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.
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.
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.
The Roman town of Silchester, known as Calleba, was supposedly the site of King Arthur's coronation. During the Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th century, Calleba was an important strategic city, with road blocks and a defensible perimeter. In fact, even a century later when the Saxons were able to successfully invade Britain, they avoided the town of Calleba, even going so far as to ritually curse the city.
Perhaps Calleba was still associated with the powerful King Arthur who had repelled earlier Saxon invasions––and it might also have been linked to his magical sword, Excalibur. In fact, the sword's name, which was originally Caliburn according to Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century history, may have been derived from the word "Calleba." The curse might have even been an attempt to break the powerful hold Arthur's legend already had by the 7th century, when Saxons cursed the city.
Historian John Morris argued in the 1970s that the name Arthur suddenly became popular in Britain around the early 6th century - for Morris, this is evidence that an actual Arthur existed and possibly ruled as Emperor of Britain. Morris points to archaeological evidence that Saxon advances in Britain were turned back in the early 6th century and did not resume again until the 570s CE. Could King Arthur have been responsible for the brief period of peace?
Just before the rise of Arthur, Rome’s capital in the province of Brittania was at Camulodunum, today known as Colchester. If Arthur did rule as king after the fall of Roman power, he may have also made Camuldounum his capital - which could have been the origin of the name Camelot.