The myth of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table: historical reality or medieval legend?

King Arthur he is a legendary British rulerwho lived surrounded by knights from the Panel discussion in the fortress of Camelot. The stories of Arthur and the Sword in the Stone make up the Breton cycle, that is, the saga born in medieval England and which became popular throughout the world. For centuries, scholars have wondered about historicity of Arthur, wondering if the sovereign really existed. However, the sources on the subject date back many centuries to the events and, although historians have attempted to identify Arthur with various royal figures, no hypothesis has been fully confirmed. It is probable that the same applies to Arthur as to another famous figure of English folklore, Robin Hood, that is, that he is a character largely invented by storytellers, perhaps inspired by one or more men who actually existed.

The legend of King Arthur and the Breton cycle

King Arthur (King Arthur in English) is the main character of the Breton cycle, also known as the Arthurian cycle or British matter, that is, the saga of tales set in England in the late ancient era. In the Middle Ages the stories of the Breton cycle were told by storyteller and, in more recent centuries, have inspired novels, films, comics and even video games.

According to legend, Arthur was a Romano-British king who fought against the Anglian and Saxon invaders from continental Europe between the 5th and 6th centuries AD. He was the illegitimate son of the king of Pendragon and he earned the right to succession because he managed to pass a test in which all the other candidates for the throne had failed: extract a sword stuck in the stone. Having become sovereign, Arthur repelled the invaders, fighting with his sword Excalibur (which in some versions is the one extracted from the rock, in others not) and gathered the knights of the Round Table in his fortress of Camelot.

The peace ended when one of the knights, Lancelot, began a relationship with Guinevere, Arthur’s wife. In reality, Ginevra had been pushed into adultery by Mordred, a son that Arthur had conceived with his half-sister Morgana, intent on distracting the sovereign and usurping the throne. After the betrayal, Lancelot set out in search of the Holy Grail (the legendary vessel in which the blood of Jesus was collected) to atone for his guilt and a war broke out between Arthur and Mordred. His son was killed and his father, wounded, moved toIsle of Avalon, retiring “to private life”. How much truth is there in this story?

Historical sources on King Arthur

To answer the question of Arthur’s historicity it is necessary to understand through what sources do we know the character. No document contemporary to its alleged existence mentions the sovereign. The first hints are found in History of Britain (History of the Britons) written by the monk Nennius in the 9th century (therefore several centuries after the events narrated). The figure of Arthur became popular in many European countries since the 10th-11th century, but the story was told in detail for the first time only by Geoffrey of Monmouth in its Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), a pseudo-historical work of 1136.

Statue of Godfrey

After Goffredo, Arthur’s story was enriched with new details and new characters. In its definitive form, by which it is still known today, it appeared for the first time at the end of the fifteenth century in the novel of Thomas Malory Arthur’s death.

Did Arthur and his knights really exist?

Answering the question of whether Arthur ever existed is not easy, but there are two certain starting points: many details they are certainly part of history invented (the sword in the stone, the quest for the Grail, etc.); however, it is real context in which the story takes place, that is, Great Britain in the late ancient era, invaded by European populations who took over the already existing Romano-Celtic civilization.

And Arthur? Many scholars believe that he was inspired by real figures. In particular, they have identified several points of contact between him and a certain Riothamus, a king of the Britons who was betrayed by one of his subordinates (as Arthur was betrayed by Mordred) and died in a place in Burgundy called Avallon. Riothamus could therefore be the “real” Arthur. However we know very little about the character, mentioned only by Gothic historian Gerdane, to the point that it cannot even be ruled out that Riothamus was not a proper name, but a title. Therefore, only a few scholars accept that Arthur derives from Riothamus.

According to others, the mythical protagonist of the Breton cycle could be inspired by one of the Romano-British military commanders who clashed against the Anglian and Saxon invaders: Ambrose Aureliana Roman leader who remained in Britain after the withdrawal of the legions in 408, o Artoriusanother general of Rome who lived in the 2nd century AD. No hypothesis, however, is supported by evidence and the connections between Arthur and the proposed characters are very tenuous.

Even the locations mentioned in the Breton cycle they are not identifiable: we do not know where Camelot, Avalon, etc. were actually located. The most realistic hypothesis is therefore that Arthur and his knights are largely fictional charactersbut which perhaps have some connection with one or more real-life characters.

Robin Hood really existed