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The Legendary King: How the Figure of King Arthur Shaped a National Identity and the Field of Archaeology in Britain

The Legendary King: How the Figure of King Arthur Shaped a National Identity and the Field of Archaeology in Britain

By Elizabeth Gaj Proctor

BA Honors Thesis, the University of Maine, 2017

Tintagel Castle – photo by Ben Salter / Flickr

Abstract: The legend of King Arthur has spread throughout Western Culture to such an extent that he is a world-wide symbol of courtly chivalry, justice, and rightful kingship. The question of Arthur’s existence has captured public fascination and ignited scholarly debate. To understand this fascination, we need to look at the development of Arthurian legend by examining the historical context in which the nation of Great Britain was created through the overpowering of indigenous cultures and a consolidation of medieval kingdoms by outside groups.

Drawing from archaeological evidence, historic, and current sources, we can understand King Arthur’s role as a symbol of Britain, which has affected the narrative of Tintagel Castle as the birthplace of King Arthur. Tintagel Castle is a major tourist destination and is currently undergoing excavations. These have been widely publicized, following a tradition of linking archaeological evidence and artifacts to Arthurian legend.


This research delves into the rhetoric used to justify support for Arthurian archaeology. The legend of King Arthur is not a static story, yet most people know only one version of it. The proto-nationalist forces that shaped the legend of King Arthur, combined with the commercialization that surrounds the archaeology of Arthurian sites, promote an idealized version of British history, which continues to affect current events and the national identity of British peoples. There needs to be a more nuanced, responsible approach Arthur to reflect archaeological evidence and real history. To conclude this thesis, I will suggest possible alternatives to the current presentation of Tintagel.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Maine

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