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Was King Arthur a real person? What we know about the mythological medieval king

King Arthur is an iconic figure in Western literature. Is the man historical or mythological? Or somewhere in between?

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King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouilon depicted together in a painting made in 1411.

Jacques Iverni

Some know King Arthur by his sword Excalibur, while others know him because of King Arthur Flour. This legendary hero permeates European literature, but one question remains: did King Arthur really exist?

Smithsonian Magazine posed this question in a recent story. Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table permeate Western culture. Here’s more about the fabled king and the latest on whether or not he really existed.

Troy Media reported that King Arthur resurfaced in the news due to an archaeological dig in Herefordshire, England. According to The Guardian, this dig was to explore the site around Arthur’s Stone. Questions around the historicity of King Arthur resurfaced due to this dig.

Who is King Arthur?

King Arthur predates some of the most famous stories about him. Appearing in late sixth and seventh century Welsh poetry, he appears as a military leader and king, leading the charge against the Saxons. According to the History website, it would have been impossible for one man to participate in all the battles attributed to Arthur that appear in this Welsh poetry.

According to the Legend of King Arthur website, the earliest mention of King Arthur might be in the seventh-century poem “Y Gododdin.” Composed in Old Welsh, this is a collection of elegies about fallen heroes. When commemorating a fallen hero, the poet remarks that the hero fought bravely, “even though he was no Arthur.”

These earlier mentions do not include the story of Arthur with his wife Guinevere and his sword Excalibur, but later mentions do. According to the History website, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain” written in 1136 seems to be the turning point for King Arthur literature. Although scholars consider it pseudo-history, contemporaries believed that it was really true and were convinced of King Arthur’s existence.

According to Troy Media, Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century “The Death of Arthur” builds on what others wrote about him and tells a completely fleshed-out story of the fabled king. Malory incorporated Merlin mythology as well as legends of the Knights of the Round Table to tell a comprehensive story of Arthur. Malory compiled various sources about the King and wove them together, which shows the history of Arthur as well as the legendary thinking that existed around him. Arthur legends are staples in Western literature.

Written by an anonymous poet, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” details the legendary story of Gawain while incorporating King Arthur legendary narratives as well. This poem, as the Smithsonian Magazine author notes, has been adapted for the screen as David Lowery’s film “The Green Knight.” This film, released in 2021, demonstrates the persistence of King Arthur legends.

Was King Arthur a real person?

It’s complicated. While historians agree that King Arthur did not exist in the full sense that he embodies within European literature, it seems that there was a heroic warrior who rose up that was called Arthur. Some historians believe that the Welsh monk Nennius’ version of Arthur, a famous warrior, is likely the person from whom King Arthur legends originated.

But many questions still remain about this figure. A researcher of King Arthur says, “It’s always going to remain a mystery.”