To generations of writers and historians and politicians, it's more than simply King Arthur's castle. It's a place of honour, of sacrifice, of courage in the face of adversity. The striving for goodness that binds us all together.
Once we find Camelot, all will be right with the world.
But just like the Holy Grail that Arthur's Knights of the Round Table searched for so desperately, it remains just out of reach. Could it really be waiting to be discovered in Cornwall, or Wales? Somerset or Essex?
Did it ever really exist? Or is it simply a powerful myth?
When I began writing Pendragon, a novel with deep Arthurian themes, I set out on my own quest to discover Camelot. The first stories of Arthur go back, 1,500 years, perhps even longer if - as some think - the great king was not a historical figure but based on a mythic hero from the tales of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld of gods and magical beings.
When it comes to King Arthur, legend and literature and history merge together. But the symbols are known across the globe. Excalibur, the sword in the stone. Merlin, the wizard who guided the young king. Arthur's wife, Guinevere, the magical Morgan le Fay, and Arthur's rival, Mordred. Lancelot, Galahad and the other Knights of the Round Table.
'Once we find Camelot, all will be right with the world'
But at the heart of the story was Camelot, representing the very best that humanity had to offer - chivalry, courage, sacrifice and nobility. It was, as the historian Dan Shadrake says, 'as much an idea as a place. The time and location are of secondary importance. What comes first is to fight for the good'.
In the legend, the Holy Grail was supposed to have materialized over the Round Table, prompting the quest to find it. This forever identified Camelot with a mystical, if not spritual power - for the Grail has been linked to both the vessel that caught Christ's blood in the biblical story of the Crucifixion, and the cauldron of the Dagda, a powerful magical talisman from Celtic mythology.
Camelot didn't appear as part of the legend until Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, a poem by Chrétien de Troyes from around 1177, and in that poem it wasn't even described as Arthur's main court - that was at Caerleon in Wales.
This began to change with the publication of the French romances in the twelfth century, and a five-volume account by an unknown author of the quest for the Holy Grail. Camelot was now Arthur's main home and was described as standing on a river downstream from the legendary city of Astolat, surrounded by great forests and plains. It had its own cathedral, St Stephen's, where Arthur and Guinevere were married.
But the image of Camelot that we all recognise today dates from the fifteenth century and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: a place of grandeur with soaring towers, echoing halls and numerous churches. Malory firmly anchored his Camelot in Winchester.
Since that time, the search for the true location of Camelot has been relentless. Underlying this is the powerful belief that all of these tales were based on a genuine historical figure, Arthur of the Britons, who fought against the invading Saxons in the late fifth or early sixth century.
Some have continued to look to Caerleon in Wales, while folklore has long suggested that Cadbury Castle in Somerset was the original Camelot - archaeologists spent months digging for evidence there in the twentieth century. Others identified Carlisle in the north of England, Colchester in the east, Camelford in Cornwall, even Huddersfield in Yorkshire.
So powerful was the legend of Camelot that President John F. Kennedy laid claim to its symbolism for his own 'court' in the White House, with an administration that attempted to hold itself to those high Arthurian standards. His widow Jacqueline made reference to this in an interview for Life magazine in 1963: 'There'll be great presidents again, but there'll never be another Camelot again . . . It will never be that way again.'
And that may be why we'll never find Camelot. All we can do is to keep searching for it, keep striving, keep aspiring to be the very best. The real power of Camelot lies in what it represents.
Sign up for the History Tellers newsletter
Sign up to History Tellers for extracts, interviews and book recommendations from your favourite authors, from Conn Iggulden to Alison Weir, Ben Kane to Robert Harris
More about the author
Here is the beginning of a legend. Long before Camelot rose, a hundred years before the myth of King Arthur was half-formed, at the start of the Red Century, the world was slipping into a Dark Age…
It is AD 367. In a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army are found murdered. For Lucanus, known as the Wolf and leader of elite unit called the Arcani, this chilling ritual killing is a sign of a greater threat.
But to the Wolf the far north is a foreign land, a place where daemons and witches and the old gods live on. Only when the child of a friend is snatched will he venture alone into this treacherous world - a territory ruled over by a barbarian horde - in order to bring the boy back home. What he finds there beyond the wall will echo down the years.
A secret game with hidden factions is unfolding in the shadows: cabals from the edge of Empire to the eternal city of Rome itself, from the great pagan monument of Stonehenge to the warrior kingdoms of Gaul will go to any length to find and possess what is believed to be a source of great power, signified by the mark of the Dragon.
A soldier and a thief, a cut-throat, courtesan and a druid, even the Emperor Valentinian himself - each of these has a part to play in the beginnings of this legend…the rise of the House of Pendragon.