Exploring King Arthur’s Wales

The legends of King Arthur, Merlin and Camelot are alive and well in Wales. Plan your own early medieval adventure by visiting our ancient hill forts, standing stones, mysterious lakes and dented rocks, said to have been struck by the hooves of the great king’s horse.

Who was King Arthur? 

The stories of his childhood and rise to power have been richly embroidered over the centuries by bards, novelists and screenwriters, but did he ever actually exist? And if he did, was he Welsh?

While the details remain shrouded in mystery, many scholars are convinced that there really was an individual called Arthur who led the struggle between the Romano-British and the invading Germanic Anglo-Saxons in the late 400s AD and was killed sometime around 515. However, the earliest bardic text to mention Arthur’s name, Aneirin’s late 6th century Gododdin, never called him a king. So perhaps he was actually a warrior-leader.

It’s unclear where exactly Arthur’s power base was, but there’s a strong argument for him being from Wales and its thought his name derives from the Welsh words for bear and gold, arth aur

Medieval manuscripts contain references to Arthur’s court at Celliwig in Cerniw. Some believe Cerniw to be Coedkernew near Newport and Celliwig to be Llan-y-Gelli, or Llanmelin Wood Hill Fort, as it’s now known. Others have traced Celliwig to Gelliwig Farm on the Llŷn Peninsula. But archaeologists have yet to obtain any proof.

Arthurian tales

The 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth did much to popularise Arthurian tales. He wrote several books based on the Welsh legends of the wizard Myrddin Wyllt, who he renamed Merlin, and of Arthur, his court at Caerleon and his military successes. More stories appeared in the Mabinogion, written around the same time. Subsequent writers including Sir Thomas Malory and Alfred Lord Tennyson picked up on these and embellished them with romantic tales of Camelot, Avalon and the Holy Grail.

Locations linked to King Arthur

There are sites associated with Arthurian legend dotted all over Wales. Excavations at the Dinas Powys Hill Fort near Cardiff have suggested this was a high-status site in the 5th and 6th centuries – the time Arthur is thought to have lived. Beside the half-timbered Barclays Bank building in Ruthin, Denbighshire is the Maen Huail, a boulder which Arthur is said to have used as a chopping block to behead a treacherous love rival, Huail. Another stone, the Carn March Arthur northeast of Aberdovey, Gwynedd, has a dent that’s said to be the hoofprint of Arthur’s horse, who helped him haul a monster from the nearby lake, Llyn Barfog (Bearded Lake). This isn’t the only stone which supposedly bears an Arthurian hoofprint – there’s another, Carreg Carn March Arthur, beside the A494 west of Mold, protected by an arch. It’s said Arthur landed here after a mighty leap to evade the Saxons.

Falls at Llyn Ogwen, Snowdonia

Falls at Llyn Ogwen, Snowdonia by Howie Mudge

Two Welsh lakes have been proposed as the last resting place of Arthur’s sword Excalibur – Llyn Llydaw and Llyn Ogwen. 

They’re both in Snowdonia, around ten miles apart. Llydaw is remote and inaccessible, but Ogwen, beneath Tryfan, lies right beside the A5.

The counties of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire have strong Arthurian associations. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Merlin was born in Carmarthen and an oak called Merlin’s Tree that used to stand in the centre of town was said to have magical powers. A branch of it is on display in the Carmarthenshire County Museum. Some say Merlin was imprisoned in a hidden cave in Bryn Myrddin (Merlin’s Hill), northeast of town – legend has it that if you listen hard enough, you can still hear him groaning. 

Bedd Arthur (Arthur's Grave), Mynydd Preseli, Pembrokeshire

Bedd Arthur, Mynydd Preseli, Pembrokeshire by imaginedhorizons

Bedd Arthur, a hilltop arrangement of standing stones in Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Mountains, is one of many British sites said to be Arthur’s grave. However, it has not been excavated. A stronger theory suggests Arthur was buried in secret in Bridgend, then later reburied in Glamorgan, with a stone inscribed with the name Artorius. 

Merlin

Costumed Character at Costmeston Medieval Village, Vale of Glamorgan

The most recent work of fiction to be inspired by the legends was the BBC television drama series Merlin, screened between 2008 and 2012. The team behind the series chose Chateau de Pierrefonds in France to represent Camelot, but filmed many of the interior and exterior sequences in beautiful locations all over Wales including Cosmeston Medieval Village, the Brecon Beacons National Park, Castell Coch and Caerphilly, Chepstow and Raglan Castle, all of which are open to the public.

For another modern retelling of the legends, King Arthur’s Labyrinth in Corris near Machynlleth offers the chance to explore an underground river, hearing ancient bardic tales along the way.