We can’t prove the legends surrounding King Arthur of Camelot, but we do know some about the time period. So while we can’t prove much about Arthur, a close examination of his story tells us near endless amounts about the history of Britain.
Was King Arthur Real?
King Arthur, a Briton who was said to have defended Britain against the Saxons in the late 5th century, is almost certainly a mythological figure.
The History of the Britons 830 A.D. contains the first mention of King Arthur. The rest of his story is pieced together from various sources including accounts of history, folklore, and epic poems.
While it is possible King Arthur is based on a real Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons sometime in the late 5th to early 6th century, we lack the historical evidence to prove it.
Our historical documents strongly suggest that King Arthur and the legend surrounding him (including the holy grail, Camelot, the knights of the round table like Lancelot, the sword Excalibur, and the wizard Merlin) are all at least partly mythical. However, old maps and documents confirm some aspects of the legend.
We know for certain the old Britons or Celtic Britons, and the eastern Saxons from Germania fought over sub-Roman Britain. We also know kings led these battles. Thus, it is possible that Arthur is a romanticized representation of one or more real Britons.
We know a good bit about the period, but not anything more about Camelot or Arthur than is written in a few key documents, although the videos on this page put forth some interesting theories.
Below we look at a chronology of historical Arthurian texts to separate the fact from fiction regarding the Legend of King Arthur.The Truth Behind King Arthur – A Compelling Documentary.
FACT: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is probably the best primary source for information of the era. King Alfred the Great complied it in approximately 890 A.D. It was subsequently maintained and added to by generations of anonymous scribes until the middle of the 12th century. It starts with this sentence, “The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad, and there are in the island five nations: English, Welsh (or British), Scottish, Pictish, and Latin. The first inhabitants were the Britons, who came from Armenia, and first peopled Britain southward.” Many believe that “Armenia” is a mistaken transcription of Armorica, an area in Northwestern Gaul (see here).Kings and Queens of England: Episode 1: Normans. This story discusses the first Kings of England.
TIP: Despite the fighting, the Britons, Welsh, Scots, Celtic British, Anglos (England = Angland), Saxons, Jutes, and others eventually came together as Britain (and today the United Kingdom). The story is told in the history of Sub-Roman Britain.Britain AD ~ King Arthur’s Britain ~ Francis Pryor An account of the mystery of the lost years of Briton from about 400-800 AD, when the collapse of the Roman Empire left Britain in tatters. In the 5th century AD Roman ‘Britannia’ was plunged into chaos by the arrival of Anglo-Saxon invaders. it is in this undocumented period that Arthur’s story begins. See also How the Celts Saved Britain – HD – 1of2 (BBC) – A New Civilisation (2009).
FACT: The term used to describe legends like Arthur’s, including legends of Charlemagne, is Matter of Britain.
The Chronology of King Arthur Legends
Firstly, Arthur doesn’t appear in the only surviving contemporary source about the Saxon invasion, in which the Celtic monk Gildas wrote of a real-life battle at Mons Badonicus (Badon Hills) around 500 A.D. While this doesn’t prove Arthur wasn’t real, it is a red flag.
He appears in other, less reliable, accounts. Although we can’t dismiss or trust this old text, in 830 A.D. an author named Nennius writes in his Historia Brittonum, “Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror…. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [“dux bellorum”]…. fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor…. [this paved the way for the] first kings in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.”
Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales) from between mid 10th – 12th century also mentions Arthur, although the Arthurian passages in this text are debated even more than the passages in Nennius’ account. The Annals of Wales, the Nennius text, and the Monmouth text (described next) report the Saxons as being pagans (true for this period, see here) and the Britons as being Christians, with Arthur supposedly bearing an image of the Virgin Mary.
A more romanticized tale of King Arthur came about in the 11th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth published his book The History of the Kings of Britain. This book covers the history of Britain from the Trojans founding the British nation, to the Anglo-Saxons assuming control of much of Britain around the 7th century. It also lays out most of the modern tale of Arthur from his birth at Tintagel to his death. The mythical nature of the story is further confused by it being set in a number of actual, historically documented, places such as Tintagel Castle in north Cornwall. The book also introduces Guinevere and Merlin, who is depicted as a literal wizard, one of many hints this is a pseudohistorical account of British history. The History of the Kings of Britain was wildly popular. Today over 200 manuscripts remain in existence. This is an impressive number of copies, especially when we consider the printing press was developed in the West in 1440.
The next important tale of Arthur is from the romanticized epic poem Perceval, the Story of the Grail, by French court writer Chretien de Troyes (1181-90). Perceval, who in the fable grew up in the remote forests of Wales, is one of the Knights of the Round Table but is portrayed in varied ways in different texts. He is very much a Hercules or Odysseus type figure; he faces trials and seeks out a quest rather than fighting against Saxons for Briton. His story also follows Arthur’s nephew, the knight Gawain.
There is both fact and myth in Arthurian legend. Many identifiable places figure in the story along with some that archeologists have been unable to authenticate. Despite there being verifiable elements to the story, there are enough people and events that we cannot substantiate for us to be fairly certain it is a myth.KING ARTHUR: LIFE AND LEGEND