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King Arthur

Miles Russell puts the once and future king under the microscope to discover if there’s any truth to Britain’s greatest legend
Who was the post-Roman warlord who inspired the legend of King Arthur?
ILLUSTRATION: JEAN-MICHEL GIRARD/WWW.THE-ART-AGENCY.CO.UK, GETTY X1

There are few characters from history or legend so widely celebrated as King Arthur, a medieval celebrity famous the world over. He is the archetypal doomed hero - a brave and chivalric warrior who fought against the forces of evil, establishing a great kingdom and presiding over a golden age, betrayed by those he held most dear. His story has been told, retold and elaborated upon for hundreds of years. A new Hollywood epic, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is about to hit the cinemas, reimagining the tale for a new generation and rebooting the franchise yet again. But who was Arthur? Was there a real warlord on whose life the legend is based, or is he a mere fantasy?

Charles Hunnam as Arthur in the new film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
ALAMY X2, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, WARNER BROS PICTURES X1

As a literary character, Arthur is welldefined. Elements of his story - from the sword in the stone to the quest for the Holy Grail - are embedded in western culture. He crosses effortlessly from history to the worlds of art, folklore and literature, often with no clear indicator of where fact ends and fiction begins. As a historical character, however, Arthur causes a significant headache, for there are no contemporary sources that undeniably prove his existence. Many academics today believe that there was a prototype for Arthur - a successful warlord, perhaps, from the immediate post-Roman period - but few can really agree on who that was.

For most, the period that followed the collapse of Roman rule in Britain is best described as `the Dark Ages’, hidden by a fog of myth and chronological uncertainty. This is a time fuelled by epic matter, the characters appearing in legend having been so extensively distorted that it is often difficult to see how particular tales began or to whom they originally related. Macsen Wledig, for example, an important character in the early Welsh epic the Mabinogion, ultimately bears little resemblance to the genuine Magnus Maximus of fourth-century Roman history, while the fifth-century RomanoBritish general Ambrosius Aurelianus appears in folklore gathering monoliths from Ireland and re-erecting them on Salisbury Plain with the aid of magic.

MOST VENERABLE

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is considered one of the most important references on Anglo-Saxon history.

Eighth-century monk Bede has been called the 'Father of English history'

"He crosses from history to the world of folklore, with no clear indicator of where fact ends and fiction begins"

Perhaps the biggest problem for anyone attempting to make sense of the fifth and sixth centuries is the lack of useful contemporary sources. There are the religious writings of Gildas and Bede, as well as the more fantastical Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) or the Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales), later collections of dates, lists and topographical information, but overall documentary sources are sparse.

Fifth-century King Vortigern and Merlin watch two dragons fight, illustrating an episode from Historia Brittonum
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About History Revealed

Discover the real King Arthur with our exclusive article from archaeologist Miles Russell, who believes that the legendary figure was in fact a Dark Age warlord. Elsewhere, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell go head to head, take a look at life on the Thames in the Victorian era, and learn about the forgotten storyteller who wrote one of our most-loved fairytales.
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