Looking for “King” Arthur

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…

8 Replies to “Looking for “King” Arthur”

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

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

  3. 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.

    1. A bit off the point but I also came across this argument on an English course. (A weekend in Bristol as part of london University external honours English, many many years ago,) The historian I heard also pointed out that Gildas, the main source for the period, never mentions Arthur by name but that the Saxons were in fact held back for about 50 years on or near the borders with Wales. Tintagel in Cornwall didn’t even exist at the time – or has it now been shown that there was a monk’s cell there or something. One loses track. Anyway most of the story, including all the Lancelot stuff was added by .. a Frenchman! Mind you I still like Malory’s effort with all its ‘cleved him to his papys’ stuff and, we were told, not a single maiden was named by Malory, they were incidental frills to give the men something to fight about.

      1. Thanks for the info Helena. If Arthur wasn’t originally mentioned by name, then this does make it less likely there was an actual Arthur about that greatly impressed people. OH well, its a nice myth :)

  4. It’s the naming that is interesting to me. Supposedly Arthur died in a battle at Camlann which was located near Camelot. Places near a river would often be named after the river. And there is indeed a river Cam, and several placed nearby contain the prefix Cam*. This is all pretty consistent for a myth.

    The concept of pulling a sword from a river brings up the Roman ritual of sacrificing a sword to a river before departing on a great journey, around the supposed time of Arthur the rivers should have been full of swords.. all ready for the picking by locals who weren’t as well equipped (anymore?) as their former overlords had been. In fact, the pulling of a sword from a stone brings up associations with the contemporary method for sword manufacturing: pouring metal into a stone mould and pulling out a sword. I can’t help to wonder if it was an analogy for the restoration of the sword industry. Surely whoever could achieve this and would be the first to ‘pull the sword from the stone’ could become a great leader in Britain?

    All conjecture of course. But I think the myth of a mighty leader in a known time of chaos is one of the most likely type of myths to hold some truths, certainly compared to most myths and legends.

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