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I am Arthur, king of the Britons

The legend of King Arthur has captured the imagination of people all over the world. His stories are full of magic, adventure, intrigue and dragons, we cannot forget the dragons. With all this magic and dragons, surely none of it could be true. Could it? Where does this great collection of stories come from? Did Arthur or Camelot really exist? Let us take a look.

Never-ending story

The 9th century historian Nennius is the first to write about Arthur as a powerful 6th century warlord (not a king, mind) battling the Saxons. In the 12th century the historian Geoffrey of Monmouth makes Arthur a king, give him Queen Guinevere, and adds to Arthur’s ‘history’ with a backstory, dragons, Merlin, Excalibur, the conquest of Europe, betrayal and death. Lovely.

It is after this work that the legend of King Arthur really takes off. Still in the 12th century a poet named Wace adds the Round Table we all know and love; and Chrétien de Troyes writes stories about the knights, introduces Queen Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot’s love triangle and the Quest for the Holy Grail. In the 13th and 14th centuries more writers pick up where Chrétien leaves off. Then Thomas Malory has a go at putting it all into one, massive piece of work, Le Morte d’Arthur, at the end of the 15th century.

The difficulty is that, although there are 6th and 8th century histories that record the Saxon invasion of England and defeat, none of them mention a magical sword or dragons or, for that matter, Arthur. Which might mean that Geoffrey of Monmouth relied on information long since lost to us; or that he took a scrap of legend and made up the rest. You can decide for yourself, but other authors in Geoffrey’s time were very rude about his reliability.

Image of the Round Table with knights seated all the way around.

An image from a manuscript from the 1400s showing the Round Table, which Arthur built to show that he and all his knights were equal.

For one brief shining moment…

Geoffrey of Monmouth has his Arthur ruling from Caerleon, a real place in South Wales, but he does not call it Camelot. Chrétien De Troyes introduces a place called Camelot but does not say where it is. And with little evidence of a real Arthur, it is no surprise that lots of different places claim to be Arthur’s capital city, including Winchester, not far from the Royal Armouries site Fort Nelson. The Leeds museum’s own county of West Yorkshire also makes a claim. Coincidence? Probably. But why should Arthur not have ruled from a site that is now a golf course west of Huddersfield?

Drawing of the ruined Roman fort at Caerleon

You can still visit the remains of a Roman fort at Caerleon, but even more remained in the 1700s. You can see a drawing of it here. Did Arthur once walk along these walls?

If you strike me down…

The legends of King Arthur have been written and rewritten in different ways over time. His world is full of amazing and magical characters with tragic, romantic and heroic tales. Recent re-tellings have explored these different angle. The BBC television series Merlin tells the story from the young wizard’s point of view. The Netflix series Cursed places Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, at the centre of the tale. In this version, Nimue is given the magical sword Excalibur by her dying mother who asks her to deliver it to Merlin. Nimue uses Excalibur to behead a wolf and become the Fey Queen. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

Image showing the Lady of the Lake telling King Arthur about the sword called Excalibur

This image by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) shows The Lady of the Lake speaking to King Arthur about the sword, Excalibur.

Sometimes, the story is set in a different space entirely. An old man, strong with magical power, gives a boy raised without knowing who he really is a powerful sword, revealing that it belonged to the boy’s father, a great lord, which sets him on a path that topples an evil empire. Sounds familiar? It is the plot to Star Wars: A New Hope and, with a few changes of gender, the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Can you think of any others like this?

There is so much to be taken from this world that stories surrounding Arthur will no doubt continue to be made for many years to come.

Other fun things to do

Watch the storytelling to see how a boy began his journey to be come a legend and gain his famous sword. Download the King Arthur Fun Activity Pack (pdf, 1 MB) to see if you can make all the things needed to look like a king. Then read our article to dive into the world of King Arthur’s weapons and armour. Learn the British Sign Language and Makaton for ‘king’ to really impress your royal subjects.

Alternative communication formats

Please contact us if you require any of our downloadable documents in an alternative format.

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