Did King Arthur Really Exist? Essay, Research Paper
Did King Arthur Truly Exist?
Who was King Arthur? Most people would tell of a great King; a devoted circle of heroic knights; mighty castles and mightier deeds; a time of chivalry and courtly love; of Lancelot and Guinevere; of triumph and death. Historians and archaeologists, especially Leslie Alcock, point to shadowy evidence of a man who is not a king, but a commander of an army, who lived during the late fifth to early sixth century who may perhaps be the basis for Arthur. By looking at the context in which the stories of King Arthur survived, and the evidence pertaining to his castle Camelot and the Battle of Badon Hill, we can begin to see that Arthur is probably not a king as the legend holds.
While stories about the places that Arthur has lived, visited and fought at are numerous, attempts at pinpointing many of these sites have been futile. Arthur’s most famous battle, the Battle of Badon Hill, cannot be ascribed a location. Depending on the historian, the Battle of Badon Hill could have been located at many different places: According to Alcock, the battle at Mount Badon took place on a hill near Bath; while Wood attempts to pin the battle at Liddington castle. If we are unable to be sure of a location at which a massive battle took place (and indeed, his most famous), how can we be sure that Arthur truly existed?
Attempts at pinning down Camelot have also proved fruitless. Wood describes the difficulty in locating Camelot, saying, “A late local tradition connected Arthur with a hill fort, and when the Camelot Research Committ dug there, they caused a sensation…The Excavators did not, in fact find Camelot, nor was anything turned up to connect the place specifically with King Arthur” (51). This serves to highlight not only the fact that local tradition can skew a story in order to make it more exciting for those hearing it, but it also helps us see that Camelot may only be fiction. It has proved to be nearly impossible to find on of the grandest courts in all of England.
Arthurian history is vague to say the least, and written records are not always entirely factual. The brief Annals of Wales tells two things of Arthur: he fought at Badon, and he was killed at Camlann in the same battle. These Annals were composed centuries after the time of Arthur, and were compiled from other, earlier sources. A battle between Arthur and Medraut (Modred) is recorded for the year 539 AD. This entry was made after Arthur had already become a legend, and the spelling of the name with an “h” would suggest this, as the evidence from the earliest reliable sources spells the name without an “h”. So it is reasonable to believe that this is a very late and unreliable entry indeed.
Since very few individuals could write, stories of Arthur were mainly told by word of mouth. Oral stories did not get written down until later; Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote down the stories as one of the first written manuscript of Arthurian legend in 1139. Word of mouth was the way in which Arthur’s story is passed down through the years, and it is safe to assume that during that time, the story transformed and evolved. Stories are embellished and added to, depending on the audience, in order to make it more exciting. As discussed before in this paper, local tradition had placed Camelot in an area that was proven not to be Camelot. Exaggerations were undoubtedly made about King Arthur’s supposed feats of war, for what man could possibly single-handedly kill 470 men with his sword Caliburn as he does in Monmouth’s account? Legendary accounts written centuries after the man’s death will go into great detail regarding his battles and conquests, and elaborate even to the point where they can almost tell the color of his hair. Except where one can find the few references to real contemporary historical figures in the legends, as evidence they are worthless. In addition to these two legendary sources, there are countless myths and poems which abound in Wales and elsewhere. None can be regarded as evidence as they almost certainly all originate after the 12th century AD.
Which brings us to the man himself, Arthur. Little is known about Arthur besides what has been passed down by word of mouth and inscribed in annals. Although fables present Arthur as a king, historians argue that he was, in fact, only the commander of an army. According to Alcock, “[Arthur] was not a king…He was instead the leader of the combined forced of the small kingdoms into which sub-Roman Britain had dissolved” (359). Arthur was not as king, as was previously thought, but a commander of an army whose legends and fame grew out of real battles and deeds. Wood supports the theory, saying, “yet through myth shadows modern historians think they have distinguished a remote war leader, a real-life British hero…whose fame, it is thought, grew from successful battles” (40). Wood goes on to say, “Reluctantantly we must conclude that there is no definite evidence that Arthur ever existed” (60).
However, if we are to consider these facts as an argument that Arthur existed from Leslie Alcock’s point of view, we must also consider the fact that history points to the fact that there was an Vortigern, probably the same one who exists in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Britain. According to Alcock, Vortigern “ruled with a group of consiliarii like a Roman – or for that matter, a Visigothic – provincial governor” (357). If there was a Vortigern, it is possible to imagine that there may be a chance that Arthur was a king –- after all, he was related to Vortigern, and Vortigern was, by Alcock’s definition, royalty.
Who was King Arthur? Most people would tell of a great King; however, historians and archaeologists, especially Leslie Alcock, point to shadowy evidence of a man who is not a king, but a commander of an army. By looking at the context in which the stories of King Arthur survived, and the evidence pertaining to his castle Camelot and the Battle of Badon Hill, we can begin to see that Arthur is probably not a king as the legend holds.