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Was King Arthur a Real Person?

History boasts many characters but are they all real people? Take King Arthur for example.

A vision of King Arthur painted by Charles Ernest Butler. Romanticised, heroic and dynamic.

A vision of King Arthur painted by Charles Ernest Butler. Romanticised, heroic and dynamic.

Legend or History?

Was Arthur Pendragon, heroic King Arthur, a real person or a figment of one or more writers' imaginations? Nowell Myres (1902–1989), archaeologist and librarian, was credited with the comment that “no figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time.”

Tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have survived the centuries. The imagery of a chivalric age and the legends surrounding Merlin the magician, Guinevere, Sir Lancelot du Lac, Camelot and Excalibur the sword are hard to resist. King Arthur enjoys prominence 1,500 years after his life, according to the theory that he existed, and he still inspires a sense of a better world in which justice and equality prevailed.

The Case for King Arthur Being Real

The popular opinion among historians is that there was a 6th century Celtic warrior who repelled Anglo-Saxon invasions and inspired a plethora of stories. At first, tales of his adventures were shared verbally and they were written down by historians and writers in the decades and centuries that followed. The warrior probably had the name Arturus which meant bear and warrior. Modern day historians have decided that he was not “King Arthur” but instead he was a dux bellorum, a duke of battles in Britain.

Arthur was born at the now ruined Tintagel Castle in Cornwall (Kernow) and he was known as Arthur Gernow, the heir and later ruler of the kingdom of Dumnonia, today’s Cornwall and Devon and part of Somerset.

However, the Welsh claim him as their own and there are myriad stories about the magical Brenin Arthur. There have been claims that Athur was a Caledonian, part of present day Scotland. This much is accepted as fact: Arthur, whoever he was, was definitely a Celt.

Britain circa 540. King Arthur was ruler of the Kingdom of Dumnonia in the 6th century.

Britain circa 540. King Arthur was ruler of the Kingdom of Dumnonia in the 6th century.

If King Arthur Lived, Where Did He Die?

King Arthur’s quest for the holy grail and his death in the wake of the Battle of Camlann in 537 have allowed Glastonbury in Somerset to bask in the memories, perhaps false, that have inspired pilgrimages to Glastonbury Abbey where the holy grail may have been hidden and to nearby Cadbury Hill.

After analysis, however, the Battle of Camlann in 537 has been acknowledged as probably having been the Battle of Salisbury in the neighbouring county of Wiltshire.

Cadbury Hill in Somerset near to Glastonbury Abbey.

Cadbury Hill in Somerset near to Glastonbury Abbey.

Welsh Arthurian Legends

The treasure trove of Welsh literature made King Arthur a legend with magic and honour at the root of many works. Some of the stories featured other heroic figures which set the enduring scene of Arthur and his select group of allies acting together for the good of the country and values under attack.

It was claimed that Arthur was from the Welsh Otherworld of Annwn that today lies beneath the county of Pembrokeshire. In his time, above ground was populated by the Celtic Demetae. Annwn was a place where nature and serenity thrived, food was plentiful, no ill fortune or diseases could touch its inhabitants. Camelot, perhaps? Annwn certainly inspired a vision of Christianity’s heaven.

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The Matter of Britain

The Matter of Britain consists of collected early writings about British rulers and myths including Arthur and his court. The 6th century writer Gildas, a 9th century Welsh monk called Nennius and the Annales Cambraie of the 10th century tell of a man who led the Welsh against the Anglo Saxons during the first half of the 500’s. Nennius relates that the man and his supporters won twelve battles against the Anglo-Saxons. However, his text was poetically styled so was the warrior a figment of a medieval imagination or was Nennius attractively presenting history to the masses via verse?

In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth offered us the familiar image of King Arthur which was derived largely from the works of earlier scribes and embellished. As he wrote about Excalibur, Merlin, Tintagel Castle and Arthur’s parents Uther and Igraine Pendragon and his sister Anna, Geoffrey did not include the story of Arthur’s wife Guinevere’s affair with Sir Lancelot.

Other Literary Interpretations

The French were enthralled by Arthurian legend, and the 12th century French writer Cretien de Troyes created romanticised stories about the Knights of the Round Table, and Guinevere and Sir Lancelot’s betrayal of King Arthur. In 1485, Sir Thomas Malory cemented many of the ideas laid out in historical texts in his tome Le Morte d’Arthur. This version of events claimed that Arthur was an illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon.

After a few centuries out of the brightest glare of the spotlight, the Victorians took Arthur to their hearts as the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot and Idylls of the King reignited interest.

Lancelot and Guinevere by Herbert James Draper.

Lancelot and Guinevere by Herbert James Draper.

Royal Approval of King Arthur

King Edward III of England commissioned a round table for Windsor Castle in 1344 because he was captivated by Arthurian legend. He employed a craftsman and not Merlin who reportedly magically produced the original table. Edward was motivated to create the chivalric honour The Order of the Garter in 1348, still the highest honour in the country.

King Henry VII, of Welsh ancestry, deliberately named his eldest son Arthur and claimed that the Tudors were descendants of the great man but this may have been a tactic to solidify the Tudor dynasty’s claim to rule rather than truth. Henry VIII had his own round table constructed which boasted a portrait of his youthful self instead of King Arthur’s image. The Scottish have their own claims with Clan Campbell and Clan Arthur citing King Arthur as an ancestor.

Merlin's Cave situated below the ruins of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall.

Merlin's Cave situated below the ruins of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall.

King Arthur Rests and Roams at Cadbury Hill?

Legend has it that King Arthur sleeps in the caves beneath Cadbury Hill in Somerset. King Arthur’s Well is at the hill’s base and a path to Glastonbury starts there. The track has long been known locally as King Arthur’s Hunting Track. Another lengthy track exists between Tintagel Castle where Merlin resides in the adjacent caves and Arthur at Cadbury Hill.

There is a sustained belief that each midsummer’s eve the ghosts of King Arthur and his knights gallop on horseback from the summit of Cadbury Hill to its foot to reach Camelot. It was writer John Leland who decided that Cadbury Hill was Camelot. Presumably they sleep through Halloween.

So, what do you think, was Arthur Pendragon’s legend based in fact, borrowed from a real warrior named Arthur, or the culmination of centuries of embellishments to one basic tale related long ago?

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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