In search of... The real King Arthur

A superhero with a wizard for a sidekick? So what if it isn't true. Why spoil a good story with the facts?
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Arthur, king of the ancient Britons, lord of the knights, muse of poets English and French ... there hardly seems to be a county in Britain without an Arthur's Seat or a Merlin's Cave.

But isn't this Arthur stuff all just guff?

Well, that depends on what you mean by Arthur. If you're talking about the swashbuckling super-hero who plucks swords from stones, has a wizard sidekick called Merlin, a bunch of Richard Gere lookalikes in his entourage, and is (and this is where it really gets dodgy) still alive in a place called Avalon, then the answer is a definite yes. But if you're prepared to do a little lateral thinking and imagine a fifth or sixth-century Celtic king, or a warrior called something that sounds a bit like Arthur, who was engaged in an uprising against Saxon invaders and who was eulogised by the downtrodden Welsh and Cornish peoples long after he died, the answer is possibly not.

So where does the Arthurian tourist trail begin?

Let's start where, according to the 12th-century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was conceived – on the tiny Cornish peninsula of Tintagel. Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain distilled a whole raft of Welsh legends pertaining to Arthur into his own rather implausible yarn. In this version of events, Tintagel is where the British king Uther came in pursuit of Ygerna, a princess to whom he had taken so strong a fancy that he declared war on her husband. Seeing for himself the inaccessibility of the fortressed peninsula, he got Merlin to transform him into such a faithful likeness of Ygerna's husband that Uther was able to have his wicked way, and nine months later our Arthur was born.

I thought you said we were looking for the historical Arthur?

We are. Archaeologists have found pottery at Tintagel from the fifth or sixth century, originating from the Mediterranean. Their guess is the site was not only an international trading port around the time Arthur was supposed to have lived, but a bastion of Celtic power. And the local merchandise pedlars were seeing dollar signs when, in 1998, a slate was unearthed bearing the words "PATER / COLI AVI FICIT / ARTOGNOV", which translates as "Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had [this] constructed". That is until sceptical archaeologists poured cold water on the Arthur link.

Tintagel itself is a geological marvel – a near island welded to the mainland by the narrowest sinew of rock, and lashed by the Atlantic. The fortress you can see there today is a medieval creation much in keeping with the modern Arthurian legend. It was probably built by the then Earl of Cornwall, who understood the hold the place had on the local people whose loyalty he was trying to guarantee.

So is Tintagel the real Camelot?

Maybe. But Monmouth has Arthur holding his court at Caerleon, in Gwent. However the Arthurian expert Geoffrey Ashe favours Cadbury Castle as the location of the court (see below).

What about that sword, Excalibur, and Guinevere and Mordred ...?

Welsh legend has it that the sword was cast away into Llyn Llydaw, a lake at the foot of Snowdon, although Glastonbury (see below) and Dozmary Pool in Cornwall are also cited. Arthur's wife Guinevere and his nephew Mordred, her lover, are probably lifted from Welsh oral tradition, too.

Surely all that Merlin stuff's got to be codswallop?

Quite possibly, but even though Arthur was a Christian, ancient Celtic rituals undoubtedly held sway in post-Roman Britain, and the presence of a druid in the royal court would not have been unusual. In any case, the legacy of the white bearded one is certainly apparent in the British landscape, whether it's Merlin's Tree, Grove or Hill in Carmarthen; Merlin's Mount in Marlborough, Wiltshire; or Merlin's Grave, which, curiously, is in two places – Drumelzier in the Scottish borders and, again, in Marlborough.

And Sir Lancelot?

Now that really is pure fantasy on the part of the later medieval writers.

Where do I go next?

If you still haven't given up on Camelot, take a drive to Cadbury Castle on the Somerset-Dorset border. Archaeologists have found pottery here similar to that at Tintagel, and there is also evidence of building works from the relevant period.

Didn't I hear there was a Glastonbury connection?

Besides music festivals and mud, Arthur has to be the Somerset town's biggest claim to fame. Around 1190, local monks, who were (rather suspiciously) desperate for cash to rebuild their burnt-out abbey, claimed to have unearthed the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere after a tip-off from a Welsh bard. According to the monks, there was a lead cross in the grave, inscribed "Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon".

Archaeologists who excavated the site of the discovery in the 1960s did indeed find that an exhumation had taken place there at around the time claimed.

The local tourist office would also have you believe that Glastonbury is the real island of Avalon, where, according to Monmouth, the fatally wounded Arthur was brought and nursed for eternity upon a golden bed by the enchantress Morgan le Fay. Glastonbury Tor is posited as the secret gateway into the netherworld our hero now inhabits.

This Arthur stuff all seems a little drab without those dashing knights and lovelorn damsels

If you're looking for magic, a copy of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur or Tennyson's Idylls of the King will make a jolly read on your travels, while Geoffrey Ashe's Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain (Gothic Image, £12.95) will bring you back down to earth and archaeology.