Caerleon (Welsh: Caerllion) is a suburban village situated on the River Usk on the northern outskirts of the city of Newport. It also forms a community (parish) and electoral district (ward) of the city.
The ward is bounded by the River Usk to the southwest, the A4042 to the west, the A449 to the east and Malthouse Road to the north. Caerleon is home to the Celtic Manor Resort, location of the 2010 Ryder Cup. It is also home to a large campus of the University of Wales, Newport.
Until the 19th century development of the downstream docks at Newport, Caerleon acted as the major port on the Usk river. The wharf was located on the right bank, to the west of today's river bridge which marked the limit of navigability for masted ships.
Caerleon also has a renown for its propensity to bibulousness. A straw poll survey in 1981 discovered 41 separate locations where alcohol was to be had (40 if one discounts the local Roman Catholic church).
Caerleon is a site of considerable archaeological importance, being the site of a Roman legionary fortress (it was the headquarters for Legio II Augusta from about 75 to 300 AD) and an Iron Age hill fort.
The name Caerleon is commonly thought to be from the Welsh for "fortress of the legion"; the Romans themselves called it Isca Silurum, "Usk of the Silures", after the Silures, the Celtic tribe that dwelt there.
Substantial excavated Roman remains can be seen, including the military amphitheatre, one of the most impressive in Britain, and the bath house, with a modern museum in situ above it. Both sites are administered by Cadw. There is a separate museum, part of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales complex, which exhibits finds from excavations throughout the village.
Because of its circular form, the unexcavated amphitheatre was known to locals as "King Arthur's Round Table", but there is no known connection. An initial investigation in 1909 showed the potential for a full-scale excavation of the structure, which began in 1926 and was supervised by Victor Nash-Williams. This revealed, among other things, that the amphitheatre had been built around 90AD, but had twice been partially reconstructed, once in the early part of the 2nd century AD, and again about a hundred years later. The arena is oval in shape, with eight entrances, and the stadium is thought to have had a capacity of around 6000.
According to the Gildas (followed by Bede), Roman Caerleon was the site of two early Christian martyrdoms in Britain, at the same time as that of Saint Alban the first English martyr, who was killed in the Roman city of Verulamium (beside modern-day St Albans). He writes:
God, therefore, who wishes all men to be saved, and who calls sinners no less than those who think themselves righteous, magnified his mercy towards us, and, as we know, during the above-named persecution, that Britain might not totally be enveloped in the dark shades of night, he, of his own free gift, kindled up among us bright luminaries of holy martyrs, whose places of burial and of martyrdom, had they not for our manifold crimes been interfered with and destroyed by the barbarians, would have still kindled in the minds of the beholders no small fire of divine charity. Such were St. Alban of Verulamium, Aaron and Julius, citizens of the City of the Legions, and the rest, of both sexes, who in different places stood their ground in the Christian contest.
This city of the legions is identified with Caerleon, rather than Chester, because there were two medieval chapels there dedicated to each of these martyrs.
Caerleon in Myth and Arthurian legend
Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Caerleon one of the most important cities in Britain in his Historia Regum Britanniĉ. He gives it a long glorious history from its founding by King Belinus then making it the location of a metroplitan see, an Archbishopric superior to Canterbury and York under Saint Dubricius. He was followed by St David who moved the archbishopric to St David's Cathedral. This builds up to its use by Geoffrey as a Court for King Arthur.
Caerleon is one of the sites most often connected with King Arthur's capital later called Camelot. There was no Camelot mentioned in the early Arthurian traditions recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon. These early Arthurian authors say that Arthur's capital was in Caerleon, and even the later recaster of Arthurian material, Sir Thomas Malory, has Arthur re-crowned at "Carlion". It has been suggested that the still-visible Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon is the source of the 'Round-Table' element of the tales, and was used for discussion and entertainment. (The "Camelot" reference originates with the French writer of courtly romance, Chrétien de Troyes.)
Geoffrey of Monmouth writes of Caerleon in the mid 12th century:
"For it was located in a delightful spot in Glamorgan, on the River Usk, not far from the Severn Sea. Abounding in wealth more than other cities, it was suited for such a ceremony. For the noble river I have named flows along it on one side, upon which the kings and princes who would be coming from overseas could be carried by ship. But on the other side, protected by meadow and woods, it was remarkable for royal palaces, so that it imitated Rome in the golden roofs of its buildings... Famous for so many pleasant features, Caerleon was made ready for the announced feast." (Historia Regum Britanniae "History of the Kings of Britain")
This is only a short part of a description which emphasises the power and wealth of Arthur's court a description transfered later to Camelot. The huge scale of the ruins along with Caerleon's importance as a urban centre in early medieval Gwent would have inspired stories which Geoffrey expanded on.
Caerleon also has later Arthurian literary associations, as the birthplace of the writer Arthur Machen who often used it as a location in his work. Alfred Lord Tennyson also wrote his Idylls of the King overlooking the Usk in a bay window of what is now the saloon bar of the Hanbury Arms public house.
In Michael Morurgo's novel Arthur, High King if Britain, Caerleon is the castle where Arthur unknowingly commits incest with his half-sister Margause, resulting in the conception of his bastard son Mordred, who will later bring about his downfall.