The legend of King Arthur is a story that has maintained a steadfast place in classic literature across the world since around the 1200s. However, the story’s earliest traces originate from Wales dating from around the 7th century. As the story of an English king who united the islands of Britain against the Saxon invaders, its patriotic and political tones were highly popular with nationalist groups at the time. Did the British create the legend as a way to muster up much-needed morale, or was he real?
Documentation or Fiction?
The story of the legendary King first came to light with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of Kings” in 1138. Later, Camelot appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ “Lancelot” in 1180. As the story goes, the time of Arthur and Camelot was what people called the “Golden Age.” This resulted after Arthur supposedly united the islands by defeating the Saxons, the Picts, the Scots, the Irish, and even the Icelanders. However, his triumph did not last when Mordred declared himself King and wounded King Arthur in the Battle of Camlann. Three fairy maidens carried Arthur off to the mystical Isle of Avalon and, subsequently, the Saxons conquered King Arthur’s Briton.
One interesting find was a book that a Welsh Monk by the name of Gildas authored. He documented in “The Ruin of Briton” that a great victory by the Britons occurred in AD 500. Later, the Welsh Annales Cambriae, a 12th-century compilation of earlier works, refers to Arthur twice: “The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were victors.” The second reference is “The Battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut [Mordred] fell, and there was devastation in Britain and in Ireland.” (University of Rochester).
Did the Real “King Arthur” Go by Another Name?
Many also credited Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman British general, with this victory. He led British forces in defeat of the Anglo-Saxon incursions (interestingly, Monmouth identified Aurelianus as King Arthur’s uncle). But he was not the only Roman warrior identified as the “real” King Arthur. Riothamus, a late 5th-century British leader, crossed the channel to wage war in support of the western Roman Empire. Then he retreated to Avalon (just like King Arthur). Finally, there is Magnus Maximianus. He had proclaimed himself emperor of Roman Britain, and his late 4th century exploits in Armorica matched much of what the mythical King accomplished in his military battles in Gaul.
Another interesting discovery was a book written by another Welsh cleric in AD 900 titled “History of the Britons”, in which “the warrior Arthur” overcame the Saxons in 12 battles. Other Welsh writers eventually credited this Arthur in the aforementioned Battle of Mount Badon.
So was King Arthur real, was he a true king, or was he something else? Could he have been a Roman Emperor of Britain, a Romano-Celtic war leader, a tribal chieftain? Perhaps he was a general in command of another King’s army.
Evidence at Tintagel Castle
And where was Camelot? Tintagel in Cornwall may very well have been its location. Geoffrey of Monmouth claims Arthur was born there, and evidence exists of a castle constructed there during Arthur’s reign.
In 1998, archaeologists discovered a 6th century stone inscribed in Latin stating “Pater Coli Avi Ficit Artognou”, which transcribes to “Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this constructed.”
Artognou would have been pronounced as Arthnou and means descendant of Arthur, while Col could very well be Coel Hen, the legendary Romano-British king named by Monmouth as the Ancestor of Arthur.
On August 6, 1998, BBC reported in “Clue to King Arthur Discovered”:
An ancient stone bearing a sixth-century inscription similar to the name Arthur has been unearthed at Tintagel Castle, the mythical birthplace of the legendary king. The discovery could prove that King Arthur had his headquarters at the site of a ruined castle on the coast of north Cornwall.
The mystery still remains: was King Arthur real, and was there truly a Camelot? What we do know is that Britain was led to a victory at Mount Badon that lasted two generations. Welsh documentation regarding this event closest to that time period named this leader as Arthur.