Was King Arthur real?

Historical scholars have been divided on this for centuries. However, possible evidence of the existence of Arthur has been found at Tintagel in Cornwall. A Cornish slate with sixth-century engravings was found in July 1998 on the eastern terraces of Tintagel on the edge of a cliff overlooking the place traditionally known as Merlin’s Cave. It was discovered under broken pottery and glass from the late sixth or seventh centuries during the re-excavations of an area last dug in the 1930s.

The 8 inch by 14 inch slate bears two inscriptions. The older, upper letters have been broken off and cannot be deciphered. The lower inscription, translated by Charles Thomas of the University of Glasgow, reads “Pater Coliavi ficit Artognov–Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built.” The inscription is basically in Latin, perhaps with some primitive Irish and British elements, according to Thomas. The British name represented by the Latin Atrognov is Arthnou. Geoffrey Wainwright of English Heritage says that the name is close enough to refer to Arthur, the legendary king and warrior.

After several decades of scholastic pursuit, there is one theory that has managed to name a founding individual consistent with Arthurian literature and the chronological time he would have had to occupy. This man was Riothamus, the “King of the Britons” sent by Leo I in 467 to retrieve the crumbling British Isles from Saxon invasions. His Christian or baptismal name was Artorius. Nevertheless, scholars are still divided on this as well.

As for a historical Merlinus Ambrosius (Merlin Emrys in Welsh), some scholars point to a sixth-century writer and seer named Myrrdin, who went mad and took refuge in the Forest of Celydon when his king Gwenddolau was defeated at the Battle of Arderydd in 573. Merlin first appears in the “History of the Kings of Britain”, (1135) a classic work by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1154). In Geoffrey’s “Vita Merlin” (Life of Merlin), in 1150, his is the only text mentioning that Merlin had a wife.

However, while there may or may not have been a real King Arthur or Merlin, Camelot – along with Guinevere, Lancelot and the Round Table, has generally been considered by most to be fiction; a creation of twelfth century literature.

That is, until the archaeological discovery of the 18-acre Cadbury Hill Fort in the 1950’s. Cadbury Hill was not a castle, but a heavily fortified headquarters for some great king, dating to around the 5th or 6th century.

Further discoveries inside the fortress in the 1970’s were incredible. A timber hall built between 460-500 was revealed from post holes in the ground, measuring more than 60 by 30 feet in its dimensions. Since the Cadbury Hill-Fort was such an unusually large fortress for post-Roman-defended-hill-settlements in sixth century Britain, it probably housed more than an individual king and his war bands – it was large enough to hold an entire army. Only a king powerful enough to unite the neighboring kingdoms against the Anglo-Saxon threats could amass such a large army. King Arthur is said to have done exactly that before he led the British army to nearby Mount Badon.

Glastonbury Abbey is one of the best supported sites for King Arthur and Guinevere’s burial tomb. In 1191, the monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found the grave of King Arthur. On the stone burial was an inlaid lead cross with the inscription, Hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avallonis (“Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried on the Island of Avalon”). The claim was not taken seriously until 1278 when Henry II ordered the grave to be exhumed. A man’s body was found with a cracked skull from a heavy blow. A female skeleton was next to it, as well as the original lead cross. The remains were transported to the main Abbey church, but all signs of the bodies and cross mysteriously disappeared.

Archaeology has sifted through the literary assertions surrounding King Arthur’s lifetime and, while not proving them, has at the very least strengthened their validity. Only time will tell what new discoveries will unfold. Tintagel Castle, Cadbury Hill-Fort and Glastonbury Abbey seem to be strongly-supported sites in connection with a historical King Arthur, but without more specific artifacts and literary accounts, their importance remains at a standstill.

For all intents and purposes, archaeological excavations have only produced new hypotheses, but no new proof. Until this can be achieved, King Arthur will remain on the misty Island of Avalon, awaiting the time when he can finally resurface in the British Isles as the “Once and Future King.”