The Truth in the Tale: Legends of King Arthur

I've been fascinated by legends and how they got their starts for as long as I can remember. So when it came time to pick out research topics, King Arthur was at the top of my list. Now, mind you, I wrote this when I was in high school, and when I made my very first webpage, I put in a "Library" with some of my papers.

Not long after that I thought it would be amusing to google myself... Yes, I do that when I'm alone and bored. ;) And I found out that my paper was actually being linked to as a source for the history of Arthurian legend. There was even a college class that listed it on it's syllabus at one point! If you type "king arthur truth" into Google it's the number two hit.

I'm not bragging, mind you. It still baffles me to this day!

So you can go and see it at the original location. Keep in mind I made that page back in 97! Jeez that was ten years ago! Or you can just read it here. :-D

The Truth in the Tale: Legends of King Arthur

Lesley Speller

King Arthur is a man of mystery and legend. His tales have been told and retold by numerous generations. He has fascinated countless storytellers, novelists, and screen writers alike. Did this man ever exist? Surely legends that have lasted so many centuries had to have had strong beginnings. The man called Arthur did exist, but there are those who debate the truth behind his legends. The real Arthur was not quite the romantic hero that he has come to represent, though a hero of the Britons he was. Still the legends have been supported again and again by the discoveries of various scholars. For instance, a body was discovered at Glastonbury,England, along with a memorial claiming it to be that of King Arthur, and a building has been identified as a possible Camelot, Arthur's home.

To understand the forces that were needed to create a legend as strong as that of King Arthur, one must first know the stories that continue to be retold even today.

The British Isles had been part of the Roman Empire since they were invaded and conquered in A.D. 45. Most Britons thought of themselves as full citizens of the Roman Empire. In fact, Rome so trusted the Britons loyalty that Britain was allowed to govern itself after A.D. 410.

In the fifth century, the Roman Empire was on the decline, and Rome was too worried with matters at home to be concerned with what was going on in the far reaches of the empire. Therefore when the Anglo-Saxons attacked Britain, the Britons had to fend for themselves.

When the Romans left, Britain was in near anarchy. This is the period of time which became known as the Dark Ages. Soon, however, government began to develop on the local level. Warrior kings came to power, ruling as much area as they were strong enough to control. Arthur was probably one of the warrior kings who led his armies in the counter thrust against the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons had not been expecting the strength with which the British fought back. Until this time, they had only attempted to conquer peoples who were not loyal to their countries. "This unique British rally against the Barbarians is the Arthurian Fact. The tradition of a brief age of glory grew round it and was passed on to the Briton's descendants, who kept it green long after the Anglo-Saxons turned most of Britain into England." (Ashe 53)

The siege of Mount Badon is believed to have taken place somewhere between A.D. 490 and 520. This is the place at which sources disagree. Available sources all agree that Arthur was a general at this battle, that he crushed his enemy, and that he took with him some type of religious symbol. In the Annales Cambriae, written in A.D. 950, it is stated that that Arthur carried a cross on his shoulders for three days and nights. While the Gesta Regum,written in A.D. 1125, says that he rode into battle with an image of Saint Mary sewn onto his armor. Of course, there is always the possibility that both sources written so long ago could be mistaken. An even older record, the Historia Brittonum, written only two hundred years after Arthur lived, makes no mention of a religious symbol carried at Mount Badon. It does say that at the Castle Guinnion he carried the image of the Saint Mary.

The battle of Mount Badon was followed by a long spell of peace.The government was working well, and the people were prosperous.Then around A.D. 550, the Anglo-Saxons recovered and started their attacks again in full force. This time the Britons were not strong enough to defeat the Anglo-Saxons.

King Arthur's people told stories of his victories, valor, and goodness. These stories grew and changed until Arthur was not only a strong warrior but also a great and noble king. "Other old stories then attached themselves to the name of Arthur--myths of ancient Celtic gods and tales of magic and the supernatural. (King Arthur 593)

It is easy to see how these truths came to be transformed so much, when one knows how the legends have been spread throughout the centuries. In the Dark Ages, there were virtually no books. Those that existed were handwritten and only the scholars could read these books. Not even the highest noblemen and princes could read. All history was left up to the storyteller. These storytellers inherited the tales which they told from their predecessors. They did not think of themselves as historians, so there was no reason to keep the stories completely factual. Each story was added to by those who told it to make it relate more to the popular themes of the time.

So it has come to light that King Arthur's legend was ".. .not all lie nor all true, not all fable nor all known--so much have the storytellers told and the fablers fabled, in order to embellish their tales, that they have made all seem fables."(King Arthur 593)

The legend of King Arthur is an ancient story, and the variations are plentiful. Men and women have been taking the stories for centuries and shaping them to fit into their perception of the world. They have been sung in operas, rhymed in poetry, set to romance, transformed into a Broadway musical, and even made into modern day comedies.

One of the more accepted legends that has been told says that there was a king named Uther Pendragon. Merlin the Magician was one of Uther's most trusted confidants. Not long after the birth of Uther's son Arthur, Merlin came to Uther and said that he had seen a vision. In this vision he learned that Uther would die and the kingdom would be thrust into anarchy. When this happened, it would place Arthur, the only heir to the throne, in grave danger, for those who would wish to be king would try to kill him. When Merlin told the king this, he decided to send the boy away to a place where he would be safe. So Merlin took Arthur to Sir Kay,one of Uther's knights, who raised Arthur as his own son.

Uther did die, and the kingdom was in anarchy for many years until one day a young boy pulled the sword Excalibur from its stone, a feat that no one else could perform. This boy, Arthur,was then told of his birthright and crowned king.

Arthur, with his wife Guinevere, held court at Camelot, which was also known as Caeroeon, on the Usk River. He ruled his kingdom for many years and had many adventures with his Knights of the Roundtable.

The kingdom was a peaceful place until his nephew Modred led a rebellion against him. Arthur killed Modred but was mortally wounded in the battle. After the battle his body was carried to the Isle of Avalon to be healed. It is said that he is expected to return someday to resume his rule.

In 1195 Giraldus Cambrensis wrote De Principis Instructione. In it was a account by monks of Glastonbury Cathedral. This account told of a body buried below the ground in Glastonbury Abbey. This body was believed to be that of King Arthur. The grave site was dug up by order of King Henry who had heard from a Welsh bard". . .that they would find the body at least sixteen feet beneath the earth, not in a tomb of stone, but in a hollow oak."(Brengle 10) According to this bard's tale, he was buried so deep to hide him from the antidisestablismentarianist Anglo-Saxons.

When they dug, they discovered only seven feet down a leaden cross with engraving that read, "Here lies the renowned King Arthur with Guenevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon."(Brengle 9) It was judged that the lettering could not have been faked in the twelfth century. It seemed to be Saxon lettering, so it could not have been engraved during Arthur's time. It was most likely done in the tenth century.

Nine feet below the cross, they discovered a body in a hollowed oak log. In De Principis Instructione it is written that this hollowed oak was found between two stone pyramids. This is probably a case of faulty translation from the original Latin.

At the time that this tomb was erected, it was in a consecrated graveyard. The spot is now home to the Lady Chapel where there is a notice board marking the place where Arthur's bones supposedly lay during the Middle Ages.

There was an archaeological dig to discover the truth of the account in De Principis Insructione. There is a spot between two pillars where the earth had been dug out and replaced at about A.D. 1190 judging by the date recorded on the shards of stone mixed in with the dirt. "At the bottom of the hole was a rough stone lining of an early grave." (Ashe 90)

Saint Dunstan was the abbot at Glastonbury in the tenth century. He had the cemetery remodeled, because they had run out of room. To solve the problem, dirt was piled up in a very thick layer on top of the old graves. The cross discovered at Glastonbury may have been a memorial set on top of the ground, which was covered up when Saint Dunstan remodeled the cemetery.

It is certain that a body was found buried there. It is also certain that those who buried this body believed it to be the body of King Arthur or wanted everyone else to believe that it was the body of King Arthur. The proof of any of these accounts became lost in the eighteenth century when both the cross and the body were misplaced.

Camelot was the legendary home of King Arthur, Lady Guinevere,and the valiant Knights of the Round Table. In The Book of King Arthur, Camelot is described on the eve of the marriage of King Arthur to the Lady Guinevere.

    In preparation for the great occasion, the town of Camelot
    was bedlight very magnificently, for the stony street along
    which the Lady Guinevere must come to the royal castle of
    the king was strewn thick with fresh-cut rushes smoothly
    laid. Moreover, it was in many places spread with carpets
    of excellent pattern such as might be fit to lay upon the
    floor of some goodly hall. Likewise, all the houses along
    the way were hung with fine hangings of woven texture
    interwoven with threads of azure and crimson, and every-
    where were flags and banners afloat in the warm and gentle
    breeze against the blue sky, wherefore that all the world
    Appeared to be alive with bright colors, so that when one
    looked adown that street, it was as though one beheld a
    crooked path of exceeding beauty and gayety stretched
    before him. (Pyle 176)

Did a city of such splendor ever exist? It is hard to say, but there is a structure which many historians believe to be the home of the warrior king Arthur.

Cadbury Castle is an ancient British hill fort. The hill on which it rests is about five hundred feet high and has four lines of earthwork ramparts. The earthworks were supposed to protect the eighteen-acre enclosure at the top of the hill.

This castle has been used for thousands of years by many peoples.First there was a Neolithic people around 3000 B.C. After that was a very strong Iron Age settlement until the Romans invaded in A.D. 45 and moved the Britons out. Then there came a Dark Ages occupation, which is of the most interest by far to the legend of Arthur.

The remains of a rampart were discovered that seemed to have been built around the sixth century, the time of King Arthur. It was twenty feet thick and appeared to be the base of a stockade (which had long since disappeared) and wooden watchtowers.

In 1913 and 1966, there were digs at Cadbury Castle and many artifacts of the Dark Ages were found. The digs proved that, "Cadbury Castle had belonged, at the right time, to somebody who at least fit the picture of the real Arthur--a great military leader of unique status, in possession of a stronghold vastly bigger than any of the Welsh strongholds (or Glastonbury or Castle Dore), and defending it with a colossal ring of fortifications that was well over half a mile long." (Ashe 100)

Our great hero's existence, it seems to me, has been proven by these countless discoveries and reports of scholars throughout the years. The body at Glastonbury did exist whether it was the actual body of Arthur or not, and Camelot was the home and fortress of a great hero. How much of the legend is true? We will probably never know that until a time machine is invented, and we may go back to see for ourselves. Even if we never know what King Arthur was really like, he will go on fascinating readers with his sword Excalibur and his knights and his queen as long as the romantic of heart walk this earth.


"Arthur and Arthurian Legend." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Computer software. Groilier Inc. Software, 1995.SOCOS, 4MB, Windows 3.1, compact disk.

Ashe, Geoffrey. King Arthur In Fact and Legend. Nashville:Thomas Nelson Inc., 1974.

Brengle, Richard. Arthur King of Britain. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.

Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: ThomasY. Crowell Company, 1947.

"King Arthur-England's Fabled Hero." Compton's Encyclopedia and Fact-Index. 1981 ed.

Pyle, Howard. The Book of King Arthur. Chicago: Children's Press, 1969.


Anonymous said…
Wow. That was very good--and very interesting.

Did you ever read "The Once and Future King?" It was the first book in my senior English class I enjoyed. :)
Anonymous said…
Nice, Lesley

I think the story of Arthur resonates because of the promise of his return, too. He's almost a protecting force over this island *grin* Course, Bran's head is buried for our protection as well, *snort*

First Knight had me shouting at the screen, because they stuck Arthur's body in a boat and *burned* him LOL

Then of course, *some* people play fast and loose with the myth... not looking in a mirror or anything...


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