Was King Arthur real?

Monday 13 April 2020

Who was King Arthur? This mysterious man is mentioned in medieval histories and poetic sagas, fighting in battles against invading Saxon warriors, and accompanied by the mystical figure of Merlin. While it’s hard to say for sure what’s true and what’s legend, Britain is full of the locations that feature prominently in King Arthur’s story. Come and visit them and decide for yourself…

The legend: Isle of Avalon

Real-life location: Glastonbury

Glastonbury Tor is a hill and national landmark, a natural feature in the landscape, with a tall building, St Michael's Tower on the top. The site is managed by the National Trust. It has been designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Aerial view.

Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset is thought to be the location of the fabled Isle of Avalon, final resting place of King Arthur. Some also believe that Joseph of Arimathea came here from the Holy Land, bringing with him the Holy Grail and founding Britain’s first church. As Arthurian enthusiasts will know, the Holy Grail becomes an important part of King Arthur’s story when the knights are told to seek it on a quest.

Monks claimed they’d unearthed the remains of King Arthur and Guinevere back in the 12th century – although this was later believed to be a medieval hoax to increase the number of visitors to the abbey! Today it’s a romantic ruin of high gothic arches in beautiful parkland at the heart of Glastonbury.


The legend: King Arthur’s birthplace

Real-life location: Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

According to the Arthurian legend, King Arthur’s conception and birth took place in the clifftop castle of Tintagel in Cornwall, and was the result of magical trickery. Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, became captivated by Igraine, the wife of the Duke of Gorlois. To reach Igraine, Uther asked the wizard Merlin to cast a spell that would disguise him as the Duke. In this guise, Uther was able to get past the guards and into Igrain’s bedchamber. Tintagel today is a series of dramatic ruins for you to explore and look for signs of magic.

Also look out for the beautiful sea cave in the great rocks beneath Tintagel, which is known as Merlin’s Cave. While there’s no evidence for the existence of Merlin – other than mentions in some medieval manuscripts – the cave definitely has an enchanted feel about it!


The legend: Kingdom of Powys

Real-life location: Shropshire and mid Wales

Wroxeter, Shropshire

Some academics think Arthur was really the dark age ruler Owain Ddanwyn, king of Powys: a historic kingdom that previously covered what is today Shropshire and mid Wales. A possible candidate for Owain Ddanwyn’s stronghold is the Roman city of Viroconium, which you can visit today at Wroxeter Roman City. Could this be the site of Camelot?

If you want to explore King Arthur’s legend in Shropshire, you can take the King Arthur Trail and explore some of the sites associated with Arthur, from the sword in the stone at Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle to the legends of the Holy Grail at Whittington Castle.


The legend: Gawain and the Green Knight

Real-life location: Black Forest, Peak District

Lud's Church, Black Forest, Peak District, England

Not a church as you might think of one, Lud’s Church is a rocky gorge in the Staffordshire Moors thought to have been sacred to the early Britons. It’s also famously associated with the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval poem about a green-skinned, occasionally headless horseman who challenges one of King Arthur’s knights to a deadly test of courage.

Deep in a part of the Peak District known as Black Forest, Lud’s Church is quite a spooky spot, not least because the gorge bottom is only touched by sunlight on Midsummer’s Day. Nevertheless, it’s one of the region’s most popular walking spots, surrounded by atmospheric woodland and views over the Peak District National Park.

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