The Renowned King Arthur

The legend of King Arthur are forevermore intertwined with that of the Holy Grail thanks to Chrétien de Troyes and his many medieval romances dealing with the mythical king. What we know of him today is thanks largely to these medieval tales and those that continued from it and built upon it. In legend, King Arthur united the warring tribes of Britain, defeated the Saxon invasion, at least for a while, built Camelot — the shining example of knightly virtue and valor, and ultimately died in battle defending the dream that was his reign. Quite a weighty CV by modern standards! The question has always been, was King Arthur a real person, a title bestowed upon several individual people, or simply a myth created to embody virtues too great to be held by a single, simple man. Is there any evidence that such a king, such a man ever existed? As it happens, there is.

Let us first dispel some myths. King Arthur and his knights were not knights in shining armor living in a high medieval castle clad in silver and gold, they did not joust, and sadly, I'm fairly sure they did not go out on a quest looking for the Holy Grail, and that is the important part. The legends of King Arthur and that of the Grail, despite their reputation for being one in the same, are very much different. However, their stories and legacies do in fact touch in several places which can provide us as Grail researchers with some very key points to keep in mind.

The King Arthur of history was a creature of his time — Roman and Post-Roman Britain. If he had a castle it would most likely have been a "motte and bailey" castle such as the one pictured below. It was more likely however that his "castle" was actually a fortress, such as the Roman fortification of Segedunum. The truth is, the King Arthur of history and his knights probably didn't plan on living long enough to build castles or fortresses of any kind. They were living in a time of extreme upheaval and unrest. Following the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain around 410 AD, the land was left as free game for whatever warlord or invading force who felt they could take it. The thing that most likely made Arthur the power he was was the last remnants of Rome in Britain, that being the tradition of Roman military training and a familiarity with the Roman infrastructure left behind.

The typical Motte and Bailey castle consisted of a fortified keep, or tower occupying the high ground, surrounded by earthwork fortifications, and the bailey, or village area further down the slope, still fortified, but much less defensible than the keep, all of which was surrounded by a deep moat with a wooden bridge that could be removed or destroyed in case of invasion.

roman fort
The Roman fort of Segedunum. This is a similar idea to the Motte and Bailey castle, but much stronger. The fort, where the Roman legionaries and generals were garrisoned, was laid out in a very orderly grid patter of streets and buildings. The vicus or village area beyond the fort was also fortified but laid out like a typical village. This is where the merchants and workers would live and conduct their trades.

There have been many historical figures that have been called the "historical King Arthur", but no one really knows for sure who, or if, the original King Arthur was. All we know of him is what was written about him and his battles by early historians such as Gildas and Ninnius. It is said he fought 12 battles total, chief of which was that of Baddon Hill where he unified Britain as one nation, culminating in his final battle and death at the battle of Camlaan. Historians have created several theories about who might have have been the historical basis for King Arthur, but none with enough evidence to truly make a case for their claim.

First, there is the Roman Ambrosius Aurelianus, whose exploits and battles actually square with those of Arthur in a number of ways. However, Arthurian texts specifically name him as the brother of King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon. Geoffrey of Monmouth actually named him as the King of Britain before Arthur, but made it quite clear that he and Arthur were different individuals. This has lead some to say that the name "Arthur" was simply a title rather than a name, such as another name used for Arthur in some texts, the Dux Bellorum, or War Chief. Perhaps if this were the case, Arthur merely took the title after the death of his father and uncle, and became the next Arthur.

Another theory is that the historical King Arthur is a king of Brittany whose name was Riothamus — a title which meant "Great King". This king existed around the second half of the 5th century, some time before the traditional dating for King Arthur's time. According to his story, he caused many revolts in his homeland, resulting in his exile to Britain. There he formed a short lived kingdom which perished when he attempted a return to Brittany to reclaim his birthright. The story sounds convincing, especially when one remembers some stories speak of Arthur traveling to Gaul, or modern day France, to wage war only to be betrayed by Mordred, forcing him to return to Britain and partake in his final battle at Camlaan.

More recently, the movie "King Arthur" starring Clive Owen caused the theory of a 2nd century Roman general called Lucius Artorius Castus to gain in popularity. According to this theory, Artorius lead a legion of Sarmatian mounted knights who were all natives of the area around the Black Sea, and were legendarily good fighters, quashing an uprising in the area known as Armorica, which is likely the area of modern day Armenia. The problem with this theory is that this individual lived far too early to be the 6th century savior of Britain from the Saxon invasion. However, this too has lead many to think that "Arthur" or "Artorius" was more a title than a person's name.

Who, if, and whether King Arthur was remains a mystery. However, a close reading of what we know of him does reveal some interesting clues as to his immediate homeland, and his relation to the Holy Grail. Arthur is famed for turning back the Saxon invasion that occurred following Rome's withdrawal from the distant province of Britain.

saxon invasion

As this map shows, the Saxons were successful in invading Britain after Rome left the island defenseless. However, a curious fact is that for about 100 years around the time normally associated with the height of King Arthur's reign, the Saxon invasion halted, leading them to go farther south into Gaul to claim territory. At the end of this 100 year time, the advance went into south-western Britain. Historians aren't certain what caused the sudden pause in the Saxon's westward march, but it is theorized that they met with a formidable resistance, on the scale of an historical King Arthur, that caused them to be content with their conquest until some time later.

Looking at the list of Arthur's 12 battles, we can learn something more of him and where he called home. According to Nennius, writing around the year 796 AD), we can examine the list of his major victories, and his final, fatal loss.


1. The river Glein. The River Glen runs through Lincolnshire in the East Midlands on the east coast of England on about the same latitude as north Wales.

2, 3, 4, 5. The river Dubglas. Said to have been fought in the region known as Linnius, thought to be Lincolnshire, there are no rivers known by a name anything like "Dubglas". It is thought that it may have been somewhere in Scotland, such as Loch Lomond's River Douglas, but there seems to have been no reason for Arthur to have been fighting this far north.

6. The river Bassas. Unknown, although the strongest contended seems to be Baschurch in Shropshire England, bordering Wales, as the Red Book of Hergest states that modern day Baschurch was first known as "Bassa".

7. The Celidon Wood. Unknown, although the old name for Scotland is Caledonia. Some think the town of Drumelzier on the River Tweed is the best candidate in this area.

8. Gurnion Castle. Unknown. The only possibilities all lie in the north of England and southern Scotland.

9. The City of the Legion. Most likely Caerleon in south Wales.

10. The river Tribuit/Trat Treuroit. Unknown, although in Welsh the name Tribuit would be Tryfrwyd — the name mentioned in an 11th century Welsh poem Pa Gur yv y Portaur.

11. Mount Agned or Breguoin Hill. Thought to be the Roman fort of High Rochester in Northumbria, in Latin called "Bremenium". An alternate site is Herefordshire at another Roman fort called "Bravonium".

12. Baddon Hill. The site of Arthur's final victory over the Saxons, Baddon Hill, the most likely spot is the modern city of Bath, specifically at Little Solsbury Hill. Nennius wrote in his Historia Brittonum that Bath and Badon are the same place. The Romans knew Bath as Aquae Sulis, in honor of the goddess of the spring and fountain Sulis Minerva, a bronze bust of which can be seen today when visiting the Roman Baths in that city. However, it should be noted that in Gaelic, the native language of Briton, "Baddon" would have been pronouced "Bathon" — the "dd" in any Gaelic word being pronounced as a "th".

The location of Arthur's final battle at Camlaan is a mystery, although there seem to be two prime contenders. The most likely is Slaughter Bridge in Cornwall. Wace and Geoffrey of Monmouth place Arthur's final battle here. The other possibility is the Gamlan River in the Camlan valley and Cader Idris, both in Mid Wales.

Although some of these historic battles may have taken place to the far north of England, and possibly even in Scotland, the final two battles are the most telling. The Battle of Baddon Hill took place in Bath, and Camlaan took place either in Cornwall or Wales. In addition, it is thought that King Arthur's mythical castle at Camelot was in fact the earthwork fortress known as Cadbury Castle near South Cadbury in Somerset. It is interesting to note that the most commonly held location for an historical Isle of Avalon, where Arthur was taken on a barge after his fateful battle at Camlaan, is none other than Glastonbury, also in Somerset. In the time of King Arthur, Glastonbury was a vast marsh, with only the relative high ground of Glastonbury Tor and the flat expanse to the west of it was raised from the swampy morass.

cadbury castle
Cadbury hillfort / earthwork in Somerset, England.

Artist's reconstruction of Cadbury Castle — the historical Camelot.

The heavy stone and wood front gate to the fortifications surrounding Cadbury Castle.

It is interesting to think of King Arthur's castle Camelot possibly sitting right across a foggy marsh from the mystical Isle of Avalon. If this was the case, Arthur could have looked out his window every morning and see where he would end up after his death.

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