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…