Why did the story of a king who (almost certainly) never existed become one the most enduring myths of the western world? The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is an integral part of British national identity, particularly for the people of Wales.
Love, conflict, death, loyalty and betrayal are the universal themes that permeate Arthurian folklore – themes that have captured the imagination since the Dark Ages.
It seems today, everyone wants a piece of Arthur. Hundreds of communities across Britain claim the legend was born on their soil. Tintagel, the fabled palace of Arthur’s mother Igraine, is said to have been situated in Cornwall; Avalon, the island where the sword Excalibur was forged, is said to be found in a remote part of Sicily; and a tiny hamlet in northwestern France, Carhaix-Plouguer, claims to be the location of King Arthur’s court.
These are just a few examples, we’re sure you can bring many more local examples to mind too – Glastonbury, Cadbury, Carlisle, Winchester and Stonehenge to name but a few.
An ancient legend
Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and heir to the throne, but Arthur had been conceived in magic and deceit (you can read the legend here) so he was raised in secret by one of Uther’s trusted knights. When Uther died there was a power struggle over the throne, only a very few knew the king had a son.
To repel claimants to the throne, the wizard Merlin used magic and set a sword in a stone, announcing that only the true heir of Uther would be able to pull the sword from the stone and claim the title King of Britain. Hundreds tried and failed and the throne remained empty.
Many years later, Arthur (as Merlin had planned all along) succeeded in pulling the sword from the stone when his half-brother misplaced his own at a tournament. Seemingly by chance, a humble squire was to become King of Britain.
Noble by birth, the young King Arthur used his new-found power for good and gathered a loyal retinue of knights – the famous Knights of the Round Table – to fight the enemies of the kingdom. At times, these enemies came too close for comfort, numbering among their ranks Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgana le Fay, and his ambitious and power-hungry son, Mordred.
Many locations in North Wales have strong associations with the Arthurian legends and, with the backdrop of the mountains and lakes of Snowdonia, it’s easy to believe Arthur and his knights had many of their most celebrated adventures right here.
What better place to begin your quest for the Once and Future King than from the Royal Victoria Hotel in Llanberis? Our hotel is the perfect base from which to explore Snowdonia and follow Arthurian legend back into the mists of time.
An encounter on the slopes of Snowdon
One story tells of Arthur’s meeting with the a giant, Rhitta Gawr. While out riding on the slopes of Snowdon, the giant goaded Arthur, claiming his cloak (grotesquely woven with the beards of vanquished kings) was incomplete without the High King’s royal tresses.
Understandably, Arthur was reluctant to part with his beard and a mighty struggle ensued, with the king emerging victorious. Arthur and his knights buried Rhitta beneath a cairn (yr wyddfa in Welsh) at the summit of Snowdon and this is how the mountain, supposedly, got its Welsh name – Yr Wyddfa.
A watery abode
Excalibur (or Caledfwlch as it is called in Welsh) was the legendary sword of King Arthur, said to be imbued with magical powers. While the true origins of the sword are a mystery locals believe Arthur was bestowed with the sword by the Lady of the Lake at one of two lakes near Llanberis: Llyn Llydaw or Llyn Ogwen.
The Lady of the Lake was the ruler of Avalon; which some believe to be an island, though was more likely to be a small kingdom (a possible site for Avalon or Caer Afallach has been suggested as a hill fort in nearby Flintshire). She played a pivotal role in Arthur’s life, being there at both his beginning and his end, and is intrinsically linked with water whenever mentioned.
Where Merlin soundly sleeps
Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island, is a small island off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula. It has very strong Arthurian connections, but no-one can really agree why!
Some stories suggest Bardsey is the burial site of Merlin, a powerful magician and Arthur’s closest adviser. Others disagree, claiming it to be the home of the Lady of the Lake and the true Isle of Avalon.
Whatever the truth, Bardsey has been a sacred place for centuries and it is still possible to visit the island by boat today. You can even follow in the footsteps of medieval people, like the brave Grail Knights, on the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way. We wrote a blog on it recently, why don’t you take a look?
District of dragons
Dinas Emrys is a wooded hill above the Glaslyn River, near Beddgelert, where once stood the hill fort of the mighty chieftain Vortigern. Legend has it, it was the site of a mighty power struggle between Vortigern and a youthful Merlin, a young wizard still grappling with his powers.
Vortigern chose Dinas Emrys as his base and ordered his men to build a stronghold but, despite all efforts, every night the structural work of the preceding day was found crumbled to the ground. No matter how swiftly and how strongly the fortress was built, each morning it stood in ruins.
At his wits’ end, Vortigern appealed for help. Merlin explained that the fortress would never stand as it was built above an underground pool that was home to two slumbering dragons: one an icy white beast and the other fiery red worm.
Vortigern had his men dig into the hill to expose the pool and drain it. The dragons awoke and began to fight, shaking the mountains with their terrifying roars and howls. Eventually the white was vanquished by the red and flew away, never to be seen again. The triumphant red dragon returned peacefully to his lair and resumed his slumber.
Afterwards, Merlin explained to Vortigern that the battle was a prophecy. The white dragon represented the Saxon hoard and the red, the British people. The red’s triumph signified that one day the British would defeat the invading Saxons and so the red dragon was adopted as the guardian of Wales, immortalised on our national flag.
Arthur’s last stand
Snowdon’s neighbour, Cwm Tregalan is said to be the site of Arthur’s last battle. The battle between the ageing king and his ambitious son raged all day, but Mordred had the advantage and pushed Arthur and his knights into an ambush at Bwlch y Saethau (the Pass of the Arrows).
Struck a mortal blow, Arthur died on the slopes of Snowdon where his faithful knights buried their beloved sovereign under a cairn known as Carnedd Arthur, or Arthur’s Cairn; the exact location of which has, sadly, been lost in the mists of time.
The knights resolved to await their king’s prophesied return and took refuge in a cave just below the summit of Y Lliwedd. Here, it is said they slumber, fully-armed and ready to wake and fight again at Arthur’s side in Wales’ hour of greatest need.
Images: ‘The Death of Arthur’ by John Garrick, 1862, via Wikimedia Commons. ‘King Arthur’ by Charles Ernest Butler, via Wikimedia Commons. ‘The Battle of the Dragons’ by 15th century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae.–