A scuffle broke out in a church in Bodmin, Cornwall, England in 1113, when some visiting French clergymen scoffed at a Cornishman’s claim that King Arthur was still living. Around 1190 the Anglo-Saxon poet Layamon said of Arthur, “The Britons believe that he is yet alive, and dwelleth in Avalun.” Also in about 1190, the English writer Gervase of Tilbury, while on a visit to Italy, was told that Arthur had been seen inside Mount Etna. But according to folklore, this great warrior-king reigned in the late fifth and early sixth centuries AD, and now lies sleeping in a cave or under a hill somewhere in Britain.
A Welsh monk, Nennius, first described a fearless warrior by the name of Arthur in his History of the Britons in about 800 AD.
Another Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, added some colorful details to earlier reports about Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain, completed in about 1139. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1460-1470, further embellished the legend of the chivalrous king and his Knights of the Round Table; his queen Guinevere; the court of Camelot; the magician Merlin; the knights quest for the Holy Grail; and Arthur’s grievous wound in combat before slaying his treacherous nephew Mordred. Arthur was then borne away to the enchanted Isle of Avalon, vowing to return when he was needed.
Arthur’s death is recorded in the anonymous tenth-century Annales Cambriae under the date 537 AD, with a reference to the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell. Many historians now believe that the legend of Arthur is based on fact.
The best known of the reputed sites of Camelot is Cadbury Castle, a vast mound in Somerset, near the village of Queen Camel and the River Cam, where archaeologists in the 1960s uncovered the ruins of an unusually large hill-fortress, big enough to hold a thousand people. Also in Somerset is the ancient hill of Glastonbury Tor, which was almost entirely surrounded by water in antiquity and may be the basis for the Isle of Avalon.
One theory put forward in 1799 suggests that behind the legend lies a man called Riothamus, a Celtic title meaning “supreme king,” who led his troops to Gaul in 468 AD and was betrayed and defeated in battle. Yet another theory is that “Arthur,” meaning “Bear,” was the battle-name of a fifth-century Welsh warlord called Owain Ddantgwyn, who was killed by his nephew. His kingdom included a remote valley called Camla – but much like King Arthur, all that is really known of Owain Ddantgwyn is his name.