Who was King Arthur?
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.
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’.