King Arthur: Man Or Myth? I Oxford Open Learning

    King Arthur

    King Arthur: Man Or Myth?

    I recently watched The Winter King, the latest screen adaptation of the classic Arthurian Legend, and based on the novel by Bernard Cornwell. It was more historical drama with a touch of druid mysticism than the high-camp fantastical realism of Excalibur, the film of 1981. In this case, Cornwell seems to have based his version of King Arthur on what is thought by historians to be the most historically plausible version of the fabled King of the Britons.

    Who Else Could King Arthur Have Been?

    Tentative evidence suggests that if King Arthur had even existed, he would not have been a king, but rather the commander of an elite fighting force and would have lived 5 centuries before medieval legend suggests. The legendary leader, who could also have been known as Arturus, may have led the resistance of Romano-Britons against invading Saxons, Jutes, and other Northern European interlopers. Notably, confirm these Romano-Britons were pushed back to the west of Britain and are the predecessors or founding fathers of Wales. But details of individual figures involved are, however, scant.

    Another theory with little evidence to support it suggests that the king may have been a Roman Centurion called Lucius Artorius Castus who led a group of Sarmatian Knights against the Picts (northern tribes) around 200 AD, about 300 years before typical Arthurian legends. The 2004 historical drama, King Arthur starring Clive Owen is constructed around Artorius.

    Historyextra talks about 5 other warlords from around 100 AD to 600 AD whom modern-day Arthurian legend may be based on. These include Ambrosius Aurelianus, Constantine, Magnus Maximus, Arvirargus, and Cassivellaunus, and again, they were a combination of Romans and Britons.


    These depictions and suggestions of who Arthur was are not in wild contradiction with each other and do seem to be a plausible foundation for the fabled King, be they Briton or Romano-Briton. But, to be a king, he would need a seat of power, a castle – Camelot Castle, as legend dictates. In similar fashion, there are several leading candidates for the location of Camelot which have been derived from a combination of fables, folklore, and historical stone inscriptions, rather than a structured collection of compelling primary evidence. These are Cadbury Castle, Somerset, Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, Caerloen, South Wales, and Winchester Castle, in Hampshire.

    A Less Magical Past

    There is not enough evidence to assert one place over the other or one version of Arthur over another (of which there are many more not depicted here). Indeed, there is not enough evidence to suggest that Camelot or Arthur, King of Britons (as we perceive Kings to be today) even existed. What is more likely is that the King Arthur figure that we indulge in today is a composite of several warlords (of Briton or Romano-Briton persuasion), who lived between 100 AD to 600 AD during the dark ages. At least for now, it’s a case of sorry to disappoint, but evidence (or lack of it), means we can’t be any more definitive. Perhaps, though, there is some value in Arthur and Camelot remaining in the realm of legend. They are surely better known and loved than many of their flesh and stone contemporaries who exist!


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