For everything we celebrate about King Arthur—his epic adventures, countless battles, longstanding reign over Camelot, and unique ability to pull a sword from its stone encasement—we still can’t nail down the answer to one simple question: Did he even exist at all? Here are a few sites around the modern United Kingdom that might offer some insight into the truth behind some Arthurian tales.
By 1998, the story of King Arthur had been all but dismissed as myth when a mysterious stone slab dating from the 6th century was found hidden in the craggy remains of Tintagel Castle. (Tintagel, King Arthur buffs know, is believed to be the location of Arthur’s conception and possibly his birth.) The stone was inscribed with the words “PATERN COLI AVI FICIT ARTOGNOU,” which translates to, “Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built.” Those eager to believe in the Arthurian legend think “Artognou” refers to King Arthur and that the “Coll” in question is the 4th century Celtic King Coel Hen. However, historians are quick to point out that there is no evidence proving this is the case.
2. CADBURY CASTLE
Despite Camelot’s prominence in Arthurian legend, historians haven’t been able to nail down where the kingdom—if real—was located. Some theorists have posited that Arthur’s homestead was located in South Cadbury, a civil parish in Somerset, England. This connection was first mentioned by the 16th century antiquary John Leland, who wrote, "At the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle . . . The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard Arthur much resorted to Camalat." Detractors, however, think that Leland simply amended the names of nearby villages West Camel and Queen Camel to make the Arthur legend fit.
Another piece of evidence used by the Cadbury-is-Camelot camp is the friendship between Arthur and a prince named Cadwy, whom Arthur met in the Somerset village of Dunster. It could be possible that Cadbury is in fact Cadwy’s Fort, and that Arthur inherited it upon Cadwy’s death.
A number of prominent Arthurian writers, including Geoffrey of Monmouth (writer of The History of the Kings of Britain), indicate that King Arthur and his court were for a time stationed at the Welsh village Caerleon. Caerleon was built upon an ancient Roman military base, and historians believe that some of the leftover Roman features would have served Arthur well. In particular, historians believe Arthur may have used the amphitheater as a meeting place for his army—or, a Round Table for his knights.
4. THE GREAT HALL OF WINCHESTER CASTLE
Since the 15th century, Arthur believers thought that the real Round Table was located in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle in modern day Winchester, a city in Hampshire, England. However, in the 1970s, carbon dating proved that the so-called Round Table stationed there was no more than 700 years old, and therefore could not have been used by the 5th century king.
5. THE CHESTER AMPHITHEATER
The city of Chester, England, is also eager to claim the Round Table as its own. Some historians believe that a Roman amphitheater in Chester (not unlike the one in Caerleon) could have been the Round Table. Far from the average dinner table, this Round Table would have allowed Arthur to meet with over 1,000 of his followers at once. Bolstering this claim is the fact that Arthurian legends say that one of Arthur’s major battles took place somewhere called “the City of Legions.” St. Gildas, a 6th century monk and writer, also wrote of a City of Legions, mentioning a shrine within it. The recent discovery of a shrine in the Chester amphitheater gives credence to the belief that this is the real Round Table.
6. THE MARSHLANDS OF ARGYLL, SCOTLAND
In a book published in 2013, one historian makes the bold claim that King Arthur’s adventures took place among the marshes of Scotland. According to him, the King held court in swampy Argyll, was buried on the island of Iona, and (dismissing the story that Excalibur came from the Lady of the Lake) tore the famed sword from its embedding stone—which the author insists was only a stunt—just outside of the village of Kilmartin. This historian makes the case that Arthur was in fact Artúr mac Aedan, the son of the 6th century king of Dál Riata, Áedán mac Gabráin.
7. HADRIAN’S WALL
Running through the northern English counties Tyne, Wear, Northumberland, and Cumbria are the remains of the 2nd century military fortification Hadrian’s Wall. Many believe that the Battle of Camlann, during which King Arthur is believed to have met his end, took place at the Roman fort Camboglanna, a section of Hadrian’s Wall. While Geoffrey of Monmouth described the Battle of Camlann as being between Britains and invading Saxons, historians now believe that the conflict was most likely between two warring British armies.
8. GLASTONBURY ABBEY
King Arthur’s final resting place, Avalon, is believed to be located in modern day Glastonbury Abbey. Under the urgings of King Henry II, the monks at Glastonbury Abbey searched their grounds for the graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in the 12th century. And in 1191, their search proved fruitful: The monks found a large oak coffin with the inscription, “Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avalonia,” which many interpret as, “Here lies King Arthur buried in Avalon.” The two skeletons found inside—believed to be Arthur and Guinevere—were moved to an ornate marble tomb in 1278, where they remained until the tomb was destroyed in 1539. Where they are today is a mystery.
9. THE CAVES OF CRAIG Y DDINAS
Welsh folklore regarding the Arthurian legend differs from the English in a number of ways, including the ultimate fate of the mighty King. Certain Welsh writings profess that, after being killed (or mortally wounded) by the traitorous Mordred at the Battle of Camlann, the wizard Merlin preserved the bodies of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in suspended animation beneath a mysterious cavern. These tales often identify the location to be the limestone landmass Craig y Ddinas, otherwise known as Dinas Rock or Fortress Rock.
Join Josh Gates as he explores the United Kingdom to uncover the truth about King Arthur on the Season 2 premiere of Expedition Unknown, Wednesday, October 7 at 9/8c on Travel Channel.