Top 10 clues to the real King Arthur

The King Arthur we know is one of romance, ephemera and myth. But is he real? Arthur has been in and out of fashion more than denim: one year his veracity is being argued by every archaeologist in Britain, the next he's ignored or derided.

In Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot, Christopher Gidlow shows how archaeologists over the last 50 years have interpreted the evidence from Dark Age Britain. At first they were happy to link their discoveries to legendary names. Then came a backlash, when Arthurian links were ignored or derided. Now, new discoveries have raised again the possibility of a real King Arthur. He recalls ten sites that suggest Arthur was much more than an old wives' tale.

1. Tintagel

The legendary site of King Arthur’s conception is Tintagel Castle. Excavations demonstrated that, as the legends said, this was a fortified home of the ruler of Cornwall in about 500AD. The largest fortified site of the ‘Arthurian’ period, it contained unprecedented remains of luxury goods from the Eastern Roman Empire. In 1998, a slate engraved with the name ‘Artognou’ and other names from the legends was discovered there.

2. The London Basilica

The earliest historical accounts of Arthur see him as a leader of the kings of the Britons against the invading Saxons. Medieval legends showed him uniting them by a combination of force and magical displays. Most famous is his drawing the sword from the stone, "outside the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not", writes Sir Thomas Malory. In fact the largest Church in Roman London discovered, probably the seat of its Bishop, was at Tower Hill. Christianity was an important part of British identity, versus Saxon paganism.

3. Silchester

Said to be the site of King Arthur’s coronation, the Roman town of Silchester was heavily fortified in the Arthurian period. Road blocks were set up on approach roads, and the perimeter was made more defensible. Resistance to the Saxons was so successful, Silchester never became a Saxon town. Could there be a connection between Arthur’s sword, Excalibur and the late Roman name for Silchester, Calleba?

4. South Cadbury Castle

There are numerous contenders for the site of Arthur’s Camelot, with Colchester (Camulodunum) probably the forerunner. However, Henry VIII’s librarian, John Leland, identified the Iron Age hill fort of South Cadbury as the original Camelot. This inspired the famous Cadbury/Camelot excavations by Leslie Alcock in the 1960s which showed it had been heavily refortified in the 5th/6th century. Further work revealed it as one of the centres of a West Country kingdom characterised by large-scale defensive works like the Wansdyke from Bath to the Savernake Forest. This so impressed invading Saxons they attributed it to the god Woden.

5. Wroxeter

Was Arthur a Celtic warrior, harking back to the warlike days of his ancestors? Other writers see him as a ‘last of the Romans’, struggling to uphold the values of civilisation against a barbarian storm. Some sources describe him as a Roman general, others even as ‘Emperor’. Dramatic evidence of sub-Roman culture was discovered by Philip Barker in the 1960s at Wroxeter. Wooden buildings tried to keep up the functions of the forum as well as the defences. Tradition put the home of his wife, Queen Guinevere, at nearby Old Oswestry. Wroxeter, too, never became a Saxon town.

6. Chester Amphitheatre

One of Arthur’s celebrated '12 battles' against the Saxons was fought at the City of the Legion, the name given to Chester in the Dark Ages. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a

Dark Age battle at nearby Heronbridge, and recent excavations show the amphitheatre was fortified in the period, with a shrine to a Christian martyr at its centre. Is it a coincidence Arthur’s Round Table was originally described as a very large structure, seating 1,600 of his warriors?

7. Birdoswald

A brief 10th century account records the death of Arthur and Medraut at the battle of Camlann. This was spun out by later writers into a tragic encounter between Arthur and his rebellious son Mordred. Many scholars believe Camlann was ‘Camboglanna’, a now-vanished fort on Hadrian’s Wall. The next fort, Birdoswald, was excavated in 1987- 92. With the end of Roman rule in the 5th century, the local garrison commander had set himself up as a tribal-style warlord. A Celtic feasting hall was added to the military buildings. Other forts along the wall were similarly refortified – the work of King Arthur and a potential power base for rebellious lieutenants?

8. Slaughterbridge

Medieval writers opted for a West Country site for Arthur’s last battle. Slaughterbridge on the River Camel has proved popular, for obvious reasons. There are numerous reports of finds of Dark Age weaponry from the site. It is now the location for an ongoing archaeological project intended to get a clearer picture of life in the Dark Ages there, and near neighbouring Tintagel. A 6th century memorial stone, inscribed in Latin and Irish Ogham, is still visible here, bearing an enigmatic inscription, probably to a Romano-British warrior named Latinus.

9. Glastonbury Tor

Excavations by Philip Rahtz in the 60s showed someone had been living on top of Glastonbury Tor in the Arthurian period. But who? Medieval legends provided several candidates. King Meluas of the Summer Country had abducted Queen Guinevere to his castle at Glastonbury, a story which formed the basis of romances about her rescue by Sir Lancelot. The demonic Gwynn ap Nudd, one of Arthur’s legendary warriors, was said to have been banished from his Palace on the Tor by St Collen. Gerald of Wales reported that Arthur’s kinswoman, Morgan, had owned land near the abbey and arranged for his burial there. He berated writers who made her the fabulous enchantress 'Morgan le Fay'.

10. King Arthur’s burial at Glastonbury

In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey uncovered the body of a gigantic man. Wounded several times in the head, he had succumbed to one last fatal blow. The bones of his wife, along with a tress of her beautiful golden hair, shared his oak coffin. Ralegh Radford recovered the site in 1962, showing how two slab-lined tombs of the very earliest stratum of the ancient church had indeed been disturbed at the time. The monks displayed an ancient lead cross found with the burial, inscribed ‘Here lies buried the famous king Arthur with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of Avalon’. Where the cross and bones are now, nobody knows.

Read a free excerpt from 'Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot'

Interview with Dr Ray Howell on King Arthur, the Silures and, Just Possibly, Stonehenge

Video: King Arthur's Real Round Table Revealed

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

    £30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

    Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Engineers / Senior Electronics Engineers

    £25000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in Henley-on-Thames, this...

    Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project