King Arthur reigns supreme in British myth and legend – no other British hero has had so much written about him, and his stories, filled with daring deeds, romance and magic, have a timelessness and mystery which still inspire modern writers, film-makers, readers and viewers.
However, whether Arthur really existed outside of the legend is a bit of a puzzle. He is supposed to be a High King in the 5th or 6th Century, uniting warring tribes against invaders, after the Romans withdrew their forces from Britain.
But there are no writings at all about him from the time .. no witnesses to tell us one way or another. However, this is really not surprising. It was a chaotic time for Britons after the Romans pulled out. The peace which the Romans had imposed vanished almost immediately after their departure. Tribes from Germany, such as the Angles and Saxons, began to invade and settle. When the Saxons finally overran the west of England, the Britons fleeing before them into Wales and Cornwall will have taken little with them, and probably no written documents at all (remember, this was long before the days of printing!). All the stories they had would have been handed down by word of mouth.
Arthur figured occasionally in early Welsh folk songs and stories; in some he is a wild, pagan figure but in others he is associated with Christianity and the fight for right. The Welsh monk Gildas, who wrote De Excidio Britanniae. in the sixth century, does not mention Arthur at all in his accounts of the Battle of Badon, where the Britons defeated Saxon invaders; he does however mentions a character called The Bear, and some say that the root ‘Art’ is Celtic and Breton for bear.
Others suggest that the Roman name Artorius is likely to be the root, since he is claimed to have lived soon after the Romans had left, and so have been a leader of Romanized Britons.
Arthur’s name is first mentioned by a Welsh monk named Nennius, living in the ninth century, more than three hundred years later. However, it was not until the Medieval "historian" Geoffrey of Monmouth, (c1100 – 1155) included him in his work Historia Regum Brittaniae (History of Kings of Britain), that he becomes the figure we know today.
In the 20th Century, Kemp Malone suggested that Arthur could be based on Lucius Artorius Casus, a Roman commander of late second, early thirds centuries. Little is known about him, except that he was an officer at York and then was put in charge of transferring some British units to Europe to fight in Brittany.
However, fact or fiction, Arthur is, at the very least, the symbol of an historical fact: the successful united resistance of many British tribes to the Saxon invasions of the time.
Who or What is Merlin?
Merlin's Cave - Tintagel
Merlin and Arthur are nowadays inextricably linked together, but until the 12th century they had separate stories.
The Myrddin of the older Welsh legends was a wild man of the woods, living in the Forest of Celyddon. He had been a prince and warrior, but following the Battle of Arfderydd had become mad, was struck with prophecy and was able to speak with animals and creatures of the wild. Even when his madness left him, he still had prophecy and a love of nature.
Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1138) uses the name Merlinus. He places Merlin’s birth in Camarthen, southwest Wales, to the union of a pious Christian woman with an incarnation of the devil, who wanted to create a man who had supernatural powers and would fight the Christian faith. However, although inheriting his father’s magical powers and prophecy, Merlin was not evil.
A British king in 5th Century, called Vortigern, wanted to build a fortress at Dinas Emrys as a base to fight the Saxons, but the building kept falling down. His wise men suggested that he needed to sacrifice a child of a virgin and mix the blood with the cement. Merlin was found and prepared for sacrifice, but he scoffed at the wise men and told Vortigern that the building was unstable because it was built over a pool of water. This pool contained two fighting dragons, one red and one white. The pool was uncovered and the dragons released, and Vortigern appointed Merlin as his chief adviser.
Another of Geoffrey’s stories had Merlin responsible for the building of Stonehenge near Amesbury in Wiltshire. Many British had been murdered treacherously by the Saxons and King Ambrosius wanted a fitting memorial. Merlin suggests the Giant’s Ring on top of Mount Killaraus in Ireland. Ambrosius sends armies of men to move it – but they all fail until Merlin takes charge.
Merlin’s link to Arthur is now at the very heart of the Arthurian legend. Wise man, seer and sorcerer, Merlin is instrumental in Arthur’s conception, birth and upbringing. He organises the sword in the stone, ensuring that Arthur is accepted by other kings and knights; creates the idea of a round table; and is at Arthur’s side throughout his early reign, advising and helping. He is the bridge between the Celtic and the Christian, and provides the mystery and the magic at the heart of most good myths and legends.
What places are associated with King Arthur?
Glastonbury Tor - was this Camelot?
Many places in Britain and across Europe claim associations with King Arthur, his court, his knights, Guinivere and Merlin.
However, England's West Country, especially Cornwall and Somerset, are the areas especially associated with Arthur, whilst Wales lays claim to many of the places linked to Merlin. Here are a few claiming links to some of the key parts of Arthur’s story – you will be able to find many more.
Birth place: Tintagel in Cornwall has the major claim to be Arthur’s place of conception and birth.
Camelot: So many places claim to be the legendary home of King Arthur’s court.
Geoffrey of Monmouth proposed Caerleon, in Wales, which had been an important Roman centre, with an amphitheatre and baths – possibly a good place for a major post-Roman court?
However, Cadbury Castle, an ancient hill fort on top of Cadbury hill, north east of Yeovil, Somerset, makes strong claims to be Camelot. After the Romans withdrew, the site appears to have been used from c.470 until some time after 580. There is great hall and the defences had been refortified, making it bigger than any other known fort from that time. John Leland, in 1542, says that Cadbury Castle was King Arthur’s Camelot.
Additionally, two places in Cornwall, not too far from Tintagel, Camelford on the north of Bodmin Moor, near the river Camel, and Killibury Castle, also lay claims to have been the site for Camelot.
Excalibur: Both Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall and Looe Pool south of Helston, Cornwall, have strong support for being the lake from which Arthur was given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake.
The Holy Grail: Glastonbury Tor long claimed to be the site of the Holy Grail. Glastonbury was said to have been visited by Joseph of Arimathea, who brought the Holy Grail, which the knights all searched for. However, the Jesus Well in North Cornwall, near the river Camel, also makes a good case.
Battles: Arthur’s battles were many and took place all over Britain from the Caledonian Forest and Edinburgh and Cambuslang, near Glasgow in the North, to Carlisle, York, Lincoln and Lichfield and all those places in the South and West. His twelfth, and greatest battle, defeating the Saxons, was the Battle of Badon. The Badbury rings in Dorset, the Lansdown Hill above Bath and the nearby Solsbury Hill, all have claims made for them to be the site of that decisive battle.
Camlann-Final Battle with Mordred: There is a Slaughter Bridge in Cornwall, north of Camelford - did Arthur receive the mortal blow here? Or at West Camel on the river Cam … or there are three Camlans in Wales .. perhaps one of them is more likely.
Final resting place: Glastonbury Abbey claims the burial site of Arthur with a cross being drawn in the 12th Century by William Camden, who claims it came from Arthur’s grave. The cross carries the inscription Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus — "Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be"
However, in mythology, Arthur was borne to the Isle of Avalon, where he still lies sleeping with his knights until Britons need him again. Glastonbury Tor, rising above the Somerset levels and King Arthur’s Hall on Bodmin Moor are two of the places, along with various mountains in Wales, where he is reputed to lie.
The legend through the ages.
Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem 'Idylls of a King' illustrated by Gustav Dore, 1868
Although essentially a British legend, the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table appealed to, and was rewritten and added to, in countries throughout Europe.
One of the earliest mentions of Arthur, is in the Historia Brittonum, attributed to a ninth century monk Nennius. Arthur is referred to as a war leader who fought with the British kings against the Saxons. In the Battle of Badon, in which the Saxons were defeated and forced to come to terms with the British, he is said to have killed 960 men.
The Welsh Annales Cambriae, supposedly written from AD447 to 957, give the date of Mons Badonicus as 516, and Arthur's death as occurring in 537 at Camlann The Annals also mention Mordred and Merlin.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1133) really put Arthur on the map, introducing his father Uther Pendragon, Merlin, his wife Guinevere, the sword Excalibur, the story of his conception at Tintagel, of the final battle with Mordred at Camlann and the Isle of Avalon. Within 50 years the story had fired the imaginations of storytellers across Europe.
The French poet Robert Wace wrote a French version for Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, adding The Round Table.
Chretien de Troyes, who worked for Eleanor’s daughter ,wrote five Arthurian stories between 1160 and 1180. He first introduced the love between Lancelot and Guinevere, as well as being the first to mention the Holy Grail. Both of these have parallels in Celtic myth.
About 1200 the priest Layamon wrote The Chronicle of Britain, a history in poem form, in English. This included a large section on Arthur in which Arthur did not die from his wounds, but stayed on the Isle of Avalon - to return some time in the future.
Between 1215 and 1230, The Vulgate Cycle appeared, a series of 5 prose poems written in French, telling the story of the quest for the Holy Grail and the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. It is not certain who wrote it.
In 1485, William Caxton published 'Le Morte D'Arthur' by Sir Thomas Malory. This was a compilation of eight stories, and some original work by Malory, which brilliantly drew together the whole saga. This is the basis for most of the Arthurian legend as we know it today.
Between 1838 and 1849, The Mabinogion, translated from the Welsh by Lady Charlotte Guest, was published. This is a collection of eleven prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts. The tales draw on Celtic mythology, international folktale motifs, and early medieval historical traditions. The first volumes contained Arthurian stories.
This inspired a new explosion of interest in the Arthurian legends, with many poems written by well known poets such as Alfred Lord Tennyson.
That interest has never since died, with the publication of many books and works of scholarship covering all the characters, ideas and events in the Legend. Perhaps the most famous of these is the ever popular Once and Future King, written by T.H. White and published in 1958.