King Arthur: 6 things you need to know about the warrior king and his legend
The legend of King Arthur, a fifth-century warrior king who supposedly led the fight against Saxon invaders, continues to fascinate today. But how much truth is there to the legends of the 'once and future king'? We find out with experts John Matthews and Miles Russell...
Arthur, sometimes known as ‘the king that was and the king that shall be’, is recognised all over the world as one of the most famous characters of myth and legend. Yet, if he existed at all (which few scholars agree upon), he would not have been a king, but the commander of an elite force of fighting men. Furthermore, he would have lived more than 500 years before medieval legends suggest.
Who was King Arthur – and was he real?
All that is known, with even the least degree of certainty, is that a man named Arthur, or Arturus, led a band of heroic warriors who spearheaded the resistance of Britons against the invading Saxons, Jutes, and others from the north of Europe, sometime in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
Another theory claims that Arthur was a Roman centurion named Lucius Artorius Castus, who fought against the Picts [northern tribes that constituted the largest kingdom in Dark Age Scotland] on Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD, some 300 years earlier than the time at which Arthur’s dates are normally set.
Even Arthur’s birthplace and base of operations are questionable. Camelot – the castled city associated with King Arthur – was likely invented by the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes. Arthur’s association with Cornwall and parts of Wales is an idea fostered by 18th-century antiquarians such as William Stukeley, who carried out one of the first archaeological investigations at Cadbury Castle in Somerset, long believed in local folklore to be the original site of Camelot.
Camelot, the legendary court and castle of King Arthur, was a peerless seat of chivalry. If it did exist, where might it have been built?
Whatever the truth – and we may never know for sure – the adventures of the legendary King Arthur, with his Round Table Fellowship of Knights based in the mythical city of Camelot, were told and retold between the 11th and 15th centuries in hundreds of manuscripts in at least a dozen languages.
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“What place is there within the bounds of the Empire of Christendom to which the winged praise of Arthur the Briton has not extended?” wrote the 12th-century chronicler Alanus ab Insulis (or Alain de Lille). Today Arthurian stories are told in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Icelandic, Dutch, Russian, and even Hebrew.
John Matthews is a historian who has produced more than 100 books on myth, the Arthurian legends, and the history of the Grail, including The Complete King Arthur: Many Faces, One Hero (Inner Traditions, 2017)
Authurian legends: fact and fiction
Archaeologist and historian Miles Russells gives us a quick-fire glimpse into some of the most famous people, places and objects in the stories of King Arthur
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur married Ganhumara; ‘Guinevere’ is a romanticised French version of the name created in the late 12th century.
The character of Mordred, the treacherous nephew, is based upon the first-century-BC king Mandubracius of the Trinovantes (in Essex), a prince who betrayed his uncle to Julius Caesar.
There is no equivalent of Lancelot in the earliest accounts of Arthur, his queen Ganhumara instead committing adultery with Mordred.
In the earliest accounts, Merlin and Arthur never meet, the wizard being the chief advisor to Arthur’s father Uther and his uncle, Ambrosius Aurelianus.
The Round Table
Added to the story of Arthur in the 12th and 13th centuries, the concept of the ‘brotherhood of knights’ appealed to the medieval concept of chivalry.
Cited as the place of Arthur’s conception, Tintagel was indeed a significant fortress and port throughout the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
The Holy Grail
Added in the late 12th century, the quest for the Holy Grail adds a greater sense of both chivalry and religious destiny to the story of Arthur.
The Sword in the Stone
There is no mention of a sword in the stone prophesy for Arthur in the earliest accounts of his life; Arthur simply inherits the kingdom from his father, Uther.
Although named swords play an important part in Celtic folklore, Arthur’s sword was called ‘Caliburn’.
Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University and author of Arthur and the Kings of Britain: the Historical Truth Behind the Myths (Amberley Publishing, 2017)
Historian John Matthews explores six big questions about King Arthur and his legend, separating the myth from reality...
What was King Arthur's Round Table, and how many Knights of the Round Table were there?
The Round Table is the centerpiece of the Arthurian world. According to the 13th-century poet Layamon, Arthur ordered the table to be built for him by a famous Cornish carpenter, who somehow made the table capable of seating 1,600 men (clearly an exaggeration), yet easily portable to wherever Arthur set up his mobile base of operations.
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Other stories suggest it was Merlin, the king’s magician, who made the table – “round” he said, “in the likeness of the world” – and who sent out a call to the bravest and truest knights to join a great fellowship whose task was to care for the disenfranchised (especially women), and who would do no harm to anyone who did not deserve it.
Some 150 knights were said to have sat at the Round Table. Their adventures lead us into a magical realm of wonder: where ‘faery women’ test the nobility of the knights by offering them seemingly impossible tasks, and strange creatures lurk in the shadows of a vast forest, in whose depth are clearings where castles, chapels, hermitages, and ruins are found – some empty, others containing dangerous foes.
When they had largely rid the land of monsters, dragons, and evil customs, the knights undertook their greatest task of all – the quest for the Holy Grail. Many did not return.
Who were the 'faery women' of Arthurian legend?
Many faery women thread together the stories of Arthur and his knights. This is probably because a good number of the stories originated not in Britain, but in Brittany – or, as it was known then, Armorica or Aermorica, where belief in ancient deities and the faery race lived on.
These faery tales became interwoven with stories of chivalry beloved by the courtly circle. Within the courtly circle these stories were told by roving troubadours – poets who learned dozens of Arthurian tales by heart.
It was c1150 Geoffrey of Monmouth named nine sisters in his Vita Merlini as the rulers of the enchanted island of Avalon. Among them was Morgen (more familiar to us as Morgan le Fay), who in later stories is described as Arthur’s half-sister and becomes his most implacable foe. Sir Thomas Malory, in his great 15th-century novel, Le Mort D’Arthur, tells us Morgan was “put to school on a nunnery, where she learned magic and necromancy”.
Though this may sound odd to us today, many of the women in enclosed orders were learned, and since learning was frequently equated with magic, thus Morgan came to be considered a sorceress.
Archaeologist Dr Miles Russell talks to us about his bold new theory on legendary British ruler King Arthur, which is based on a reinterpretation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.
Where did the story of the quest for the Holy Grail come from?
The greatest task undertaken by Arthur’s knights was the quest for the grail, a mysterious vessel linked to the Passion of Christ [the story of Jesus Christ's arrest, trial, suffering, and eventual execution by crucifixion]. According to the 12th-century poet Robert De Boron, the grail was used to celebrate the Last Supper, and afterwards by Christ’s ‘uncle’, Joseph of Arimathea, to catch some of the blood that flowed from the Saviour as his body was taken down from the cross.
But did you know that earlier stories, from the mythology of the Celts, can be seen as precursors of the grail? They spoke of “cauldrons of plenty” that provided food for heroes and could even bring the dead to life. But once the links with Christian belief were established in the 12th century, the grail became a holy relic sought by mystics and heroes – and, most famously, by Arthur’s fellowship.
All 150 knights of the Round Table are said to have gone forth in search of the sacred vessel after it appeared at Camelot during Pentecost [a feast celebrated each year on the 50th day after the Great and Holy Feast of Pascha (Easter) and 10 days after the Feast of the Ascension of Christ]. Of those who went forth only three succeeded in their quest to find the grail: the saintly knight Sir Galahad, the simple Sir Percival, and the honest, plain-spoken Sir Bors.
Many other knights perished, and this undoubtedly weakened both the Round Table and Arthur’s court, preparing the way for the dark days to come when Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred rose up against him and ended the dream of Camelot.
Lancelot and Guinevere – what happened and what became of them?
The love story of Lancelot and Guinevere, originating in France, became one of the best known of the Arthurian tales. Lancelot was the greatest knight of the Round Table and Arthur’s most trusted ally, but it was his illicit love for Queen Guinevere that made him famous.
Later versions of the story extended Lancelot and Guinevere’s love into a full-blown affair, which in the end brought down the Round Table and ushered in the end of Arthur’s reign when Lancelot rescued the queen, who had been condemned to burn at the stake, and in the process killed several of Arthur’s knights. With the king reluctantly forced to attack Lancelot, the way was left open for Mordred to attack Camelot.
But did you know that in early versions of the legend, Guinevere spurns Lancelot?
The 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes gave us an account of their romance in his Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart (c1177). No stories before this feature Lancelot, so we must assume that Chrétien invented him.
Chrétien’s story tells a dramatic tale of Guinevere’s abduction by a lord named Melwas, who had fallen in love with the queen, and of Lancelot’s efforts to rescue her. In order to reach Melwas’ castle, where she is held, Lancelot is forced to ride in a cart – a vehicle reserved for criminals on their way to the gallows. But Lancelot hesitates for a moment, and when Guinevere learns of this this later on she spurns him as not worthy of her affections.
Love stories feature a great deal in the Arthurian world. Tristan and Isolde, for example, best known these days from Wagner’s 1859 opera that retold their story, were famous doomed lovers.
How does King Arthur die – and what does Mordred have to do with it?
The battle of Camlann is said to have been King Arthur's final battle. Weakened by the losses incurred during the quest for the grail, and then by the scandal of Lancelot and Guinevere, Arthur’s kingdom began to break apart.
War broke out after Lancelot staged an armed rescue of Guinevere, condemned to death for her treasonous love for the great knight. In the heat of battle Lancelot killed two of Arthur’s best men, Gareth and Gaheris, who had defended the queen. Their brother, the famous knight Sir Gawain, thus became Lancelot’s most bitter foe, and as Arthur was forced to respond to Lancelot’s rescue of the queen, he reluctantly led an army to France to attack him.
While Arthur and Gawain were away attacking Lancelot, King Arthur’s son, Mordred, raised an army and declared himself king. With the hasty return of the true king to Britain, a final battle took place at Camlann. Arthur killed Mordred, but suffered a wound that seemed likely to kill him – though in the end he was taken to Avalon to be healed.
There follows one of the most famous scenes in the entire series of Arthurian stories: Arthur’s faithful follower, Sir Bedivere, throws the king’s mighty sword back into the lake from which it had come at the beginning of his reign (given him by the Lady of the Lake). A mysterious hand rises from the water and seizes the sword, drawing it under.
A ship then appears, carrying three queens, who take the wounded Arthur away, across the sea to the fabled Isle of Avalon, where it is said he would be healed of his wounds and live on, awaiting recall by his country in time of need – the ‘once and future king’ indeed.
Where is King Arthur buried?
Belief in Arthur’s expected return to his country was kept alive in stories for many years by the people of Britain. Arthur’s bones were supposedly found at Glastonbury Abbey in 1191, though this was nothing more than a fabrication designed to quell the belief that Arthur would return to expel the invading Normans. Nevertheless, some bones were indeed interred in a black marble tomb in 1278 at the expense of Edward I.
To this day, countless new books, films, television shows and plays continue to be created about King Arthur, adding to the popularity of the legends, which remain among the most familiar and best-loved stories of all time.
This article is curated from content first published on HistoryExtra and in BBC History Revealed in 2016 and 2017