King Arthur was one of the most illustrious legendary warriors, and his legend is still very much alive and well in Wales. You can plan your own early medieval adventure by visiting our ancient hill forts, standing stones, mysterious lakes and the dented rocks that are said to have been struck by the hooves of the great king’s horse.
Here’s all you need to know about the man, the legend, and where to find him in Wales.
Did King Arthur really exist?
Yes, very probably. The historical Arthur was a 5th-century Romano-British warrior chief who fought against the Saxon invaders. His heroic deeds were recounted by storytellers, and the tales became richer and more embroidered with each telling. Pretty soon he’d become a full-blown king, acquired a round table’s worth of gallant knights and a supernatural sidekick called Merlin.
Was Arthur Welsh?
Yes and no. Wales didn’t exist in the 5th century, neither did England, so he’s very hard to pin behind modern national borders. He pops up in battles throughout present-day Wales, England and Scotland, so he’s probably most fairly described as a British warrior fighting against the invading Anglo-Saxons. Incidentally, his Saxon enemies would have called him 'Wealas' – a foreigner – from which we get the word ‘Welsh’. The modern Welsh word for the English is 'Saeson', meaning 'the Saxons'.
So he is Welsh, then?
We wouldn’t presume, but the very first references to Arthur were written in Welsh (or Brythonic, the language from which Welsh descends). As the Welsh/Brythonic people were pushed to the west of Britain by invaders, they took their language – and the heroes it celebrates – with them. That’s why Arthurian legends get stronger the further west you travel.
But Arthur crops up in English and French literature, too…
Very true. The earliest references were by Welsh bards, and the first major biography of sorts was written in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, the medieval French bards took a real shine to Arthur. They added lots of the chivalry bits, which were picked up the 15th-century English writer Thomas Malory, and later still by Tennyson, who made him into a stiff-upper-lipped English hero. Since then, Hollywood and even Monty Python have had a crack. Like all good legendary heroes, Arthur can be whoever you want him to be.
So where can I find Arthur in Wales?
Very glad you asked! In short, King Arthur and his entourage are linked with scores of places all over Wales. But here are just a dozen to get started:
Arthur’s Stone, Gower
There are quite a few Arthur’s Stones in Wales, but we chose this one because it sits prettily on the hills of Gower and within handy walking distance of the King Arthur pub in Reynoldston. The prosaic explanation is that the huge stone is a Neolithic tomb, but legend says it’s a pebble from King Arthur’s boot. He threw it all the way from Carmarthenshire, and it magically grew in size along the way. The stone is reputedly thirsty, and occasionally gets up and goes to a nearby stream for a drink. Mind your toes.
Maen Huail, Ruthin
Maen Huail is a limestone block that sits next to Barclays Bank in the town centre. It’s the very stone on which King Arthur beheaded the young warrior Huail, who’d made the fatal error of raiding Arthur’s lands and (worse) nicking one of his mistresses. Ruthin is a pretty market town whose attractions include an excellent craft centre and Victorian jail. It’s also the perfect base for exploring the Clwydian Range.
Where was the Camelot, the legendary court of King Arthur, with its famous round table and a dozen brave knights lolling around it? According to the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, it’s at Caerleon. There was certainly a major Roman fortress here, built in AD75 to guard the region for the next 200 years. Today it’s our National Roman Legion Museum, which includes Britain’s most complete amphitheatre and the only Roman Legionary barracks on view in Europe.
Llyn Barfog, near Aberdyfi
Llyn Barfog (‘bearded lake’) gets its name from the rushes that fringe its shores. In the summer, it’s covered in yellow water lilies. This pretty lake was once terrorised by the Afanc, a water monster. King Arthur managed to drag the beast out of the lake, but it was such a struggle that his horse Llamrai left a distinct hoofmark in a rock on the lake’s shores. It’s still there, and it's called Carn March Arthur, or ‘the stone of Arthur’s horse’.
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Carreg Carn March Arthur, near Mold
Back in the Clwydian Range, there’s another stone bearing the mark of King Arthur’s steed. This time it’s on the side of the A494 between Ruthin and Mold, protected by a distinctive stone arch. The hoofprint was left here by Llamrai as he and Arthur leapt from a nearby cliff to escape the invading Saxons. While you’re there, leap into the lovely Loggerheads Country Park, which is very close by.
The summit of Snowdon
The next time you’re on top of Snowdon, take a look at the pile of stones that mark the summit. Rhitta was a fearsome giant who made himself a cape out of the beards of his enemies. He tried – and failed – to add King Arthur’s beard to his collection. Arthur killed the giant, and buried his body under those giant boulders.
Excalibur lake, Snowdonia
There are at least three Welsh lakes that claim to contain Arthur’s magical sword, Excalibur. The lakes of Llydaw, Dinas and Ogwen are equally beautiful, and they’re all close together in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park. One of them is bound to be the right one.
Dinas Emrys, near Beddgelert
There are very few actual remains of the ancient hill fort Dinas Emrys, but the location plays a vital role in Arthurian and Welsh mythology. The 5th century King Vortigern was trying to build a castle here, but the walls kept mysteriously falling down. A boy wizard – Merlin – identified the problem: two dragons, one red and one white, fighting in a pool beneath the castle. The red dragon won, and became the symbol of the fight against the Saxon foe. Beddgelert has a very famous dog-related legend of its own!
Merlin’s town, Carmarthen
An old oak tree stood, a gnarled stump in a traffic island, in Merlin’s home town of Carmarthen. It was probably planted to celebrate the return of King Charles II to the throne, but local legend linked it with the wizard of Arthurian legend: ‘When Merlin’s Oak shall tumble down, then shall fall Carmarthen Town.’ In 1978 the last fragments were taken to the local museum and sure enough, shortly after, Carmarthen suffered its worst floods in living memory.
King Arthur’s Labyrinth, Corris
This old slate mine has been imaginatively transformed into a subterranean storytelling attraction. You climb onboard with a mysterious hooded boatman, and navigate the vast caverns and passages, while he spins yarns about Arthurian legend and Welsh folk tales. It’s all enjoyable hokum, and there’s a good craft centre back above ground.
Bardsey Island, Llŷn Peninsula
Bardsey is the resting place of 20,000 saints, who share this beautiful island with an abundance of wildlife. Some say it’s also the legendary Avalon, the magical island where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, and where Arthur was buried after his death.
Craig y Ddinas, Pontneddfechan
Maybe King Arthur didn’t die. Perhaps the legends are right, and King Arthur and his knights lie sleeping in a cave, waiting for the call to rise up and reclaim Britain from the Saxons. There are lots of caves in Wales that lay claim to being Arthur’s (temporary) resting place. Few are lovelier than Craig y Ddinas, which lies at the heart of the beautiful Waterfall Country in the southwest corner of the Brecon Beacons National Park.