Stupid Question ™
June 7, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Was there really a King Arthur?
A: Not in the sense of a chivalrous, armor-clad leader of holy knights. Medieval romances made up all that stuff. But from about AD 450-600, there were a few great Celtic kings. One or all of them could be “King Arthur.”
The magic-sword-toting buddy of Merlin who will someday return to claim the throne appears several times in ancient Welsh poetry as a swashbuckling superhero. This has led many critics through the ages to consider Arthur as pure folklore. However, literature and archaeology now suggest there’s some fact behind the fiction.
The earliest definite reference to Arthur is actually historical—a circa 800 history of Britain that says 200 years before, Arthur repeatedly drove off Saxon invaders (though it also credits him with personally offing 960 men in one battle).
It says the Saxons finally lost at the battle of Mount Badon—a battle known to have occurred around 500. The history’s description of Arthur is ambiguous: he may have been just a Celtic general, or the Celtic king-of-kings.
Around 410, Roman control over Britain began crumbling. The Celts found themselves fighting off Saxon and Pict invaders; for organizational purposes, they began appointing a “high king” to lord over all the tribal kings. Arthur could’ve been an early high king.
Our modern Arthur ultimately comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fanciful 1136 “History of the Kings of Britain.” A pretty silly book all around, it has a screwy chronology that suggests Arthur lived to be 100, and credits him with conquering Iceland, which wasn’t even inhabited at the time. But it also says he took over parts of Gaul (ancient France)—and there is independent evidence that a British king, name unknown, marched on Gaul in 468-470.
Archaeology confirms that Celtic fortresses were massively built up in the mid-400s; one much larger than the rest may even have been “Camelot” (Cadbury Castle in Somerset). And the Saxon advance was indeed halted around 500.
Unfortunately, the more exciting “discovery” of King Arthur’s grave and bones (all now lost) in 1190-91 by Glastonbury monks appears to have been a fraud. Also compelling, yet inconclusive, was the 1998 discovery of a 500s-era stone near the ancient fort of Tintagel bearing the name of a nobleman called “Artognov” (pronounced “Arthnou”).
“Arthur” is probably just a Welsh form of the Roman family name Artorius. Nobody used it as a first name. But in the late 500s and early 600s, it suddenly enjoyed a burst of popularity as a boy’s name (especially for princes) before fading again. This would strongly suggest there was an Arthur who was a popular hero of the day (though whether he was real or imaginary is hard to say).
The British royalty have sometimes used Arthur’s “reality” as a political tool; Edward I justified invading Scotland by saying Arthur had already conquered it. Ironically, if Arthur was real, he was a Celtic king whose greatest achievement was defeating the English’s Anglo-Saxon ancestors.