The history behind ‘Follow the Gleam’: Arthur, Excalibur and the Round Table

By Dr. Mark Horton

The historical Arthur probably lived during the late fifth and early sixth century AD. The earliest source that describes his life, Historia Brittonum dates to c. 829-30 AD. It places him as dux bellorum (‘war lord’) who led the British against the Saxons in twelve battles. None of these battle sites can be identified with any certainty.

His most famous victory was at Mons Badonicus, a place that can be translated as Badbury Hill - of which there are several in southern Britain. This battle is significant as it is also described by Gildas in De Excidio Britanniae, a sixth century source, but which notably fails to mention Arthur; Gildas’s victor is Ambrosius Aurelianus. Another early source for Arthur appears in the Annales Cambrae, containing two references to Arthur under 516 AD, where he was victoriou at Mons Badonicus, and for 537 for the Battle of Camlann, where he was killed along with Medrawd. The earliest version of the Annales that survives dates to c. 1100 AD.

Given this dearth of real historical information, most of the medieval stories concerning Arthur derive from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, written c. 1138. He had access to a number of historical sources including Gildas and the Historia and others that have not survived, but much of his text appears to have been drawn from Welsh legends. He places Arthur’s conception at Tintagel in Cornwall, through the magical intervention of Merlin and then describes his career and battles, his marriage to Guinevere, the coronation at Caerleon, and subsequent mortal wounding in the battle of Camblanus and death on the Isle of Avalon. Excalibur makes its first appearance in Geoffrey’s account, as Caliburnus, made in the Isle of Avalon.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia set the tone for a whole series of romances, which were loosely based on the original text, but with many embellishments and additions. The details of Excalibur’s removal from the stone, and its association with the Lady in the Lake, the Round Table and the twelve knights, and Camelot all belong to these twelfth century writings. They may have been derived from older legends or were just embellishments of the well-known story set within the context of medieval chivalry. By 1190, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found the burial of King Arthur in an oak coffin and Guinevere alongside, and supported the identification with a lead cross, that named Arthur, as well as linking Avalon with Glastonbury. This cross survived into the seventeenth century; its lettering is curiously close to sixth-century styles, although most archaeologists think that it was a twelfth century fake. An Arthurian relic that does survive in the Winchester Castle is the Round Table, but probably commissioned by Edward III around 1250.

Archaeological evidence provides a possible context for the Dark Age Arthur. When Roman control of Britain ceased in the early fifth century, the western part of Britain managed to maintain its identity, based on some of the features of Roman rule (Christianity, maritime trade, urban lifestyle); local rulers emerged, and they managed to keep the advancing Saxons at bay until the later sixth century. Interestingly, some of the key sites in the Arthur legends have evidence for occupation at this time. At Tintagel there is a major Dark Age site, where in 1998, a slate plaque was found inscribed Pater Coliavificit Artognov; a reference to someone in the fifth century with a similar name to Arthur. At Glastonbury Tor excavations between 1964-1966 uncovered hearths, metalworking, and imported Mediterranean pottery suggesting that it was the residence of a local ruler or warlord, rather like Arthur.

Follow the Gleam

Found out the facts - now watch the drama

Places to visit

Clevedon, Somerset

Clevedon Old Church, at the south end of the town, located on a cliff above the Bristol Channel, contains the memorial to Arthur Hallam (d. 1833) in the south transept. He is buried in the family vault below. Clevedon Court is the family name of his mother's family, the Eltons, and is now owned by the National Trust.


Glastonbury Tor, Somerset

A visit to the top of the Tor gives some of the most spectacular views of the Somerset levels that formed the mythical Isle of Avalon. Owned by the National Trust, it is crossed by a public footpath, and there is free public access; a park and ride service operates in the summer.

Glastonbury Tor

Wells, Bishops Palace and Cathedral, Somerset

Together, the palace and cathedral form one of the most memorable groups of medieval building in Britain. The Cathedral, is open, and the candle panel, used in the episode, can be seen in the East Window of the Lady Chapel. The Palace (open during the summer) is set in the gardens, and was created by Bishop Henry Law in the 1840s. The buildings themselves date from the early thirteenth century, and further traces have been found in archaeological excavations. The 'pots' can only be reached from the Palace grounds, and were cleared out by Bishop Law on the site of earlier springs that gush water from the Mendips.

Bishops Palace Wells

Wells Cathedral

Dig Deeper:

On the BBC

King Arthur, 'Once and Future King'

Arthurian Legend in Cumbria

King Arthur - a Precis of the Legend

External Links

King Arthur

King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table

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