King Arthur - Legend or Historical Accuracy?
I am so enamored of castles in Germany, fairy tales, and charming little German villages that it is not a large leap to tell you I adore the Romantic Age of Chilvary, which actually began with the stories of King Arthur and Camelot.
So, when studying British literature in college, I so enjoyed reading and discussing Morte d'Arthur written by Sir Thomas Malory and, of course, my education would not be complete without reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which King Arthur plays a part. I could daydream for hours of the medieval days of chivalry and the good King Arthur, naturally, was the ultimate hero. He was very British, very handsome, very strong, and very just. He created the Knights of the Round Table, and ruled with an honest and just hand as he ruled his British subjects, all in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. But, could this ideal image in my daydreams be real? Is there any historical evidence that King Arthur really did exist?
King Arthur's historical existence has been debated and disputed by modern historians over the years. Most believe him to be a folklore and literary invention. King Arthur has always been credited with leading a defense of Britain against the Saxon invaders in the early 6th century. Well, if King Arthur really doesn't exist, then who did ultimately run the Saxons out of England?
We first hear of King Arthur inGeoffrey of Monmouth's, Historia Regum Brittanniae, (History of the Kings of Britain) around the 1130's A.D. This is the earliest of written records recording the Kings of England, and is used as the definitive source of information on this topic. No one canonical written version of King Arthur exists, but Geoffrey definitely depicted Arthur as king of Britain who defeated the Saxons and established an empire over Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Gaul.
Many elements and incidents that are part of the Arthurian lore appear in his Historia. These include the following people or characters surrounding King Arthur. Mentioned in the Historia are Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father; Merlin, the wizard who mentored and protected Arthur; Guinevere, Arthur's wife and Queen; Excalibur, the name given to Arthur's sword; Tintagel, where Arthur was conceived; Mordred, Arthur's mortal enemy and who Arthur had his last battle against; and Avalon, the final resting place of King Arthur. According to Geoffrey's tome, these are facts about King Arthur.
Also, in the 12th century, a French writer, Chietien de Troyes, added Lancelot and the Holy Grail to the story, as well as the Knights of the Round Table. De Troyes began the genre of the Arthurian story and romance that became so popular in medieval literature. Now, which part of the King Arthur story was fact and which part romantic exaggeration?
Arthurian literature and the story thrived during the medieval period and then waned. There was a resurgence of the King Arthur story in the 19th century and now in the 21st century the legend lives on. But is the story just a legend?
Historical Basis for King Arthur
In the 9th century A.D. there were two historical records written that see Arthur as a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British Ruler over the Britons. The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) is a Latin text. And, Annales Cambriaeis a Welsh Annals text. King Arthur is mentioned in both as a true, living ruler of Britain. Both texts list twelve battles Arthur fought during his lifetime, and specifically describe the Battle of Mount Badon, in which he took part. (516-518 A.D.) Both texts also describe the Battle of Camlann in which both Arthur and Mordred are killed. (537-539 A.D.)
Arthur has NOT been mentioned in other early records of British kings, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (400-820 A.D.) or the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (8th century). Lack of convincing evidence in these two texts are why historians today believe Arthur is just a legend.
What about archaeological findings? Archeology has only revealed names connected with the Arthurian legend only through inscriptions found in secure contexts. The bones of King Arthur or anyone connected with him have never been discovered. In 1998, an inscription describing Arthur was found among the ruins at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall dating back to the 6th century. But, nothing definitive of Arthur has been found here. A Glastonbury Cross was dug up with inscriptional evidence of Arthur, but today it is believed by modern historians to be a forgery.
The King Arthur legend is so ephemeral. In my romantic dreams. King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Lancelot and the Kings of the Round Table do exist - I want to believe they were real human beings - perhaps that is why I enjoy the story of King Arthur so much. King Arthur is suppose to have given us our democratic ideas and ideals of justice that we practice today. Could what we believe today be just a legend, a fabulous bedtime story we heard as children? I like to believe King Arthur is real and did exist so many years ago in Britain. I like to believe the shining light of Camelot really did exist. Once, there was a good and pure time, and once there was a good and pure city.
King Arthur related links
- Arthurian Legend
Arthurian legend, Le Morte d'Arthur - pictures, story summary, Arthurian search engine
- King Arthur, the legend of Camelot
King Arthur and the legend of the knights of the round table
- King Arthur's Labyrinth - a family visitor attraction in Corris, Mid Wales
A fun day out for all the family at King Arthur's Labyrinth, a visitor attraction with a cafe, play area and 9 craft studios in Corris, Mid Wales
- King Arthur Selector Page