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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section King Arthur

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King Arthur by Christopher A. Snyder LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017 LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0095

Perhaps no medieval monarch, historical or legendary, has had as wide and lasting an impact as King Arthur. From the bardic poetry of early medieval Wales to the epic blank verse of Tennyson, from the royal pedigrees of the Plantagenets and the Tudors to the modern myth of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, and most recently films and Internet sites almost too numerous to count, the Arthurian myth has proved both enduring and adaptable. Does the myth rest, however, on a historical foundation? Was there a historical king or warrior named Arthur whose martial deeds served as the basis for the legend?

Most who believe in the historicity of Arthur would place him in Britain in the years immediately following the fall of Rome; that is, the late 5th and 6th centuries CE . Due to the scarcity of historical texts from this period, the Arthurian “problem” is by necessity an interdisciplinary one. Linguistics, paleography, literary-source criticism, and archaeology have been employed to help solve this historical problem. This interdisciplinarity is reflected in the general overviews on Arthur and post-Roman Britain (e.g., Halsall 2013 ). Chambers 1967 , one of the earliest, is particularly good on the written sources; White 1998 provides something of an update but includes only English translations of the Arthurian texts. Beginning in the late 1960s, archaeology began to be seen as more relevant to the issue of Arthur’s identity, and both Alcock 1970 and Ashe 1968 reflect this. Snyder 2000 and Lupack 2005 have an even broader scope. For general historical overviews of the period, without an Arthurian focus, see Dark 1993 and Snyder 1998 .

Alcock, Leslie. Arthur’s Britain: History and Archaeology, AD 367–634 . London: Penguin, 1970.

Director of the excavations at South Cadbury and Dinas Powys, author surveys both the archaeological and written evidence to produce a model for a historical Arthur and British society in the late 5th and 6th centuries.

Ashe, Geoffrey, ed. The Quest for Arthur’s Britain . London: Paladin, 1968.

In addition to the author’s introductory and concluding essays, features chapters written by such archaeologists as Ralegh Radford (on Tintagel and Glastonbury Abbey), Philip Rahtz (on Glastonbury Tor), and Leslie Alcock (on Dinas Powys and South Cadbury).

Chambers, E. K. Arthur of Britain . New York: October House, 1967.

Sound textual criticism of the earliest written sources to mention Arthur. Includes the Latin of such texts (excerpted) as the Gallic Chronicles , Gildas, Bede, Nennius, the Annales Cambriae , the Life of St Goeznovius , William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Geoffrey of Monmouth. First published in 1927.

Dark, K. R. Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity, 300–800 . Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1993.

Good survey of the textual and archaeological evidence. Argues for continuity of native Brittonic political institutions into the post-Roman period.

Halsall, Guy. Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Discussion of the historical Arthur debate, and an alternative view of the Saxon advent, written by an Arthurian agnostic—if not skeptic—and expert on early medieval politics and warfare.

Jones, Michael E. The End of Roman Britain . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Argues for failed Romanization in Britain and environmental factors influencing population change in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Lupack, Alan. The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Solid and comprehensive, both a readable narrative and useful reference work.

Snyder, Christopher A. An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400–600 . University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

Two-part study of the sociopolitical terminology used by Patrick and Gildas and comprehensive survey of the archaeology of the Britons c.  400–600.

Snyder, Christopher A. The World of King Arthur . New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Broad general discussion of the historical and archaeological background, the historical texts and medieval romances, the use of Arthurian propaganda by British dynasts, historical Arthur theories, and such modern Arthuriana as novels, movies, and websites. Heavily illustrated, with gazetteer of Arthurian sites. Published in the United Kingdom under the title Exploring the World of King Arthur .

White, Richard. King Arthur in Legend and History . London: Routledge, 1998.

Maps and brief introductions accompany this nearly comprehensive collection of Arthurian texts (in translation) from the 6th to the 16th centuries.

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The legend of King Arthur

King Arthur.

King Arthur. NC Wyeth / Public Domain

Many and various tales about the legend of King Arthur have continued to arise throughout history - but what can we take as real and what can we dismiss as lore?

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.

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.

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

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

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.

  • Exploring Wales and unearthing magic and legends
  • Scotland's mysterious Rosslyn Chapel

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

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.

  • The spiritual claims and legends surrounding Glastonbury

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

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

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.

  • Lost Roman city of the legion: Caerleon

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 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.

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* Originally published in September 1998.

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Archaeologists Begin First-Ever Excavation of Tomb Linked to King Arthur

Britons first proposed a connection between Arthur’s Stone and the mythical ruler of Camelot before the 13th century

Jane Recker

Jane Recker

Daily Correspondent

Arthur's Stone

According to popular lore, Arthur’s Stone , a roughly 5,000-year-old tomb in the West Midlands of England, boasts ties to King Arthur , the mythical leader of Camelot. One legend holds that Arthur found a pebble in his shoe while marching to battle and threw it aside, at which point it grew in size out of “pride [at] having been touched by [him],” per Atlas Obscura . Another story suggests that Arthur clashed with a giant whose elbows left massive impressions in the earth when he fell in battle.

Myths aside, the Neolithic tomb has long mystified experts and the public alike. Now, reports James Thomas for the Hereford Times , the first-ever excavation of the site is poised to shed light on its enigmatic history.

Researchers from the University of Manchester and English Heritage , the charity that cares for the monument, are unlikely to unearth the remains of the legendary king . But they do hope to find traces of the actual Neolithic Britons who built and used the chambered tomb . Though archaeologists initially suspected that Arthur’s Stone formed part of a wedge-shaped stone cairn like those found in South Wales and the Cotswolds , recent excavations indicate otherwise.

“I think it has considerable potential,” Julian Thomas , an archaeologist at the University of Manchester, tells the London Times ’ Jack Blackburn. “It’s a monument of an entirely different kind to the one that we’d imagined.”

Per a statement , only the inner chamber of the tomb—made up of nine upright stones topped by a massive capstone weighing more than 25 tons—survives today. A previous dig conducted outside of the monument showed that Arthur’s Stone extended into a field to the south and underwent two distinct phases of construction.

At first, reported Current Archaeology in August 2021, the tomb consisted of a long, southwest-facing mound surrounded by wooden posts. After this mound fell, the region’s Neolithic residents rebuilt the site with a larger avenue of posts, two rock chambers and an upright stone. This time around, the posts faced southeast.

Individuals digging in a rectangular patch of dirt

“[T]he initial emphasis is on the internal relationships between the monuments that make up the complex but … later, the focus shifts outward,” Thomas told Live Science ’s Tom Metcalfe last August.

The archaeologist posited that Arthur’s Stone, along with two “ halls of the dead ” that once stood nearby, may have been part of a complex “that people came to for gatherings, meetings [and] feasting, … a place that retained its significance for centuries.”

Excavations at similar sites in the region have unearthed incomplete human remains, flint flakes, arrowheads and pottery, according to the statement. The public will have the opportunity to watch the researchers as they work at Arthur’s Stone, with archaeologists offering tours of the site throughout the dig.

Whether the Arthur of legend actually existed is the subject of much debate . Per the British Library ’s Hetta Elizabeth Howes, historical records show that a man named Arthur led resistance against the Saxons and Jutes around the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.; some Welsh accounts reference a similarly gifted warlord. The king of modern myth, however, only began to take shape in Geoffrey of Monmouth ’s History of the Kings of Britain (1138).

Arthurian legends were widely shared throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, via manuscripts for the wealthy and oral storytelling for the broader population. Though earlier tellings emphasized Arthur’s strength in battle and nation-building skills, the tales eventually became part of the medieval romance tradition , wistfully yearning for a time of morality, chivalry and righteousness.

Arthur’s Stone was first linked to the mythical king prior to the 13th century, according to English Heritage . Its fame continued in the centuries that followed: Charles I camped in the area with his troops during the 17th-century English Civil Wars , and writer C. S. Lewis , who frequently walked by the site, based the Stone Table in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on it.

“Arthur’s Stone is one of this country’s outstanding prehistoric monuments, set in a breathtaking location—yet it remains poorly understood,” says Thomas in the statement. “Our work seeks to restore it to its rightful place in the story of Neolithic Britain.”

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Jane Recker

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Jane Recker has written for  Washingtonian Magazine  and the Chicago Sun-Times . She is a graduate of Northwestern University and holds degrees in journalism and opera. 

King Arthur

King Arthur

Who Was King Arthur?

King Arthur is a medieval, mythological figure who was the head of the kingdom Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. It is not known if there was a real Arthur, though it is believed he may have been a Roman-affiliated military leader who successfully staved off a Saxon invasion during the 5th to 6th centuries. His legend has been popularized by many writers, including Geoffrey of Monmouth.

A Historical Mystery

Little is known about the possible figure who inspired the story of King Arthur, a heroic monarch who has been a popular mythological and literary character for some time. It has been suggested that the real-life "Arthur" may have been a warrior/officer of Roman affiliation who led a British military force against incoming Saxon forces during the 5th to 6th centuries A.D. Still, Celtic monk Gildas wrote of the Saxon invasion in his work The Ruin and Conquest of Britain , citing the conflict at Badon Hills, and no warrior named Arthur is mentioned.

In contrast, the 6th-century bard Aneirin crafted the Welsh collection of poems The Gododdin in which a heroic Arthur is spoken of. Yet with the work originally shared orally as opposed to being written down, it is impossible to ascertain if Arthur was part of the original story. Another poet, Teliesin, mentions a valiant Arthur in his work as well.

There has also been another suggestion circulated that references to Arthur were actually a way of honoring via myth a Celtic bear deity with a similar name.

Becomes Heroic Figure

During the 800s, Nennius of Wales wrote History of the Britons , which became a core Arthurian text in that it listed a dozen battles in which the warrior fought, though it would have been logistically impossible for him to have done so. Nonetheless, Nennius's work positions Arthur as a valiant, praiseworthy persona; this was later expounded upon in the 12th-century Latin writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who told the story of the mystical figure of Merlin and joined his life with that of Arthur's, also giving the king/warrior a birth story and an overall trajectory in widely-read text.

Due to cultural intermingling in Europe, political influences and writers' imagination, the Arthurian story developed into a full-fledged legend and complex story, with an emphasis on a noble kingdom called Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table and the queen, Guinevere, who has an affair with the knight Lancelot. Other aspects of the tale include the king's deadly conflict with his nephew or son, Mordred, and the knights' quest for the Holy Grail.

King Arthur in Literature

Thomas Malory was the first to provide an English prose retelling of the legend in his Le Morte D'Arthur , published in 1485. Centuries later, Alfred Tennyson published his Idylls of the King throughout the latter half of the 1800s, telling the story of Camelot in the form of an epic poem.

The story of Arthur has continued to be interpreted by a variety of writers, including children's authors, comic-book scribes and novelists such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose Mists of Avalon (1982) looks at the legend from the female characters' perspectives.

Broadway, Movies & TV Show

In the 20th century, King Arthur also found his way to stage and screen. During the 1960s, the myth found a home on Broadway with the musical Camelot , which starred Richard Burton as Arthur. Later revivals would see Richard Harris — who starred in the 1967 movie version as well — and Robert Goulet portray the monarch. A more serious, grim take on Camelot was seen in the 1981 film Excalibur , with Helen Mirren in the role of Morgana, half-sister to the king. Fast forward to the next millennium where Antoine Fuqua directed King Arthur (2004), whose still fantastic plot relied more heavily on the idea that Arthur, here portrayed by Clive Owen, was a military leader against the Saxons. His life was also portrayed in the 2017 movie King Arthur: Legend of the Sword .

Aiming to properly contextualize the array of tales presented, documentarian and writer Michael Wood has looked at the cultural and geographic origins of the King Arthur story in his TV series In Search of Myths and Heroes .


  • Name: Arthur
  • Birth Country: United Kingdom
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: King Arthur, the mythological figure associated with Camelot, may have been based on a 5th to 6th-century British warrior who staved off invading Saxons.
  • Death Country: United Kingdom

We strive for accuracy and fairness.If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us !


  • Article Title: King Arthur Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/military-figures/king-arthur
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: May 27, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014

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King Arthur in Legend, Literature and History

The legend of king arthur and his knights, arthurian romance - history and criticism, king arthur in history.

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The History Hit Miscellany of Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds

The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth?

research on king arthur

Tony Sullivan

11 feb 2020.

research on king arthur

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.

research on king arthur

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 tapestry

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

Defeat of the Saxons by Arthur

Defeat of the Saxons by Arthur (Credit: John Cassell )

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.

research on king arthur

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.

research on king arthur

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

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:

  • The persistence of the legend over 500 years to the Middle Ages.
  • 4 persons called Arthur appearing in the genealogical records of from the late 6th century, suggesting the name became popular.
  • One line in a possibly 7th century Welsh poem saying a warrior of the Gododdin around Lothian was “no Arthur.”
  • 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.”
  • 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, o r 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.

research on king arthur

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.

King Arthur Round Table

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.

King Arthur Tony Sullivan

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King Arthur - and The Knights of The Round Table

King Arthur - and The Knights of The Round Table - britishheritage.org

***TOO LONG***King Arthur was a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, heroically led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The Arthurian legend grew to include Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, the magician Merlin, Arthur's wife Guinevere, the sword Excalibur, Arthur's conception at Tintagel, his battle against Mordred at Camlann, and final rest in Avalon. The Arthurian narrative was continued in France, which added the romance of the Knights of the Round Table and the saga of Lancelot and the Holy Grail. How much is history and how much is romance is for debate. But the Legend of Arthur is a vibrant part of our British Heritage

King Arthur (Welsh: Brenin Arthur, Cornish: Arthur Gernow, Breton: Roue Arzhur) was a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The details of Arthur's story are mainly composed of Welsh and English folklore and literary invention, and modern historians generally agree that he is unhistorical. The sparse historical background of Arthur is gleaned from various sources, including the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum, and the writings of Gildas. Arthur's name also occurs in early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin.

Arthur is a central figure in the legends making up the Matter of Britain. The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's fanciful and imaginative 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). In some Welsh and Breton tales and poems that date from before this work, Arthur appears either as a great warrior defending Britain from human and supernatural enemies or as a magical figure of folklore, sometimes associated with the Welsh otherworld Annwn. How much of Geoffrey's Historia (completed in 1138) was adapted from such earlier sources, rather than invented by Geoffrey himself, is unknown.

Although the themes, events and characters of the Arthurian legend varied widely from text to text, and there is no one canonical version, Geoffrey's version of events often served as the starting point for later stories. Geoffrey depicted Arthur as a king of Britain who defeated the Saxons and established a vast empire. Many elements and incidents that are now an integral part of the Arthurian story appear in Geoffrey's Historia, including Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, the magician Merlin, Arthur's wife Guinevere, the sword Excalibur, Arthur's conception at Tintagel, his final battle against Mordred at Camlann, and final rest in Avalon.

The 12th-century French writer Chrétien de Troyes, who added Lancelot and the Holy Grail to the story, began the genre of Arthurian romance that became a significant strand of medieval literature. In these French stories, the narrative focus often shifts from King Arthur himself to other characters, such as various Knights of the Round Table. Arthurian literature thrived during the Middle Ages but waned in the centuries that followed, until it experienced a major resurgence in the 19th century. In the 21st century, the legend continues to have prominence, not only in literature but also in adaptations for theatre, film, television, comics and other media.

The historical basis for King Arthur has been long debated by scholars. One school of thought, citing entries in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), saw Arthur as a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons some time in the late 5th to early 6th century.

The Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century Latin historical compilation attributed in some late manuscripts to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, contains the first datable mention of King Arthur, listing twelve battles that Arthur fought. These culminate in the Battle of Badon, where he is said to have single-handedly killed 960 men. Recent studies, however, question the reliability of the Historia Brittonum.

The other text that seems to support the case for Arthur's historical existence is the 10th-century Annales Cambriae, which also link Arthur with the Battle of Badon. The Annales date this battle to 516–518, and also mention the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) were both killed, dated to 537–539. These details have often been used to bolster confidence in the Historia's account and to confirm that Arthur really did fight at Badon.

Problems have been identified, however, with using this source to support the Historia Brittonum's account. The latest research shows that the Annales Cambriae was based on a chronicle begun in the late 8th century in Wales. Additionally, the complex textual history of the Annales Cambriae precludes any certainty that the Arthurian annals were added to it even that early. They were more likely added at some point in the 10th century and may never have existed in any earlier set of annals. The Badon entry probably derived from the Historia Brittonum.

This lack of convincing early evidence is the reason many recent historians exclude Arthur from their accounts of sub-Roman Britain. In the view of historian Thomas Charles-Edwards, "at this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur [but ...] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him". These modern admissions of ignorance are a relatively recent trend; earlier generations of historians were less sceptical. The historian John Morris made the putative reign of Arthur the organising principle of his history of sub-Roman Britain and Ireland, The Age of Arthur (1973). Even so, he found little to say about a historical Arthur.

Partly in reaction to such theories, another school of thought emerged which argued that Arthur had no historical existence at all. Morris's Age of Arthur prompted the archaeologist Nowell Myres to observe that "no figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time".Gildas's 6th-century polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written within living memory of Badon, mentions the battle but does not mention Arthur. Arthur is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or named in any surviving manuscript written between 400 and 820. He is absent from Bede's early-8th-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, another major early source for post-Roman history that mentions Badon. The historian David Dumville wrote: "I think we can dispose of him [Arthur] quite briefly. He owes his place in our history books to a 'no smoke without fire' school of thought ... The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books."

Some scholars argue that Arthur was originally a fictional hero of folklore—or even a half-forgotten Celtic deity—who became credited with real deeds in the distant past. They cite parallels with figures such as the Kentish Hengist and Horsa, who may be totemic horse-gods that later became historicised. Bede ascribed to these legendary figures a historical role in the 5th-century Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain. It is not even certain that Arthur was considered a king in the early texts. Neither the Historia nor the Annales calls him "rex": the former calls him instead "dux bellorum" (leader of wars) and "miles" (soldier).

The consensus among academic historians today is that there is no solid evidence for his historical existence. However, because historical documents for the post-Roman period are scarce, a definitive answer to the question of Arthur's historical existence is unlikely. Sites and places have been identified as "Arthurian" since the 12th century, but archaeology can confidently reveal names only through inscriptions found in secure contexts. The so-called "Arthur stone", discovered in 1998 among the ruins at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall in securely dated 6th-century contexts, created a brief stir but proved irrelevant. Other inscriptional evidence for Arthur, including the Glastonbury cross, is tainted with the suggestion of forgery.

Andrew Breeze has recently argued that Arthur was historical, and claimed to have identified the locations of his battles as well as the place and date of his death, (in the context of the Extreme weather events of 535–536) but his conclusions are disputed.

Several historical figures have been proposed as the basis for Arthur, ranging from Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer who served in Britain in the 2nd or 3rd century, to sub-Roman British rulers such as Riotamus,Ambrosius Aurelianus,Owain Ddantgwyn, the Welsh king Enniaun Girt, and Athrwys ap Meurig. However, no convincing evidence for these identifications has emerged.

The origin of the Welsh name "Arthur" remains a matter of debate. The most widely accepted etymology derives it from the Roman nomen gentile (family name) Artorius. Artorius itself is of obscure and contested etymology, but possibly of Messapian or Etruscan origin. Linguist Stephan Zimmer suggests Artorius possibly had a Celtic origin, being a Latinization of a hypothetical name *Artorījos, in turn derived from an older patronym *Arto-rīg-ios, meaning "son of the bear/warrior-king". This patronym is unattested, but the root, *arto-rīg, "bear/warrior-king", is the source of the Old Irish personal name Artrí. Some scholars have suggested it is relevant to this debate that the legendary King Arthur's name only appears as Arthur or Arturus in early Latin Arthurian texts, never as Artōrius (though Classical Latin Artōrius became Arturius in some Vulgar Latin dialects). However, this may not say anything about the origin of the name Arthur, as Artōrius would regularly become Art(h)ur when borrowed into Welsh.

Another commonly proposed derivation of Arthur from Welsh arth "bear" + (g)wr "man" (earlier *Arto-uiros in Brittonic) is not accepted by modern scholars for phonological and orthographic reasons. Notably, a Brittonic compound name *Arto-uiros should produce Old Welsh *Artgur (where u represents the short vowel /u/) and Middle/Modern Welsh *Arthwr, rather than Arthur (where u is a long vowel /ʉː/). In Welsh poetry the name is always spelled Arthur and is exclusively rhymed with words ending in -ur—never words ending in -wr—which confirms that the second element cannot be [g]wr "man".

An alternative theory, which has gained only limited acceptance among professional scholars, derives the name Arthur from Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes, near Ursa Major or the Great Bear. Classical Latin Arcturus would also have become Art(h)ur when borrowed into Welsh, and its brightness and position in the sky led people to regard it as the "guardian of the bear" (which is the meaning of the name in Ancient Greek) and the "leader" of the other stars in Boötes.

Medieval literary traditions

The familiar literary persona of Arthur began with Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-historical Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), written in the 1130s. The textual sources for Arthur are usually divided into those written before Geoffrey's Historia (known as pre-Galfridian texts, from the Latin form of Geoffrey, Galfridus) and those written afterwards, which could not avoid his influence (Galfridian, or post-Galfridian, texts).

Pre-Galfridian traditions

The earliest literary references to Arthur come from Welsh and Breton sources. There have been few attempts to define the nature and character of Arthur in the pre-Galfridian tradition as a whole, rather than in a single text or text/story-type. A 2007 academic survey led by Caitlin Green has identified three key strands to the portrayal of Arthur in this earliest material. The first is that he was a peerless warrior who functioned as the monster-hunting protector of Britain from all internal and external threats. Some of these are human threats, such as the Saxons he fights in the Historia Brittonum, but the majority are supernatural, including giant cat-monsters, destructive divine boars, dragons, dogheads, giants, and witches. The second is that the pre-Galfridian Arthur was a figure of folklore (particularly topographic or onomastic folklore) and localised magical wonder-tales, the leader of a band of superhuman heroes who live in the wilds of the landscape. The third and final strand is that the early Welsh Arthur had a close connection with the Welsh Otherworld, Annwn. On the one hand, he launches assaults on Otherworldly fortresses in search of treasure and frees their prisoners. On the other, his warband in the earliest sources includes former pagan gods, and his wife and his possessions are clearly Otherworldly in origin.

One of the most famous Welsh poetic references to Arthur comes in the collection of heroic death-songs known as Y Gododdin (The Gododdin), attributed to 6th-century poet Aneirin. One stanza praises the bravery of a warrior who slew 300 enemies, but says that despite this, "he was no Arthur" – that is, his feats cannot compare to the valour of Arthur.Y Gododdin is known only from a 13th-century manuscript, so it is impossible to determine whether this passage is original or a later interpolation, but John Koch's view that the passage dates from a 7th-century or earlier version is regarded as unproven; 9th- or 10th-century dates are often proposed for it. Several poems attributed to Taliesin, a poet said to have lived in the 6th century, also refer to Arthur, although these all probably date from between the 8th and 12th centuries. They include "Kadeir Teyrnon" ("The Chair of the Prince"), which refers to "Arthur the Blessed"; "Preiddeu Annwn" ("The Spoils of Annwn"), which recounts an expedition of Arthur to the Otherworld; and "Marwnat vthyr pen[dragon]" ("The Elegy of Uther Pen[dragon]"), which refers to Arthur's valour and is suggestive of a father-son relationship for Arthur and Uther that pre-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Other early Welsh Arthurian texts include a poem found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, "Pa gur yv y porthaur?" ("What man is the gatekeeper?"). This takes the form of a dialogue between Arthur and the gatekeeper of a fortress he wishes to enter, in which Arthur recounts the names and deeds of himself and his men, notably Cei (Kay) and Bedwyr (Bedivere). The Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen (c. 1100), included in the modern Mabinogion collection, has a much longer list of more than 200 of Arthur's men, though Cei and Bedwyr again take a central place. The story as a whole tells of Arthur helping his kinsman Culhwch win the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief-Giant, by completing a series of apparently impossible tasks, including the hunt for the great semi-divine boar Twrch Trwyth. The 9th-century Historia Brittonum also refers to this tale, with the boar there named Troy(n)t. Finally, Arthur is mentioned numerous times in the Welsh Triads, a collection of short summaries of Welsh tradition and legend which are classified into groups of three linked characters or episodes to assist recall. The later manuscripts of the Triads are partly derivative from Geoffrey of Monmouth and later continental traditions, but the earliest ones show no such influence and are usually agreed to refer to pre-existing Welsh traditions. Even in these, however, Arthur's court has started to embody legendary Britain as a whole, with "Arthur's Court" sometimes substituted for "The Island of Britain" in the formula "Three XXX of the Island of Britain". While it is not clear from the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae that Arthur was even considered a king, by the time Culhwch and Olwen and the Triads were written he had become Penteyrnedd yr Ynys hon, "Chief of the Lords of this Island", the overlord of Wales, Cornwall and the North.

In addition to these pre-Galfridian Welsh poems and tales, Arthur appears in some other early Latin texts besides the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae. In particular, Arthur features in a number of well-known vitae ("Lives") of post-Roman saints, none of which are now generally considered to be reliable historical sources (the earliest probably dates from the 11th century). According to the Life of Saint Gildas, written in the early 12th century by Caradoc of Llancarfan, Arthur is said to have killed Gildas's brother Hueil and to have rescued his wife Gwenhwyfar from Glastonbury. In the Life of Saint Cadoc, written around 1100 or a little before by Lifris of Llancarfan, the saint gives protection to a man who killed three of Arthur's soldiers, and Arthur demands a herd of cattle as wergeld for his men. Cadoc delivers them as demanded, but when Arthur takes possession of the animals, they turn into bundles of ferns. Similar incidents are described in the medieval biographies of Carannog, Padarn, and Eufflam, probably written around the 12th century. A less obviously legendary account of Arthur appears in the Legenda Sancti Goeznovii, which is often claimed to date from the early 11th century (although the earliest manuscript of this text dates from the 15th century and the text is now dated to the late 12th to early 13th century). Also important are the references to Arthur in William of Malmesbury's De Gestis Regum Anglorum and Herman's De Miraculis Sanctae Mariae Laudunensis, which together provide the first certain evidence for a belief that Arthur was not actually dead and would at some point return, a theme that is often revisited in post-Galfridian folklore.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, completed c. 1138, contains the first narrative account of Arthur's life. This work is an imaginative and fanciful account of British kings from the legendary Trojan exile Brutus to the 7th-century Welsh king Cadwallader. Geoffrey places Arthur in the same post-Roman period as do Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae. He incorporates Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, his magician advisor Merlin, and the story of Arthur's conception, in which Uther, disguised as his enemy Gorlois by Merlin's magic, sleeps with Gorlois's wife Igerna (Igraine) at Tintagel, and she conceives Arthur. On Uther's death, the fifteen-year-old Arthur succeeds him as King of Britain and fights a series of battles, similar to those in the Historia Brittonum, culminating in the Battle of Bath. He then defeats the Picts and Scots before creating an Arthurian empire through his conquests of Ireland, Iceland and the Orkney Islands. After twelve years of peace, Arthur sets out to expand his empire once more, taking control of Norway, Denmark and Gaul. Gaul is still held by the Roman Empire when it is conquered, and Arthur's victory leads to a further confrontation with Rome. Arthur and his warriors, including Kaius (Kay), Beduerus (Bedivere) and Gualguanus (Gawain), defeat the Roman emperor Lucius Tiberius in Gaul but, as he prepares to march on Rome, Arthur hears that his nephew Modredus (Mordred)—whom he had left in charge of Britain—has married his wife Guenhuuara (Guinevere) and seized the throne. Arthur returns to Britain and defeats and kills Modredus on the river Camblam in Cornwall, but he is mortally wounded. He hands the crown to his kinsman Constantine and is taken to the isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds, never to be seen again.

How much of this narrative was Geoffrey's own invention is open to debate. He seems to have made use of the list of Arthur's twelve battles against the Saxons found in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, along with the battle of Camlann from the Annales Cambriae and the idea that Arthur was still alive. Arthur's status as the king of all Britain seems to be borrowed from pre-Galfridian tradition, being found in Culhwch and Olwen, the Welsh Triads, and the saints' lives. Finally, Geoffrey borrowed many of the names for Arthur's possessions, close family, and companions from the pre-Galfridian Welsh tradition, including Kaius (Cei), Beduerus (Bedwyr), Guenhuuara (Gwenhwyfar), Uther (Uthyr) and perhaps also Caliburnus (Caledfwlch), the latter becoming Excalibur in subsequent Arthurian tales. However, while names, key events, and titles may have been borrowed, Brynley Roberts has argued that "the Arthurian section is Geoffrey's literary creation and it owes nothing to prior narrative." Geoffrey makes the Welsh Medraut into the villainous Modredus, but there is no trace of such a negative character for this figure in Welsh sources until the 16th century. There have been relatively few modern attempts to challenge the notion that the Historia Regum Britanniae is primarily Geoffrey's own work, with scholarly opinion often echoing William of Newburgh's late-12th-century comment that Geoffrey "made up" his narrative, perhaps through an "inordinate love of lying".Geoffrey Ashe is one dissenter from this view, believing that Geoffrey's narrative is partially derived from a lost source telling of the deeds of a 5th-century British king named Riotamus, this figure being the original Arthur, although historians and Celticists have been reluctant to follow Ashe in his conclusions.

Whatever his sources may have been, the immense popularity of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae cannot be denied. Well over 200 manuscript copies of Geoffrey's Latin work are known to have survived, as well as translations into other languages. For example, 60 manuscripts are extant containing the Brut y Brenhinedd, Welsh-language versions of the Historia, the earliest of which were created in the 13th century. The old notion that some of these Welsh versions actually underlie Geoffrey's Historia, advanced by antiquarians such as the 18th-century Lewis Morris, has long since been discounted in academic circles. As a result of this popularity, Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae was enormously influential on the later medieval development of the Arthurian legend. While it was not the only creative force behind Arthurian romance, many of its elements were borrowed and developed (e.g., Merlin and the final fate of Arthur), and it provided the historical framework into which the romancers' tales of magical and wonderful adventures were inserted.

The popularity of Geoffrey's Historia and its other derivative works (such as Wace's Roman de Brut) gave rise to a significant numbers of new Arthurian works in continental Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in France. It was not, however, the only Arthurian influence on the developing "Matter of Britain". There is clear evidence that Arthur and Arthurian tales were familiar on the Continent before Geoffrey's work became widely known (see for example, the Modena Archivolt), and "Celtic" names and stories not found in Geoffrey's Historia appear in the Arthurian romances. From the perspective of Arthur, perhaps the most significant effect of this great outpouring of new Arthurian story was on the role of the king himself: much of this 12th-century and later Arthurian literature centres less on Arthur himself than on characters such as Lancelot and Guinevere, Percival, Galahad, Gawain, Ywain, and Tristan and Iseult. Whereas Arthur is very much at the centre of the pre-Galfridian material and Geoffrey's Historia itself, in the romances he is rapidly sidelined. His character also alters significantly. In both the earliest materials and Geoffrey he is a great and ferocious warrior, who laughs as he personally slaughters witches and giants and takes a leading role in all military campaigns, whereas in the continental romances he becomes the roi fainéant, the "do-nothing king", whose "inactivity and acquiescence constituted a central flaw in his otherwise ideal society". Arthur's role in these works is frequently that of a wise, dignified, even-tempered, somewhat bland, and occasionally feeble monarch. So, he simply turns pale and silent when he learns of Lancelot's affair with Guinevere in the Mort Artu, whilst in Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, he is unable to stay awake after a feast and has to retire for a nap. Nonetheless, as Norris J. Lacy has observed, whatever his faults and frailties may be in these Arthurian romances, "his prestige is never—or almost never—compromised by his personal weaknesses ... his authority and glory remain intact."

Arthur and his retinue appear in some of the Lais of Marie de France, but it was the work of another French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, that had the greatest influence with regard to the development of Arthur's character and legend. Chrétien wrote five Arthurian romances between c. 1170 and 1190. Erec and Enide and Cligès are tales of courtly love with Arthur's court as their backdrop, demonstrating the shift away from the heroic world of the Welsh and Galfridian Arthur, while Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, features Yvain and Gawain in a supernatural adventure, with Arthur very much on the sidelines and weakened. However, the most significant for the development of the Arthurian legend are Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, which introduces Lancelot and his adulterous relationship with Arthur's queen Guinevere, extending and popularising the recurring theme of Arthur as a cuckold, and Perceval, the Story of the Grail, which introduces the Holy Grail and the Fisher King and which again sees Arthur having a much reduced role. Chrétien was thus "instrumental both in the elaboration of the Arthurian legend and in the establishment of the ideal form for the diffusion of that legend", and much of what came after him in terms of the portrayal of Arthur and his world built upon the foundations he had laid. Perceval, although unfinished, was particularly popular: four separate continuations of the poem appeared over the next half century, with the notion of the Grail and its quest being developed by other writers such as Robert de Boron, a fact that helped accelerate the decline of Arthur in continental romance. Similarly, Lancelot and his cuckolding of Arthur with Guinevere became one of the classic motifs of the Arthurian legend, although the Lancelot of the prose Lancelot (c. 1225) and later texts was a combination of Chrétien's character and that of Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet. Chrétien's work even appears to feed back into Welsh Arthurian literature, with the result that the romance Arthur began to replace the heroic, active Arthur in Welsh literary tradition. Particularly significant in this development were the three Welsh Arthurian romances, which are closely similar to those of Chrétien, albeit with some significant differences: Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain is related to Chrétien's Yvain; Geraint and Enid, to Erec and Enide; and Peredur son of Efrawg, to Perceval.

Up to c. 1210, continental Arthurian romance was expressed primarily through poetry; after this date the tales began to be told in prose. The most significant of these 13th-century prose romances was the Vulgate Cycle (also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle), a series of five Middle French prose works written in the first half of that century. These works were the Estoire del Saint Grail, the Estoire de Merlin, the Lancelot propre (or Prose Lancelot, which made up half the entire Vulgate Cycle on its own), the Queste del Saint Graal and the Mort Artu, which combine to form the first coherent version of the entire Arthurian legend. The cycle continued the trend towards reducing the role played by Arthur in his own legend, partly through the introduction of the character of Galahad and an expansion of the role of Merlin. It also made Mordred the result of an incestuous relationship between Arthur and his sister Morgause and established the role of Camelot, first mentioned in passing in Chrétien's Lancelot, as Arthur's primary court. This series of texts was quickly followed by the Post-Vulgate Cycle (c. 1230–40), of which the Suite du Merlin is a part, which greatly reduced the importance of Lancelot's affair with Guinevere but continued to sideline Arthur, and to focus more on the Grail quest. As such, Arthur became even more of a relatively minor character in these French prose romances; in the Vulgate itself he only figures significantly in the Estoire de Merlin and the Mort Artu. During this period, Arthur was made one of the Nine Worthies, a group of three pagan, three Jewish and three Christian exemplars of chivalry. The Worthies were first listed in Jacques de Longuyon's Voeux du Paon in 1312, and subsequently became a common subject in literature and art.

The development of the medieval Arthurian cycle and the character of the "Arthur of romance" culminated in Le Morte d'Arthur, Thomas Malory's retelling of the entire legend in a single work in English in the late 15th century. Malory based his book—originally titled The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table—on the various previous romance versions, in particular the Vulgate Cycle, and appears to have aimed at creating a comprehensive and authoritative collection of Arthurian stories. Perhaps as a result of this, and the fact that Le Morte D'Arthur was one of the earliest printed books in England, published by William Caxton in 1485, most later Arthurian works are derivative of Malory's.

Post-medieval literature

The end of the Middle Ages brought with it a waning of interest in King Arthur. Although Malory's English version of the great French romances was popular, there were increasing attacks upon the truthfulness of the historical framework of the Arthurian romances – established since Geoffrey of Monmouth's time – and thus the legitimacy of the whole Matter of Britain. So, for example, the 16th-century humanist scholar Polydore Vergil famously rejected the claim that Arthur was the ruler of a post-Roman empire, found throughout the post-Galfridian medieval "chronicle tradition", to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians. Social changes associated with the end of the medieval period and the Renaissance also conspired to rob the character of Arthur and his associated legend of some of their power to enthrall audiences, with the result that 1634 saw the last printing of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur for nearly 200 years. King Arthur and the Arthurian legend were not entirely abandoned, but until the early 19th century the material was taken less seriously and was often used simply as a vehicle for allegories of 17th- and 18th-century politics. Thus Richard Blackmore's epics Prince Arthur (1695) and King Arthur (1697) feature Arthur as an allegory for the struggles of William III against James II. Similarly, the most popular Arthurian tale throughout this period seems to have been that of Tom Thumb, which was told first through chapbooks and later through the political plays of Henry Fielding; although the action is clearly set in Arthurian Britain, the treatment is humorous and Arthur appears as a primarily comedic version of his romance character.John Dryden's masque King Arthur is still performed, largely thanks to Henry Purcell's music, though seldom unabridged.

In the early 19th century, medievalism, Romanticism, and the Gothic Revival reawakened interest in Arthur and the medieval romances. A new code of ethics for 19th-century gentlemen was shaped around the chivalric ideals embodied in the "Arthur of romance". This renewed interest first made itself felt in 1816, when Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was reprinted for the first time since 1634. Initially, the medieval Arthurian legends were of particular interest to poets, inspiring, for example, William Wordsworth to write "The Egyptian Maid" (1835), an allegory of the Holy Grail. Pre-eminent among these was Alfred Tennyson, whose first Arthurian poem "The Lady of Shalott" was published in 1832. Arthur himself played a minor role in some of these works, following in the medieval romance tradition. Tennyson's Arthurian work reached its peak of popularity with Idylls of the King, however, which reworked the entire narrative of Arthur's life for the Victorian era. It was first published in 1859 and sold 10,000 copies within the first week. In the Idylls, Arthur became a symbol of ideal manhood who ultimately failed, through human weakness, to establish a perfect kingdom on earth. Tennyson's works prompted a large number of imitators, generated considerable public interest in the legends of Arthur and the character himself, and brought Malory's tales to a wider audience. Indeed, the first modernisation of Malory's great compilation of Arthur's tales was published in 1862, shortly after Idylls appeared, and there were six further editions and five competitors before the century ended.

This interest in the "Arthur of romance" and his associated stories continued through the 19th century and into the 20th, and influenced poets such as William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite artists including Edward Burne-Jones. Even the humorous tale of Tom Thumb, which had been the primary manifestation of Arthur's legend in the 18th century, was rewritten after the publication of Idylls. While Tom maintained his small stature and remained a figure of comic relief, his story now included more elements from the medieval Arthurian romances and Arthur is treated more seriously and historically in these new versions. The revived Arthurian romance also proved influential in the United States, with such books as Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur (1880) reaching wide audiences and providing inspiration for Mark Twain's satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Although the 'Arthur of romance' was sometimes central to these new Arthurian works (as he was in Burne-Jones's "The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon", 1881–1898), on other occasions he reverted to his medieval status and is either marginalised or even missing entirely, with Wagner's Arthurian opera—Parsifal—providing a notable instance of the latter. Furthermore, the revival of interest in Arthur and the Arthurian tales did not continue unabated. By the end of the 19th century, it was confined mainly to Pre-Raphaelite imitators, and it could not avoid being affected by World War I, which damaged the reputation of chivalry and thus interest in its medieval manifestations and Arthur as chivalric role model. The romance tradition did, however, remain sufficiently powerful to persuade Thomas Hardy, Laurence Binyon and John Masefield to compose Arthurian plays, and T. S. Eliot alludes to the Arthur myth (but not Arthur) in his poem The Waste Land, which mentions the Fisher King.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the influence of the romance tradition of Arthur continued, through novels such as T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958), Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave (1970) and its four sequels, Thomas Berger's tragicomic Arthur Rex and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982) in addition to comic strips such as Prince Valiant (from 1937 onward). Tennyson had reworked the romance tales of Arthur to suit and comment upon the issues of his day, and the same is often the case with modern treatments too. Stewart's first three Arthurian novels present the wizard Merlin as the central character, rather than Arthur, and The Crystal Cave is narrated by Merlin in the first person, whereas Bradley's tale takes a feminist approach to Arthur and his legend, in contrast to the narratives of Arthur found in medieval materials, and American authors often rework the story of Arthur to be more consistent with values such as equality and democracy. In John Cowper Powys's Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages (1951), set in Wales in 499, just prior to the Saxon invasion, Arthur, the Emperor of Britain, is only a minor character, whereas Myrddin (Merlin) and Nineue, Tennyson's Vivien, are major figures. Myrddin's disappearance at the end of the novel is "in the tradition of magical hibernation when the king or mage leaves his people for some island or cave to return either at a more propitious or more dangerous time" (see King Arthur's messianic return). Powys's earlier novel, A Glastonbury Romance (1932) is concerned with both the Holy Grail and the legend that Arthur is buried at Glastonbury.

The romance Arthur has become popular in film and theatre as well. T. H. White's novel was adapted into the Lerner and Loewe stage musical Camelot (1960) and Walt Disney's animated film The Sword in the Stone (1963); Camelot, with its focus on the love of Lancelot and Guinevere and the cuckolding of Arthur, was itself made into a film of the same name in 1967. The romance tradition of Arthur is particularly evident and in critically respected films like Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac (1974), Éric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois (1978) and John Boorman's Excalibur (1981); it is also the main source of the material used in the Arthurian spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).The Crystal Cave was adapted as a TV series by the BBC in 1991, starring George Winter as Merlin.

Retellings and reimaginings of the romance tradition are not the only important aspect of the modern legend of King Arthur. Attempts to portray Arthur as a genuine historical figure of c. 500, stripping away the "romance", have also emerged. As Taylor and Brewer have noted, this return to the medieval "chronicle tradition" of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Historia Brittonum is a recent trend which became dominant in Arthurian literature in the years following the outbreak of the Second World War, when Arthur's legendary resistance to Germanic enemies struck a chord in Britain.Clemence Dane's series of radio plays, The Saviours (1942), used a historical Arthur to embody the spirit of heroic resistance against desperate odds, and Robert Sherriff's play The Long Sunset (1955) saw Arthur rallying Romano-British resistance against the Germanic invaders. This trend towards placing Arthur in a historical setting is also apparent in historical and fantasy novels published during this period.

Arthur has also been used as a model for modern-day behaviour. In the 1930s, the Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table was formed in Britain to promote Christian ideals and Arthurian notions of medieval chivalry. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of boys and girls joined Arthurian youth groups, such as the Knights of King Arthur, in which Arthur and his legends were promoted as wholesome exemplars. However, Arthur's diffusion within modern culture goes beyond such obviously Arthurian endeavours, with Arthurian names being regularly attached to objects, buildings, and places. As Norris J. Lacy has observed, "The popular notion of Arthur appears to be limited, not surprisingly, to a few motifs and names, but there can be no doubt of the extent to which a legend born many centuries ago is profoundly embedded in modern culture at every level."

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A view of the ruins of Tintagel castle, built in the 13th century by English royals eager to strengthen their ties to legendary King Arthur, who was said to be conceived at the site.

Not-So-Dark Ages Revealed at King Arthur Site

Luxury goods unearthed at royal stronghold show that Celtic rulers thrived at the legendary site of Tintagel.

A recent discovery in southwest England is making headlines for its association with King Arthur, but archaeologists are hailing it as an incredibly important find regardless of any connection with Britain's greatest legendary ruler.

Excavations at Tintagel , a rocky promontory on the coast of Cornwall, have revealed evidence of massive stone fortifications and luxury goods imported from as far away as modern-day Turkey, all dating to a poorly understood period in British history that began with the collapse of Roman rule on the island around 400 A.D.

The earliest mentions of a leader named Arthur in the historical record are tied to events that occurred between roughly 400 and 600 A.D., the period in which archaeologists believe the fortifications at Tintagel were built. According to an account written centuries later, the legendary king was conceived at Tintagel.

Luxury Trade During the So-called "Dark Ages"

Over the summer, archaeologists at Tintagel have found evidence for more than a hundred buildings that most likely date from the fifth to seventh centuries A.D., a period when the site is believed to have been an important royal stronghold of the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia .

statue at Tintagel

A statue inspired by the King Arthur legend greets visitors at the historic site of Tintagel on the coast of Cornwall.

Initial evidence for the Celtic stronghold was first revealed during excavations in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the home of C.A. Raleigh Radford, lead archaeologist on the project, was bombed during World War II and the scientific results were never properly published. In the 1990s, archaeologists reopened Radford's trenches at Tintagel and discovered fine ceramics and glassware from all over the Mediterranean world.

More than two decades later, researchers have returned to Tintagel for the beginning of a five-year project funded by the charity English Heritage to better understand what was happening at the site during a time erroneously referred to by some historians as the "Dark Ages," and by others as "Sub-Roman" or "Post-Roman."

Why were coastal trading posts like Tintagel mysteriously abandoned in the seventh century?

Although only a few trenches in undisturbed areas of the site were excavated this summer, they exposed massive rock walls—some more than 3.3 feet (one meter) thick—that are the most substantial structures known from the period. Hundreds of small finds provide more evidence for imported luxury goods transported from the sunny shores of the Eastern Roman Empire to this blustery British outcrop.

Scholars believe the people of Dumnonia traded local tin in exchange for these fancy products, as well as possibly slaves and hunting dogs.

A Poorly Understood Period

Archaeologist Susan Greaney , a senior property historian with English Heritage, is quick to dismiss any connection between Arthurian legend and the new finds at Tintagel. "The Arthurian connection is a purely literary, legendary connection," says Greaney. "There's absolutely no way we would start a research project [with the goal of] looking for Arthur."

archaeological excavations at Tintagel

Archaeologists excavate the remains of structures built at Tintagel between the fifth and seventh centuries A.D.

Critics attacked English Heritage earlier this year for "Disneyfying" Tintagel's Arthurian connections after the charity commissioned a likeness of Merlin carved into the cliffs at the site.

Greaney stresses that the focus of the five-year project is to better understand cosmopolitan life in ancient Dumnonia—who the people were, what they traded, and why many of the coastal trading sites like Tintagel were mysteriously abandoned in the seventh century A.D.

"We know more about Stonehenge than we do about some of these sites," she says.

Arthur: Reality and Legend

While some scholars are firm in their belief that King Arthur is merely a literary invention, others are more circumspect. "We don't have evidence to prove his historicity, but we certainly don't have evidence to prove he's manufactured, that he's a completely fictional character," says Christopher Snyder , dean and professor of history at Mississippi State University and author of The World of King Arthur .

Almost everyone in the Middle Ages believed that there was a historical Arthur. Christopher Snyder , Historian

"Whether we academic historians believe it or not, almost everyone in the Middle Ages believed that there was a historical Arthur," Snyder explains. "There's a great potency of power to that myth."

The association of King Arthur with Tintagel was already wildly popular in the 12th century, following an account of Arthur and his exploits recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannie ( History of the Kings of Britain ). According to Geoffrey, Arthur was conceived at Tintagel after his father, Uther Pendragon, disguised himself (with the help of Merlin) as a local ruler and slept with the ruler's wife.

A little more than a century later, Richard, Earl of Cornwall , and the brother of King Henry III, built a castle at Tintagel, presumably to cement his family ties with those of King Arthur. By the 14th century, kings of England were regularly celebrating the legend with replica Round Tables , Arthurian pageants, and honors that are still awarded by British royalty to this day.

Even the name of the fabled king has been carried into modern aristocracy (see Prince Charles Philip Arthur George and Prince William Arthur Philip Louis ), but the royals have been reluctant to introduce a new Arthur into their family tree.

"Most of the Prince Arthurs have died young and tragically ," Snyder explains. "It's not a good omen to do that."

Follow Kristin Romey on Twitter .


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King Arthur

King Arthur

The Making of the Legend

by Nicholas J. Higham

400 Pages , 5.00 x 7.75 in , 32 color illus.

  • 9780300254983
  • Published: Tuesday, 28 Sep 2021
  • 9780300210927
  • Published: Tuesday, 20 Nov 2018

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N. J. Higham is professor emeritus in history at the University of Manchester. He is the author or co-author of many distinguished works including The Anglo-Saxon World.

"Fascinating, authoritative analysis"—PD Smith, The Guardian   “This is a thoughtful and patient, rational and fair-minded book, which critically examines various theories about the starting point for the Arthur myth.” —Dan Jones, The Sunday Times “A leading medievalist takes a clear-eyed look at the evidence for the existence of the legendary Arthur.”— The Sunday Times ‘Best Paperbacks of 2021’ “Higham [has] . . . extraordinary erudition.”—D. A. Meier, Choice "Likely to be the definitive text on the legendary warrior for the foreseeable future.  With his profound knowledge of the rules of historical narrative and patient but forensic analysis of the evidence, Higham's riveting book brings the historical Arthur to what may be his last, decisive battle."—Max Adams, author of In the Land of Giants   "A very intelligent book which presents the facts and invites you to draw your own conclusions about this legendary British monarch. If King Arthur didn’t exist, he should have done and Nicholas Higham’s book shows us why. A superb read: scholarly yet accessible. Highly recommended.”—Francis Pryor, author of Britain B.C   “This book provides an outstanding, and deeply informed, overview of the various ‘King Arthurs’ in history. Accessible and well-written, it is also a significant contribution to the debate around the historical origins of Arthur.”—Anne Lawrence-Mathers, author of The True History of Merlin the Magician  

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10 Facts About King Arthur, the Legendary Ruler of Camelot

By sarah mcgrath | aug 12, 2021.

A 14th-century tapestry of King Arthur.

King Arthur is a name that stirs up associations of chivalry, honor, and courtly love—or, if you're a Monty Python fan, knights who say “ni!” and fathers who smell of elderberries. Whether it’s been on stage or screen, in literature and comics, or inspiring kings and politicians, the legend of King Arthur has continued to evolve across generations. Yet despite his legendary status, there’s little evidence to suggest the man existed at all. Regardless, the world has continued to be enthralled by the myth and the world of Camelot.

1. Early writings portray Arthur as a warrior, not a king.

The writings of ninth-century Welsh monk Nennius first refer to a 5th-century warrior named Arthur leading an army to fight against invading Saxons. Yet there’s no mention of this Arthur being a king, and he lived hundreds of years before King Arthur supposedly did.

2. The King Arthur legend first appeared in a 12th-century text.

The figure of King Arthur became popular after 1136, around the time Geoffrey Monmouth wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae ( History of the Kings of Britain ), which claimed to chart the history of the British monarchy . The text also outlined the history of King Arthur and featured famous figures such as Merlin and Guinevere. Monmouth’s text was a huge success—it ultimately created the myth of King Arthur, the noble ruler. Many historians, meanwhile, dismiss his work, claiming it was likely medieval propaganda .

3. Famous stories from the King Arthur myth include “The Sword in the Stone.”

Some versions of the tale say King Arthur didn't pull the sword from a stone.

One of the most famous associations with King Arthur is his sword, Excalibur . There are a couple different stories about how Arthur came to possess the legendary weapon. In Robert de Boron’s 13th-century epic poem Merlin , the sword is placed inside a stone, with the wizard Merlin claiming only the true heir would be able to remove it. A young Arthur is able to easily withdraw the sword, thereby becoming King. The other version of the tale is from Thomas Malory’s 15th-century text Le Morte d'Arthur , which depicts the Lady of the Lake offering Excalibur to Arthur.

4. We still don’t know where Camelot was located.

Historians have tried to identify where King Arthur’s mythical kingdom of Camelot was supposed to be set. People have proposed various locations across the UK : Candidates include the Welsh village Caerleon, Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, and the city of Winchester in Hampshire.

5. King Arthur inspired the Tudors.

Henry VII used the popular tales of King Arthur to secure his reign upon seizing the English throne in 1485 after the Wars of the Roses. Drawing from the legend, he even traced the Tudor family tree from Arthur himself. Henry VII also named his first child Arthur , though it was Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, who went on to rule as Henry VIII —and break England from the Catholic Church in the process. Henry VIII grew up fascinated by the tales of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, so much so that he ordered the redecorating of the Winchester Round Table , which still hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle today.

6. Jackie Kennedy used the myth of Camelot to secure John F. Kennedy’s legacy.

Jackie Kennedy helped build the mythology around her husband's leadership.

The Tudors weren’t the only ones who saw the legend’s propaganda value. A week after President John F. Kennedy ’s assassination in 1963, his wife, Jackie, organized an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Theodore White for LIFE magazine. In the interview, she emphasized Kennedy’s love for the 1960 musical Camelot and underlined the line “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief moment that was known as Camelot.”

Jackie then explicitly linked the world of Camelot to JFK’s presidency, saying: “There’ll be great presidents again … but there’ll never be a Camelot again.” Kennedy’s administration was referenced as Camelot from then on, evoking his presidency as a time of utopian and idealistic politics.

7. John Steinbeck wrote his own retelling of King Arthur’s legend.

Author and Nobel Prize Winner John Steinbeck was also fascinated by the tales of King Arthur—so much so that in 1958, he began writing his own retelling of the myth, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights . But he stopped the project only a year later and never completed it. What remained of Steinbeck’s vision was published posthumously in 1976, giving readers a glimpse into the author’s love for Arthurian legend.

8. DC Comics did a boundary-breaking retelling of King Arthur’s tale.

In 1982, DC Comics launched the series Camelot 3000 , which featured characters from the Arthurian universe being awoken in the present to fight invading alien forces. This series is regarded for breaking boundaries —and not just because it was the first comic printed on high gloss paper. One of these characters was Sir Tristan, whose character is an example of early transgender representation. In the comic, Tristan is reborn as a woman. He rejects this body and identifies as a man, asking to still be referred to as Sir Tristan. Despite an offer to return to his true form if he betrays the team, Tristan refuses to deceive his friends, despite the difficulty he feels in turning the offer down.

9. Not all retellings of King Arthur were successful.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Disney's The Sword in the Stone (1963) both put their own successful spins on the legendary tale. But not every cinematic version of the legends of Camelot had such luck. In 2017, Warner Bros. set about planning an entire Arthurian cinematic universe that would consist of six films. Guy Ritchie was tapped to direct King Arthur: Legend of the Sword , starring Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law.

The film had a whopping $175 million budget, underlining the studio’s high hopes for the picture. Yet what was supposed to be a summer blockbuster ended up as an embarrassing flop , with the gritty action remake failing to impress critics or audiences. It ultimately lost Warner Bros. around $150 million, sinking plans for any future sequels.

10. A 2021 King Arthur film spotlights Gawain the Green Knight.

The retellings from the Arthurian universe continue, with July 2021 seeing the release of The Green Knight , starring Dev Patel. The film is an adaptation of the 14th-century poem of the same name. It follows the adventures of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, who accepts a quest from a mysterious Green Knight. The film has already received high praise from critics, proving that regardless of success or failure, the tales of King Arthur continue to cast a spell over audiences.

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HLI 416: The Legend of King Arthur

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The Library subscribes to many databases that contain excellent magazine, newspaper, trade and scholarly journal articles that are not available freely on the internet. Using these databases is a valuable way to conduct research on King Arthur. Our databases are organized  alphabetically  and by  subject . Use the OneSearch box below to try a search for many of the books, articles and other resources available through the library.

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Brickdale, Eleanor Fortescue. "Elaine with Lancelot's Shield." 1911. From Idylls of the King , by Alfred Lord Tennyson. London: Hodder and Stoughton. Project Camelot . http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/image/brickdale-elaine-with-lancelots-shield

  • The Camelot Project A digital project of Robbins Library at the University of Rochester, the Camelot Project is designed to make available a database of Arthurian texts, images, bibliographies, and basic information.
  • Arthuriana: The Journal of Arthurian Studies
  • The Cotton Nero A.x. Project Cotton Nero A.x. (article 3) is the only known manuscript containing the poems Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
  • Encyclopedia Mythica Encyclopedia Mythica is an award-winning internet encyclopedia of mythology, folklore, and religion. Includes information on Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic and Native American mythology. Includes special interest areas: A bestiary, legendary heroes, geneological tables and an image gallery.
  • Arthurian Studies (from The Labyrinth: Resources for Medieval Studies) Sponsored by Georgetown University, The Labyrinth provides free, organized access to resources in medieval studies. The Labyrinth’s easy-to-use links provide connections to databases, services, texts, and images around the world.
  • The Lancelot-Graal Project (University of Pittsburgh)
  • The Quest for the Holy Grail (British Library Online Gallery) A summary of the Holy Grail as a mythical quest from the British Library's Online Galleries.
  • King Arthur: The History, the Legend, the King (Brittania.com) From Brittania.com, a site that promotes British history and travel.
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthur (History of the Kings of Britain) A page from the website of Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Associate Professor of History at Indiana University Bloomington. "I scanned the source in from J. A. Giles, ed. Six Old English Chronicles (London: Bohn, 1848), pp. 173-271, which is in the public domain."
  • King Arthur--Romancing Politics (Norton Anthology of English Literature-Norton Topics Online)) Research King Arthur and other medieval topics using Norton Topics Online for the Middle Ages.
  • Arthurian Legend (Chapter XII; Bartleby.com) Bartleby.com is a preeminent publisher of literature, reference and verse, providing unlimited access to books and information on the web.
  • Sian Echard's Medieval and Arthurian pages Siân Echard is a professor in the Department of English at University of British Columbia.
  • King Arthur in Medieval Sources: A Partial Bibliography Judy Shoaf is the Director of the Language Learning Center at the University of Florida.

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  1. King Arthur

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  1. King Arthur

    King Arthur, legendary British king who appears in a cycle of medieval romances (known as the Matter of Britain) as the sovereign of a knightly fellowship of the Round Table. It is not certain how these legends originated or whether the figure of Arthur was based on a historical person. The legend possibly originated either in Wales or in those ...

  2. Was King Arthur a Real Person?

    Arthur's appeal is, and always was, precisely in his multiplicity.". In and around Tintagel, the legend of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthur continues to draw pilgrims to the king's "realm ...

  3. Rediscovered Medieval Manuscript Offers New Twist on Arthurian Legend

    King Arthur first appeared in a history of Britain written in 829 or 830, notes the British Library. That text describes him as a warlord or Christian soldier. That text describes him as a warlord ...

  4. King Arthur

    King Arthur is among the most famous literary characters of all time. The Arthurian legend of the Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the love affair of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the wizard Merlin have informed and inspired literary, musical, and other major artistic visions for centuries. There have been countless books, major films, operas, television shows ...

  5. King Arthur

    Tapestry showing Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, wearing a coat of arms often attributed to him, c. 1385. King Arthur (Welsh: Brenin Arthur, Cornish: Arthur Gernow, Breton: Roue Arzhur, French: Roi Arthur) is a legendary king of Britain, and a central figure in the medieval literary tradition known as the Matter of Britain.. In Welsh sources, Arthur is portrayed as a leader of the post ...

  6. How King Arthur became one of the most pervasive legends of all time

    Arthur's life story is one that has become almost a standard for knightly heroes to aspire to. He is seen as brave, noble, kind - everything that some might say is missing from our modern ...

  7. King Arthur

    The World of King Arthur. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Broad general discussion of the historical and archaeological background, the historical texts and medieval romances, the use of Arthurian propaganda by British dynasts, historical Arthur theories, and such modern Arthuriana as novels, movies, and websites.

  8. The Arthurian Legend (Collection)

    The Arthurian Legend developed in Europe between c. 830, when the Welsh historian Nennius first mentions King Arthur through c. 1469 when Sir Thomas Malory composes Le Morte D'Arthur, the best-known version of the tales, which was published by William Caxton in 1485 and became a best-seller, as it has remained since its revival in the 19th century. ...

  9. The legend of King Arthur

    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. 6.

  10. BBC

    King Arthur's Round Table by Martin Biddle (The Boydell Press, 2000) ... Born and educated in Manchester, Michael did postgraduate research on Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford. Since then he has made ...

  11. Historicity of King Arthur

    Former site of Arthur's purported grave in "Avalon" at Glastonbury AbbeyThe historicity of King Arthur has been debated both by academics and popular writers. While there have been many claims that King Arthur was a real historical person, the current consensus among specialists on the period holds him to be a mythological or folkloric figure.. The first definite mention of Arthur appears ...

  12. Archaeologists Begin First-Ever Excavation of Tomb Linked to King Arthur

    According to popular lore, Arthur's Stone, a roughly 5,000-year-old tomb in the West Midlands of England, boasts ties to King Arthur, the mythical leader of Camelot.One legend holds that Arthur ...

  13. King Arthur

    King Arthur, the mythological figure associated with Camelot, may have been based on a 5th to 6th-century British warrior who staved off invading Saxons. Search. Women's History;

  14. Home

    The Legend of King Arthur and His Knights. The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle (Illustrator) Call Number: 398.22 P99. ISBN: 0486214451. Publication Date: 1965-06-01. King Arthur and His Knights (Yesterday's Classics) by Maude Radford Warren; Walter J. Enright (Illustrator) Call Number: ebook. ISBN: 1599151944.

  15. The Historical King Arthur

    The legends surrounding King Arthur and his knights have charmed and intrigued people for centuries and their popularity continues in the present day. As with any famous figure, however, the question arises as to whether the legend is based on any fact. There have been many suggestions over the years as to the best candidate for the 'historical Arthur,' but the most reasonable response is that ...

  16. The Evidence for King Arthur: Man or Myth?

    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: The persistence of the legend over 500 years to the Middle Ages. 4 persons called Arthur appearing in the genealogical ...

  17. King Arthur

    King Arthur (Welsh: Brenin Arthur, Cornish: Arthur Gernow, Breton: Roue Arzhur) was a legendary British leader who, according to medieval histories and romances, led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. ... The latest research shows that the Annales Cambriae was based on a chronicle begun in the ...

  18. Not-So-Dark Ages Revealed at King Arthur Site

    The association of King Arthur with Tintagel was already wildly popular in the 12th century, following an account of Arthur and his exploits recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum ...

  19. King Arthur

    King Arthur. The Making of the Legend. by Nicholas J. Higham. 400 Pages, 5.00 x 7.75 in, 32 color illus.

  20. 10 Facts About King Arthur, the Legendary Ruler of Camelot

    A young Arthur is able to easily withdraw the sword, thereby becoming King. The other version of the tale is from Thomas Malory's 15th-century text Le Morte d'Arthur, which depicts the Lady of ...

  21. King Arthur News, Research and Analysis

    Guy Ritchie's King Arthur - a triumph of modern spectacle. Ari Mattes, University of Notre Dame Australia. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an at times thrilling, at times bizarre, viewing ...

  22. HLI 416: The Legend of King Arthur

    Research King Arthur and other medieval topics using Norton Topics Online for the Middle Ages. Arthurian Legend (Chapter XII; Bartleby.com) Bartleby.com is a preeminent publisher of literature, reference and verse, providing unlimited access to books and information on the web.

  23. New research backs up findings that King Arthur was a Scot

    Now an English-born expert has published more research that not only backs Robertson's claim that Arthur was Scottish but takes it much further, claiming Arthur was a Pictish king, Garthnach son of Girom, who may have had his capital at Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Damian Bullen is originally from Burnley but has lived in Edinburgh and East ...