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Did “King” Arthur really exist?

The death of King Arthur, as imagined by John Mulcaster Carrick (1833-1896)

The death of King Arthur, as imagined by John Mulcaster Carrick (1833-1896)

The story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is one of western culture’s best known. Many people assume that they deal with a king from the Dark Ages of England and that, once the clearly legendary aspects such as the magician Merlin are removed, they have some value as history. This is not the consensus opinion of historians, though. Many – probably the majority, in fact – are of the opinion that there was no “King” Arthur, that the stories originate in Welsh legend or mythology and that they can tell us nothing of value about the fifth and sixth centuries in Britain. On the other hand, a small minority believe that there is a kernel of truth behind the stories and that it is possible to glimpse the activities of a shadowy individual known as Arthur behind them.

The documentary evidence

If there were contemporary documents mentioning Arthur, there would be no controversy about his existence (although there might well be controversy over other aspects of the story). There are not and it is only by assuming that he lurks under an alias that it is possible to suggest that there might be contemporary evidence. Was Arthur known as Riothamus during his lifetime? If he was, why did later legend change the name? And why is the first source to name him beyond all shadow of doubt dated to the early ninth century?

The archaeological evidence

If the documents don’t tell us about Arthur, surely there must be some archaeological evidence? After all, there was the grave found by the monks of Glastonbury and there is a sixth-century site at Tintagel, where an inscription confirming that people named Art… existed in the sixth century was found. And wasn’t South Cadbury proven to be Camelot by Leslie Alcock’s excavation in the 1960s? Surely archaeology must be of some assistance…

5 Responses to Looking for “King” Arthur

  • I am in danger of being relegated to your rogues’ gallery, since I have written an attempt at a History of Britain in the dark ages which, among other things, claims that Arthur existed and was important. Since it took me half a million words to work out the arguments, you will not expect me to sum it up here. I will only relate a point made by a number of respected scholars: in a period of roughly fifty years in the sixth century, something like half a dozen sons of various British (proto-Welsh) kings and one Dalriadic one are known to have been named Arthur. The name does not recur in Britain save for three centuries earlier (if the Artorius mentioned in one inscription is in fact the etimological ancestor of Arthur) and six centuries later. If there was no important figure called Arthur in this period, how is this fad (none of the princelings called Arthur were themselves very notable) to be explained?

  • Maybe a historian can tell us whether Arthur is a modern English name and thus what the Brythhonic equivalent was. I know I spelled it wrong, but I am referring to the Celtic language spoken by the people of Wales and Cornwall in that time.

    Also if it is a Welsh story why was it written by (forgive me if the name is inexact) Jeffery of Monmouth (?) and Camelot supposedly set in Wales but authored by the Cornish Celts/Brythhonic?

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      The name Arthur is spelled exactly the same in Modern English as it was in Old Welsh.

  • helena says:

    Many years ago this was part of an English course i was studying and the historian speaker also made this point. C/f the no of Elvis’s in the ’50s and Britneys etc recently. he also said that ‘Arthur’ could have been a title e.g. ‘Bear like’ from the latin ursus (i think), Anyway if he did exist he was just a war leader or war lord, not a king. I also believe that the Tintagel ‘finds’ are of the wrong date.

  • haley says:

    i agree

Agree or disagree? Please comment!