Guide to King Arthur: history of the legend and best places to visit to follow his trail

The legend of King Arthur is centuries old and still fascinates today. Here is our guide on Britain's most famous hero, including a brief look at the history of the legend and best places to follow King Arthur's trail in the British countryside

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The story of King Arthur tells of him searching for the Holy Grail and fighting off the Saxons to save his kingdom of Camelot, alongside the Knights of the Round Table. Other common threads to the myriad stories about the hero are Merlin the magician, Lady Guinevere and King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. But did the king really exist? And if so, where can we find traces of him?

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Who was the real King Arthur?

It is not known if there was a real Arthur, though it is believed he may have been a Roman-affiliated military leader who successfully staved off a Saxon invasion during the 5th to 6th centuries. Arthur first appears in the ‘History of the Britons’, written in 830 by Nennius. Some believe that references to Arthur were actually a way of honouring via myth a Celtic bear deity with a similar name.

Reflection of a castle on water

What is the legend of King Arthur?

According to ancient legend,King Arthur was a powerful British leader who successfully defended Britain against Saxon invasion in the late 5th and early 6th centuries.Legend states that Arthur will remain sleeping until foreign invaders threaten Britain once again.

Illustration of King Arthur
King Arthur, semi-legendary king of the Britons, searching for the sword Excalibur, circa 530 AD. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One other theory is that Arthur is derived from Arcturus, a star near the constellation ‘Ursa Major’ also know as ‘Great Bear’.

King Arthur in literature

Thomas Malory was the first to provide an English prose of the story, published in 1485, called Le Morte D’Arthur. Other early stories name King Arthur’s sword, forged on the Isle of Avalon, as Caladfwlch, a Welsh word meaning “Hard Lightning”. However in later versions Geoffrey of Monmouth frenchified the name to Excalibur.

Alfred Tennyson published his Idylls of the King throughout the latter half of the 1800s, telling the story of Camelot in the form of an epic poem.

Richard Burton starred as Arthur in the 1960’s Broadway musical version of the tale, Camelot.

Who were the knights of the round table?

Arthur’s knights met at a round table in Camelot. The table was round with no head, which means that all who sat there were of equal status and importance.

Knights of the round table
The Knights of the Round Table, ca 1475. Found in the collection of Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Artist : Évrard d’Espinques (active 1440-1494). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The final resting place of King Arthur

It is said that Arthur is buried in the cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey on the south side of the Lady Chapel between two stone pyramids. It is rumoured that Henry II asked the Abbot to dig within the ancient graveyard for the bones of Arthur, as he had information from a Welsh bard that Arthur was buried here.


Best places in Britain to follow King Arthur’s trail

1

Tintagel, Cornwall

This is the where the story starts for the Saxon leader, as Arthur was conceived in the Cornish village of Tintagel by king Uther Pendragon and his wife Igraine. Merlin’s cave is also in Tintagel, and is said to have been the place where the magician fostered Arthur.

Tintagel Cornwall
The Ladies window, Tintagel, Cornwall
2

Cadbury Castle, Yeovil

Many places claim to be the kingdom of Camelot but the ancient hill fort of Cadbury Castle, north east of Yeovil in Somerset, is probably the most beautiful to visit. The castle was used from 470 until 580 and has a great hall and refortified defences.

Countryside views
Sunrise on the Somerset Levels as seen from the vantage point at Corton Beacon with the hill fort at Cadbury Castle in the middle distance. (Getty)
3

Dozmary Pool, Bodmin Moor

A supposed enchanted lake from which the Lady of the Lake appeared, providing Arthur with a sword that would win him any battle.

Pool and moorland
Dozmary Pool Lake on Bodmin Moor Cornwall England. It is one site that is claimed to be the home of the Lady of the Lake. According to the legend, this is the body of water into which Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur after King Arthur was mortally wounded. (Getty)
4

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset

The mythical Tor is supposed to be the site of the Holy Grail, a magical goblet that provides happiness, eternal youth and infinite food. Arthur’s knights are known to have gone on many quests searching for this wonderful treasure, although they were never successful.

The historic Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, England.
The historic Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, England.
5

Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh

The main peak above the city of Edinburgh is known as Arthur’s seat and makes for a beautiful walk with epic vistas over the Scottish capital.

View of city
Beautiful landscape of Arthur’s Seat mountain in Scotland with path on the cliff and Edinburgh city in the background (Getty)
6

Badbury rings, Dorset

The king fought many battles across Britain, but the one that gave him the throne was fought against the Saxons in the ‘Battle of Badon’ at the Badbury rings in Dorset.

Countryside at sunset

7

Slaughterbridge, Cornwall

It was here that King Arthur fought his evil nephew, Mordred in the battle of Camlann. This was the battle in which Arthur was mortally wounded.

Moorland and rocks
The site of King Arthur’s Hall a mysterious megalithic monument on Bodmin Moor thought to date from the Neolithic Period, the Brown Willy Tor can be seen in the distance, Cornwall, UK (Getty)
8

Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset

King Arthur is said to have been buried deep in the cemetery on the south side of Glastonbury Abbey.

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Glastonbury Abbey
A view of the historic ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset (Getty)
9

Carmarthen, South Wales

Carmarthen in South Wales is said to be the birthplace of the magician Merlin and home to Merlin’s tree, an oak that stood in the town centre and was said to have magical powers. A branch of the tree is still on display in the Carmarthenshire County Museum.

Castle and countryside
Carreg Cennen castle sits high on a hill near the River Cennen, in the village of Trapp, four miles South of Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, South Wales (Getty)