King Arthur is a name that stirs up associations of chivalry, honor, and courtly love—or, if you're a Monty Python fan, knights who say “ni!” and fathers who smell of elderberries. Whether it’s been on stage or screen, in literature and comics, or inspiring kings and politicians, the legend of King Arthur has continued to evolve across generations. Yet despite his legendary status, there’s little evidence to suggest the man existed at all. Regardless, the world has continued to be enthralled by the myth and the world of Camelot.
1. Early writings portray Arthur as a warrior, not a king.
The writings of ninth-century Welsh monk Nennius first refer to a 5th-century warrior named Arthur leading an army to fight against invading Saxons. Yet there’s no mention of this Arthur being a king, and he lived hundreds of years before King Arthur supposedly did.
2. The King Arthur legend first appeared in a 12th-century text.
The figure of King Arthur became popular after 1136, around the time Geoffrey Monmouth wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), which claimed to chart the history of the British monarchy. The text also outlined the history of King Arthur and featured famous figures such as Merlin and Guinevere. Monmouth’s text was a huge success—it ultimately created the myth of King Arthur, the noble ruler. Many historians, meanwhile, dismiss his work, claiming it was likely medieval propaganda.
3. Famous stories from the King Arthur myth include “The Sword in the Stone.”
One of the most famous associations with King Arthur is his sword, Excalibur. There are a couple different stories about how Arthur came to possess the legendary weapon. In Robert de Boron’s 13th-century epic poem Merlin, the sword is placed inside a stone, with the wizard Merlin claiming only the true heir would be able to remove it. A young Arthur is able to easily withdraw the sword, thereby becoming King. The other version of the tale is from Thomas Malory’s 15th-century text Le Morte d'Arthur, which depicts the Lady of the Lake offering Excalibur to Arthur.
4. We still don’t know where Camelot was located.
Historians have tried to identify where King Arthur’s mythical kingdom of Camelot was supposed to be set. People have proposed various locations across the UK: Candidates include the Welsh village Caerleon, Cadbury Castle in Somerset, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, and the city of Winchester in Hampshire.
5. King Arthur inspired the Tudors.
Henry VII used the popular tales of King Arthur to secure his reign upon seizing the English throne in 1485 after the Wars of the Roses. Drawing from the legend, he even traced the Tudor family tree from Arthur himself. Henry VII also named his first child Arthur, though it was Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, who went on to rule as Henry VIII—and break England from the Catholic Church in the process. Henry VIII grew up fascinated by the tales of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, so much so that he ordered the redecorating of the Winchester Round Table, which still hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle today.
6. Jackie Kennedy used the myth of Camelot to secure John F. Kennedy’s legacy.
The Tudors weren’t the only ones who saw the legend’s propaganda value. A week after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his wife, Jackie, organized an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Theodore White for LIFE magazine. In the interview, she emphasized Kennedy’s love for the 1960 musical Camelot and underlined the line “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief moment that was known as Camelot.”
Jackie then explicitly linked the world of Camelot to JFK’s presidency, saying: “There’ll be great presidents again … but there’ll never be a Camelot again.” Kennedy’s administration was referenced as Camelot from then on, evoking his presidency as a time of utopian and idealistic politics.
7. John Steinbeck wrote his own retelling of King Arthur’s legend.
Author and Nobel Prize Winner John Steinbeck was also fascinated by the tales of King Arthur—so much so that in 1958, he began writing his own retelling of the myth, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights. But he stopped the project only a year later and never completed it. What remained of Steinbeck’s vision was published posthumously in 1976, giving readers a glimpse into the author’s love for Arthurian legend.
8. DC Comics did a boundary-breaking retelling of King Arthur’s tale.
In 1982, DC Comics launched the series Camelot 3000, which featured characters from the Arthurian universe being awoken in the present to fight invading alien forces. This series is regarded for breaking boundaries—and not just because it was the first comic printed on high gloss paper. One of these characters was Sir Tristan, whose character is an example of early transgender representation. In the comic, Tristan is reborn as a woman. He rejects this body and identifies as a man, asking to still be referred to as Sir Tristan. Despite an offer to return to his true form if he betrays the team, Tristan refuses to deceive his friends, despite the difficulty he feels in turning the offer down.
9. Not all retellings of King Arthur were successful.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Disney's The Sword in the Stone (1963) both put their own successful spins on the legendary tale. But not every cinematic version of the legends of Camelot had such luck. In 2017, Warner Bros. set about planning an entire Arthurian cinematic universe that would consist of six films. Guy Ritchie was tapped to direct King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, starring Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law.
The film had a whopping $175 million budget, underlining the studio’s high hopes for the picture. Yet what was supposed to be a summer blockbuster ended up as an embarrassing flop, with the gritty action remake failing to impress critics or audiences. It ultimately lost Warner Bros. around $150 million, sinking plans for any future sequels.
10. A 2021 King Arthur film spotlights Gawain the Green Knight.
The retellings from the Arthurian universe continue, with July 2021 seeing the release of The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel. The film is an adaptation of the 14th-century poem of the same name. It follows the adventures of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, who accepts a quest from a mysterious Green Knight. The film has already received high praise from critics, proving that regardless of success or failure, the tales of King Arthur continue to cast a spell over audiences.