The legend of King Arthur and Camelot

The story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table endures, but who was Arthur and why does his legend live on?

The story of King Arthur is based partly on myth and partly on fact, and there are numerous contenders to the real figure, including Owain Ddantgwyn, King of Powys circa AD 500 who led successful campaigns by Britons against Angles, Saxons and Picts; and Riothamus, a late 5th-century Romano-Briton who led an army of Britons against the Goths but was betrayed, defeated and killed.

Here is an outline of the legend as it stands:

As the first born son of King Uther Pendragon in the 5th century, Arthur was heir to the throne, however with the power struggles that gripped the country after the Romans had left, the wizard Merlin advised the King to raise his son in secret to protect him.

When King Uther Pendragon died war broke out over who should ascend to the throne and Merlin set a sword in a stone with the following words inscribed: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone is the rightwise born king of all England.”

Many contenders tried to retrieve the sword from the stone but only Arthur succeeded, and he subsequently took his rightful place as King.

Arthur soon surrounded himself with his Knights of the Round Table to help him in his fight against the Saxon invaders. Their base was at Camelot, where Arthur is said to have built a great castle.

Arthur and his knights also sought the ‘Holy Grail’, a treasure believed to be the cup that Christ blessed at the Last Supper and that he drank from during his crucifixion.

Arthur’s sword ‘Excalibur’, which some say was the same sword he retrieved from the stone, was a magical and powerful weapon, which helped him slay many foes. Other stories say this was an altogether different sword, bestowed on Arthur by the Lady in the Lake.

The Marriage of King Arthur and Guinevere, illustration from The Gateway to Tennyson (1910). Credit: Hilary Morgan/Alamy
The Marriage of King Arthur and Guinevere. Credit: Hilary Morgan/Alamy

Arthur married Queen Guinevere but she betrayed him by falling for one of his knights, Sir Lancelot, and their affair was said to have triggered the downfall of the kingdom.

Civil war broke out and during a fierce battle with Mordred, the nephew or possibly even illegitimate son who betrays him, Arthur is mortally wounded. The flailing King is placed on a boat and floated downriver to the Isle of Avalon. His body is never found and legend has it that he lays in slumber awaiting his call to action.