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Painting of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table

Was King Arthur a real person?

Is there any truth behind the legend of King Arthur? Where did the story of the ‘Once and Future King’ come from, how did it evolve over the centuries and, crucially, is there any evidence that Arthur was a real man?


The origin story

The first mention of King Arthur occurs in the Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century early history of Britain written by the Welsh monk, Nennius. In the book, Arthur is treated as a real figure who ruled sometime during the late 5th to early 6th century. He is credited with victory at the Battle of Badon, which pitted the Britons against an army of invading Anglo-Saxons.

Arthur is also mentioned in the Annales Cambriae, a Welsh chronicle of early history that also claims he won at Badon. In these early chronicles, Arthur doesn’t just face human enemies; he fights and defeats supernatural forces such as dragons, giants and witches.

Excalibur, Guinevere and Merlin

Nearly all of what we now consider the main elements of the Arthurian legend, from the Knights of the Round Table and Excalibur to Camelot and the Lady of the Lake, comes from the Middle Ages, in particular from two texts - Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

Completed in about 1138, Monmouth’s chronicle places Arthur in the same post-Roman time period as Nennius did 300 years before. In this version, however, Arthur is a direct descendent of Constantine the Great, and his father, Uther Pendragon, is aided by the powerful wizard Merlin, who in turn serves Arthur when he becomes king. As well as Merlin, we’re also introduced to a number of Arthur’s knights, including Sir Bedevere and Sir Gawain.

Monmouth’s chronicle tells the story of Arthur’s conception and birth, his ascent to the throne, the battles he fought with his trusty sword ‘Caledfwlch’ (an early version of Excalibur), the empire he built in Britain and Ireland, and his defeat of the Roman Emperor Lucius Tiberius in Gaul. Towards the end of Monmouth’s history of early Britain, Arthur is on his way to lay siege to Rome when he hears that his wife, Guinevere, has been forced to marry his mortal enemy (and nephew) Mordred, so he returns to fight him. Victorious but wounded, Arthur is taken to the island of Avalon to recover and is never heard from again.

The Knights of the Round Table and the quest for the Holy Grail

Published in 1485, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur draws upon many myths and legends from both the British Isles and France to tell the life story of Arthur. In this version, Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes the ruler of Britain; he is given Excalibur by the Lady in the Lake; he establishes Camelot as his capital and assembles his Knights of the Round Table, among them the brave Sir Lancelot and the pious Sir Galahad.

Malory also includes an adaptation of a 13th-century French poem that became one of the most famous of all Arthurian tales - the Quest for the Holy Grail. In Malory’s adaptation, various knights - among them Gawain, Lancelot and Percival - embark on epic adventures in search of the Grail before it is eventually found and brought to Camelot by Sir Galahad.

At the end of Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur is told about the affair between his wife and Lancelot. He sentences Guinevere to be burned to death, but Lancelot rescues her and flees to France. Arthur pursues his former friend, but in his absence, Mordred (Arthur’s son in Malory’s version) seizes the throne and Arthur returns to fight him in battle. Mortally wounded and with most of his knights slain, Arthur charges Sir Bedevere with returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake before he dies of his injuries.

Between them, the Historia Regum Britanniae and Le Morte d’Arthur collected many of the elements we associate with the legend of King Arthur. Other stories, such as Gawain and the Green Knight and the fairytale Tom Thumb were added over the years, but it is to those two books that we owe the bulk of what we would now consider ‘Arthurian canon’.

The Victorian revival

Interest in the Arthurian legend waned in the centuries following the publication of Le Morte d’Arthur, so much so that the book was out of print by the 1640s (and was not reprinted until 200 years later). Where Arthur had once been considered a real historical figure in the Middle Ages, his story was eventually dismissed as nonsense with no basis in fact, and the legend lost its power to enthral. While the story of Arthur didn’t disappear completely, it was no longer taken seriously or considered especially popular.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that interest was rekindled, spurred on by the Victorians’ love of all things Gothic and Medieval. Artists, musicians and poets produced works inspired by the legend, most famously Alfred Lord Tennyson, who wrote a 12-poem literary cycle called The Idylls of the King. Published between 1859 and 1885, the poems reimagined the legend of Arthur for the Victorian era and proved immensely popular. In the following decades, the Victorian revival paved the way for new works to add to the Arthurian myth, most notably by Thomas Hardy and TS Eliot.

Hollywood hand grenades

The 20th century saw the motion picture industry give the legend of Arthur a new lease of life. Films such as Knights of the Round Table, Excalibur, Camelot and The Sword in the Stone told the story of Arthur and his knights from a whole new perspective, appealing to young and old alike.

In the 21st century, television shows such as Merlin and films such as The Green Knight, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and The Kid Who Would Be King breathed new life into this most ancient of tales.

Was King Arthur real?

While there’s plenty of literature, art, music, films and television shows about King Arthur, is there any evidence at all that the man himself was real? Sadly, no. While the story may be a captivating and important part of British culture, it is widely accepted that it is nothing more than a myth with no basis in fact. Despite efforts to find some over the centuries, no evidence has been unearthed that proves Arthur ever existed. The legend is just that - a legend; a collection of tales drawn from ancient Welsh, English and French folklore that was embellished by writers in the Middle Ages and the Victorian era.

His story is a rich tapestry of myth, folklore and invention rather than a reliable historical record of our dim and distant past.