The Five Most Famous Mysteries About King Arthur

Updated on May 22, 2020
Caleb Howells profile image

Caleb has been researching ancient British history for years and has published a book on the origins behind the tales of King Arthur.

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There are many mysteries about King Arthur, but some are more intriguing than others. In this list, see the five most fascinating and significant questions researchers have about Arthur and his kingdom.

Five Mysteries About King Arthur

  1. Who Was Arthur?
  2. Where Were the 12 Battles?
  3. Where Was Camelot?
  4. Was Lancelot Real?
  5. What Was the Sword in the Stone?

5. What Was the Sword in the Stone?

One of the most famous elements of the Arthurian legends is the story of the Sword in the Stone. In this story, only the rightful king of Britain is able to retrieve a particular sword that is embedded in a stone. Arthur, as a boy, turns out to be the one who does this, revealing him to be the true heir to Britain.

But what is the reality behind this tale? Many different theories have been put forward. One popular suggestion is that this is related to the practice of forging a sword in an anvil, which process would end with the forger pulling the now-complete sword from the anvil (in the legend, the stone is topped by an anvil). But how this could have developed into anything to do with succession to the throne or revealing the true heir?

A more plausible theory is that it comes from an inauguration ceremony practised in Scotland which involved the use of a stone known as the Stone of Scone (also known as the Stone of Destiny). Although, this would only seem plausible if you believe that Arthur was a king from the north of Britain. Another theory, which is perhaps the best, is that it comes from a mistranslation of (or an allegorical reference to) 'the sword of Peter', a symbol of religious authority which would fit with Arthur's dual role as king and religious leader (seen primarily from the earliest sources).

4. Was Lancelot Real?

One of the most famous characters in the Arthurian tales - possibly the most famous second only to Arthur himself - is Lancelot. He is Arthur's most powerful knight and his trusted friend, until he falls in love with Guinevere and has an affair which results in the fall of the Round Table.

The problem is that Lancelot isn't mentioned anywhere (at least not by that name) until the 12th century. Given the numerous records concerning the Arthurian era from before that, it seems virtually certain that Lancelot was simply a fictional character. However, a way around this is the idea that he did appear in the earlier records, but just not with the name 'Lancelot'. One popular theory is that he was actually Lleenog, a historical king of part of what is now northern England. His son Gwallog would correspond to Lancelot's son Galahad, according to proponents of this theory.

However, there's no record of any strife between Arthur and Lleenog, which weakens this theory. An alternative candidate is the famously powerful historical king of Gwynedd, Maelgwn. The name of his kingdom could plausibly be the origin of the name of Lancelot's kingdom, and some sources do record a war between him and the southeast of Wales (where Arthur's court of Caerleon was) involving a woman.

3. Where Was Camelot?

Everyone has heard of Camelot. It was the grand court of Arthur, the political centre of his kingdom, home to the Round Table and Arthur's knights.

But where was it? There are innumerable theories. One of the most popular is that it was actually the ancient Roman town of Camulodunum, modern-day Colchester in Essex. The appeal is obvious, for 'Camulodunum' shares an obvious similarity to the name 'Camelot'. Oral transmission definitely could have turned the former into the latter. However, Camulodunum would have been deep in the heart of Saxon territory in the time of Arthur, so it is nonsensical to suppose that it was one of his courts.

Another theory is that it was actually Cadbury Castle in Somerset. This was one of the most heavily fortified hill forts of the period and seems to have been quite rich, and it is near the area with which Arthur is traditionally associated. However, the earliest mention of Camelot places it within a day's journey of Caerleon in south east Wales. So a location in that area is necessary.

One particularly convincing theory is that it was Caerwent, which is known to have been a prominent town in Roman times. It is very near Caerleon, and Sir Thomas Malory stated that Camelot was called 'Winchester' in English, while the preface of his book explicitly locates it in Wales and says that the grand stone ruins could still be seen. 'Caerwent', which is in Wales and has still-visible grand stone ruins, would indeed translate to 'Winchester' in English.

2. Where Were the 12 Battles?

One of the biggest mysteries of them all concerns Arthur's battles. And you can understand why, because they were the subject of the earliest definite historical reference to Arthur. Arthur is said to have led the kings of Britain in 12 different battles against the Saxons, at nine different locations.

The problem is, almost all of these nine locations are unknown, obscure places. The only one that can be positively identified is 'Cat Coit Celidon', which translates quite clearly to the 'battle of the Caledonian Forest', which was a forest in southern Scotland. Another one of the battles is the battle at 'Cair Legion', which could be a reference to either Chester or Caerleon in south east Wales. All the other seven locations are completely 'up for grabs', as it were.

The most important battle of all, however, was the last battle—the one fought at Badon. There are many, many theories as to where Badon was. One commonly suggested site is Badbury Rings, which is a large hill fort in Dorset. A more supported site is Bath, which is where Geoffrey of Monmouth placed it. Another possibility is Mynydd Baedan in south east Wales. Whether 'Baedan' could be derived from 'Badon' or not is debatable, but many details in the Mabinogian tale The Dream of Rhonabwy indicate that this was the location of the battle.

1. Who Was Arthur?

King Arthur himself. The mighty warrior, leader of the knights of the Round Table. The ruler of Britain.

Who actually was he? This is without doubt the most significant mystery of the era. Many people would say he was simply a military leader of the Roman style, a remnant of their power structure. Others identify him as Ambrosius Aurelianus, but the chronological information provided about the two of them prevents such an identification.

The majority of researchers try to identify him as one of the many royal princes or kings of this period, such as Arthur ap Pedr of Dyfed, Artuir ap Aedan of Dal Riada, Owain Danwyn of Rhos, Arthwys ap Mar of York, Riothamus (possibly of Brittany), Cynlas of Rhos, and others. Despite the traditional dates ascribed to Arthur, the overwhelming evidence from the available records shows that he continued living until the latter half of the sixth century.

Therefore, Riothamus and Arthwys ap Mar were too early to be Arthur. Arthur ap Pedr and Artuir ap Aedan were too late. Cynlas was also too late, since he was one of the kings to whom Gildas's comments in De Excidio were directed, while Arthur died about two decades before the writing of that work. Owain Danwyn is possibly chronologically acceptable as Arthur, but there is no good reason for believing this identification.

The real Arthur is most likely to be Athrwys ap Meurig, a king of Gwent and Glywysing (roughly equivalent to modern-day Glamorgan). It is commonly believed that he lived in the seventh century, but there is substantial evidence that he lived much earlier, in exactly the same time period as King Arthur.

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