All The Theories Historians Have For Solving The Mystery Of Who King Arthur Really Was

Who was King Arthur? The legendary chivalric king who led the Knights of the Round Table on searches for the Holy Grail, while his Queen, Guinevere, fell in love with his chief knight, Lancelot, has appeared in stories for over a thousand years. According to legend, King Arthur never died - he has been sleeping on the magical Isle of Avalon for 1500 years, waiting to awake and reclaim his title.

But was King Arthur real? And if he was, then when did King Arthur die? 

Historians have uncovered a number of theories about the real King Arthur, who likely lived around the year 500 CE, when Britain was fighting off invading Saxons. Although no one wrote down any facts about King Arthur until centuries after his death, the discovery of a mysterious stone which mentions “Artognou” is proof that there is history behind the myth. As for the question of who inspired King Arthur, historians are still split, but then that's the thing with legends; it's hard to separate fact from fiction.

  • King Arthur May Have Been A Military Leader

    After the decline of Roman power in Britain in 410 CE, the island was overrun with chaos and violence. Starting in the 5th century, the Anglo-Saxons began to invade from Germany, trying to establish new kingdoms. Wars raged across Britain and tribal life dominated. “Rulers would occupy an area, often a hill, that would be easy to defend,” says medievalist Norris J. Lacy. “Local wars were frequent.”

    The legend of King Arthur was born from this chaotic environment, where, Lacy speculates, people latched onto stories of a benevolent king who wanted to bring peace. The real Arthur was probably a military leader who defended Britain against the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Arthur’s many legends fit with the theory that he was a victorious warrior leading Britons into battle against invaders.

  • An Abandoned Medieval Castle Might Have Been Arthur's Home
    Photo: Kerry Garratt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    An Abandoned Medieval Castle Might Have Been Arthur's Home

    Tintagel was a thriving fortified island community in the 5th century - and it may have also been home to King Arthur. The site was likely a stronghold for the rulers of Devon and Cornwall, and whoever inhabited it was connected with the Mediterranean world. Fragments of pottery and glass from Greece, North Africa, and Spain have all been discovered at Tintagel. But even though the area was thriving in the 5th and 6th centuries, it was mysteriously abandoned after the mid-7th century, and remained so for the next 500 years.

    In 1138 CE, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the first in-depth record of King Arthur, called the History of the Kings of Britain. This text made the legend of Arthur internationally famous - and Geoffrey said that Arthur was born in Tintagel. Archaeological excavations have shown that Geoffrey’s theory may be supported by historical evidence.

  • The Arthur Stone Is Proof History Exists Behind The Myth
    Photo: Eucsgmrc / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

    The Arthur Stone Is Proof History Exists Behind The Myth

    In 1998, archaeologists working on Tintagel Island found a stone known as the Artognou stone, or Arthur stone. The piece of slate contained an inscription from the 6th century that read “Pater Coiavificit Artognov,” or “Artognou, father of a descendent of Coll, had this built.” It was found next to 6th-century Mediterranean pottery and a Spanish glass flagon, indicating that the building's founder had great resources at his disposal.

    The stone is “the find of a lifetime,” according to Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, chief archaeologist for English Heritage. It is clear evidence that a 6th-century king living in Tintagel truly did exist, and his name was Arthur. “This is where myth meets history,” Wainwright declared.

  • Arthur May Have Been Based On A Mysterious "Supreme King"
    Photo: Peter de Langtoft / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Arthur May Have Been Based On A Mysterious "Supreme King"

    The legends of Arthur may have been modeled on an English king from the 5th or 6th centuries who was known as Riothamus. The name was actually a title - it means "supreme king" - and the historical Riothamus crossed the English Channel to fight in France. Riothamus led an army of Britons all the way to Burgundy, where they tried to expel the Goths - but the military campaign failed when Riothamus was betrayed by an associate and disappeared from all historical records around 470 CE.

    The earliest texts to mention King Arthur, which date to the 12th century, say that Arthur also traveled to France to wage war, and like Riothamus, he was also betrayed. It is possible, according to historians, that Arthur was based on the ruler only known as “supreme king.”

  • The Round Table Might Have Been Chester Amphitheater
    Photo: Evrard d'Espinques / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Round Table Might Have Been Chester Amphitheater

    During the centuries of Roman rule of Britain, around 70 CE the Romans built an amphitheater at the city of Legion, known today as Chester. The Chester amphitheater was the largest in Britain, and it was used for military training such as practicing troop maneuvers and weaponry. 

    Excavations have shown that the amphitheater was fortified during the 5th or 6th century - the era of King Arthur. The circular amphitheater may have been transformed into the legendary Round Table of King Arthur, which was originally described as much larger than an actual table, which could seat 1,600 of Arthur’s warriors.

  • King Arthur May Have Defeated The Saxons At Badon In 500 CE
    Photo: Rochefoucauld Grail / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    King Arthur May Have Defeated The Saxons At Badon In 500 CE

    In 544 CE, a British monk named Gildas wrote about a major battle that occurred only a few decades earlier, in the year 500 CE. The Britons were led by a powerful man named Ambrosius Aurelianus, according to Gildas, who helped the Britons regain their strength. At the Battle of Badon, Aurelianus helped repel the Saxon invaders, winning a major battle for the Britons.

    Around the year 800 CE, another monk named Nennius changed the name Ambrosius Aurelianus to Arthur, and said that in Arthur’s battle on Badon Hill, “nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s.” He went on to add that the legendary king “was victorious in all his campaigns.” Historian Peter Korrel has argued that Ambrosius Aurelianus and Arthur are the same person - which fits with the legend that Arthur won a major battle at Badon against the Saxons.