We’ve all heard the stories of the valiant King Arthur, High King of Britain ruling from the city of Camelot alongside Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table. There’s been countless films, tv shows and books all written about this mythic British King, but there’s one problem; there’s no evidence to suggest he ever existed, certainly not in the same way he’s described in all the legends.
So let’s have a look at the historical evidence surrounding Arthur. The myths and legends all seem to agree that he was Welsh, although later stories would add Cornish heritage into his bloodline. In fact Arthur’s first appearance is in the writings of a Welsh historian named Nennius. While this Welsh writer may share his mononymous lifestyle with Prince, Sting and Beyoncé, he didn’t exactly live a Rockstar life, living as a monk in the 9th century. He most likely lived in Powys in North Wales where he wrote his famous work the Historia Brittonum. This semi-historical work tells the story of Britain but focuses heavily on 12 battles Arthur supposedly fought. While the battles are mostly real, they take place in so many different time periods that it would have been impossible for any one man to fight in all of them.
Other later writers would be inspired by Nennius, expanding the canon of Arthur. A flurry of Arthurian literature followed the Norman invasion of 1066, with Geoffrey of Monmouth, perhaps the most famous Arthurian scholar, writing his History of the Kings of Britain in the 12th century. This hugely popular book retold Arthur’s story, adding in the more mystical elements including: the magic sword Caliburn (Later renamed Excalibur), Queen Guinevere, Lancelot, and the Magician Merlin. Geoffrey claimed that his history was based on an ancient Celtic manuscript that only he was able to decipher, which he handily misplaced following the publishing of his book.
French poets would add a more Christian element to Arthur’s story, connecting Arthur and his Knights to the tale of the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus supposedly drank from at the Last Supper. These same French poets also created the tragic romance between Arthur’s wife Queen Guinevere and his most trusted Knight Lancelot.
Yet in terms of actual historical evidence Arthur’s story isn’t quite as cut and dry. There seems to be very little to suggest Arthur existed, the evidence which does hint at his existence certainly doesn’t paint a picture of a medieval King. Instead Historians suggest that Arthur may have been a Roman soldier or a Celtic tribal ruler. Monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed they had discovered the tombs of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191, but this happened to come at a time when less pilgrims were visiting the Abbey, likely suggesting it was the medieval equivalent of a publicity stunt. Again, I cannot stress this enough, there is almost zero evidence that connects to Arthur.
Actual Kings and Queens of Britain have claimed ancestry from Arthur including Henry VIII and Queen Victoria. While Arthur may not have been a real King of Britain, he certainly left a lasting legacy on the history of Britain, being used as a tool for describing the perfect ruler. Even today Arthur endures, with many modern authors and directors retelling his story in many different forms.
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Anderson, Graham, King Arthur in Antiquity (London, 2004)
Dumville, David N, Nennius and the “Historia Brittonum” in: Studia Celtica, 10 (1976), 78–95