Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Did King Arthur Really Exist?

This post is brought to you by Janalyn Voigt
Escape into creative worlds of fiction.
Title page illustration from The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights (Facing p. 78), 1912., 9th edition. Ed. Sir James Knowles, K. C. V. O. London; New York: Frederick Warne and Co., 1912; Public domain image.

Did King Arthur Really Exist?

Historians and archeologists debate whether the King Arthur of legend was all myth or based on a person who actually lived. "Concerning the Ruin of Britain" ("De Excidio Britanniae") was a lamentation over the fading of the Roman way of life written just prior to 549 by a British monk named Gildas. Although Gildas didn't actually name Arthur, he did refer to someone called "The Bear," which is what the Celtic word, 'Art' means. Gildas also mentions the siege of Mount Badon

The Battle of Mount Badon is important in establishing a date for a historical Arthur. Somewhere between 828 through 831 AD, a Welsh monk named Nennius wrote (or as some argue, compiled) the Historia Brittonum, that describes Arthur as a military leader (dux bellorum) rather than a king and names 12 battles he fought. 

Arthur's legend was already growing: 
The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. (Historia Brittonum, chapter 56)
Gildas, who was writing a contemporary account, dated the siege of Mount Badon 44 years prior to his record. This places Arthur, if he existed, near the turn of the 6th Century in northern Britain.

Another source, The Welsh Easter Annals (Annales Cambriae). This record gives a date of 516 AD for the Battle of Badon and mentions Arthur:
The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors. (Annales Cambriae, 516 AD)
The reference to a cross on Arthur's shoulder may have been a transcriptual error, with 'shoulder' being substituted for 'shield.'

Another reference to Arthur occurs a little later in the text:
The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell. (Annales Cambriae, 537 AD)
Medraut is a Welsh form of Mordred.

The Annales Cambriae was supposed to have been updated yearly between 447 and 957, but earlier entries may have been made in later years. This makes it a more questionable resource than De Excidio Britanniae, and some have argued that Arthur may have been added to the record after the fact. Whether Arthur was an actual person may never be proven without a doubt. In my opinion, since all other persons named in the Annales Cambriae were actual people who lived in history, there seems no reason to assume that Arthur was not.

By James Archer (artist) (1823 – 1904) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I've covered the earliest references to King Arthur in this post, but a wealth of other material is available on this fascinating topic. You'll find some links to start your own research at the end of this post.

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and fantasy creates worlds of beauty and danger for readers. Tales of Faeraven, her medieval epic fantasy series, beginning with DawnSinger, carries the reader into a land only imagined in dreams. Janalyn is represented by Sarah Joy Freese of Wordserve Literary. 

Visit Janalyn Voigt's website.

Further Reading

Early References to a Real Arthur, A Discussion by David Nash Ford 

King Arthur: How the Legend Developed

King Arthur Was Real? Archeology Archive

Video: King Arthur, Biography (Warrior, King, Military Leader)


  1. I love this post, and so did my 10 year old. Your conclusion is quite well stated, and defended. I also hope my hero William Tell was real.

    1. Ooh! You've given me an idea for another post. :) I've already covered Robin Hood. If you're interested, that post is here:

  2. I've been fascinated with this legend since I was a teenager--even wrote a research paper comparing three of the better known versions (The Once and Future King among them). Thank you for this happy reminder!

  3. Interesting post, Janalyn. Loved the detailed pictures.

  4. I've always loved tales about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Thanks for such interesting tidbits on him. I like to to think he was real. :)