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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.