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I once saw a documentary that discussed a discovered possible "round table" but wondered how "pie in the sky" this possibility was as well as just how much/how little evidence is there for any possibility of truth in the legend.

My daughter is just beginning a study of the middle ages and we will be studying some of the legends in her related literature. I have done some research but feel as though I'm drowning in articles that seem too similar to each-other that are vague at best. I hoped for either a somewhat more knowledgeable answer to the question or a couple of ideas for good resources (or both).

I know there isn't a lot of evidence, and if there is any truth to it, it is most likely that King Arthur is actually an amalgam of multiple men. If pure myth, how is that this character became such a symbolic force in history to be touted as something more?

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    Hello and welcome to History.SE! The relevant Wikipedia article, Historical basis for King Arthur, is very thorough and I think your question is fully answered by it. Historia Regum Britanniae, a 1136 pseudohistorical list of British Kings is commonly quoted as the main reason for the legend's popularity (Arthur and his father, Uther Pendragon, are listed in it as kings of Britain). – yannis Dec 3 '12 at 4:25
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    Next Friday evening our local Historical Association is hosting a lecture to be given by Anne Lawrence-Mather, a historian of the Early Middle Ages and author of The True History of Merlin the Magician. Merlin was the legendary magician at the court of King Arthur. The hardcover costs £22 from Amazon in the UK or $45 in the US. But you can read the introduction on-line using their 'look Inside' facility. I found that quite interesting. – WS2 Feb 19 '15 at 21:46
  • Please also see my answer below about Riothamus, who is mentioned in the Wikipedia article that yannis linked to above as well. – SeligkeitIstInGott Jun 21 '18 at 4:28
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The basic historic entries on King Arthur tend to agree on one thing: He participated in the battle of Mount Badon, which (assuming it occurred as well) would have happened sometime around 500 AD.

So let's go chronologically through the works of history we have:

  • 540 AD - Gildas' Ruin and Conquest of Britian mentions the battle (which occurred in living memory), but does not mention any Arthur.
  • 731 AD - Beede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People mentions the battle, but does not mention any Arthur.
  • 9th Century AD - The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle covering all English history back to 6BC does not mention Arthur.
  • 828 AD - The History of the Britons provides the first known mention of Arthur. This work was apparently written by a Welshman, and portrays events from their viewpoint. Arthur's depicted as the supreme military commander (not a king) against the Saxons, and winning so many battles that one wonders how his side ended up losing. In fact, rather a lot of it is hard to believe.

    The historical accuracy of the Historia Brittonum is at best questionable and serves more as historical fiction rather than a legitimate history of the Britons. Although, some historians argue that the Historia Brittonum gives good insight into the way 9th century Britons viewed themselves and their past

  • 10th Century AD - The Annals of Wales mention Arthur in three battles, as well as Mordred and Merlin. This was also written in Wales.

  • 1136 - Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britian, nowdays considered more of a work of literature than history, depicts Arthur as a king ruling an empire covering France, the British Isles, and Iceland. Guinevere and Avalon make appearances here.
  • 1160-1180 - Chrétien de Troyes, A french poet and story-teller working in France takes up the story of Arthur, adds in such staples as Lancelot and The Holy Grail quest (and of course the love triangle with Guinevere), and kicked off a whole new genre of literature, the Artherian Romance.

Back when I was a kid, many historians took some of the latter histories at face value. Nowdays it looks like there are two camps: those who think that there probably was some kind of historial Celtic cheiftan Arthur fighting at Mount Badon against the Saxons, but most of the rest is probably made up, and those who feel the whole shebang was made up.

Given that there was no mention of the guy until he'd been dead for 300 years, I'm going to apply Occam's Razor and side with the folks who say he never existed at all.

  • WOW! thanks for all the resources. Although, my heart wants to believe their may have been an Arthur the absence of concrete evidence is hard to deny. – balanced mama Dec 4 '12 at 22:21
  • It is possible that the features of a more or less historical Ambrosius were transferred to a fictional Arthur: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambrosius_Aurelianus#Arthur – called2voyage Jun 28 '16 at 15:57
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    @T.E.D. Right, so "historical Arthur" in this case would be much like "historical Abraham". – called2voyage Jun 28 '16 at 16:25
  • Gildas unfortunately provides an appalling lack of information about an event that was hugely significant in stabilising the island during his lifetime. He'd rather rant and ramble on about events in the bible than his own homeland. – Daniel Jul 15 '18 at 12:03
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    Missing from the above is Y Gododdin which mentions Arthur in passing. The early English sources are vague about their defeat at Mt Badon. The A-S chron. doesn't mention it and Bede is English. – Daniel Jul 15 '18 at 12:42
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There is no historical or archaelogical evidence to support the existence of a King Arthur.

What there is, are plenty of theories regarding the existence of such a person.

Your last sentence is probably (in my opinion at least) the closest to the truth.

There was or may have been a 'legendary' warrior existent at that time whose prowess, bravery and military strategy ensured his success on the battlefield whilst fighting the invading saxons became the stuff of legend and folklore.

There's plenty of historical anecdotal evidence that supports the view that the people of that time were highly superstitious and held great belief in 'omens' and 'signs' from the gods that they may well have elevated a successful warrior to kingly or evenly god like status.

Based on a factual person, this kind of character could quite easily have morphed and evolved over the many years since it's happening into the legend we like to believe in today.

Given that Arthur comes from the latin name 'Artorious' and that the Romans themselves were renowned for their military prowess, it's highly likely that the figure we know of as Arthur had some connection to the Romans, and was probably skilled or trained in their fighting methods.

Bernard Cornwell wrote an excellent trilogy of books on the King Arthur legend and I would highly recommend them as fascinating reading for anyone interested in understanding who King Arthur may have been.

  • Obsolete nit removed. Actually, as I was composing my answer, the more I started to like this answer. So you get a +1 from me. – T.E.D. Dec 4 '12 at 19:23
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    The name could be Celtic, Latin or Greek. The name was common to Indo-European peoples, it is derived from Proto-Indo-European a̯rtcos "bear" which in turn derives from a̯retces "destruction" (i.e. bear was called "destructor"). This word is also the source for the region's name, "Arctica" "i.e., land of bears). – Anixx Dec 4 '12 at 21:52
  • This was a tough choice. Both answers are complete, offer resources and are completely believable while answering my question. Thanks so much. – balanced mama Dec 4 '12 at 22:22
  • It's true Arthur could have originated from Celtic or Greek. Sometimes logic or what seems the most likely or rational explanation needs to prevail, particularly given that if you google Artorious, one of the words Arthur is derived from you get page after page of Latin and Roman references to it. – spiceyokooko Dec 5 '12 at 11:37
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What is certainly known about the possibility of a real King Arthur . . . is that it's possible he existed. That much is noncontroversial.

However, I'm of the "where there's smoke, there's fire" school of thought, meaning I believe the "possible" can be pushed to become "probable." Here's the skeleton of my argument.

  1. The Battle of Badon is generally viewed as a real historical event. Not only is it mentioned in a nearly contemporary source (Gildas), but there's also confirming historical and archeological evidence demonstrating a temporary halting of the Saxons' westward incursion, for a couple of generations. This interruption coincides with the documentary timing of Badon.

  2. Someone was no doubt the overall commander of the Brythonic forces. This person would be our theoretical "Arthur."

  3. The only name ever explicitly given, by any writer, to this commander is "Arthur." No competing name has ever been put forward by any ancient source - unless we take Gildas's mention of Ambrosius Aurelianus, several sentences before the mention of Badon, as indicating the name of the commander. However, in the immediate context Ambrosius can be understood as instigating the Brythonic resistance to the Saxons one or two generations before Badon, rather than necessarily having been the one who personally led the troops at Badon a generation or two later.

On balance, these considerations incline me to believe Arthur really existed - and by that very name; it wasn't merely a title or nickname. However, since in the immediate several generations following Badon there were several "Arthurs," all of them Irish, and since there were multiple Irish settlements on the island both before and after Badon, I believe (for now!) that Arthur was of Irish stock (though perhaps also partly Brythonic). This would be consistent not only with the "Irishness" of his name, but also with the Historia Brittonum's distinction between Arthur and "all the kings and military force of Britain . . . . And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander": i.e., Arthur was not himself a Brythonic king, nor did he match their tribal/political nobility.

In this connection, an intriguing little piece of relevant history was uncovered at the Roman and subRoman Viroconium (adjacent to the village of Wroxeter), sometimes argued to be "Camelot" due to its early-6th-century rebuilding under a Brythonic (or Irish???) warlord. At that time it was the island's 4th-largest city. "A tombstone found [at Viroconium] in 1967 in ploughing bears an inscription to Cunorix. The use of the word macvs for “son of” is an Irish form and dates the stone to the late 5th c. or later. Probably the man was an Irish mercenary employed by the citizens to protect them from wandering bands of brigands." (Richard Stillwell, et al, eds., "VIROCONIUM CORNOVIORUM (Wroxeter) Shropshire, England," The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites, http://bit.ly/290wEKY [emphasis mine])

The single-best argument in favour of Arthur's existence that I've yet seen is Christopher Gidlow's The Reign of Arthur (The History Press, 2007). I can't recommend it highly enough.

  • I'm not going to argue about the site being used as such, but the name Camelot obviously comes from Camulodunum. Given that this city was the Capital of Roman Britain, it makes sense it would retain an important political position in post Roman Britain. Or, as someone pointed out, the city came to represent the idea of continued Imperial civilisation whether the city itself fulfilled this role or not. – Daniel Jul 15 '18 at 11:27
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I'm a little surprised that no one has mentioned, among the various theories so far, the possibility of the figure of King Arthur being (at least loosely) based upon the military leader Riothamus. Whether or not Arthur was real and the stories about him true or embellished, there are - as another answerer said - "plenty of theories regarding the existence of such a person". At least one worth mentioning, which I first learned about from watching a documentary on the subject, is that Arthur was Riothamus.

I will leave the following quote from Wikipedia to speak for itself:

Riothamus has been identified as a candidate for the historical King Arthur by several scholars over the centuries, notably in recent times the popular historian Geoffrey Ashe. Whether or not this identification is true, Riothamus' activities in Gaul may be the seed whence grew the tradition (first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae) that Arthur crossed the English Channel from Britain and attacked Rome. Geoffrey Ashe has also suggested a link between Riothamus' alleged betrayal by Arvandus and Arthur's betrayal by Mordred in the Historia Regum Britanniae, and notes that Riothamus' last known position was near the Burgundian town of Avallon, which he suggests is the basis for the Arthurian connection to Avalon.

The academic historian Léon Fleuriot argued that Riothamus is identical to Ambrosius Aurelianus, an historical figure in Britain around this time who, in the early narratives containing Arthur, preceded Arthur. Fleuriot suggested that "Riothamus" was Aurelianus' title as overlord of all Brythonic territories. He noted that "Riothamus" and Aurelianus are contemporaneous and that Aurelianus is the only British leader of the time who is identified (much later) as ruling both Brythons and Franks, which could only be the case if he ruled territory in Brittany. He also suggested that the name "Abros" in Breton genealogies is a contraction of "Ambrosius" and that Nennius indicates that Ambrosius was supreme ruler of the Britons, which, Fleuriot argues, would translate as "Riothamus". Fleuriot suggested that Ambrosius led the Britons in the battle against the Goths, but then returned to Britain to continue the war against the Saxons.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riothamus

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