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Military History: King Arthur: Man or Myth?

Updated on February 2, 2014

His existence has never been proven, his chivalry and bravery is said to have reunited Britain in the Dark Ages, but how far are we from discovering the truth about King Arthur?

King Arthur & The Knights of The Round Table
King Arthur & The Knights of The Round Table

Who Was King Arthur?

He is said to be one of Britain's greatest heroes in history and a military genius who apparently saved Britain from invading barbarian hordes in the Dark Ages.

For over 1,000 years, he has become a myth, lost in the annuls of time.

There has been many a quest for the truth regarding King Arthur and his round table, but did he really exist?

King Arthur and his knights of the round table is one of Britain's most enduring legends, but if he did exist, where was his home and in what time did he live?

These questions have constantly been asked by countless historians over the years, who have tried to find the answers and the truth about Artur's life.

Some beleive he was a warrior king who led Britain against the Saxons and various specialists including Arthurian experts, phorensic archaeologists and military historians have tried to uncover clues, obscured by time, to try to piece together the many puzzles surrounding King Arthur.

They have found evidence of a brutal civil war, death and destruction, and the discovery of a unique military base thought to be the formidable fortress of a powerful medieval warlord, that's ruins have survived for over 700 years.

The main reason for the vague history surrounding Arthur, was that the first stories about him hadn't been written down until 1136AD. This was thought to be around 600 years after he had supposedly lived. These stories gained popularity over the coming centuries until it eventually descended into legend and mythology.

Geoffery of Monmouth, 1136AD
Geoffery of Monmouth, 1136AD

Gaining Credence

There has hardly been a generation where the story of King Arthur hasn't been told in some version or another.

He may well have remained some obscure Welsh ruler if it hadn't been for a 12th century writer named Geoffrey of Monmouth, who re-presented the legend for his own era.

It is at this time, that the stories of Arthur really start to become established and widely renowned.

Geoffrey of Monmouth effectvely becomes the best seller of his day, around the 11th and 12th centuries.

The story of Arthur and his knights of the round table, becomes further celebrated in 1470 with the publication of Le Morte D'Arthur (The Death Of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Malory.

But the overriding question still remains, when did the real Arthur exist?

Germanic warrior, 410AD
Germanic warrior, 410AD

Fact or Fiction?

Or was the story of King Arthur just a work of legendary invention, elaborated by a combination of medieval spin and modern day fiction? Many experts believe that Arthur was real and may well have been a mighty christian warlord, born out of the remnants of Roman Britain after 410AD, to battle Anglo Saxon invaders in the Dark Ages, following the disastrous downfall of the Roman empire.

With the Roman legions gone, some of these British warlords made the unwise decision of hiring Germanic mercenaries like the Saxons, to protect what was left of Roman civilisation.

Procuring mercenary support to supplement one's army was an action that the Romans had made and was continued by these dominant warlords.

However, this was a double-edged sword, as once the Germanic barbarians realised that they were in effect, running the Roman Army, and making most of the military decisions, they started to believe that they could take over the empire.

King Arthur leading the Britons into battle against the Saxons in 410AD
King Arthur leading the Britons into battle against the Saxons in 410AD

Divided And Under Attack

Modern day historians believe that these Germanic mercenaries became greedy and took over territory from weakened Britons, in a land that had been ravaged by plague and civil war.

The legends of Arthur told of a man who led the Britons in a war that resisted these plundering pagans and the quest to solve the mystery of Arthur is the 'Holy Grail' for historians today.

Very little physical evidence survives and so it is extremely difficult for these experts to determine when and where he existed. There are no coins, no telltale monuments and no documentary evidence and thus therein lies the uncertainty of his existence.

Ancient manuscripts uncovered over the centuries that date back to the Dark Ages, do offer up some teasing clues however. These manuscripts do confirm that Britain was governed by warlords locked in battle with Anglo Saxon invaders, so was Arthur one of these warlords?

One particular surviving manuscript entitled 'On The Destruction Of Britain', written by a highly intellectual monk named Gildas The Wise, records the anarchy and disorder of post-Roman Britain.

Gildas considered the British leaders as tyrants and imbeciles, as he believed that their bickering, infighting and unwillingness to unite, opened the floodgates for the Saxon invasion. Eventually, the British resistence destroyed the Saxons at the Battle of Badon Hill.

Regared as a reliable writer, Gildas doesn't actually state in his manuscript, who led the Britons in battle against the Saxons, but later generations were in agreement, that it was Arthur who was the predominant figure on whom the Britons relied, a theory being increasingly backed up by modern day archaeologists.

The Sacking of Rome
The Sacking of Rome

The End Of Roman Rule

The best clues can be found in the catastrophic downfall of Roman Britain in 410AD. The Roman civilisation disappeared virtually overnight, being replaced by ethnic conflict and rebellion.

The barbarians were at the empire's threshold and the forces of chaos descended over the land in a virtual armageddon. It is the end of a long process of decline in an increasingly beleagured empire.

Just forty years earlier in 367AD, a conspiracy of Saxon raiders, Irish pirates, barbarians and Scottish Picts, had attacked Britain and pushed it to the brink of disaster. Reinforcements from the Roman Empire had managed to restore order however, but it was merely a taste of what was to come.

Further affield in Europe, masses of Germanic tribes and warrior huns from the East, forced their way through the Roman Empire towards Britain. The constant barbarian threat increased until Rome itself was eventually stormed and plundered. The Roman legions were quickly withdrawn from Britain in order to save Rome, leaving Britain wide open and vulnerable to Saxon attacks, thus plunging Britain headlong into the Dark Ages, from which Arthur was to emerge.

Dark Age Briatin
Dark Age Briatin

Descent Into Chaos

Britain's towns, cities and abundant economy was effectively wiped out within two generations, however, huge hordes of buried Roman coins unearthed by archaeologists match Gildas the Wise's account of the apocalyptic destruction of Britain and it's massive cultural change.

The new precision techniques of phorensic archaeology are unearthing minute details of Arthur's Britain, often missed previously. New excavation methods are finding evidence of occupation in Arthur's time around 400-500AD, but very different to what life was like during the occupation of the Romans.

Some shocking discoveries point to a gruesome picture of violence, bodies found in suspicious circumstances, lying exposed in Dark Age streets are being excavated, others butchered and buried in temple structures. Strip back the the Roman Empire and you'll find not a culture of justice, peace and a civilisation of order, but one of a ruthless system of robbery and violence.

When the Roman Empire fell, the fabric of society in Britain was torn apart, the rule of law is replaced by the rule of thuggery, plunder and pillage. This anarchy and slaughter spreads across the land and a picture of filth, degradation and utter darkness envelopes Britain.

New archaeological finds have led historians to believe that Britain's tribal forces, began to battle each other for control of the country. They had been armed and trained by the Romans before their departure and had formed individual militias that now battled each other for supremacy.

King Arthur
King Arthur

A King Rises

Gildas had written that Saxon mercenaries that had been hired to protect Britain, had exploited the situation and threatened to ransack the country. Arthur must have risen out of this violent scene to somehow unify the tribes and protect Britain against the Saxon threat.

Even with the testament of Gildas and new archaeological finds, Arthur's specific location is still to be determined. Numerous placenames, monumemts and local legends surround the mystery of Arthur, but could his round table be found where Roman cities successfully survived against Saxon attacks.

These few cities were the last beacons of hope for a civilised culture and were the platform on which the Britons fought back across the land against the Saxon hordes. Hard evidence supports this theory as archaeology has uncovered Saxon burial grounds far inland, indicating the limits of their occupation. As their forces colonised the east, British resistence withdrew to the west and Arthur's frontline ran a spine down through the centre of Britain.

The Battle of Badon Hill
The Battle of Badon Hill

Arthur's 12 Battles

The strongest written evidence for Arthur's military campaign is 'The Battle List' in 'The History Of The Britons' by an obscure Welsh monk named Nennias. he record's Arthur's 12 battles against the Saxons and their allies, the Irish and the Picts from Scotland.

It tells of Arthur as a "christian warrior with God on his side", who fought the pagan enemy on many fronts. Latest analysis suggests that Arthur attacked from secure bases in the west of Britain, straight into the heart of the enemy's territories.

It is thought he would have had numerous bases scattered across the country in order to keep his army fed for battle when attacking in widely spread areas. These are thought to have ranged from Chester to the Severn Valley. Six battles were fought by rivers near Saxon strongholds in Lincolnshire and eastern Britain, where the enemy could be ambushed.

The 7th battle was fought in a remote Scottish forest named Celidon, just north of Hadrian's Wall. The 8th battle at the Castellum of Guinnion, an old Roman fort located at modern day Binchester near Durham.

During the 9th battle at the City of the Legion, now Chester, the Saxons turned the tables on the Britons, by mounting a strong counter-attack, though they were ultimately unsuccessful as Arthur's army defeated them once again.

Two further battles took place near the Welsh border at Agnet Hill and the River Tribuit, where the Saxons were again slaughtered by Arthur's army. The final decisive battle was fought at Mount Badon, near Bath, which halted the Saxon advance dead in it's tracks. Arthur's forces spread over a huge geographical area and experts believe that the fast mobility of this army was due to the vast network of roads built by the Romans.

The Vindolanda Fort Ruins
The Vindolanda Fort Ruins
The Birdoswald Fort Ruins
The Birdoswald Fort Ruins

Combining Frontier Defences

In order to fight a successful war against the Saxon mercenaries, Arthur needed an effective mobile force based in western Britain.

He is aware that there is 10,000 miles of road network at his disposal, spanning 21 cities, so Arthur should be able to coordinate a prolonged and successful campaign of war.

The Roman fort of Vindolanda was built to guard the frontier to Scotland near Hadrian's Wall and remained of vital importance in the Dark Ages.

A warrior garrison was placed there to keep out the Scots as was another at the fort of Birdoswald further along Hadrian's Wall.

The Roman legions had evolved into smaller frontier forces and special elite units, that still carried the Roman standard and were capable of mounting a strong resistence.

Arthur was considered as a brilliant military leader, using these new Roman techniques.

A christian commander fighting pagan hordes, who had the vision to combine forces against a common enemy.

Armies during this time were relatively small in comparison to today's and a force of a few hundred men, would have been seen as a large formidable army.

Sarmatian Cavalry
Sarmatian Cavalry

Elite Forces

Two of the most powerful Dark Age kingdoms in Britain were Rheged in the north and Powys in Wales near to the strategic Roman fortress at Chester. These two kingdoms would probably have provided the sufficient military muscle for Arthur and Chester would have provided the perfect military base for uniting these British forces.

His victories over the Saxons also suggested that he had a formidable military advantage over the enemy. As well as infantry forces, he also had at his disposal cavalry units which were to be used as 'shock and awe' troops capable of cutting down barbarian forces in their tracks.

These were Arthur's elite troops, also employed as scouts informing Arthur of the enemy's movement and positions. He would have also inherited from the Romans, sophisticated signalling systems with fire beacons and semaphore flags capable of relaying a message from fifty miles away, in seconds.

This would enable the cavalry to act as a rapid response unit capable of getting to a battle scene very quickly.

Another widely held theory, is that Arthur's mounted units were descendants of 5,000 Sarmatian cavalry, posted to Britain's northern military zone in 175AD.

Some historians believe that these heavily armoured troops, the ancient equivalent of heavy tanks, are the knights of the round table from medieval legend.

The  Roman Fort of Chester
The Roman Fort of Chester

Arthur's Fortress Home?

The legion fortress at Chester commanded the north of England and half of Wales. Chester's network of forts and signalling stations would act as an early warning system against a Saxon attack, and archaeological evidence of Sarmatian cavalry has been found there.

A gruesome cemetary for some Dark Age battle has also been excavated near the city of Chester. Phorensic archaeology suggests that these warriors were killed by infantry and cavalry troops, as many skeletons from the site, after analysis, showed several massive blows to the top of the skulls, indicating direct blows from above, most likely inflicted by an attacker on horseback.

Laboratory tests show that these were skeletons of heavily built Saxon warriors who fought to the bitter end. It is widely believed therefore that Chester could well have been the site of Athur's stronghold and the probable location of his round table.

The Man, The King, The Legend

Millions of words and thousands of books have been written about King Arthur, he remains an historical mystery, but many experts agree that he did exist and, in Chester, they believe they have finally found the site of his home and that of the legendary round table.

Ultimately, after holding back the Saxons for the best part of forty years, British resistence finally crumbled and new Anglo Saxon English kingdoms emerged from the Dark Ages into the light of recorded history.

But one thing is certain, Arthur was and remains an iconic hero of Britain. Warlord, military genius, leader of battles and king, and his actions in life, echo in eternity.

Man or Myth; You Decide

Do you believe that Arthur was real or just a mythical invention?

See results


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    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      3 years ago

      Great hub, worth reading again and again, very interesting stuff, well done, Thanks!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Fantastic article and Im so glad finally Arthurian scholars are aligning archaeological facts with the search for Arthur, rather than the wealth of speculative history and debates on his Welsh, Scottish or Cornish origins. Those seem so shallow to me and have added little to the real archaeological background of Arthurs post-Roman world. So everything in this article fits with what I too believe was our historical Arthur's reality at the time. It describes exactly what was unfolding as far as battle lines being drawn and the lawless waste after Rome left.

      I would a few important facts left out, however. First, Gildus goes in depth about a age after the sacons were defeate, where many british leaders in the early 6th century, prior to the next Saxon invasion, returned to what appears their originsl post Roman governorship of vast territories of Britian, which many believe included even parts of Kent and points east thought destroyed completely by the Saxons. It makes one believe that Britian was not one force united against a common enemy at all but remained the same corrupt group of psuedo provincial leaders that waged civil war against themselves during the Saxon mercenary years. Maybe the archaeology doesn't support it but Gildas goes into detail about these men and the places they ruled. That goes against any theory that Britian was one giant lawless frontier but clung to its post Roman governorship system even as the Saxons moved west. My personal theory is Arthur was in fact Aurelius Ambrocuis as he described....son of one of several of these autocratic Roman governors over one of several area and his role was not as ruler but really as battle strategist that organized and united the fallen forts and rulers as things collapsed. As Gildas says as does Nennius as does Geoffrey it was the "seige" and final defeat of a Saxon strategic place or hillfort that decided the victory.....likely the coordinated effort of all these failing celtic chieftans together from multiple sources organized by aurelianus , as Gildus described. He possibly then is our Arthur as Gildus then says the ancestors of him returned to their rulership plagued by greed and sin, this generation forgetting the work of their ancestors. No single king ruled over the Brits after this victory, but returned to the weakened war-states they seemed to have before. That says a lot to me what our historical Arthur was and the wotld he lived in. It wasn't the grand camelot or round was as war leader if his people but in alliance with other chieftans that delivered the deciding blow. And obviously the Caledoniands and Powys and Cornish leaders all remembeted him in their own stories as such. He might have been one small Welsh chieftan that had the ability to centralize these governors just like Rome used to command 100 years earlier that saved the day. Just one small chieftan who brought the others together for a brief time. Not a great commander of armies but a grand diplomat and battle strategist given credit for the decisive battle that changed the course if history for 40 years till the reinvasion took away a splintered Britian that never had a king or a leader after the Romans left. I might also explain why we have Nenniuses battle list and so many different myths about arthur.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Nice piece, this. Commendable. Just a few 'tweaks' to stir into the mixture:

      Arthur was the embodiment of a combination of the Gallo-Celtic peoples' wish-lists for a leader who could push back the Germanic migrants into Britain. The 'Vortigern' we learned about who called for help was a sort of southern council who wished to control fellow Celts in a protracted civil war that broke out in the wake of the Romans' departure. For their pains they got the Jutish Hengist and Horsa who had to fight to claim their reward and Hengist took land in the south-eastern territory of the Cantii after his brother was killed in the struggle. The Angles followed in their wake, into the north, midlands and east. The Saxons surged through the Thames Valley and landed on the south coast to the west of the Jutes in Kent and around them on the Isle of Wight. Whilst the Saxons pushed the Celts westward, the Mercian Angles allied themselves with the Celts against the Saxons of Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria and the Jutes of Kent. It was a time for opportunists, the underdog was anyone in the way - not only Celts.

    • profile image

      Andreas - hellas 

      6 years ago

      Over here, quite a few lovers of mythology and military history are indeed fascinated with the historicity of King Arthur. Thus, we became aware of the different approaches to the subject.What we actually lack, is an idea of the extend that this (hi)story haunts the subconscious of the relative populations. How is it proportionally divided between the "Cummri" and the Anglosaxonic and Francogermanonordic populations? Regarding the strict historicity question, if anyone is interested, Geoffrey Ashe's approach is in my opinion the most complete so far, especially in terms of bibliography. It is called "The discovery of king Arthur".

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      7 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Hi Lastheart, thankyou for stopping by and i'm glad you enjoyed the hub. He would truly have been a fascinating character if he existed.

    • Lastheart profile image

      Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill 

      7 years ago from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord

      If I really would have loved to meet King Arthur who ever he was. He became a fantasy I will always keep alive. Great hub!

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      8 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Hi Christopher, thanks for your great comments. I am nuts about all this kind of stuff. I love wandering around old castles and watching jousting, archery and battle re-enactments. I grew up near a place in Cornwall called Tintagel, which has many links to Arthurian legend. Glad you enjoyed the hub and thanks for stopping by!

    • Christopher Price profile image

      Christopher Price 

      8 years ago from Vermont, USA


      This hub had me hooked right from the the start. All my ancestors were Welsh and I always fantasized visiting every lake in Wales until the Lady Of The Lake rose to offer me Excaliber so I could usher the world into a new age of chivalry and peace.

      I'm 61 now and have pretty much resigned myself to less grandiose imaginings.

      Your concise historical timeline and desciptions were very informative and engaging. And your Amazon links to books I now must have were spot on.

      Thanks for this one. I'll be checking out more of your hubs soon.

      BTW, You should produce a hub with some of your pencil drawings [copyright them]. I, and many other hubbers, would love to see your work. Note my pencil portrait for my avatar. We are sympatico in many ways.


    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      8 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thanks for your great comments Wesman, I love this kind of history and it's surely a debate that will run and run.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      8 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Amazing history! I'll have to re-read this a time or two, or sure, as these things interest me greatly. You deserve a huge audience for this stuff.

    • Dave Harris profile imageAUTHOR

      Dave Harris 

      8 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thankyou scarytaff glad you liked it, I think the story of Athur will just run and run. I have been fascinated with King Arthur, Camelot, Merlin and all that since I was a boy growing up in the equally mysterious Cornwall. thanks for your comment!

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 

      8 years ago from South Wales

      Great hub, Dave. The mystery deepens.


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