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King Arthur - Key historical facts (John Matthews)

Compiled by: John Matthews

FROM producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Carribean and Black Hawk Down), director, Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and screenwriter, David Franzoni (Gladiator), comes Touchstone Pictures' King Arthur, a spectacular, epic tale of bravery and one man's destiny.

The film is being heralded by the makers as the most historically accurate version of the myths of King Arthur, and presents a fresh look at the origins of a legendary hero.

According to this trio, King Arthur sets the record straight historically by taking us back to the 5th Century, and the Roman Britain of the Dark Ages.

Here are some key facts from the time.....

1. Arthur the Roman. There is evidence that Arthur was a Romano-British Soldier - the child of a mixed marriage between a Roman and a Briton. In the movie he is based on Lucius Artorius Castus, an historical figure whose life and deeds are recorded on his tombstone found in Croatia.

2. Sarmatian Knights. Arthur's knights are inspired by Sarmatian Knights - nomadic fighters skilled with bow and spear, who came from the Steppe Lands between the Red Sea and the Caspian Sea - roughly where Georgia is today. 3000 Sarmatians were stationed in Britain as part of the Roman Legion, mostly at a fort near the Lancashire town of Ribchester.

3. The 12 Battles. Early records list 12 great battles fought by Arthur against the Saxons, the last of which was at Mount Badon. This is the climactic battle depicted in the movie. The site of the battles remains uncertain, but one of the locations evidence points to is Hadrian's Wall.

4. Hadrian's Wall. The Wall was built by the Romans to keep out the wild Caledonian tribes from the North. It took 10,000 men nearly 8 years to build and is 72 miles long. The remains of this miraculous feat of engineering can still be seen today.

5. Camelot and Avalon. Two of the forts on the wall have names that are similar to those found in the Arthurian legends. Camboglanna could have been the origin either of Arthur's fabled city of Camelot or the site of his last battle at Camlan. A few miles from here once stood the fort of Avalanna, a name that cannot fail to remind us of Avalon, where Arthur is said to have been buried. Archaeological evidence also tells us of a small Sarmatian contingent at the fort of Camboglanna.

6. Picts. The Picts are probably the oldest native inhabitants of Britain, yet almost nothing is known about them. Wild tribes people living north of Hadrian's Wall, they carried on a guerrilla war against the Romans. Their name means 'the Painted Ones' - probably given to them from their habit of tattooing themselves with intricate markings, believed to be tribal or religious.

7. Woads. The Woads, as they are called in the movie - the name is taken from the blue dye which they use to paint their bodies. Calling the Picts 'Woads' was a device meant to echo similar belittling titles given to enemies wherever they are encountered.

8. Crossbows. The Picts may have been among the first people in Britain to use cross-bows. A Carving on an ancient stone slab discovered in Scotland shows a range of weapons used by them - including a very distinct crossbow.

9. The Romans. They invaded Britain in 43AD and remained here until the beginning of the 5th century, when they began to withdraw the legions to protect the Empire. However a small standing army was left to protect the province and it is this army who make up the Roman presence in the movie.

10. Guinevere. In the movie Guinevere is a brave and determined warrior and a Pict. Women warriors were common among the native people of Britain. Irish traditions tell of a school for Warriors run by the fierce Scathach. Julius Caesar remarked that it was hard to face the painted tribes people from the North but that their women were even more fearsome and terrible! The Picts also practiced matrilineal descent - thus their royal houses all descended through the female line.

11. Woad. The distinctive blue dye used by the Picts to tattoo themselves came from the woad plant, which grows wild in the North of Britain. The body decorations you will see in the movie are all based on authentic Pictish designs found carved on stones across much of Scotland.

12. Nakedness in Battle. The Pictish and Caledonian tribes from the North often went into battle naked, believing that this demonstrated their courage, as well as showing off their tattoos. Women too went into battle alongside their men, and believed that to display their bodies sapped the strength of their enemies.

13. Saxons. Set against the British and Roman forces are the Saxons. These fierce and savage warriors actually consisted of Jutes, Friesians, Angles and Saxons. They were originally invited into Britain as mercenaries, but liking what they saw, and seeing the Romans withdrawing, they began to invade from the 5th century onwards. After intermarriage with the native Britons they became the ancestors of the present English.

14. The Round Table. Later traditions say that Arthur and the Knights sat at a Round Table in token of their equality. This probably derives from a time when they would simply have sat on the ground in a circle, or even around a specially created mound. Sarmatian tradition mentions that these warriors, too, liked to sit at round tables, thus establishing another link in the chain of connectivity between the Sarmatian Knights and Arthur's famous fellowship.

15. Excalibur. Arthur's sword is mentioned in almost all of the medieval stories. But it had an earlier name and history, in which it is called Caliburnus, which means 'cut-steel' in Latin. This may derive from an older word still - kalabis, again meaning steel. One of the neighbouring tribes of the Sarmatians was the Kalybes, who specialised in smith craft.

16. The Knights. Among the most renowned of Arthur's knights in the later stories are Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, Tristan, Dagonet and Bors. When it came to choosing names for the Sarmatian knights it seemed appropriate to call them by these familiar names, rather than older, unrecognisable ones.

17. The Draco. One of the most important historical links between Arthur and the Sarmatians is the famous dragon standard, known as the 'Draco' or 'Dragon', under which they fight in the movie. The Sarmatians are known to have used such a banner - designed to look like a dragon, with a metal head and a windsock body. When they rode into battle, the wind entering the mouth made a screaming sound, which terrified their enemies. In later tales of Arthur he is often given the surname Pendragon, which means 'Dragon Chief'. Medieval manuscripts still show him carrying such a standard hundreds of years after the historical events depicted in the movie.

18. Pelagius. This important teacher and theologian is believed to have been born in Britain. He taught that men have freewill and can shape their own destiny. Declared a heretic by the Pope he was banished from Rome and subsequently vanished, presumed murdered.

19. Germanus. An actual historical figure, Germanus of Auxerre was sent to Britain in the 5th century to root out 'heresy' such as that taught by Pelagius.

20. Sources. The earliest recorded mention of Arthur is in the fragmentary poetry composed by wandering British Bards and story tellers, who may have remembered the deeds of the Sarmatian warriors and recorded them, adding their own touches to their adventurers. Early British historians, such as Nennius, Gildas and Bede added details drawn from documents now long since lost. Medieval writers added tales of magic and wonder, finally setting forth the stories of King Arthur and his Knights in a medieval setting that was far from their true origin.


1. The King Arthur movie set was the largest set ever built in Ireland

2. The Hadrian's Wall you see in over 50% of the film was built by over 300 crew

3. This life-sized version of Hadrian's Wall is 950 metres long, 35 feet high at its highest points with a 10 foot-wide walkway on top! The main gate is 20 feet wide and 16 feet high.

4. Two native villages were also built in their entirety, with real thatch and stone used in the creation of the peasant dwellings

5. The round table measures 28 feet in diameter, and 40 seats circle the table made from pressed copper

6. Three costume researchers worked for six months to create the looks of the four principle factions; the Sarmatians, the Romans, the Saxons and the Woads. Each faction was allocated specific furs and skins to distinguish them from their enemies

7. All 400 Saxons, 150 Roman soldiers and 175 Woads were armed; armoury ranged from swords and axes through to agricultural implements!

8. The Sarmatian knights carry the greatest arsenal with each of the men incorporating up to 60 pieces of individual weaponry

9. Excalibur was designed from a drawing based on Celtic motifs. The blade bears an inscription, written in Ogham, an ancient form of Celtic lettering that says 'Defender of the Land'

10. Clive Owen could not ride before he got the part, so undertook seven intense weeks of training, five days a week to be able to portray Arthur as a great horseman

11. Keira Knightley trained for seven weeks in boot camp learning archery, sword-fighting and boxing, and did all her own fights in the movie

12. Ioan Gruffudd also attended boot camp, where he learnt the double-sword fighting technique for the character of Lancelot

13. The final battle in the film - The Battle of Badon Hill - took five weeks to shoot

14. Nineteen cameras recorded the action all over the battlefield; cameras were even placed on shields, swords and horses

15. Artificial snow created onset was blown away... by a real snow storm!

Historical facts written by John Matthews - the UK's leading Arthurian expert - John has spent more than 30 years studying the Arthurian legend and was the consultant historian on the film. John believes the stories of King Arthur are based on a real historical figure who was a Roman Commander on Hadrian's Wall in Cumbria in the 5th Century AD.

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