Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Legend of King Arthur Fact or Fiction?

While reading Tony Hays’ novel The Killing Way, which is based on a murder mystery set back in Arthurian times, I became curious as to how much of the legend of King Arthur is true or if it is just a mythical adventure that has inspired books, cinemas, and even plays.

Here in this post I’m going to explore who King Arthur really was, where Camelot would have resided and in the end I hope I will be able to shed some light on what is fact and what is fiction. 

The Legend Behind the King

If not all, most of us are pretty familiar with the legend of King Arthur, his code of chivalry, quest for the Holy Grail, betrayal by his wife (Guinevere) and best friend (Lancelot), etc… If you are not so familiar with the Arthurian legend here is a link that will briefly sum it up for you. 
Historians have dated the story of King Arthur back to the end of the 5th century to the beginning of the 6th century A.D., which is known as the Dark Ages. It was called the Dark Ages because so little is known during this time period and it was during a time of strife and chaos.
The Legendary Arthur
A 19th-century painting by Frank Dicksee
depicts a medieval monarch in golden armor. 
This is the traditional image we have come
to associate with King Arthur.

During this time, the Briton’s were enjoying peace and prosperity that came from their status with the Romans; however, the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse causing the Roman armies to leave Britain to fend for themselves. This was not good for the Briton’s because the Roman army had been keeping the country in order since the 1st century, which provided them with efficient roads, trade, and most of all protection from foreign invaders. Once the Romans left, it paved the way for invaders such as the Irish who came by sea and took over the western coast of Britain and also the Scots and Picts (the painted people) to come by land from the north. 
The Historical Arthur
Illustration by military expert Dan Shadrake
showing Arthur in genuine Roman-style armor of the
fifth century.  If Arthur was an historical figure
then this is how he would have looked.

So the Briton’s decided to bring in Germanic mercenaries (Angles and Saxons), which turned out to be catastrophic because the Saxons grew greedy and decided to turn on the Briton’s causing a full fledged war. This is when the Briton’s needed a hero to rise up and save them. Soon the Saxon invasion ceased causing many people to believe there was some mysterious war leader responsible for saving them. So this is where the legend of King Arthur begins.    
Was King Arthur A Real Person or a Character Based on Folklore? 

This is a difficult question to answer because there is virtually no hard evidence that he ever existed. Some historians say yes that he could have been based on a certain historical figure during the Dark Ages or he could have been based on a composite of many heroic warriors during that time. Others say yes due to the gap in the records during that era, which could have been easily filled with Arthur there. Then other historians claim that since no reliable evidence has ever been found, then we should not assume he was truly a real person. The harshest view I found on Arthur’s existence was by David Dumville - "Histories and Pseudo-histories" (1990) he stated, "The fact is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books." So as you can see the facts and the fantasy repel one another. 

Who Was the Real King Arthur?

So if the legends are true and Arthur was real then the million dollar question we like to ask ourselves is who was he? There are many theories as to who King Arthur really was. As I mentioned before, he could have been some fearless war hero who has been fluffed up by folklore or he could have been multiple figures compiled into one legendary being. As I researched this topic I narrowed down the top three candidates that many historians believe could have been the man behind the myth.
Ambrosius Aurelianus

One of the candidates some historians believe to be the real Arthur is, Ambrosius Aurelianus, who was thought to have been a supreme Roman commander of Britain during the late 5th Century AD. He is a contender because he lived during the same time believed to have been the time of King Arthur’s reign. He also could have changed his name to Artorius and eventually become known as Arthur. Another key factor is that Ambrosius was thought have been a Roman commander and many believe King Arthur was part Briton and part Roman.

The fact that Ambrosius fought and won an important battle against the Saxons and was the nephew of Uther Pendragon according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, makes him a top contender. However, some historians are refuting this possibility because he would have been at least seventy years old when the Battle of Badon Hill took place. The Battle of Badon Hill was King Arthur’s greatest triumph over the Saxons. During this era, the typical life span was around thirty-five making it difficult to believe Ambrosius lived to the age of seventy, let alone fought and won a prestigious battle.

Lucius Artorius Castus
This is the theory the film
King Arthur was based on
played by Clive Owen

A second possibility also coincides with the Ambrosius Aurelianus theory. Some historians like to believe that Ambrosius’ story was somehow intertwined with another Roman officer called Lucius Artorius Castus. Artorius is the Latin name for Arthur. Lucius Artorius Castus was a Roman officer alleged to be stationed in Britain during the 2nd century AD. However, if you have been paying close attention you would have immediately noticed a rather significant problem with this theory. According to Nennius, a Welsh monk who wrote History Brittonum, “A History of Britain,” somewhere between the 7th and 9th century, Arthur lived during the late 5th century making Artorius Castus a highly unlikely candidate for King Arthur. On the other hand, some historians are hesitant to contest Artorius as the legendary Arthur and here’s why.

Over the centuries, historians, scholars, and some archeologists have noticed that there are quite a few similarities that could connect Artorius to Arthur. For instance, Artorius Castus was associated with a cavalry unit of Sarmatian soldiers, who fought the Saxons and flew a pendragon banner at the head of their units as they rode into battle. It has been recorded that the Sarmation soldiers were known to have worn scale armor and to fight with long swords, which made them look like medieval knights even though that was way before their time. Another similarity between the Arthurian legend and Lucius Artorius was that the Sarmation people worshiped a sword in the ground during some religious rights and Sarmation legend talks of a Sarmation warrior who wielded an unstoppable sword, which sounds a lot like Excalibur. So despite the inconvenient four hundred year gap between Arthurian time and the time of Lucius Artorius Castus, Castus would have been a perfect fit for the man behind the legendary King Arthur.

Probably the most believable and more accepted of the candidates is the high king Riothamus, who reigned over the British and Breton people from what has been suggested to be between 454 and 470 AD. The man behind this theory is Geoffrey Ashe author of The Discovery of King Arthur

What we know about Riothamus is that he was real and was King of Britain sometime in the middle of the 5th century AD., which fits the same time frame depicted to be when King Arthur flourished. We also know that he was a true warrior who led his soldiers into battle against the Saxons. He was highly respected and viewed as a true leader among his people all of which fit the criteria of King Arthur. Probably the most esteemed similarities between the two is the fact that Riothamus was only his title, which translates into “Supreme Leader” in English. His Christian name was Artorius and after their battles, both Arthur and Riothamus travelled to Burgundy and then to Avalon. Even though the legend says that the Isle of Avalon was a magical land surrounded by water, the Avalon that Riothamus journeyed to was what is now known as modern day Glastonbury in the United Kingdom. Even though it may seem like a stretch to believe Riothamus was the man behind the legend he appears to be the closest thing to King Arthur and it is easier to accept the fact that there was only one Arthur and not two or more historical figures competing to form the basis behind the legend.

South Cadbury "Camelot"

The Real Camelot

How can I discuss King Arthur without even mentioning his enchanting castle in his city Camelot, or was it really a castle? 

Glastonbury "Isle of Avalon"
Many historians and archeologists alike, believe that the most probable location of the city of Camelot is South Cadbury in the United Kingdom. However, it most likely was not the enchanted city legend claims it to have once been. It was almost certainly an equipped town made of wood rather than a stone castle or fort. We did not see stone castles until the time of William the Conqueror during the Medieval era. Also, Arthur probably would not have called his city by Camelot because the name “Camelot” is most likely French and originates from the 12 century.

Historians and archeologists believe South Cadbury to once have been the Arthurian city of Camelot because it is so close to where the battle of Badon Hill was fought and it is literally only 11 miles away from Glastonbury, which is thought to be the modern day Isle of Avalon. Doubtless the biggest kicker is that a grave has been discovered there, which contained men and boys, unmistakably fallen in battle. So some believe it was a grave of those who fell during the battle of Camlann, Arthur’s last battle which may have been fought to defend the city from the Saxons.

 I had the pleasure of having Tony Hays, the author of an Arthurian mystery series; on my blog where he discussed in immense detail his journey to Camelot, “Cadbury Castle,” in order to further research King Arthur for the newest book in his series, The Beloved Dead. Here is the link to his post if you are interested in reading his rediscovery of Camelot.

What is Fact and what is Fiction?

Unfortunately, due to the lack of evidence we may never know what was fact and what was fiction concerning the legendary tale of King Arthur. There are so many legends and myths surrounding Arthur that has touched us all at some point in our lives. I know I fantasized about King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot as a little girl ever since I watched A Kid in King Arthur’s Court and First Knight. He may just have been a hero created from folklore or he could have been a real. In my opinion he was real, whether he was just one person or a combination of many I don’t have the answer, but I sure hope someone will be able to unveil Arthur for what he truly was: a fierce warrior and a true leader.


  1. I love King Arthur. Thank you for the interesting post!

  2. What a great post with so much information. I love King Arthur stories and really enjoyed reading your post.

  3. The greatest thing about Arthur is that we don't know who he was historically. He can be anyone we want him to be, and it's possible for us to appreciate all the contradictory legends.

  4. Arthur pulled excalibur not through ignorance or greed yet through purity of heart and soul as pure as my faith st peter st michael st nicolaus st christopher st george and st patrick king john lionheart and harold arthur took the north for the same reason he gave it to his people land of the free say do and go where you want i did for matters of the heart eternal life and happiness nt a challis a cup for it was said to heal the sick and i sir am far from sick my lord drank merely uttering the words eternal life and happiness as pure as the faith that being my friend being the heart and soul of a woman im just a man whom has traveled far in life thrown threw other peoples beliefs i live not for beliefs anymore yet my faith my armours heavy and scars run deep not in my heart and soul visible for the world to see i my wounds have healed i cant fight and cannot run i am tired so here is where im stopping here in the north to find the rose whom hides among the thorns i feel not pain just the sharp blades as the cut deep into my heart i shall rip those thorns like the serpants tounge from its spine like the teeth from the dragons mouth i fear not the firery breath of the the dragon or the bite from the serpant for they are mere shadows of ignorance he being a worm and she the cockroach beneath my foot that i shall crush my door isnt open to ignorance only truth and ive searched all my life

  5. I love this time period..........takes me away from my everyday life...