Artorius Dux Bellorum

Who was Arthur Pendragon? Roman soldier, or king of Camelot, the utopia to which all others are compared? Does he still sleep, as the legends say, upon the isle of Avalon, to one day reawaken and save Britain once more? Or did he die, and was buried in Glastonbury Tor? Assuming he did exist, where was Camelot? The evidence, both archeological and literary, is contradictory. Also, most Arthurian legends seem to be based on far older ones. This only complicates the puzzle.

Arthur, it seems, was based upon an actual historical figure. Named Artorius Dux Bellorum ('Duke' or 'Lord' of Battles), he led the Britons to defeat the Saxons who had invaded their land. (Day, 1995) The Saxons were originally hired by a previous king, Vortigern (overlord), to defeat the Picts. He told the Saxons that, in return, they would be allowed to settle in Britain. When things got out of hand, Ambrosius Aurelianus defeated them. Artorius was his second-in command. Later, Artorius led an army to defeat the Saxons at Mount Badon. Peace reigned for fifty years. (O'Neal, 1992) Legend says, and the archeological record seems to support, that King Arthur lived from the late fifth to early sixth centuries, from c. AD 465 - 542. (Day, 1995)

Legend claims that Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle, which lies on the Cornwall coast. (, 1998) Geoffrey of Monmouth first mentions the connection in his "History of the Kings of Britain," when Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father, first became king upon the death of his brother Aurelius Ambrosius.

During an Easter feast, King Uther noticed the Duke of Cornwall's wife, Ygerna, and became infatuated with her. The Duke, Gorlois, left as soon as he realized. Taking the opportunity to claim that the Duke had insulted him by leaving early, Uther declared war on him. While Gorlois was on the front lines, away from home, Uther had Merlin cast an illusion that made the king look like Gorlois. Then Merlin transported them to the Duke's castle. Ygerna, not realizing the deception, welcomed Uther as if he truly were Gorlois. Soon after, Gorlois died on the front lines. Nine months later, Arthur was born. Merlin took and hid the unchristened babe to keep him safe. He gave the babe to Sir Ector, one of Uther's most trustworthy knights, and told him to christen the baby Arthur. (Day, 1995)

Archeological digs carried out at Tintagel in the 1930's showed that a structure did exist in the fifth century. (The castle that is immediately visible on the site was built in the twelfth century.) C.A. Ralegh Radford, the archeologist leading the excavations, found some fragments of high quality pottery imported from the Mediterranean. The vessels were originally used to transport wine and other goods. These types of pottery became known as Tintagel A and B. The discovery showed that the former owners had been rich enough to import expensive goods from the Mediterranean. (Ashe, 1985) His findings seemed to suggest that the fifth century structure was a monastery. (O'Neal, 1992)

In 1983, however, that hypothesis was proven wrong. A huge grass fire swept through the site, exposing previously unknown foundations and even more pottery. This made the monastery hypothesis highly suspect, prompting new excavations. It now appears the site was a settlement populated by those of high status. (Morris, 1995)

IN July 1998, a slate engraved in the sixth century was found at the site. Though there were originally two inscriptions, only the bottom one is legible. It reads "Pater Coliavi ficit Artognov" (Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built.) (Walker, 1998) Could it refer to King Arthur? Maybe.

According to some legends, Camelot was located at the site of present-day Cadbury, where a fifth century hill-fort was located. The legends also state that Arthur and his knights sleep in a cave filled with riches beneath the hill. At the entrance to the cave, it is said, are golden gates, barring any one from awakening them prematurely. And every Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Midsummer's Eve, or Samhain (depending on the legend), Arthur and his knights ride down the hill, their hoofbeats echoing in the night. (Ashe, 1985)

In the 1950's, shards of pottery were found at the site. Close analysis showed them to be Tintagel ware. In the late 60's, a partial excavation was begun. The excavations showed that the fort had been occupied during Roman times, left vacant for a long time, than, in the fifth century, rebuilt and refortified.

At one spot beneath the original (pre-Roman) foundations the skeleton of a young man was found jammed head-first into a pit. (Ashe, 1985) At that time, it was common practice to sacrifice an animal during a building's construction and bury the remains next to the foundation, but it was almost unheard of to use humans in such a manner. (Time-Life "Ghosts", 1984) However, a parallel can be found in the following legend.

The story says that, well before Arthur was born, when Uther and his brother Aurelius Ambrosius were still boys, there was a tyrannical king named Vortigern, who had usurped the throne from Aurelius. He wanted to build his castle atop a certain cliff, but the walls kept falling apart. The king's soothsayers told him that the sacrifice of a young boy had to be made and the blood sprinkled on the mortar and stones before the mortar would hold. However, only a boy with no earthly father could be used. (Lehane, "Wizards and Witches", 1984)

The child they found was the boy Merlin, whose father was an incubus. (An incubus was said to be a male demon who would come in the night to rape human women, seeming to be only a dream. It's counterpart was called a succubus, interested only in human men. [His mother had baptized him at the moment of his birth, so the taint left by his demon father was driven out, but he retained his magic.]) (Day, 1995)

Before King Vortigern could sacrifice him, Merlin told him that if he dug into the cliff they would find a large, water-filled hole. If they drained the water, they would find at the bottom an enormous chest containing two huge stones. This, the boy predicted, was the reason for the ground's instability. Merlin's life was spared, and the king's men did as they were told. They found the hole, and the chest, exactly as the child had said. After draining the water, they attempted to open the chest, thereby revealing the two stones. Suddenly, the boulders burst open, and two dragons, one red, one white, sped into the air, fighting with tooth, talon, and fire-laden breath. (Day, 1995) The red dragon finally seemed to gain the upper hand, but final results of the battle remain unknown, as the white dragon fled, hotly pursued by the red dragon over the horizon, and both vanished, never to be heard from again. (Time-Life "Dragons", 1984)

According to David Day in "The Search for King Arthur" Merlin cried, "O my lord, weep for the Red Dragon for his end is near. His dwelling place shall soon be occupied by the White Dragon, who is the Saxons you have welcomed into your kingdom. The Red Dragon is the people of Britain, who will be driven out by the brood of the White Dragon. The valleys of Britain shall be emptied, the mountains shall be stripped, and the rivers shall run with blood. Cities shall be pillaged, churches burned and the people slain or oppressed. Calamity shall come to all you have known in your kingdom." As for Vortigern himself, Merlin foretold that he would die in a tower consumed by fire. All that Merlin foretold came true. Vortigern died in a tower set aflame by the rightful heir to the throne, Aurelius Ambrosius. (Day, 1995)

Back to the Cadbury excavations. The pottery that had been found earlier at the site turned out to be Tintagel ware. It seems that, in the fifth century, there existed, at the spot now called Arthur's Palace, a timber hall measuring 63' x 34'. Though the wood has long since rotted away, the postholes, cut into the bedrock, remain. Several other, smaller structures have been found, dating to the same period. Though it had been rebuilt previously, the most ambitious improvements occurred during the Arthurian period. The most likely hypothesis as to who occupied the site during the Arthurian period says is belonged to someone very rich and influential, who maintained trade with Tintagel. (, 1998) As to whether it is the site of the legendary utopia Camelot, keep in mind that the literal translation of the Greek word utopia is "no place". (Day, 1995)

Glastonbury Tor is famous because it is the location of what may have been King Arthur's grave. Legend claims that Arthur died at the Battle of Mount Badon in 542. It then goes on to say that, after Sir Bedevere returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake as Arthur lay dying, the sorceress Morgan Le Fay, Arthur's half sister, sailed up on a black draped barge to carry the king away to the Isle of Avalon, supposedly to heal him. After the barge departed, Sir Bedevere walked until he came to Glastonbury Tor, where he saw a hermit kneeling by a fresh grave. (Day, 1995)

In 1191, the monks at the abbey were digging a grave between two pyramids for a monk who wished to be buried there when they hit some thing hard at the seven foot level. What they discovered was a large, rectangular stone slab. when the lifted it up, they discovered a leaden cross set in to a cavity in the stone. When they lifted the cross out, they discovered engraving on the side that had been facing the stone. There are five accounts as to what the cross read.

"Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon"
"Here lies the renowned King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon"
"Here lies interred in the isle of Avalon, the renowned King Arthur"
"Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon"
"Here lies buried the famous King Arthur in the isle of Avalon with his second wife Guinevere" (, 1998)

The translations are surprisingly similar. The cross itself was passed down through the years, and sketches of it were included in a 1607 edition of "Brittania" by William Camden. It disappeared in the early eighteenth century, while in the possession of a William Hughes, Chancellor of Wells. (, 1998)

Back to the events of 1191. At the seventeen foot level, the monks discovered a hollowed out log containing the bones of a huge man and a more delicate woman. The bones were later reinterred in a black marble tomb at the site, surviving until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539. (, 1998)

Where does Avalon fit into all of this? Avalon is a Welsh word meaning "apple", so the Isle of Avalon was the "Isle of Apples". Glastonbury is from the Welsh Inis Witrin or Ynis Gutrin, both meaning "Isle of Glass" (Day, 1995) Consider also that in the fifth century, Glastonbury was surrounded by marshlands, so that it did resemble an island. Also, it was covered at that time by apple trees. (, 1998)

In 1963, Radford re-excavated the site. He did find evidence that that the monks had dug there, and that there had been a grave there. The drawings of the cross drawn by Camden show an inscription, which used characters not used in the twelfth century, that translates to read "Here lies the renowned King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon", matching that of one of the accounts. (Ashe, 1985) All evidence points to a Glastonbury/Avalon connection. As to the current location of the cross, that is one mystery no one seems to be able to solve.

A truism among archeologists is that for every question that is solved, several more are presented that no one thought to ask. Nowhere is this more true. Very little is absolutely proven true or false in archeology. There will probably never be a definitive answer to all of the questions about King Arthur. But sometimes, the search is the most exciting part. The results are just icing on the cake.


"Arthur's Cross." King Arthur: History and Legend (1998) Online. Internet. 29 April 1999.

Ashe, Geoffrey. "Cadbury Castle: King Arthur's Camelot?" King Arthur on Britannia (1998) Online. Internet. 14 April 1999.

Ashe,Geoffrey. Discovery of King Arthur. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985.

Day, David. The Search for King Arthur. New York: Facts on File, 1995.

Editors of Time-Life, The. The Enchanted World: Ghosts. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1984.

Editors of Time-Life, The. The Enchanted World: Dragons. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1984.

Lehane, Brendan. The Enchanted World: Wizards and Witches. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1984.

Morris, Chris. "Not King Arthur, But King Someone." Current Archeology 4 (May 1995): Online. Internet. 14 April 1999.

O'Neal, Michael. Great Mysteries Opposing Viewpoints: King Arthur. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1992.

"Tintagel." Magical History Tour (1998) Online. Internet. 29 April 1999.

Walker, Amelie A. "King Arthur Was Real?." Archeology Online (23 September 1998) Online. Internet. 14 April 1999.