Did King Arthur really exist? If he did, it’s likely that he was an amalgam of two people: a sixth-century Celtic warlord who united the local tribes in a series of successful battles against the invading Anglo-Saxons, and a local Cornish saint. Whatever his origins, his role was recounted and inflated by poets and troubadours in later centuries. The Arthurian legends were elaborated by the medieval chroniclers Geoffrey of Monmouth and William of Malmesbury and in Thomas Malory’s epic, Morte d’Arthur (1485), further romanticized in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859) and resurrected in T.H. White’s saga, The Once and Future King (1958).
Although there are places throughout Britain and Europe that claim some association with Arthur, it’s England’s West Country, and Cornwall in particular, that has the greatest concentration of places boasting a link. Here, the myths, enriched by fellow Celts from Brittany and Wales, have established deep roots, so that, for example, the spirit of Arthur is said to be embodied in the Cornish chough – a bird now almost extinct. Cornwall’s most famous Arthurian site is his supposed birthplace, Tintagel, where Merlin apparently lived in a cave under the castle (he also resided on a rock near Mousehole, south of Penzance, according to some sources). Nearby Bodmin Moor is littered with places with names such as “King Arthur’s Bed” and “King Arthur’s Downs”, while Camlan, the battlefield where Arthur was mortally wounded fighting against his nephew Mordred, is associated with Slaughterbridge, on the northern reaches of the moor near Camelford (which is also sometimes identified as Camelot itself). At Dozmary Pool, the knight Bedivere was dispatched by the dying Arthur to return the sword Excalibur to the mysterious hand emerging from the water – though Loe Pool in Mount’s Bay also claims this honour. Arthur’s body, it is claimed, was carried after the battle to Boscastle, on Cornwall’s northern coast, from where a funeral barge transported it to Avalon (identified with Glastonbury in Somerset;).