Who was King Arthur?

Barras Nose headland, Tintagel, North Cornwall

Historians and archaeologists fiercely debate the possibility of a ‘real’ King Arthur.

Mythology or archaeology?

Excavations at Tintagel, South Cadbury, Glastonbury and Wroxeter have unearthed tantalising leads, such as the ‘Artognov’ stone discovered at Tintagel in 1998, but there remains no reliable historical evidence that the famous figure really existed. 

However, early literary references to an Arthur figure can be found in Welsh texts: a ninth-century narrative by the writer Nennius portrays the character as a warrior in the fifth and sixth centuries, the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ of post-Roman Britain.

Medieval Camelot

It was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, completed around 1136, which cemented Arthur’s place in the literary canon.  Monmouth’s text firmly developed the characters of Merlin, Queen Guinevere and the central stories of his reign, including Uther Pendragon’s magical seduction of Queen Ygerna, Arthur’s ownership of the sword Excalibur and the treachery of Mordred.

Reaching an international audience, French and German romance writers developed the story by adding the court of Camelot, the knight Lancelot and the Grail quest.  The production of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, printed on Caxton’s printing press in 1485, fixed the legends in the popular imagination, and the characters in medieval guise.

The Victorians and the return of Arthur

The Victorian revival of interest in medieval social and artistic ideals offered artists and writers freedom from the limitations of both formal neoclassical style and the problems of industrial Britain. Critics such as John Ruskin and designers such as William Morris applauded the design and craftsmanship of medieval art, and all things ‘medieval’ became linked with an innate sense of ‘Englishness’.

This nineteenth century penchant for the medieval sparked a literary and artistic vogue for remodelling the Arthurian myths.  From Tennyson to the Pre-Raphaelites, Matthew Arnold to Mark Twain, artists and writers took inspiration from the romance and chivalry of Arthur and his court, or used Camelot as a social critique of nineteenth century society.

The once and future king?

Tales about questing knights in shining armour, magical feats and resplendent kings and queens continue to enthral us today. 

It is unlikely that we will ever know for certain whether Arthur did, or did not, exist.  However, the question must be posed: does it really matter?  Whether a true historical figure, a figment of the national imagination or a folkloric hero, the concept of Arthur and his court has shaped literary, artistic and social history for centuries – and in that respect, King Arthur is indeed ‘real’.

Our places with Arthurian connections

St Michael's Mount, Cornwall

St Michael's Mount 

This impressive site has been linked to the Arthurian knight Tristan of Lyonesse, whose kingdom is said to have bordered St Michael’s Mount. Other local legends suggest that King Arthur once batted a giant on the shore of the island.

A view of Glastonbury Tor and St Michael's tower at it's summit

Glastonbury Tor 

Writers such as Giraldus Cambrensis of the twelfth century and Richard Pynson of the sixteenth century, have suggested Glastonbury Tor to be the place of Arthur’s burial, the location of the mystical Isle of Avalon, and the site of the Holy Grail. From the top of the hill, visitors looking to the south can sometimes see the hillfort Cadbury Castle, which is one of the proposed locations of the mythical Camelot.

Barras Nose headland, Tintagel, North Cornwall

Tintagel walking trail 

Walk along the National Trust-owned coastline of Tintagel from Barras Nose headland. Take in views of the glorious Tintagel Castle, which some stories describe as Arthur’s birthplace, and the nearby Merlin’s Cave. Tintagel was the first English coastal acquisition by us in 1897.

Blossom and barrow

White Barrow 

Discover a Neolithic long barrow on Salisbury Plain, the legendary site of Arthur’s final battle with Mordred.

Y Garn reflected in the still waters of Llyn Ogwen, Carneddau, Snowdonia, Wales

Carneddau and Glyderau 

Legends say that Bedwyr Bedrynant, a knight of King Arthur cast the famous sword Excalibur into the lake at Llyn Ogwen, where it remains to this day.