King Arthur's Britain - was there a real King Arthur?
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King Arthur's Britain

metal war helmet
Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon helmet
(500s-600s AD, now in the British Museum)

December 2016 - When Constantine III revolted in England in 406 AD and took all its Roman troops with him to France, that was really the end of Roman control in Britain. The British seem to have written to the Romans asking them to come help out in the 420s. They got back only a letter advising them to stop paying taxes and use the money to organize some soldiers, because now they were on their own.

As other people realized that there were no more Roman troops in Britain, they began to invade. Both the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons (from Germany) invaded regularly at this time.


National Geographic about Arthur

There is a story, which you have probably heard, that at this time there arose in England a famous king, King Arthur, who had a famous magician helper named Merlin, and whose Knights of the Round Table fought off the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes, and kept England civilized and unified. Nobody knows whether Arthur really existed. But it does seem likely that the English organized an army to keep the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes out.

However, as the Arthur stories say, the effort failed. By the 600s, the Angles and the Saxons had taken over England. The name England means the land of the Angles, and English is the language that the Angles spoke. The Angles and Saxons did at least manage to fight off the Danes for the most part.

The Anglo-Saxon kings ruled England from the 600s AD until the Norman Conquest in 1066. But even through all these invasions, some international traders made it through - the Sutton Hoo ship burial about 600 AD included some bitumen, a kind of asphalt used for waterproofing, that came all the way from Syria.

Learn by doing: act out some King Arthur stories
Norman Conquest
Medieval Europe

Bibliography and further reading about Arthur's Britain:

Norman Conquest
More about the Middle Ages
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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