Why King Arthur Might Not Have Been Real

The legend of King Arthur continues to fascinate people. Several movies and TV shows, not to mention books and plays, have been made about King Arthur and his court.

Despite people believing King Arthur actually lived, there's little evidence he was real. To be clear, the popular image of Arthur ruling over his kingdom Camelot along with the Knights of the Roundtable, mainly comes the many Arthurian legends written over the years. There are many different versions of the Arthurian stories, but broadly, the most important characters are Arthur himself, his wife Queen Guinevere, his knights including Lancelot and Gawain, and the wizard Merlin.

According to the British Library, one of the more famous versions of the stories comes from Thomas Malory's Le Mort Darthur, written between 1471 and 1483. It collected many of the tales about King Arthur and his court but was not the first text to mention him. Malory's version leaned heavily on the idea of romance (not the kissing kind, but instead focusing on the romantic idea of knights) that French poets popularized in earlier centuries, explained The Conversation. Malory's stories are why the popular image of Arthur looks medieval with the chainmail and all that. In fact, the stories are way older than that.

He's a lot older than we think

If Arthur is a real figure, he would've lived around the sixth century, wrote History, as popular medieval legend has it that Arthur helped beat back the invading Saxons. But there is no mention of a monarch named Arthur in the only surviving texts from that time. In the 9th century, a Welsh historian called Nennius listed 12 battles fought by an Arthur figure. History pointed out these battles though, took place in different times and places, and it was virtually impossible for one man to have fought in all of them.

Still, later tales began to draw on Nennius' accounts. According to Archeology, the first full biography of King Arthur appeared during the 12th century. Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain referenced a monarch named Arthur and told his life story. The story included mentions of the wizard Merlin and Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon. For a lot of historians, though, this version of Arthur was severely unlikeable and was even murderous.

Encyclopedia Britannica reported Arthur's Knights of the Roundtable, and other supporting characters probably came about in the 12th-century romance Culhwch and Olwen. It established Arthur as a leader of a band of knights. It is these stories that the famous French Arthurian romances from which Malory drew on came about. The French writers, who started talking about Arthur around the 14h century, also added stories about Arthur and his knights looking for the Holy Grail. This is when stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were written. 

Record keeping was terrible then

King Arthur seems so real, despite the little evidence he actually existed because his ideals have been passed down through many generations. Time wrote people still believe Arthur is real precisely because there's little evidence. The early 6th century is not known for good historical record-keeping, so maybe documents about Arthur are just missing? And of course, people love a good story, so all of his supposed exploits spread all over the world.

It's highly unlikely a warrior king called Arthur was scrubbed from historical records, but it does add to his mystery. The idea of a one-true king who went on adventures and the betrayal of his closest friend appealed to so many. His kingdom, Camelot, even became a codeword for a romantic place. History said later English monarchs even appropriated Arthurian legend for political purposes.

Arthur being fictional, has never stopped writers and artists from telling his story. As long as people continue to be fascinated with the story, there will always be a new movie, TV show, and book about his life and those of his friends.