Was King Arthur a real historical person?

King Arthur, ruler of Camelot, champion of Britain, bearer of Excalibur and seeker of the Holy Grail, is undoubtedly legendary. There are probably few in Western societies who have not encountered some aspect of his story through various media, from books, to television shows, to video games and so on. But despite the power of this seemingly timeless mythological figure, there is one question that has caused consternation among scholars and the public alike: was the author’s legend based on a real person?

Although there are many who believe that there was a living, breathing king named Arthur, there is unfortunately no historical evidence to support this.

The legend of a story

It is fair to say that Arthur’s story has not been static. It has undergone several transformations and revisions over the centuries, adding more of the mythical features we recognize today. To understand the individual from a historical perspective, we must go all the way back in time.

Apart from a few scattered references, we don’t really hear any mention of Arthur until the 12the century CE. In his The History of the Kings of Great BritainWelsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth provides the first comprehensive account of this character’s life.

According to Monmouth, Arthur’s story begins with a rather dark event when Merlin (another complex character with his own winding legend) transformed King Uther Pendragon (certainly not a real person) into the likeness of the Duke of Cornwall. This was so that Uther could spend the night with the Duke’s wife, Ygerna. During this night, Arthur was conceived in the stronghold of Tintagel.

From here, Arthur grows into a powerful leader who inherits the British throne and leads his people in several epic and bloody battles against Saxon invaders. Later he spreads his kingdom across Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Gaul, but is eventually murdered by his cousin Mordred.

There is nothing in this account about Camelot, Lancelot, the Holy Grail, his sword, or the heroic and chivalrous knights who attended the Round Table. These features were all added later by authors who wanted to make Arthur fit the romantic ideas of their time. This was probably a good move too, as a sixth century leader would probably have been less ‘chivalrous’ and much more brutal.

Monmouth’s story cannot be taken as historical fact in any way. Even in his day he was criticized for inventing elements while mixing pieces from various Welsh poems and sources. As such, the Arthur we get is less of a coherent individual and more of a soup of stories mixed together.

But what about the poems that inspired Monmouth; Can they refer to a real person?

Despite the unreliable grounds for Arthur’s story, there are some who argue that his story was inspired to a greater or lesser extent by some kind of fifth or sixth century leader captured in Welsh poetry.

According to these claims, at the end of the Roman occupation a leader emerged to lead the Britons – who by then had become largely Christian – against pagan Saxon invaders, and this hero’s name was Arthur… perhaps. For example in a poem called Y Gododdin, written sometime between 540 and 640 CE, compares a fallen soldier to another heroic figure named Arthur. Presumably there was a contemporary figure at the time who would have been recognizable enough to make this parable meaningful.

In another poem from the same period, the monk Gildas recalled how a hero named Ambrosius Aurelianus had led the British to victory in a sixth-century battle known as the Battle of Badon Hill. However, a few centuries later, another monk named Nennius described another warrior named Arthur who had led the Britons in this battle (as well as eleven others). It is possible that Nennius’s story was one that inspired the later history of Monmouth, although we cannot know for sure.

Does this mean there really was a historical character named Arthur? Well, some people like to think so, but honestly, it doesn’t look that way. As mentioned above, medieval chroniclers liked to mix fact and fiction, and many of these accounts were created hundreds of years after the events they claim to describe.

Still, there are many who hold a candle to the reality behind the Once and Future King. Unfortunately, history has still not given us a solid foundation on which to base that hope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *