King Arthur has one of the most enduring legacies of any legendary figure, with his status as the ideal king cemented as far back as the Middle Ages. But even as technology has continued to advance, the evidence of a historical Arthur in England has been scarce. A new discovery might have changed everything.
Historians have been scouring the records since Arthur reemerged as an English hero in the 19th century, to no avail. As hard as they’ve tried to find mentions of his name in the history books, the only thing left to do was start digging.
It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote the first chronicle that elevated Arthur to the mythical status he still holds. The History of the Kings of Britain is not quite as factual as what we might call a history today, but it was the first instance where Arthur’s fantastic exploits were recounted in one codified piece. Reigning over the brilliant court of Camelot, those who heard this tale were enthralled by his wondrous deeds and sad downfall.
As poems and stories about King Arthur continued to proliferate, the only thing historians noticed was that the chronicles the monarch was said to be based on were noticeably missing. They guessed that if a King Arthur had truly lived, it would have been around the 6th century AD. But, there’s a reason this time period is known as the Dark Ages. Few written records exist, and for those that did, no one could find any names that remotely sounded like Arthur...
When Arthur re-emerged as the hero of Geoffrey’s chronicle, he brought up several notable elements that previous allusions to a hero-king had missed. Beginning with Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, who was in disguise when Arthur was first conceived, Geoffrey recounts Arthur’s biography in painstaking detail. It was this retelling that first introduced the world to the wizard Merlin, who would go on to be one of Arthur’s most trusted advisors. It was also Merlin who in a sense was responsible for Arthur in the first place.
According to Geoffrey, Arthur became king as a young man of 15, following his father’s death, but unlike now, succession wasn’t always such a simple task. Though Arthur had been crowned king, in Geoffrey’s telling, he still needed to fight for his country, which took him through a series of battles against other local monarchs. However, Arthur’s legacy was truly cemented when he was able to successfully defend lower Britain from the Picts and the Scots. Arthur was ready for greatness.
In Geoffrey’s version of the events, Arthur continued to grow his empire, expanding from Britain into parts of mainland Europe, before having to return home to defend his original kingdom from his nephew, Mordred. In the ensuing centuries, however, Arthur’s circle continued to expand, eventually adding in the stories of the Knights of the Roundtable as well as the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. Through the popularity of stories about King Arthur’s court, one poet, the French Chretien de Troyes, began the legend of the holy grail.
One of the most striking features of the later poems that shared the excitement of King Arthur’s long-lost court was the development of the Arthurian capital, Camelot. Not only was it the site of the roundtable, which began many of the later legends and romances, but the fortress was shrouded in mysticism, earning a reputation for being the most ideal place in the known world. The search for the site of Camelot began all the way back in the 15th century, but finding it was a different story...
Though Arthur is regarded as one of the preeminent figures of early British history, there has never been a king named Arthur, neither before nor after the Norman conquest in the 11th century. However, there was almost a king named Arthur. Henry VIII may be one of the most famous historical British kings, but it was his older brother Arthur who was supposed to inherit the crown. Since Arthur’s untimely death at 15, however, no monarchs have given their children Arthur as a first name.
With the many spins on the Arthurian legend, figuring out which parts of it may have been fact and which were simply fabricated by the authors is not an easy task. As historians trawled through the archives, they began to notice that Geoffrey of Monmouth may have created the first all-encompassing story of Arthur, but there had been many allusions to some sort of heroic figure in Welsh poetry long before Geoffrey put pen to paper. However, they still didn’t know how much of it was true.
Bit by bit scholars searching for the truth behind the mythical king began uncovering sources that had once been thought to have been lost forever. Though they were able to prove that allusions to a legendary Arthur began springing up much earlier than they once thought, many of them were still written long after the events in question were supposed to have taken place. Still, that didn’t stop researchers from posing several known historical figures as the man behind the myth.
Though in every tale about Arthur, he had considerable military chops, there are some theories that claim in his original iteration, Arthur was never an actual king, he was simply the leader of a band of warriors. Others began to believe that the legendary Arthur was perhaps a combination of several historical British figures who fought against the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the years following the fall of Rome. To some, Arthur may have actually had Roman origins. The only thing was that they needed proof.
There’s a good reason why some believe Arthur was the leader of a band of Briton warriors, named Arturus, who helped his countrymen defend their land from the Saxons and the Jutes. Though we know the Germanic invaders eventually won out, for a time this supposed warrior renewed hope that their homeland was safe. The biggest problem with this theory is that the main account of these military exploits was written several centuries after they were said to have occurred.
The other camp, which claims that Arthur was actually a Roman-born military commander, stems from the story of Lucius Artorius Castus. According to this theory, Arthur wasn’t actually defending Britain against the Germanic tribes flowing from across the English channel, he was trying to hold back an invasion by the Pictish kingdom, which reigned in what is now Scotland. Artorius used Hadrian’s Wall to help defend the colony, but even with this story, the dates don’t quite add up.
As the hunt for the site of Camelot began to heat up, many of those looking were convinced the court had its place somewhere in Wales. Some proposed possible sites for the location of the ruins of Camelot, though nothing conclusive has ever been found. Beyond that, however, some began to suspect that it might be possible to find the castle where Arthur supposedly had been born. Tintagel Castle in Cornwall soon became a prime suspect for the spot.
While many consider Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work to be the first that detailed Arthur’s entire lifespan, a number of other scholars have dug into the archives of ancient Welsh poetry, unearthing a series of texts that might allude to an even older Arthurian figure. As literary works, however, these poems have a distinct fantastical thread running through them, often describing Arthur not as a mortal warrior but more of a magical being. Rather than fighting invaders, this Arthur fought magical beings.
Since Geoffrey’s first account hit the court circuit back in the Middle Ages, accounts of King Arthur’s life have been a perennial favorite. Our fascination with Arthur has not only led the search to try and find his historical counterpart, it has fueled an ever-growing body of fictive works about his life and adventures. Though some of these completely upend the narratives we thought we knew, others have expanded the age-old stories, becoming beloved classics in their own right.
Two of the most famous classic texts about Arthur’s life include La Morte d’Artur, which was a chronicle written several centuries after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s. However, it became the basis for one of our modern Arthurian classics, The Once and Future King. T. H. White’s novel told not only the origin story, but he also manages to combine the more fantastical elements present in several of the courtly romances, while also transforming Lancelot and Guinevere’s story into a romance to be emulated.
As film continued to gain popularity throughout the 20th century, so did movies that depicted the Arthurian tragedy. From the Lerner and Lowe musical, Camelot, to the animated film The Sword and the Stone, which was produced by Disney, there were elements of Arthur’s story that were relatable to all age groups and interests. It just made the desire to discover the history behind the legend even stronger. This desire would also have an impact on more recent pop culture.
Even today, a fair amount of the archeological work tied to Arthur’s obscured origins has taken place in the region of Cornwall. However, many of the historians who don’t quite believe that a historical figure ever existed are quick to point out that this association only began with Tennyson’s work on Arthur in the 19th century. Some of the archeological discoveries made in that area in recent years may actually end up proving the naysayers wrong.
Arthurian scholarship is ongoing, but one historian finally decided enough is enough. Nicholas Higham has recently published a book that attempts to debunk the various theories claiming Arthur’s historical roots once and for all. According to Higham, even the original legend that spawned the multitudes of fictitious works was “made up by one imaginative clerk,” whose only goal was pleasing the petty lord who employed him. Higham spares no sympathy for the believers, but his book ignores some startling discoveries.
Higham’s scathing new book hasn’t silenced the claims made by men like David Carroll. In July, Carroll issued a public statement saying that he found a Swiss document that can be dated from more than 1,300 years ago that proves Arthur’s existence. Many, however, became suspicious not just by the outrageous claim but also because Carroll offered a substantial reward of £50,000 to disprove his conjecture that Arthur was a 6th-century monarch from the region that now comprises Scotland.
It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who first suggested that Arthur was born in a castle at Tintagel, after his father, Uther Pendragon, was disguised by Merlin to look like Igraine’s husband. However, evidence of this structure had been long lost, if it even existed. Finding Arthur’s supposed birthplace could help determine the truth of the legend, but even if a structure was uncovered, it would still leave a lot of questions that couldn’t be answered through archeology alone.
It was well-known that Tintagel boasted a castle, though its construction only dated from the 12th century, meaning it couldn’t have been the place Arthur had supposedly been born. However, in the 1930s, the first excavations of the area began, unearthing an entire ancient world that no one had ever imagined existed. The question still remained if any of these new archeological finds would have any answers about King Arthur, or if we would continue to be wading in the dark.
One of the most surprising finds that was uncovered in the ongoing archeological digs at Tintagel was not exactly evidence of Arthur’s existence, but it was fascinating just the same. As they worked through the ruins, they began unearthing handicrafts that had definitely been imported from the Mediterranean, proving that despite being called the Dark Ages, even post-Roman Britain had plenty of exposure to culture. The exquisite quality of the goods also made it even more possible that some Arthurian figure once lived there.
As the digs continued, the researchers at the site realized that they not only had a new cache of artifacts that completely changed their perception of the time period, but that they had seemed to find a previously hidden structure. Based on the size of the walls they were digging up, researchers began to suspect that perhaps there had been an older castle underneath where the Earl of Cornwall had constructed his 12th-century behemoth. It raised even more questions...
Excavations continued in earnest, as the archeological team working on the site continued to turn up the ruins of numerous structures they believed dated back to the 5th and 6th century AD, the exact period of time King Arthur was said to have ruled. There was yet another discovery, however, that changed the story even more. This past summer, archeologists found a castle windowsill that had been carved with some inscriptions, making it even more likely that it was the home of a king.
Etched into the stone slab are several characters, some that look Latin, others that look Greek. The team what found it believes they are simply the remains of someone practicing their handwriting, but it proves a larger point. Writing was generally limited to select Christian scribes during that time. That someone knew how to write in the area shows that this was a place of prestige during that time. However, it still doesn’t quite prove that it was Arthur’s birthplace.
As exciting as finding 5th and 6th-century links to Tintagel may be, it still doesn’t quite compare to the idea of finding the site of Arthur’s famous capital, Camelot. Though many believe Camelot to be a creation of Chrétien de Troyes, one retired professor believes he knows where Camelot once stood. Peter Field is an expert in Arthurian literature, but after considering the matter for a lifetime, he thinks he figured out the perfect spot for Camelot to have stood...
According to Field, he strongly believes the historical Camelot was located in what is now known as the town of Slack, in West Yorkshire. The same site once held an ancient Roman fort which went by the name of Camulodunum, similar enough to Camelot. The former professor explained to the BBC, “It was quite by chance. I was looking at some maps, and suddenly all the ducks lined up.” That doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion that Camelot once stood there.
The first reports about Field’s newest theory explain that his latest paper hasn’t even been peer-reviewed yet, which means the connection is still considered to be weak. The next step would be to begin an archeological dig with the purpose of finding some sort of fortress from the time period in which Arthur was said to have lived. Prior to Field’s proposal, archeologists had looked for Camelot in Caerleon and near Cadbury Castle, to no avail.
Though the data they have is very preliminary, it seems that we may finally be inching ever closer to discovering whether or not Arthur had an actual historic counterpart that was more than just a fantastical legend. Despite the obstacles that face archeologists and historians who are looking for Arthur, his story has still inspired generations of people, both commoners and royalty, to uphold strong moral values in the face of challenges that were dangerous enough to destroy even a kingdom.
No collocation for this reference!
Help us to improve our language: add your first collocation here!
If you are not registered in our site, create your login here.