One brief shining moment
We all know the tale of King Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table. But is the story of Camelot pure fantasy, or does it contain a few shards of truth, however obscured by our ignorance of Britain’s Dark Ages, when the saga is set? Much of what we know of Arthur was first set down by a 12th-century Tolkien, Geoffrey of Monmouth. The British monk wrote his popular and highly fanciful account of Camelot six centuries after his subject died—assuming he ever lived in the first place. Debate has swirled for centuries around the mythic—but perhaps not mythological—figure of King Arthur. The one verifiable historical event to which Arthur can be linked is the Battle of Mount Badon at the end of the 5th century A.D. In this engagement near present-day Bath, the disparate, feuding fiefdoms of Britain united for the first time to defeat, against considerable odds, invading hordes of Saxons from what is now Germany. So momentous was this banding together of the warlords who ruled early England, and so enduringly popular was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s retelling of it, that in the 14th century
King Edward III founded the Order of the Garter in imita-tion of Arthur’s court. He even held his councils of state around a specially built Round Table. A century later, the Tudor kings of England, among them Henry VIII, sought oid to bolster their legitimacy by claiming to be descended from Arthur. The mystique of Camelot endures, from Disney films to Broadway musicals to the Kennedy White House. Many historians were skeptical that Arthur was a historical figure. Then, in 1998, scientists unearthed a broken stone at Tintagel Castle on Britain’s Cornish coast, long said to be Arthur’s stronghold. The stone bore the Latin inscription Pater Coliavificit Artognov, which translates as “Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built.” Artognou is pronounced “Arthnou,” lending credence to theories that the legendary king was real. And as for Coll, you’ve heard of him as well—remember “Old King Cole”?