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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”