The Legends of King Arthur
Unwinding Fact from Fiction
The gateway to the inner ward at Tintagel Castle © English Heritage Photo Library
The legends do have a basis in fact. Arthur did exist, a Celtic chieftain who came to lead the struggle against the invading Anglo-Saxons in the late fifth to early sixth century and there is a strong tradition that he arose in Cornwall. It is difficult to unravel legend from fact. Arthur was probably not a king but a nobleman of mixed Roman - Briton heritage who rose to prominence as a war leader, rather than a king, who lead his fellow Celts against their common enemy.
In the earliest recorded mentions of Arthur, in sixth century Welsh texts, he is never referred to as a king but as 'dux bellorum' a Roman military title for war leader, specifically applied to a cavalry commander. In the Historia Britonum, written in the ninth century, by a Welsh monk, Nennius, Arthur is referred to as the 'leader of battles' rather than a king, this source lists twelve battles against the Saxons in which he is reputed to have taken part.
The tenth century Annales Cambriae makes reference to one of his most famous victories, Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, it was fought as near as can be established, about 495 and is mentioned by Gildas, writing but 40 years or so later. There is no doubt that Badon was a decisive British victory.
The Arthurian legends were made popular by the Medieval monk and writer Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 'History of the Kings of Britain' written in 1135. Geoffrey dealt at length with Arthur's reign, embroidered the tale and introduced Merlin to the story, a character possibly based on the prophet Myrddin, mentioned in several old Welsh poems. Geoffrey claimed to have acquired his information from an ancient British manuscript given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford.
Geoffrey introduces all the famous names which were to appear vividly in the later Arthurian legends, his sword, Caliburn, his wife Ganhumara, Kay, Bedevere and Gawain. He also takes Medraut, a name that occurs in the old Welsh annals, and turns him into Mordred, Arthur's nephew and implacable foe. Sir Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte d'Arthur' became one of Caxton's first publications after the invention of the printing press in the late Middle Ages and enjoyed huge popularity. Succesive ages added and embroidered the legend.
There are many candidates for the legendary Camelot in the county of Cornwall. A place name which appears often in Arthurian legend is that of Carlyon, this is an earthwork south of the River Fal.
Atmospheric Tintagel Castle on the North Cornish coast has long been associated with Arthur and his father Uther Pendragon although no archaeological evidence has been unearthed to support the theory. The present castle is in fact medieval, built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III, but occupies the site of an earlier Dark Age fortress.
The castle stands on a dramatic and atmospheric site, perched high on a rocky headland rising high above the Atlantic which is linked to the mainland by a ithmus of rock.
The Dark Age remains stand on the exposed headland known as the island and are reached via a bridge. They appear as low drystone walls. Geoffrey of Monmouth describes the castle of Arthur's legendary conception as 'built high above the sea which surrounds it on all sides' .
Although historical facts are scarce, concerning the Dark Age Castle, legend surrounds it, which relate that Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, fell in love with the beautiful Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall and was determined to have her. Arthur was concieved as a result of Uther's entering the castle secretly at night with the aid of Merlin.
Excavations in the 1930's confirmed Dark Age occupation of the site and uncovered the remains of a sixth century monastery. Pottery found at the Tintagel site was dated to the 5th and 6th centuries - the time of Arthur. In the 1990's excavations lead to the discovery of an inscription on a piece of slate which reads 'ARTOgNOV' a Latin form of the Celtic name Arthnou, derived from the Celtic word Arth, meaning bear.
The 6th century AD "Artognou" inscription stone discovered by archaeologists from Glasgow University © English Heritage Photo Library
. The finest hill fort in Cornwall is that of Castle-an-Dinas, near St. Magwan, which has also been suggested as a candidate for Arthur's base. Standing seven hundred feet high it occupies a commanding position.
Many writers asscociate Arthur's fabled stronghold with Cadbury Castle in Somerset, originally an Iron Age fort. Excavations took place there in the 1960's and the fort was proved to have been re-fortified in the era of Arthur.
At a cross roads around two miles from Castle Dore, the fortress of King Mark of Cornwall, near Fowey, stands a seven feet long stone pillar on which is carved the Latin inscription 'Drustans Hic lacit/Cunomori Filius' (Here lies Drustan son of Commorus) Comnmorus has been identified as Mark of Cornwall and Drustan as the Tristram of Arthurian legend. The stone did not always stand in its present position, but is known to have been moved from nearby the exact position has not been recorded.
Opposite the Jamaica Inn there is a road which leads to one of Cornwall's mysteries - Dozmary Pool can be reached via a road opposite the Jamaica Inn. The pool is reputed to be where the reluctant Bedevere tossed Arthur's sword on the orders of the mortally wounded king following his last battle. The Pool is said to have been fourteen fathoms deep, but it's existence is an enigma, as no stream flows into the pool nor does it drain any part of the moor. Dozmary was first used by Neolithic man and many artefacts relating to their habitation have been found at the site. Dozmary possesses a strange unearthly beauty, the legends of King Arthur and his famous sword Excalibur are firmly associated with it.
Slaughterbridge- the Site of Arthur's Last Battle?
The medieval writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his famous 'History of the Kings of Britain' informs us that the legendary King Arthur's last battle, known as the Battle of Camlann, which legend states was fought against against his nephew and mortal foe, Mordred, took place at a site beside a river in Cornwall.
No river with such a name exists in modern day Cornwall, but the reference is understood by many to refer to the River Camel. Local legends abound that the Dark Age battle was fought in a water meadow beside the Slaughterbridge.
On the stream bed lies a sixth century inscribed stone, said to mark the spot were Arthur fell after meeting Morded in battle.
Discrepancy exists as to the actual date of the battle. The Annals of Wales claim it was fought in 539 A.D. , whilst the Annals of Ulster record it by another name, the Battle of Manann, and date its occurence as 582 A.D. Adomnal, a monk who wrote in the seventh century, describes Arthur's death in the battle. Later accounts of the battle occur in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain' and the thirteenth century Welsh tale 'The Dream of Rhonabwy.
English Monarchs Comprehensive Site on the Kings and Queens of England