There are sites all over the United Kingdom associated with the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, but how is it possible for a legendary king to have a castle in real time?
The story of King Arthur dates back to the 5th – 6th century AD. After the conquering Romans left Britain, the country fell into chaos. Local tribes fought each other, while Saxons invaded Britain from the east.
One man brought peace to Britain. He was a Romano-British warrior who succeeded in uniting the Britons to repel their common foe. After many battles, the Saxons were defeated and history records that there was peace for several decades.
Was the King Arthur of legend based on this historical figure? While the story has been retold and changed through the centuries, the essential elements remain the same: that Arthur was born at Tintagel, that he held court at Camelot, and that he was taken to the magical island of Avalon after he died.
The ruined castle at Tintagel in Cornwall dates back to the 13th century, but the castle was built on a much older site. Tintagel was an important trading port in the dark ages. It was used by the rulers of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall) as a summer stronghold, so a future king might well have been born there. A recent find, an inscribed piece of slate, supports the connection with a dark age King Arthur. The 6th century Latin script translates as ‘Artognou, father of a descendent of Coll, has made this.’ Artognou is an ancient form of the name ‘Arthur’.
Where is Camelot? A 12th century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, claims that Arthur held court at Caerleon, in Wales. Once the site of a Roman garrison, the amphitheatre is said to be the ’round table’ where Arthur met with his knights.
Another possibility may be ‘South Cadbury Castle’ in Somerset. Only a flat green hill remains, but archeological evidence suggests that between 475-550 AD it was the stronghold of a powerful war lord or king. Stone castles with turrets are a medieval invention. This ‘castle’ would have been made of wattle and daub (poles and woven sticks plastered with mud or clay) with a thatched roof. It would have been surrounded by a palisade (fence) with a deep ditch outside for extra protection.
Glastonbury Tor may well be the magical ‘island of Avalon’. Some people believe that Arthur and his knights lie sleeping there, and that one day he will come again to save Britain in her hour of need. In ancient times, the Tor was surrounded by marshland which flooded when the rains came – turning the hill into an ‘island’. In 1191, monks at nearby Glastonbury Abbey unearthed two skeletons with a cross identifying them as Arthur and his queen, Guinevere.
Whether Arthur was a legend or a real historical figure, these ancient sites in Britain all help to keep his story alive.
© Felicity Pulman, 2004.