Knights dressed in silver armor, the magic sword Excalibur — these are among the legends surrounding King Arthur. But what if he actually lived in a cold, dark time and fought barbarians dressed as a Roman?
Four hundred years after Jesus Christ, the Roman Empire reached as far west as Britain. It was the very edge of the Christian world. In the north of England, the farthest outpost of their empire, the Romans built the 75-mile-long Hadrian's Wall to keep the barbarians out — until the Roman Empire began to crumble.
If King Arthur actually lived, it was during this chaotic, dangerous time known as the Dark Ages. This presents a far different picture from the familiar Arthurian legends, where the great king reigned at Camelot with his unfaithful Queen Guinevere and Merlin the magician, and Sir Lancelot and the knights of the Round Table searched for the Holy Grail.
Is there any historical truth behind all this? Perhaps.
According to one theory, the real Arthur would have lived in the fifth century, leading a group of warriors against barbarian invaders. That is how the most recent Hollywood movie takes on the story in King Arthur, starring Clive Owen as the titular monarch and Keira Knightley as a sword-swinging Guinevere.
"This is the original King Arthur. This is where all the myths came from," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "Ours is the special forces of, I guess, the fifth century."
Literary Records Introduce Arthur
Finding information about the real Arthur is not easy as there is very little data emerging from the Dark Ages.
"The oldest written account of Arthur, in which Arthur's name is mentioned, is just a fragmentary mention of him in a poem, where the author says, ' So and so was a great warrior, but he was no Arthur,'" said John Matthews, a consultant on King Arthur.
Literature from the sixth century provides more clues. "There are references, from within a hundred years of his supposed death that talk about a great leader. At that point they still don't name him," said Matthews.
As Matthews describes it, when Arthur lived, Britain was part of the Roman civilization. The Romans built London and gave the Celtic Britons Christianity, running water and Roman citizenship. But in the early fifth century, Rome itself was under attack by barbarians and began withdrawing its troops from the region.
"Britain was left almost defenseless," said Matthews. "And then various people from outside began attacking … and the British people put up quite a fight."
Bruckheimer said Arthur was among the fighters. The first real reference to the leader comes from a Welsh monk in the eighth century who compiled a book about Britain, naming Arturious as the "king of battles."
The monk Nennius described Arthur as a warrior who won 12 battles, briefly defeating the Saxons, invaders from across the sea to the north whom Matthews describes as wild, "battle-hardened warriors."
The Britons were also facing tribesman called Picts, natives who swept down from the Scottish Highlands. "We've researched drawings of what Picts look like and they have these wild tattoos on them … they would fight naked and they were real savages and fierce fighters," said Bruckheimer.
Guinevere, in this version, comes from this group. Arthur's future queen, as played by Knightley is at first a fierce enemy.