Was the castle of King Arthur found? That’s what newspaper headlines stated some time ago in reference to excavations conducted on the archaeological site of Tintagel, north of Cornwall in England. The town has always been a destination for fans of the legendary figure of the sovereign, but the remains of the existing castle date back to the thirteenth century, while the saga of King Arthur is generally placed some centuries earlier.
The discovery of one-meter-thick walls, steps, and slate floors dating back to the sixth century suggests that a palace of ancient rulers once existed there. According to medieval tradition, Arthur was born in Tintagel from the illicit relationship between a British king and the wife of a local duke. A coincidence?
Scholars have long been trying to understand whether King Arthur is just a legend or there really was a historical figure who may have inspired him. Here are their conclusions.
An Immortal Legend
The first text to collect legends and stories that had circulated for centuries, not only in Britain but also in Europe, was the Historia Regum Britanniae of 1136, the work of Welsh monk Goffredo di Monmouth. It was he who put in writing the story of Arthur, the illegitimate son of King Uther of Pendragon, raised by the magician Merlin, who acquired a sword stuck in a rock and with it the right to become king of Britain.
Later authors enriched the story, telling how Arthur received the magical Excalibur sword from the Lady of the Lake, defeated the invaders, and gathered at his palace—the castle of Camelot—the valiant Knights of the Round Table, an order devoted to justice and honor. But peace did not last long.
Thanks to French poet Chrétien de Troyes, in the twelfth century, Lancelot, Arthur’s most trusted warrior, appeared in the saga. He fell in love with Guinevere, the sovereign’s wife, and their illicit love contributed to the fall of Camelot. Lancelot then left in search of the mysterious Grail; he saw it but was not able to seize it. The enterprise succeeded instead to his son Sir Galahad, another knight conceived by Lancelot with the daughter of the Fisher King.
Thomas Malory, who wrote in the fifteenth century, then developed the story of Mordred, a son that Arthur had in his youth from his half-sister and sorceress Morgana. Mordred plots behind Arthur’s back, pushing Guinevere to adultery, thus trying to distract the king so that he can usurp the throne. But in the Battle of Camlann, he was killed and Arthur, although a winner, was seriously injured. The king was taken to the island of Avalon to heal his wounds, and along the way he returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. Legend has it that Arthur did not die but remained on the island to recover his strength waiting for the day when the country would need him again.
Did an Arthur Exist?
This wonderful and immortal story has inspired countless versions—and it could have a historical basis.
However, this is not a historical reality like that of Alexander the Great or Charlemagne, who became heroes of medieval legends but whose existence has been reliably documented.
“In the case of Arthur the emphasis is all on the legend,” explains Geoffrey Ashe (1995), considered the greatest Arthurian expert.
To say that Arthur existed would mean recognizing that a magnificent monarch lived and ruled, for a certain period of time, in his glorious medieval court, as narrated in the romances. And this is not true. There has never been such a person, a King Arthur so understood. On the other hand, to say that Arthur did not exist would mean that he is only a fictional character, invented in the Middle Ages when these stories spread, and that there are no previous historical references or a real person behind these stories. This is also not a correct answer. (Ashe 1995)
In fact, it was discovered that between the end of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth centuries, shortly after the period in which Arthur is supposed to have lived, no less than six British princes were baptized “Arthur.” None of them was important enough to originate the legend, but it could be assumed that the popularity of the name derives from the existence of an Arthur, a real and eminent figure of the recent past, just as many girls born at the end of the twentieth century were named Diana in memory of the princess who had just died.
‘His Supreme Majesty’
A clue as to who this eminent figure could have been can be found in the account of Godfrey of Monmouth. In it, he says that Arthur engaged in a campaign on the continent as an emperor named Leo led the Eastern Roman Empire.
Between 457 and 474 CE, the emperor of the East was actually Leo I the Trace, and in that period, between 468 and 470, there was a man, described as a British king, who led an army on the continent. There is a letter addressed to him by the Roman bishop Sidonio, who begs him to look after some slaves whom he controlled and had fled to northern France.
If the letter had been made out to “Arthur,” the mystery would have already been solved, but it is instead directed to a “Riothamus.” It was long believed that this was the name of the king in question, but Ashe and other historians have discovered that “Riothamus” was not a personal name but a title that—in the Celtic language of Britain—meant “his supreme majesty” or “supreme real.”
Things start to get even more interesting when, reconstructing the exploits of the Riothamus army, Ashe finds a series of very suggestive coincidences.
The king presumably arrived in Brittany and marched to Berry, where he was defeated by the Goths. However, he joined forces with the Roman allies, and a new battle took place in 470 in Bourges, where the British were still rejected. The cause of the defeat was the betrayal of the prefect of the Praetorium of the Gauls, a man named Arvando, who had encouraged the Goths to attack the British and then share the country with the Burgundians. Withdrawing, the men of Riothamus should have entered Burgundy, but no news of them was heard. Riothamus disappeared into thin air, just as he headed toward a true Burgundian city called … Avallon.
An Unbeatable Source of Stories
It’s almost too good to be true; there is the story of Arvando’s betrayal, reminiscent of Mordred’s, and the disappearance of Riothamus directed at Avallon, just like Arthur who disappeared on the island of Avalon.
For Ashe, Riothamus is the figure on which the legend of King Arthur was erected: “There are too many coincidences and Riothamus does so many [Arthurian] things that I think we finally managed to hit the target,” he says.
Who knows if this is really the case; surely King Arthur remains the greatest mystery of English history and continues to raise questions about his historicity. From The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, from the Dark Tower to the Hunger Games, there is no fantasy epic that does not owe a debt to the Arthurian saga. As a source of stories, no one can beat King Arthur.
- Ashe, G. 1995. The origins of the Arthurian Legend. Arthuriana 5(3) (Fall).