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The Winter King: How Historically Accurate is the King Arthur Series?


We untangle the myth from the fact in The Winter King, based on Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles.

Iain de Caestecker on horseback as Arthur in The Winter King
Photo: © Simon Ridgway 2022/MGM

MGM+’s new series about King Arthur, The Winter King, is based on a trilogy of novels by well known historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe books. Cornwell’s historical fiction is always well-researched. But just how “historical” is King Arthur in the first place?

People have been telling stories about King Arthur for centuries, but historians aren’t even sure if anyone by that name ever existed. Even the earliest stories were told centuries after Arthur would have lived, if he were real. On top of that, of course, there are quite a few elements of those stories that seem… unlikely. Women sticking their hands out of lakes holding swords, that sort of thing. Some dragons. But there are elements of truth to some of the stories, and the historical setting of them is real enough.

The Setting: Post-Roman Rule Political Chaos

Stories about King Arthur usually take place in what is now England and Wales, some time during the fifth century CE. Arthur is not an English king – in fact, he is known for fighting the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons, the people who would later become known as the English. Arthur, if he existed, would have been some combination of Roman and Brittonic, also known as Brythonic. Brittonic Celts are the ancestors of the modern Welsh, Cornish, and Breton peoples, who are more distantly related to other Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles like the Scots, Picts, and Irish Celts, as well as the Gauls in France. Arthur is the King of the Britons, the descendants of indigenous Celtic people of the British Isles and of the Romans who had occupied the area for 400 years.

To give a bit of context, the southern part of Britannia had been part of the Roman Empire from 43 CE when it was invaded under the Emperor Claudius (Julius Caesar invaded twice but didn’t bother staying) until 410 CE. The Romans occupied various bits of southern Scotland at various times but most of Scotland was not conquered and they never tried to take Ireland. In 410, the Romano-British supposedly wrote to the Roman Emperor Honorius asking for help against invasions from Saxons, Angles, Jutes and others from the continent, but Honorius wrote back and told them to look after themselves. We can safely assume they stopped paying taxes or following Roman laws after that, but there were of course many people from all over the Roman Empire, from Gaul to North Africa to the Middle East, living in Britain still.

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