caxton, who preferred a Welsh location.
The romancers' versions of Camelot drew on earlier descriptions of Arthur's fabulous court. From Geoffrey's grand description of Caerleon, Camelot gains its impressive architecture, its many churches and the chivalry and courtesy of its inhabitants. Geoffrey's description in turn drew on an already established tradition in Welsh oral tradition of the grandeur of Arthur's court. The tale Culhwch and Olwen, associated with the Mabinogion and perhaps written in the 11th century, draws a dramatic picture of Arthur's hall and his many powerful warriors who go from there on great adventures, placing it in Celliwig, an uncertain locale in Cornwall. Although the court at Celliwig is the most prominent in remaining early Welsh manuscripts, the various versions of the Welsh Triads agree in giving Arthur multiple courts, one in each of the areas inhabited by the Britons: Cornwall, Wales and in the Old North. This perhaps reflects the influence of widespread oral traditions common by 800 which are recorded in various place names and features such as Arthur's Seat indicating Arthur was a hero known and associated with many locations across Brittonic areas of Britain as well as Brittany. Even at this stage Arthur could not be tied to one location. Many other places are listed as a location where Arthur holds court in the later romances, Carlisle and London perhaps being the most prominent.
Malory's identification of Camelot as Winchester was probably partially inspired by the latter city's history. It had been the capital of Wessex under Alfred the Great, and boasted the Winchester Round Table, an artifact constructed in the 13th century but widely believed to be the original by Malory's time. Malory's editor Caxton rejects the association, saying Camelot was in Wales and that its ruins could still be seen; this is a likely reference to the Roman ruins at Caerwent. Malory associated other Arthurian locations with modern places, for instance locating Astolat at Guilford.
In 1542 John Leland reported the locals around Cadbury Castle in Somerset considered it to be the original Camelot. This theory, which was repeated by later antiquaries, is bolstered, or may have derived from, Cadbury's proximity to the River Cam and towns Queen Camel and West Camel, and remained popular enough to help inspire a large scale archaeological dig in the 20th century. These excavations, led by archaeologist Leslie Alcock from 1966-70, were titled "Cadbury-Camelot," and won much media attention, even being mentioned in the film of the musical Camelot. The dig revealed by far the largest known fortification of the period, with Mediterranean artifacts (representing extensive trade) and Saxon artifacts. The use of the name Camelot and the support of Geoffrey Ashe helped ensure much publicity for the finds, but Alcock himself later grew embarrassed by the supposed Arthurian connection to the site, following the arguments of David Dumville, feeling it was too late and too uncertain and modern archaeologists follow him in rejecting the name, calling it instead Cadbury Castle hill fort. Cadbury remains widely associated with Camelot.
The fact there were two towns in Roman Britain named Camulodunum, Colchester in Essex, and Slack in Yorkshire, deriving from the Celtic god Camulos has led to the suggestion they originated the name. However, the Essex Camulodunum was located well within territory usually thought to have been conquered early in the 5th century by Saxons, so it is unlikely to have been the location of any "true" Camelot. The town was definitely known as Colchester as early as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 917. Even Colchester Museum argues strongly regarding the historical Arthur: "it would be impossible and inconceivable to link him to the Colchester area, or to Essex more generally" pointing out that the connection between the name Camuloduum and Colchester was unknown till the 18th century. Other places in Britain with names related to "Camel" have also been suggested, such as Camelford in Cornwall, located down the River Camel from where Geoffrey places Camlann, the scene of Arthur's final battle. The area's connections with Camelot and Camlann are merely speculative.