The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth?

The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth?

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The figure of Arthur has fascinated people and evolved over hundreds of years. What is perhaps less well known is that many of the themes we associate with Arthur appear 6 centuries after he allegedly lived.

In addition, there are differing views between most academics and amateur historians. A myriad of different theories placed Arthur in every corner of Britain and Europe across several centuries.

The legend of King Arthur has been reworked many times, but is there any historical truth behind the tales? Dr Miles Russell believes there is and in this podcast he highlights how elements of King Arthur’s story derive from five key ancient figures. From British warlords that opposed the arrival of Julius Caesar to Roman emperors of Later Antiquity, Miles explores these individuals in ‘Arthur and the Kings of Britain: The Historical Truth Behind the Myths’.

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Historians generally have taken the view that he was either a mythical character or there may have been a figure in the 5th or 6th centuries, but that there is insufficient evidence.

Confronted with a confusing mix of competing theories, one turns to the source materials and experts, only to discover just how tenuous those theories are.

They often selectively used details from legends and genealogies written many hundreds of years after Arthur would have likely lived.

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detail from the “Christian Heroes Tapestry”, 1385 (Credit: International Studio Volume 76).

The main cause of all this sensationalism was Geoffrey of Monmouth writing his pseudo-historical ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ in the early 12th century. His Arthur was an all conquering king who subdued the Saxons, united Britain and invaded most of Europe: he certainly wasn’t a romantic, noble or chivalrous hero.

The only date he gave was Arthur’s death at Camlan in 542. Most of his story was fantasy but it inspired an explosion in interest and further works. These can be placed into two categories.

The two faces of Arthur

Firstly the French Romances which introduced many of the concepts we know today: the round table, sword in the stone, the grail, Lancelot, Morgana, Lady in the Lake, Avalon, Camelot, Excalibur.

The second group of stories were the Welsh legends and Saints’ Lives. Our earliest copies post date Geoffrey and have likely been influenced and corrupted.

But some were thought to have originated as early as the tenth century, still hundreds of years after Arthur’s time. However it is possible that these stories inspired Geoffrey to write about Arthur, rather than the other way round.

These tales presented a very different Arthur. He was often petty, cruel and badly behaved.

A facsimile page of ‘Y Gododdin’, one of the most famous early Welsh texts featuring Arthur, c. 1275 (Credit: J. Gwenogvryn Evans).

The tales were full of magic, giants and quests for cauldrons or wild boars. It was very much a mythical Arthur.

So we have a 12th century invention on one hand, and a mythical magical figure on the other.

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Looking at the evidence

If we take the earliest stories then some concepts and characters remain, such as Uther and Gwenhwyfar.

Readers may be disappointed to learn that, as Month Python put it, “strange ladies lying about in ponds distributing swords” are not part of the original legends any more than round tables or knights.

King Arthur in a crude illustration from a 15th-century Welsh version of ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ (Credit: National Library of Wales).

The actual evidence for Arthur’s existence, listed below, was rather sparse:

  1. The persistence of the legend over 500 years to the Middle Ages.
  2. 4 persons called Arthur appearing in the genealogical records of from the late 6th century, suggesting the name became popular.
  3. One line in a possibly 7th century Welsh poem saying a warrior of the Gododdin around Lothian was “no Arthur.”
  4. Two entries in the Welsh Annals possibly dated to the 10th century: firstly Arthur’s victory at Badon in 516, and secondly the “Strife” of Cam llan in 537 where “Arthur and Medraut fell.”
  5. The early 9th century ‘Historia Brittonum’ was the first to mention Arturus, which likely stems from the fairly common Latin Artorius.

Arthur likely derives from the Roman Artorius, or Arturus. Frustratingly Arthur could equally derive from Brythonic Arth– meaning bear. Arthur was described as a dux bellorum, a leader of battles, who fought with the kings of Britain against the Saxons.

In the ‘Historia Brittonum’ he was placed after the death of St Patrick and the Saxon leader Hengist, but before the reign of Ida or Bernicia, which implied a generation either side of 500. 12 battles were listed, among them Badon.

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We do possess reasonably good records prior to the end of Roman Britain in 410 and from after around 600 when the first Anglo-Saxon kings could be confirmed.

We also have contemporary accounts about Britain from the continent from a variety of writers between 400-600.

Yet not one hinted at any figure called Arthur or any aspect of his story.

The Round Table experiences a vision of the Holy Grail, c. 1475 (Credit: Évrard d’Espinques / Gallica Digital Library).

Possible contenders

Our sole contemporary British writer was Gildas’ account, who in the first half of the 6th century confirmed the battle of Badon of around 500, but named only one person – Ambrosius Aurelianus. Gildas’ account was essentially a polemic on the suffering of the Britons – far from a factual or objective history.

Writing in the 8th century and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in the late 9th, Bede added details to Gildas – but again failed to mention Arthur although Bede dated Badon to around 493.

Despite this, there was some consistency in the stories: after the Romans left, Britain suffered barbarian raids. A council, led by Vortigern requests aid from Germanic mercenaries who later rebel. A fight back by Ambrosius culminated in the battle of Badon. This stopped the expansion of the Anglo-Saxons until the second half of the 6th century.

In this gap of c. 450-550, the ‘Historia’ and later sources placed Arthur.

Another contender for the historical inspiration for Arthur is that of Magnus Maximus, a Roman soldier of Spanish origin, who usurped the emperor Gratian and became a Roman emperor in the western part of the empire between 383 and 388AD. Large parts of the version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur bear parallels to the feats and actions of Magnus Maximus.

Caratacus is the third individual who Geoffrey of Monmouth’s King Arthur figure seems to have been inspired by: a chieftain who resisted the Roman invasion and occupation of Britain. Whilst his guerrilla warfare tactics were relatively successful, battles were his weakness and eventually he was captured by the Romans. His life was spared following an extremely eloquent speech which convinced the emperor, Claudius, to spare him .

The last major individual who Arthur is said to have been based on is Cassivellaunus, who led the major resistance to Julius Caesar’s second expedition to Britain in 54BC. His legacy was long-lasting, and Cassivellaunus appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain on his own merits.

It is quite possible to create a theory out of selective 12th century legends and genealogies. However a better method may be to go through the historical records chronologically, starting with the end of Roman Britain.

That way when the evidence does appear in the timeline, we can assess it in context. It is up to the reader to decide the case for and against a historical Arthur.

Tony Sullivan spent 31 years in the London Fire Brigade before recently retiring. His interest in dark age history inspired him to write King Arthur: Man or Myth – his first for Pen & Sword – from the viewpoint of a sceptical enthusiast on the legend of King Arthur.

The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth? - History

The story of King Arthur is one that scholars believe is a case where fiction has somehow been blended with reality to become part of the history of a given place. In this case, King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, the Holy Grail, and Camelot, are ingrained as part of the British culture and held in reverence the way many historical figures are. While there is no real evidence to suggest that King Arthur actually existed, the story has been around for centuries and has become the symbol of British history.

Grade Level

Subject Areas
Mythology, World History, Language Arts, Political Science

  1. Use their prior knowledge to brainstorm definitions of terms associated with the legend of King Arthur.
  2. Utilize group work skills in completion of brainstorming activities and King Arthur projects.
  3. Participate in class discussions about the popularity of King Arthur over time and the way that the people, places, and things associated with King Arthur have become symbolic to people around the world.
  4. Use viewing and listening skills to complete an historical timeline of the legend of King Arthur and how it has evolved over time.
  5. Utilize their knowledge of the literary elements of plot, theme, and symbolism to discuss how these elements appear in the legend of King Arthur and how and why they have changed over time.
  6. Complete research using primary sources to tell the tales of King Arthur, present the major themes and symbols from these stories, and discuss how they still relevant in today's world.
  7. Work with partners to present what they have learned by sharing their projects with others in a forum where they can discuss what they have learned and answer questions about it.

Relevant National Standards from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) available at

Historical Understanding

Language Arts

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts
Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of information texts.

Listening and Speaking:
Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

Working With Others

Estimated Time
Approximately two 90-minute or four 45-minute class periods

  • Internet access
  • Television/VCR/DVD player to view the Myths and Heroes episode, Arthur: The Once and Future King (For ordering information, visit PBS Shop.)
  • Access to Internet and other primary resource materials
  • Access to computers for use of word processing/desktop publishing programs (optional)
  • Assorted art supplies for the completion of projects (optional)

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge
Students will need to have a basic understanding of myths and how they have been perpetuated for thousands of years and have continued to be part of even our modern culture. Knowledge of the literary terms symbolism and theme will help students with understanding the lesson.

  1. To create student interest, place the following terms and question on the board or overhead
    • Camelot
    • Excalibur
    • Holy Grail
    • Knights of the Round Table
    • Question: Which legendary character are all of these terms associated with?
  2. Once all students are in the classroom, break them up into teams of four and have team members sit near one another. They will need a piece of paper and pen/pencil.
  3. Explain that you will be playing a game where teams will need to work together quickly and quietly to write down what they know about each of the words revealed on the overhead. It is important that they are quiet enough that other groups will not hear and copy their information.
  4. Begin revealing the words one at a time. Give students 30-60 seconds to record as much information/brainstorming as they can about each word.
  5. Pose the final question to each group and provide 30 seconds for them to record their answer.
  6. Collect papers from each group and check to see which groups answered correctly. Provide each member of these groups with a small piece of candy (optional).
  7. Return papers to the groups and facilitate a short (5-10 minute) discussion about the legend of King Arthur. Ask students to discuss their definitions of the terms they brainstormed about. In addition, ask questions such as:
    • Why do you think the legend of King Arthur is still popular today?
    • What did King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table represent?
    • What does Excalibur represent?
    • What does the Holy Grail represent?
    • What type of place is Camelot and why are people always searching for a place like this?
    NOTE: Depending on prior knowledge, students may or may not be able to answer all of the questions. This is fine. They are meant to get students thinking about the themes and symbols in the story of King Arthur.
  8. Using the Myths and Heroes: Four Stories link at, introduce students to the the idea that the story of King Arthur may have originated from a 6th Century soldier by viewing the video clip.
  9. Distribute a copy of the Timeline worksheet and explain to students that they will need to use this as they view "King Arthur". They should record information about how the story of King Arthur grew and changed over time based on what was happening in England at the time. To add more in-depth information about the evolution of the legend of King Arthur, provide students with a copy of Michael Wood's article "King Arthur" available at and have students record additional notes about specific authors, dates, and historical events on the back of the Timeline worksheet.
    NOTE: Take time to stop the film and provide students with time to complete specific sections of the worksheet as they are viewing. Answer questions as they arise.
  10. When viewing is completed, facilitate a class discussion using the Timeline worksheet and its content. Discuss topics such as:
    • During times of change, the legend of King Arthur consistently becomes socially and politically significant. Discuss why.
    • The story of King Arthur is built in layers with more characters, symbols, and plot elements added to the story each time it is retold. Discuss the specific characters and symbols that developed over time and remain a part of the story.
    • While the legend of King Arthur is fictional, it seems to be a symbol for England and its history. Discuss how the story fulfills this role.
  11. Distribute the King Arthur Project Guidelines handout to students. Explain to students that they will be using what they have discussed and seen in class along with additional research to create a project that focuses on one of the symbols or themes from the legend of King Arthur. Read over the directions and discuss with students how projects should be completed. Provide class time for students to decide on and begin researching the content for their project.
  12. When projects are completed, have a King Arthur fair. Invite other classes, parents, community groups, etc. into the classroom and provide students with the opportunity to present their projects. Each pair should set up a small booth using a desk or table top. Here they should display their project and be prepared to explain what they learned to others as they pass by and view the work.
  1. Have King Arthur fair participants provide students at each booth with 1-2 sentences of written feedback about what they learned from the project and the quality of the work presented.
  2. Students could earn completion grades for participation in class discussion and completion of the Timeline worksheet.
  3. Students could complete a short critique about each display. On it, they should comment on the following topics:
    • Three things that I learned from your project were.
    • Three things I thought were done exceptionally well on your project were.
    • My suggestion(s) for improving the project would be.
  4. Students could receive a grade for completing the project with historical accuracy, presenting the content in a neat and organized way, and for their demonstrated understanding of symbolism and theme illustrated in the project using a scoring guide created by the teacher or the class.
  5. Have students write down what they learned from completing the King Arthur project using a one or two paragraph narrative that addresses points decided on by the teacher.
  1. Have a King Arthur contest where students nominate one another for exhibiting the qualities and characteristics of the Knights of the Round Table. Using a short nomination form, students should list the name of the student they are nominating and a short explanation explaining what s/he did to receive the nomination. Do this for one week. Begin each class period by presenting Knights of the Round Table awards (a certificate with a small treat or some other appropriate recognition) and reading what others said about the nominated students.
  2. Using the article "For One Brief Shining Moment: Choosing to Remember Camelot" available at, conduct a class discussion about the comparisons made between Arthur's Camelot and the Camelot of the Kennedy's. Use a graphic organizer such as a Venn Diagram or T-Chart to examine the similarities and differences between the two. Discuss why the Kennedy's Camelot has become so much a part of American History and political life and compare this to how the legend of King Arthur has become a symbol for British history.

Online Resources In Search of Myths and Heroes PBS companion site to the program

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

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The legend of King Arthur

There's a story that some like to think is true. During the 13th century, an abbot speaking to a congregation of monks found that many of his listeners had fallen asleep. In desperation, the abbot raised his voice and declared: "I will tell you something new and great. There was once a mighty king, whose name was Arthur. . . ." The words had an electrifying effect. Though the monks couldn't stay awake to hear the abbot's thoughts on holy matters, they perked up at the mention of the magical name Arthur.

Arturus, military leader

There's now general acceptance that behind the legendary figure of Arthur stands a real historic personage, a great leader named Arturus, who championed the Celtic Britons' cause against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century. However, his name doesn't appear in any reliable history of the period, probably because Arturus was not his proper name, but a title meaning Bear.

King Arthur on boat with Merlin going to retrieve the sword - Scanned 1881 Engraving

Although the Saxons finally conquered Britain, the Celts remained strong in Cornwall, Cumberland, and Wales. There, the Celtic people retained a degree of independence and kept alive the memory of old champions like Arturus. Celtic bards traveled from court to court recounting folk tales of the past. Over time, Arturus, the military leader, became King Arthur of England.

Some historians believe Arthur was Dux (Duke) of Britain, a Roman title. However, by AD 500, such titles had become vague and 'King' was the customary designation of Celtic leaders. When Roman rule faded on the island, the old kingly families of the tribes and regions re-emerged.

From hints found in ancient records, we can glean a picture of Arthur as a warrior who was successful for a time, only to die tragically in a civil war after a mysterious Battle of Camlann in AD 537 or thereabouts. Arthur's father may have been Ambrosius Aurelianus, himself a Duke of Britain. The decades between Ambrosius' death, sometime after 495, and Arthur's own demise some 40 years later were a time of shifting fortune and wide-ranging struggles. This may explain the myriad of places in Britain that claim a connection to the legendary king.

The fanciful histories of King Arthur

In the centuries that followed Arthur's death, fanciful histories fleshed out the few reliable facts about the 'King' with a whole body of literature that created an enduring legend. Foremost among these was the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), written in 1135 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Also in the 12th century, the monk Nennius, in his Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons) listed Arthur's battles against Germanic invaders - the Saxons and the Angles - during the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Later, in 1160, the French writer Chretien de Troyes established King Arthur as a fashionable subject of romantic literature by introducing medieval chivalry and courtly romance into the tales. Not only did de Troyes create many of the knights, including Sir Lancelot, he also used the more lyrical sounding Guinevere as the name for Arthur's queen and chose Camelot for the name of his court.

But the story of King Arthur as we know it today is mostly the work of Sir Thomas Malory. In his Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), printed in 1485, he retold many of the tales that had first been circulated by word of mouth and were then written down. He dressed Arthur in the fashions of his own times, transforming him into a 15th-century hero. As Homer was to Odysseus, so was Sir Thomas Malory to Arthur.

The modern tale of King Arthur

Malory's text transports the reader to a dreamland of castles and kingdoms in which the love of adventure was reason enough to wage battles. Though these adventures are as real as a boy's dream, they're as difficult to place in the latitude and longitude of today's world.

Le Morte d'Arthur opens with Arthur conceived as the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon (literally 'the Head Dragon' or King of Britain). After being raised in secret, Arthur proves himself, king, by drawing a sword from a stone. He marries Guinevere, founds the Knights of the Round Table at Camelot and begets a son, Mordred, in unknowing incest. Following 12 years of prosperity, Arthur's knights commence a quest to discover the Holy Grail, during which time Lancelot, his chief knight, consummates an adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere. Ultimately, the couple is discovered and Arthur pursues Lancelot into France, leaving Mordred behind as regent.

Illustration of a King Arthur and his Round Table

At the end of the story, Arthur discovers an attempt by Mordred to seize the throne and returns to quash the rebellion. In a final battle, Mordred dies and Arthur receives a mortal wound, after which he is transported by barge to the Vale of Avalon. Following the battle, Sir Bedivere reluctantly returns Arthur's sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, while both Lancelot and Guinevere enter holy orders and live out their lives in peace.

Tracing the footsteps of King Arthur

The British Isles abound with landmarks linked to the Arthurian legend. To try to unravel the mystery surrounding him, I visited some of these places. I started with Winchester, the old Roman city of Venta Belgarum, site of the Great Hall and depository of the most famous of all Arthurian relics, the Round Table.

The solid oak tabletop measures 18 feet in diameter and weighs approximately one and a quarter tons. It hangs on the wall, looking like an enormous dartboard with green and white segments painted onto it to indicate the places where the king and his knights once sat. In Malory's day, many considered it to be the genuine article, and historians believed Winchester Castle to be the site of Arthur's fortress, Camelot.

Unfortunately, the existing castle isn't nearly old enough to have been Arthur's. Tests prove Edward III constructed the table, probably in 1344, when he conceived the notion of an order of chivalry based on the knights of the Round Table, as depicted in the popular romances. It was possibly used for celebrating the popular Arthurian festivals in which noblemen indulged.

King Henry VIII ordered the table painted in 1522 to honour a visit by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The image of Arthur is actually modeled on a very youthful Henry VIII seated in full royal regalia. A Tudor rose marks its centre.

Legend says that Merlin, the magician, conjured the table for Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father. On Uther's death, Merlin gave the table to Arthur. The idea of a table where all were equal, where no man sat in state above his peers appealed to the romantic idealism which, especially in Victorian times, surrounded the knightly legend. In reality, any leader of Arthur's time would have had to impose a fierce discipline or risk being deposed.

In Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Camelot was Winchester. Local folklore says it was Colchester. The Romans, after all, called the town Camulodunum. In both cases, there's little to support the claim. The most likely site of Camelot, backed by some archaeological evidence gathered in the 1960s, is Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hillfort near Yeovil, high above the plains of Somerset, near the village of Queen Camel. John Leland, an antiquarian during Henry VIII's reign, wrote that local people often referred to the remains of this fortified hill as 'Camalat--King Arthur's Palace'.

Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

Excavations conducted by archaeologist Leslie Alcock revealed wattle and daub huts within an 18-acre enclosure on top of the hill. Two shrines, a metalworkers' area, furnaces, smiths' tools, and finished weapons were also unearthed. Evidence shows that the entrance to Camelot was by way of a cobbled roadway, ten feet across, which passed through a timber-lined passage beneath a gate tower raised on posts and tied in with the rampart and sentry walkway on either side. Massive pairs of doors closed off either end of this passage. Large quantities of dressed masonry from derelict Roman buildings formed the rampart itself.

Exploring Arthur's Palace

From findings near the site of Arthur's Palace, it became clear that Cadbury had been at one time a stronghold of great importance, revamped from its original pre-Roman state and turned into a Dark-Age fortress.

The lane leading up to the hilltop winds gently upwards through an avenue of majestic trees. At the summit, a grassy plateau affords a view to rival any in England.

There have been many ghostly sightings around Cadbury, and indeed, I felt the coldness of spirits as I climbed around on the hill. Below me, I saw the remains of an ancient track that leads towards Glastonbury may have been used by Arthur and his knights travelling to and from Camelot. Locals say that on winter evenings the knights still ride along this causeway, bridles and harness jangling, to go hunting. Those who claim to have witnessed this fearsome sight talk of seeing lances that glow in the dark and hearing the spine-tingling baying of hounds.

Misty winter scenery of iconic Somerset landmark - Glastonbury Tor

Not far from Cadbury Castle, locals say, along the banks of the River Cam on Salisbury Plain, both Arthur and Mordred fell in the Battle of Camlann. Farmworkers once unearthed a large number of skeletons in a mass grave west of the castle, suggesting a mighty battle took place. Standing on the spot, I could only dream of knights in armour, the clash of their swords sounding the spirit of defiance and justice.

Afterward, I headed to Bodmin Moor, two miles south of Bolventor in Cornwall, to visit Dozmary Pool. A mile in circumference, Dozmary Pool is a place of changing mood and beauty, a place of mystery and magic. Standing on its rim as the early morning mist began to rise, I could imagine Sir Bedivere throwing Excalibur into the lake, from which a hand rose and caught the magical sword, as King Arthur lay dying.

The story of Excalibur being thrown to the Lady of the Lake probably originated in Celtic practices. Archaeologists have found many swords that have long ago been thrown into sacred lakes as votive offerings to the water goddess, the goddess of healing.

Like these sites traditionally linked to Arthur's death, his reputed birthplace at Tintagel Castle also lies in Cornwall, along its northern coast. The ruins of the castle stand just outside the village, on what's virtually an island surrounded by foaming seas, once linked to the mainland by a narrow ridge of rock.

Visitors to the ruins must cross a footbridge and ascend a long flight of steps. The sound of waves crashing against the rocky shore 250 feet below, combined with the wind, full of the scent of salt air, make for an exhilarating crossing. The ruins only hint at the castle's former grandeur. All that remains is a dramatic archway and several sections of walls pocked with holes that once support building timbers.

Merlin's cave supposedly lies directly below the ruins, piercing the great cliff, cutting through to a rocky beach on the other side of the headland. Here, under grey skies, the roar of the Atlantic can be as loud as the wind on a stormy day. At Tintagel, the line dividing fact and legend is often thin and blurred.

The summit of Glastonbury Tor

The earliest mention of Tintagel in association with King Arthur appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, in which Uther Pendragon falls in love with Ygerna, wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. To keep her away from Uther's grasp, her husband sends her to Tintagel. Infuriated, Uther goes to Cornwall, persuading Merlin to prescribe a magic brew enabling him to look like Gorlois. Thus disguised, he has no difficulty in entering the castle to sleep with Ygerna, whereby Arthur is conceived.

The thousands of Arthurian pilgrims who come to Tintagel seem unaffected by the fact that the present castle dates only from the early 12th century, and thus couldn't possibly have been Arthur's birthplace. Archaeologists have also found the remains of a 6th-century Celtic monastery founded by St. Juliot on the site, but there's no evidence to associate it with the legendary king.

The true battlefield of Camlann

Not far from Tintagel stands Slaughter Bridge, near Camelford. This too has been cited as the true battlefield of Camlann, Arthur's last battle, in which he kills Mordred with a spear, but receives a mortal wound in return. Upstream in a nook lies a stone covered with moss and strange lettering, which the Cornish call Arthur's grave. More likely, it's that of a Celtic chieftain. Local lore says that Arthur didn't die at Slaughter Bridge, but was instead incarnated into the soul of a chough, so that he may someday return.

The legends say Arthur's half-sister, Morgan Le Fay, carried the wounded Arthur off on a barge to the Isle of Avalon, a Celtic word meaning 'the island of apples.' Many believe his final resting place to be in the West Country market town of Glastonbury. Nestled amidst a small cluster of hills, Glastonbury was almost an island in early Christian times when much of the surrounding countryside was a swamp. The town's highest hill, Glastonbury Tor (an old West Country word meaning hill) with a solitary tower at its summit, can be seen for miles around. Tradition has it that the Tor, often surrounded by mist, was the Isle of Avalon.

It's difficult to imagine Glastonbury Tor without its distinctive tower, but until Norman times, when the monks built a chapel to St. Michael, the hill remained bare. An earthquake destroyed the chapel in 1275, and it lay in ruins for 50 years until the Abbot of Glastonbury, Adam Sodbury, rebuilt it. The monks added a tower, now all that remains, in the 15th century.

Though the search for Arthur's grave brought me to Glastonbury, once there, the majesty of the ruins made me want to linger. The Abbey ruins, set among manicured lawns and imposing trees, are all that remain of one of medieval England's greatest monasteries. None of the walls left standing is older than 1184. On 24th May of that year, a great fire destroyed the monastery. Many believe the Abbey was the home of the first Christian community in England. Evidence shows that monks and hermits may have lived there as early as the 5th and 6th centuries.

Glastonbury's link with King Arthur arose as a result of a discovery said to have been made in the late 1100s within the grounds of the abbey. In 1190, during reconstruction after the fire, the monks claimed to have discovered a grave. They dug down seven feet before reaching a stone slab, below which lay a lead cross, bearing the Latin words: Hic iacet sepultus inclytus Rex Arthurius in Insula Avallonia cum uxore sua secunda Wenneveria. (Here lies the renowned King Arthur in the isle of Avalon with his second wife Guinevere.)

The monks dug nine feet further and found a hollow tree trunk containing the bones of what appeared to be an immensely tall man, plus some smaller bones and a scrap of yellow hair. He appeared to have 10 wounds, all healed except one.

The discovery of the grave was, to say the least, timely, for the monks were in desperate need of funds for rebuilding. And the only sure way to raise money was to attract large numbers of pilgrims.

Today, a simple sign on the neatly trimmed lawn of the abbey marks the grave from which the royal remains disappeared after King Henry VIII ordered the abbey's dissolution in 1539.

Was King Arthur real? Did he exist as a true king? Was he a Celtic hero, ruler, and conqueror or the romantic medieval knight in shining armour? So many theories have been suggested, so much written about him over the centuries that even though the truth may have become somewhat distorted, it's hard to imagine such a person couldn't have existed to spawn all those tales.

The tales of King Arthur and his court continue to fascinate countless readers, perhaps because we know so much of the legend and so little of the truth. The most famous sites traditionally associated with Arthur cannot withstand historical scrutiny. While there's no document to prove Arthur's existence, and archaeologists have found no objects bearing his name, there's nothing to say that he didn't exist.

Then again, the legend of King Arthur may just be a myth - but if so, it's a good one.

The Myth of King Arthur

The Myth of King Arthur. Thirteenth century Europe knew much of the legends of a possibly Welsh King called Arthur, who supposedly drove away Britain’s enemies, laid the laws for honour and chivalry, surrounded himself with romantically named knights at a great Round Table, and married a beautiful but unfaithful wife called Guinevere. The myth was propagated in art and literature, exciting, inspiring and entertaining men and women everywhere from Sicily to Scotland. King Edward I of England was seduced by the stories and supposed relics of the imaginary hero.

The legend of King Arthur belongs to Man’s fertile imagination, and has been a part of European literary tradition since the early ninth century. Tales were spoken and sung about a native Briton who rose to be king and led armies against the Romans and later the Anglo-Saxons. In real life it was Alfred, a living, breathing king who successsfully defended the West Country against invading Norsemen.

In the 1330s Arthur’s adventurous life was taken from song and verse by Geoffrey of Monmouth and put into a best-selling (for those days) book called The History of the Kings of Britain. In it Arthur appears as a pious Christian monarch fighting against sinister pagans, foreigners like Romans and Saxons, pushing the foreigners out of England, uniting the British Kingdom, and incidentally conquering Iceland, parts of Germany and the isles of Orkney, subduing Norway (!), Aquitaine in France and the Balkan kingdom of Dacia. Arthur was the heroic leader of a British kingdom that became the envy of the world. Geoffrey relates how “Britain had arrived at such a pitch of grandeur, that in abundance of riches, luxury of ornaments, and politeness of inhabitants, it far surpassed all other kingdoms. (His) knights were famous for feats of chivalry, wore their arms all of the same colour and fashion. Their women were celebrated for their wit, and esteemed none worthy of their love until they had given a proof of their valour in battle”. It is not hard to see why the stories appealed to the medieval barons, and their ladies.

Edward I as acted by the great Patrick McGoohan in ‘Braveheart’ /

As Geoffrey’s tales were embellished and re-told by other writers, it comes as no surprise to learn that people thought them true. In Edward the First’s childhood Arthuriana was a booming business, with a huge industry built up around the myth. Some people swore Tintagel in Cornwall had been Arthur’s palace. Others believed that the burning of Glastonbury Abbey had revealed the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere buried beneath the ruins. Above all the Welsh believed that Arthur was Welsh and that he would return to liberate them from the cursed English. Tournaments between knights were re-named ‘Round Tables’, where prizes were awarded for gallantry and good jousting. When the young, athletic and romantic Edward married Eleanor of Castile the first thing he did on their honeymoon was to whisk her off to see the tomb at Glastonbury.

Arthur, it was popularly believed, had been Welsh, with a mission to crush the English. Edward thought the opposite. In 1277 he assembled an army of 15,000 men, equipped with horses, supplies and the latest in lethal weaponry. This splendid array advanced along the road into Wales from Chester, rumbling and trotting towards Gwynedd to root out Llywlyn the Last, ‘rebel and disturber of the peace’. The army cut down the thick woods that overhung the routes to Snowdonia, clearing the way hundreds of feet wide, making them impervious to Welsh guerilla tactics, which had always relied on sudden swoops out of the trees to slash and hack impertinent intruders.

The army marched deep into Llwelyn’s territory and reached Conwy. At every main outpost they stopped for their engineers to create sites where permanent castles would later be built. Edward’s marines landed at Anglesea, occupied the island and harvested the grain, emptying the richest farmland in Wales. Llywelyn surrendered within days and on 9 th November of that year agreed to a truce. He was allowed to keep Gwynedd, but almost everything else was taken away from him. He was forced to agree he would do homage to Edward not only on his borders, but in Westminster itself. To solidify the English position, castles were to be built in Aberystwyth, Builth, Flint and Rhuddlan (where the Treaty was signed).

Edward I would do similar things later in Scotland, and earn his ‘hammer of the Scots’ nickname as a result. He had used the imaginary but imaginative myth of Arthur to positive ends. For Edward, the legend of an Anglicized Arthur was more than merely entertaining it was a mental template for his entire approach to kingship. His father Henry III had fixed on the figure of Edward the Confessor as his ideal and his guide, and Edward the first of that name would see the world through the prism of his own private version of Arthurianism. It was a convenient myth, but mythical it was. Students must not confuse Arthur with Alfred.

The Chronology of King Arthur Legends

Firstly, Arthur doesn’t appear in the only surviving contemporary source about the Saxon invasion, in which the Celtic monk Gildas wrote of a real-life battle at Mons Badonicus (Badon Hills) around 500 A.D. While this doesn’t prove Arthur wasn’t real, it is a red flag. [5]

He appears in other, less reliable, accounts. Although we can’t dismiss or trust this old text, in 830 A.D. an author named Nennius writes in his Historia Brittonum, “Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror…. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [“dux bellorum”]…. fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor…. [this paved the way for the] first kings in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.”

Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales) from between mid 10th – 12th century also mentions Arthur, although the Arthurian passages in this text are debated even more than the passages in Nennius’ account. The Annals of Wales, the Nennius text, and the Monmouth text (described next) report the Saxons as being pagans (true for this period, see here) and the Britons as being Christians, with Arthur supposedly bearing an image of the Virgin Mary. [6]

A more romanticized tale of King Arthur came about in the 11th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth published his book The History of the Kings of Britain. This book covers the history of Britain from the Trojans founding the British nation, to the Anglo-Saxons assuming control of much of Britain around the 7th century. It also lays out most of the modern tale of Arthur from his birth at Tintagel to his death. The mythical nature of the story is further confused by it being set in a number of actual, historically documented, places such as Tintagel Castle in north Cornwall. The book also introduces Guinevere and Merlin, who is depicted as a literal wizard, one of many hints this is a pseudohistorical account of British history. The History of the Kings of Britain was wildly popular. Today over 200 manuscripts remain in existence. This is an impressive number of copies, especially when we consider the printing press was developed in the West in 1440. [7]

The next important tale of Arthur is from the romanticized epic poem Perceval, the Story of the Grail, by French court writer Chretien de Troyes (1181-90). Perceval, who in the fable grew up in the remote forests of Wales, is one of the Knights of the Round Table but is portrayed in varied ways in different texts. He is very much a Hercules or Odysseus type figure he faces trials and seeks out a quest rather than fighting against Saxons for Briton. His story also follows Arthur’s nephew, the knight Gawain. [8]

There is both fact and myth in Arthurian legend. Many identifiable places figure in the story along with some that archeologists have been unable to authenticate. Despite there being verifiable elements to the story, there are enough people and events that we cannot substantiate for us to be fairly certain it is a myth.

We can’t prove the legends surrounding King Arthur of Camelot, but we do know some about the time period. So while we can’t prove much about Arthur, a close examination of his story tells us near endless amounts about the history of Britain.

Camelot Ever After

One of the most striking features of the later poems that shared the excitement of King Arthur’s long-lost court was the development of the Arthurian capital, Camelot. Not only was it the site of the roundtable, which began many of the later legends and romances, but the fortress was shrouded in mysticism, earning a reputation for being the most ideal place in the known world. The search for the site of Camelot began all the way back in the 15th century, but finding it was a different story…

Camelot Ever After

English Historical Fiction Authors

Growing up in the Southwest of England, the tales of King Arthur and his knights were a part of my childhood. We all knew who he was, we knew what he did, we knew about his knights, and we knew about his code of honour. We couldn’t get away from him, even if we tried.

Arthur and his knights is an obsession that I have never grown out of, but as an adult I wanted to look for the truth behind the myth. I thought it would be easy. He was, after all, buried just down the road in Glastonbury Abbey. Avalon and Cadbury Castle was a stones throw away, and Tintagel Castle, a simple day trip. I thought I had it all figured out. I was wrong.

The hunt for Arthur has taken me away from my beloved Southwest of England. I have journeyed to Wales where I listened to the tales of their King Arthur – so similar to mine. But even then there seemed to be more myths than facts - the shape of a horse hoof in a stone, a large river and a cave where it is said Merlin is imprisoned - I was not convinced.

So I journeyed on and found myself in Scotland. When I think of Scottish heroes, I think of Wallace and The Bruce, not Arthur - never Arthur. But the evidence that Arthur was not only very real, but of Irish/Scottish heritage is very compelling.

There was a man, a prince, who went by the name of Artúr mac Aedan. He was born c599, and his father was the King of Dalriada. This Artúr is mentioned in three ancient manuscripts that predate Nennius and his great work, The History of the Britons. I always thought that the first mention of Arthur was by Nennius in the 9th Century. But maybe I was wrong about that as well.

In c.700 there lived a monk on the remote island of Iona. His name was Adomnan. Life of St.Columbia is Adomnan's masterpiece. And in this masterpiece Adomnan talks about Artúr, the son of King Aedan. This account was written a mere hundred years after Artúr lived, and it is probably as close as we are going to get to a reliable source. It is accepted by historians as a genuine document, so maybe, for once, there is something in this story.

So why has no one ever heard of this so called Scottish King Arthur?

The answer to that is easy - no one wanted to contemplate such a truth - because Arthur came from the South of England, he was an ancient Briton. end of story. how dare you try and tell us differently.

Artúr mac Aedan, may not have been an ancient Briton, but Adomnan states that he fought on the side of the Britons, against the Saxons. Does that sound like a familiar story to you? Arthur fighting the Saxon’s is a common thread in Arthurian Legend. But remember, this isn’t a story, this is fact. Which begs the question, how did a Scottish prince become an English hero? This is where it gets really interesting. Artúr and his father, King Aedan, formed a coalition with the Britons, or the Welsh to be more precise, and together they fought the Saxons of Northumbria as well as the Picts. Is it the case of an ally becoming a subject with the passage of time? Possibly.

Prince Artúr never became King. Columbia prophesised that he would fall in battle, which he did. Should we dismiss this Artúr then? We are, after all, looking for a king not a prince. Or are we? Even Nennius, 200 years later, stated that Arthur was a great general, he said nothing about him being a king.

Arthur is mentioned again in The Annals of Tighernac, another ancient text.

"Death of the sons of Aidan. Bran, Domingart, Eochach find, Arthur at the battle of Chirchind, in which Aidan was victorious".

Can we trust these sources?

Well according to the scholars, yes. They are genuine and without the fictitious traits of later works such as Geoffrey Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain.

But what about Nennius and his famous 12 battles that Arthur supposedly fought in? Surely they must fit in somewhere?

The British academic, Andrew Breeze, has discovered that seven of these battles can be linked to places in Scotland, and one was at the River Glen in Northumberland. And even the last famous battle at Camlann, the battle in which Arthur fell, was in Carlisle. What would a Southern King being doing fighting in Scotland?

Also, in yet another ancient manuscript "The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee" states that Artúr had a sister called Morgan – Morgan le Fray recognise the name?

Much of what we think we know about Arthur and his Knights comes from the work of Geoffrey Monmouth and a few French poets. Their stories are beautifully told and very enjoyable, but they are stories and should not be used as a source of historical evidence.

So should we dismiss the legend completely? Was there a Camelot? Was there a Sword in a Stone? A Round Table? Avalon? Are they just stories too?

There was never a kingdom or a castle called Camelot. Camelot was the invention of Chrétien de Troyes, a 12th century French poet. If Arthur were a prince then he would have lived in a hill-fort, one can assume. But if he were Scottish then Cadbury Castle in Somerset would no longer be a contender as the once mighty seat of Arthur. Ardrey suggest a hill fort in Argyll.

In 2011, Glasgow University Archaeologists, Stirling Local History Society and Stirling Field and Archaeological Society, were surveying the King’s Knot at Stirling Castle. The Kings Knot was constructed in the 1620’s for Charles I, but the survey uncovered a much older, ancient would probably be a better word, earthwork than was previously thought. It has been suggested that maybe this was Arthur’s burial ground, or maybe it had something to do with The Round Table. King Arthur has been long associated with Stirling Castle, which would hardly be surprising if he was Scottish, but such a link, or rumour, which ever you want to call it, first seemed to come about in c.1375, when John Barbour, a Scottish poet claimed that Arthur’s Round Table was south of Stirling Castle. In 1478 the English chronicler, William of Worcester, claimed that

“King Arthur kept the Round Table at Stirling Castle.”

And so it continued, as legends often do. they seem to get better with the retelling. Whether there is any truth in them, I don’t know.

So how about Avalon. If not at Glastonbury, then where is it? Ardrey states

“Iona fits all the criteria. It’s an island where hundreds of kings were buried. Some say 128. Other members of Arthur Mac Aedan’s family were buried there too. I say Arthur was also buried there.”

There are places in Scotland that have been put forwards as a possible Avalon but Iona makes logistical sense. As for the Sword in the Stone. what do you think?

There are so many what if and maybes, so many contenders who could be Arthur. But maybe, in Artúr mac Aedan, we have stumbled upon the real man behind the legend of The Once and Future King.

Adam Ardrey Finding Arthur: The Truth Behind The Legend Of The Once and Future King (2013)
Adomnan Life of St.Columbia Adomnan's (c. AD 697/700)
The Annals of Tighernac
The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee

David Francis Carroll Arturius: Quest for Camelot (1996)
Simon Andrew Stirling The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero (2012)
Robin Crichton On the Trail of King Arthur: A Journey into Dark Age Scotland (2013)

All illustrations are in the public domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Wikipedia.

Born in Bath, England, Mary Anne Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury—the fabled Isle of Avalon—was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were part of her childhood. Her debut novel The Du Lac Chronicles is out in the spring of 2016.

The Du Lac Chronicles

A generation after Arthur Pendragon ruled, Briton lies fragmented into warring kingdoms and principalities.
Wounded and left to die in the cold, young Alden du Lac has lost his army, his kingdom, and his friends. Is the shadowy figure approaching death or salvation?

The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth? - History

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Possible evidence of the existence of Arthur, the legendary warrior king, has been found at Tintagel in Cornwall. A Cornish slate with sixth-century engravings was found in July on the eastern terraces of Tintagel on the edge of a cliff overlooking the place traditionally known as Merlin's Cave. It was discovered under broken pottery and glass from the late sixth or seventh centuries during the re-excavations of an area last dug in the 1930s.

The 8 inch by 14 inch slate bears two inscriptions. The older, upper letters have been broken off and cannot be deciphered. The lower inscription, translated by Charles Thomas of the University of Glasgow, reads "Pater Coliavi ficit Artognov--Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built." The inscription is basically in Latin, perhaps with some primitive Irish and British elements, according to Thomas. The British name represented by the Latin Atrognov is Arthnou. Geoffrey Wainwright of English Heritage says that the name is close enough to refer to Arthur, the legendary king and warrior. Thomas, however, believes that we must dismiss ideas that the name is associated with King Arthur. Christopher Morris, professor of archaeology at the University of Glasgow and the director of the excavations, feels that the script does not necessarily refer to Arthur, because King Arthur first entered the historical domain in the twelfth century.

The slate, part of a collapsed wall, was reused as a drain cover in the sixth century. The first secular inscription ever found at a site from the Dark Ages in England, the find demonstrates that Latin literacy and the Roman way of life survived the collapse of Roman Britain. It is the first evidence that the skills of reading and writing were handed down in a nonreligious context, according to Morris.

Also found were sherds of Mediterranean amphorae, large vessels used for storing and transporting commodities, and a cache of fragments from a single glass vessel. The latter are from a large glass flagon of a type not found elsewhere in Britain or Ireland during this period, but found in Malaga and Cadiz from the sixth or seventh century. The find indicates, for the first time, a direct link between Spain and Western Britain at this time.

Tintagel has come to be associated with King Arthur as his birthplace, depicted by the Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth in A History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1139), and renewed by Alfred Lord Tennyson in Idylls of the King in the 1870s.

The Tintagel Excavations are a joint project sponsored by English Heritage and the University of Glasgow.

The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth? - History

King Arthur has captured the popular imagination in a way that very few legendary characters ever have. The extensive list of books, television shows, movies, and video games that are based on Arthurian lore demonstrates just how ingrained he has become in world culture. But one contentious question has divided both scholars and enthusiasts for centuries: Was there an actual King Arthur who ruled Britain during the Dark Ages?

The main source for the Arthurian legend is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century book The History of the Kings of Britain, which chronicles the lives of the earliest British rulers. Although there are a few sparse references to an “Arthur” figure in documents from the ninth and tenth centuries, Geoffrey gives the first extensive account of King Arthur’s life and exploits. The story begins when Arthur is conceived at Tintagel Castle, where the wizard Merlin transforms King Uther Pendragon into the likeness of Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, so that Uther can spend the evening with Gorlois’ wife Ygerna. Arthur later inherits the British throne at the age of 15 and leads the Britons in several epic battles against the invading Saxons, eventually defeating them. He goes on to extend his empire to Ireland, Iceland, Norway, and Gaul, before being betrayed by his nephew Mordred and killed in battle.

While many familiar aspects of King Arthur’s story are included in Monmouth’s version, he does not mention Camelot, Lancelot, the Holy Grail, the sword in the stone, or the chivalric Knights of the Round Table. According to Bournemouth University archaeologist Miles Russell, many details were added to the stories centuries later to make Arthur a more appealing figure. “Truth be told, the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth is a deeply unlikable sociopath, a violent, quick-to-anger, murderous thug,” says Russell. “He is someone who very much fits the Dark Age idea of a successful king, but not a hero for the Middle Ages.”

Monmouth’s account of Arthur is frequently derided by today’s historians, as it was even by his own peers. At best, he is chastised for getting his facts wrong at worst, he is accused of inventing the entire tale. Monmouth himself claimed to have simply translated a very ancient book into Latin, but that source material has never been identified. Furthermore, no proof of Arthur’s existence has been uncovered, even at Tintagel. “There is no evidence that anyone called Arthur lived there,” says Russell. “Nor is there any archaeological evidence to support the existence of Arthur as a real person.”

Russell believes that Monmouth cobbled together various different ancient tales, characters, and episodes to create his now-beloved Arthur figure. It is not an entirely original story, as it borrows heavily from the exploits of other well-known legendary rulers, especially Ambrosius Aurelianus, another British warlord who won a decisive battle against the invading Anglo-Saxons. “It’s clear that rather than inventing everything, Geoffrey used a variety of sources, including folklore, chronicles, king lists, dynastic tables, oral tales, and bardic praise poems, in order to create a patriotic British narrative,” he says. “Arthur is an amalgam of at least five characters. He is, in effect, a composite Celtic superhero—the ultimate warrior for the Britons.”

King Arthur

Arthur was a legendary king of ancient Britain. He appears in a group of stories that together are known as the Arthurian legend. The stories are a combination of history, myth, romance, fairy tale, and religion. They have captured people’s imagination for many hundreds of years.

The Real Arthur

Some scholars believe that Arthur was a real person who lived in Britain in the ad 400s or 500s. According to these scholars he led the Celts in wars against Saxon invaders. After Arthur was killed in battle, his people fled to Wales and to Brittany in France. There they told stories of Arthur’s bravery and goodness. Eventually he was remembered as a hero and a wise and all-powerful king.

The Legend of Arthur

According to the stories, Arthur was the son of King Uther Pendragon. As an infant, Arthur was given to Merlin the magician. The young Arthur pulled a sword called Excalibur from a stone in which it had been magically fixed. This proved that he should be king because no one else had been able to pull the sword from the stone. In another version of the story, the Lady of the Lake handed Arthur the sword, with only her arm visible above the water.

King Arthur married Guinevere and held court at Camelot. He and his strong and brave knights all sat as equals around a great round table. They came to be known as the Order of the Round Table. Sir Lancelot was the greatest of the knights Sir Galahad, the most noble and Perceval, the most innocent.

Knights were soldiers who swore loyalty to a lord. The real Arthur, if he existed, lived long before the age of knighthood. Nevertheless, poets of the Middle Ages depicted him as a knight, which was their model of an ideal man.

King Arthur was a mighty warrior. However, his traitorous nephew, Mordred, rose in rebellion. (Some stories say that Mordred was Arthur’s son.) Arthur was badly wounded in battle. His body was carried to the island of Avalon to be healed. At some future time, according to the legend, he will return to rule again.

Watch the video: Was King Arthur Real?


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