Have you ever heard of the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table? Their tales are full of adventures, drama, and mystery! Now, because these are tales, there is much debate around King Arthur’s reality. To understand who King Arthur might have been, we need to go back to early England. Let’s go there to ask, “was there really a King Arthur?”
About 600 years before Christ, there was a people group called the Celts. The Celts were artistic and brave, but never had their own written language, so not much is known of their early history. We do know that some settled in what is now modern-day England. About 550 years later, the Romans invaded England under the famous Julius Caesar.
The Romans ruled over England for about 30 years, living mostly in peace among the Celts. They built roads, bathhouses, and homes with central heating and glass windows. In some ways, the Romans guarded the Celts and helped them flourish. However, the Roman Empire began to collapse in the late 400s. As Romans fled the country, the Celts had no protection from hostile tribes wishing to invade. The primary tribes included the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. (Many English speakers are descendants of the invading Angels and Saxons, and thus called “Anglo-Saxons.”)
Arthur, the Legendary King
This finally brings us to King Arthur. Most historians believe he was a Celtic king or war chief who lived in England just about the time that the Romans left. He soon became a legend for his heroism against numerous invaders like the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. So, what exactly are the great tales surrounding King Arthur? I will share a few.
First, according to legend, Arthur’s destiny was revealed in a most unusual way. In one version of the story, news circulated that no one could remove a certain sword entrapped in stone except the future king of England. Many men failed to remove the sword, until 15-year-old Arthur passed it by. He was fetching a sword for his older brother, who was a knight participating in a tournament. But rather than run all the way home, Arthur decided to save a trip and grab the one he saw. To everyone’s surprise, the sword gave way in his hands! Arthur was quickly surrounded by townspeople and declared king. “Long live the king!” the crowd chanted. So, by reputation, Arthur became the greatest, most noble king that England ever had!
Another tale involves the mysterious Lady of the Lake, whose jeweled arm allegedly rose out of a crystal lake to give Arthur a sword of great craftsmanship. This was the famous sword Excalibur, which means “cut steel.” In The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle, Arthur said to himself: “Now, as God hath seen fit for to intrust that sword into my keeping in so marvelous a manner as fell about, so must He mean that I am to be His servant for to do unusual things.”1
In becoming a king and the bearer of Excalibur, Arthur had much to learn. Most of his wisdom he attributed to Merlin, his childhood teacher. Merlin is traditionally portrayed as a magician. Merlin supposedly guided Arthur through his years as king. One tale involving Merlin included over 100 knights—and a large Round Table. What was the wisdom behind a round table? Well, it kept the knights from arguing over who would be seated in the best places!
Dragons and Saxons Attack!
So, what do kings and knights do to keep a kingdom? Mainly, they fight to protect it. According to folklore, knights also fought dragons! These dragon tales of old may be true if small species of dinosaurs still roamed nearby. (Some dinosaurs may not yet have become extinct.) Others suggest that dragons were symbolic of the Celts number one enemy—the Saxons.
Arthur supposedly fought 12 battles against the Saxons, the last one being the Battle of Mount Badon in 503. It is from these victories that we find some evidence to suggest that there was a true hero named Arthur—the Dux Bellorum, which means “Lord of the Battle.” Many believe that this Arthur, though never a king, was inspiration for today’s main character. (I wish we knew more because one writer claims that Arthur single-handedly fought 900 enemies at once!)
Legend or otherwise, Arthur is a truly impactful character. As time goes by, it’s as if Arthur is recreated and stories of him retold to fit the timeless need we have for a hero. Who knows for sure the reality of the tales of Merlin, dragons, or the Round Table? But when you put them all together, they help answer the question, “Was there really a King Arthur?”
Most think that Arthur and his knights wore full plate armor, but that did not become popular until the early 1400s. Instead, Arthur and his knights had chain mail, swords, shields, helmets, tunics, leather, furs, and whatever else they could find.
- Dress like a knight using clever household items. (We found some amazing items at a dollar store!
- Sword fighting is optional—test your gear!
- Reenact Arthur drawing a sword from a stone. Use your imagination with a pretend sword and stone (suggestions: sword – wrapping paper tube or toy sword; stone – slot between cushions, a stack of large stones outside, or stacked books).
Middle Students—Arthurian Legend
The vast collection of ancient Literature of King Arthur is commonly referred to as Arthurian legend. Read modern translations of Arthurian legend and poetry! Here are a few favorites:
- “The Seafarer,” an Anglo-Saxon poem describing the life of the men who sailed the seas to invade England.
- Lord Tennyson’s “Holy Grail,” in Idylls of the King.
- Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” about Lady Astolat, who loved Lancelot though he rejected her. (She died of a broken heart!)
Older Students—Artognou Stone
Fans of King Arthur are hopeful that archaeologists will find more concrete evidence to verify the ancient legends of Arthur. In 1998, a sixth-century stone named the Artognou Stone was discovered that may help!
- Research the stone to discover the inscription it bears and the surrounding debates.
- In a notebook, create two columns.
- In one, give points about the stone that may support the story of Arthur (e.g., the date of the stone).
- In the other, give points that discredit his existence (e.g., “Artognou” is not necessarily “Arthur”).
- Create a case for which side you think is most valid!
1. Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903; New York: Barnes & Noble, 2016), 105.