The celebrated tale of King Arthur was pilfered by early historians following the Crusades, according to a Chester historian.

Until now, Arthur and his band of 12 gallant knights were thought to have defended Britain against invaders.

Their bravery in battle has become synonymous with British pluck and chivalry, and has been recounted by generations for almost 1,000 years.

But a 30-year study by the Ralph Ellis suggests that the legend was created by the Knights Templar, a French Christian military order made famous by Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code.

When the Templars brought their “campfire tale” to Britain in the 12th-century, it was seized upon by historians who adapted and embellished the story into an epic national history.

And so popular was this story, that it was copied, revised and retold all over Britain and Europe in the decades that followed.

This could, Ellis believes, explain why central Arthurian figures like Lancelot du Lac and Alain le Gros have French, rather than traditional English names.

Ellis began researching the existence of King Arthur in 1987 and is now widely considered to be an authority on the subject.

His theory is revealed in an updated version of his book The Grail Cypher, which hits the UK shelves this week.

Ellis said the truth about King Arthur’s geographical roots does not make him any less of a British hero and icon.

“Whilst the results of this study are in my view virtually conclusive, Arthur’s true provenance will be seen by some as a disappointing blow,” he said.

“We should not, however, forget how important this legend has been for Britain in that it has provided us with a source of strength, inspiration and morale for millennia.

The story of King Arthur is one of the most enduring – and disputed – in British history.

Much of what we know stems from the 12th-century publication of History of the Kings of Britain by the British historian Geoffrey of Monmouth.

According to Monmouth’s work, Arthur ruled Britain in the sixth century AD and fearlessly protected the realm and her subjects from Pictish and Saxon invasions.

This ‘pseudo-historical’ work also mention Arthur’s mythical sword Excalibur, his beloved queen Guinevere, and his mystical sidekick Merlin the wizard.

In the hands of later French and German chroniclers, the story was expanded and embellished to include famous icons like Lancelot du Lac, the Round Table and the Holy Grail.

Despite various disputed archaeological ‘discoveries’, most leading academics have long agreed that Monmouth’s works, and all other aspects of Arthurian legend, are entirely fictitious.

This is because there is no mention of King Arthur and his royal court, prior to the 12th century.

But the provenance of the legend as a uniquely British myth has until now never been seriously called into question.

Ellis’ research, however, presents a “very different version of events”.

He argues that Monmouth obtained this legend from fellow historian and friend Walter of Oxford, who in turn, he believes, obtained it from the Knights Templar in Northern France in 1130AD.

It is “no coincidence”, he says, that Monmouth published his ‘history’ of Britain just a few years later.

“There is no textual evidence to support King Arthur’s existence in British history until 1135, some 600 years after his supposed rule,” Ellis said.

“Then, suddenly, Geoffrey of Monmouth created a detailed story about King Arthur, and from there the Arthurian legend explodes, not only in the UK but all across Europe, from Scotland to Italy.

“The most likely explanation is that Geoffrey and Walter obtained the story from the French Knights Templar directly.

“It was a great tale and one they adapted by interweaving snippets from existing British folklore.”

But the true origins of Arthurian legend may in fact lie much further from Britain than northern France.

Ellis has concluded that the Knights Templar stumbled across ancient texts while in the Holy Land, which revealed how Christ was not only the supposed son of God but also a brave warrior king.

The Templars hid or destroyed these ‘heretical’ texts, to avoid being imprisoned or executed by the Catholic Church.

Yet they kept this secret alive by creating a modified and coded tale, which allowed this controversial story to be discussed openly.

This is why Arthurian legend is studded with references to the Gospels, Ellis argues.

The word ‘Excalibur’ for instance, means ‘sword’ in ancient Aramaic – the language that Jesus would have spoken.

And the most prolific character in Arthurian legend, the first keeper of the Holy Grail, is Joseph of Arimathea, who according to the Bible was the man who buried Jesus.

He also points to the Round Table being, in fact, a metaphor for the Last Supper.

Ellis added: “The Arthurian Round Table is said to have been an exact copy of the Last Supper Table of Jesus, so the 12 knights of the Round Table are directly comparable with the 12 disciples of the Last Supper. Thus King Arthur can be seen as a pseudonym for (King) Jesus.

“The Round Table also connects Arthur to Jesus because its design was based upon the image of the zodiac, and the zodiac was a primary symbol in ancient Judaism, as typified by the magnificent zodiac in the Hamat Teverya synagogue on the Sea of Galilee.

“So the sun surrounded by the 12 zodiac constellations is a direct metaphor for Jesus and his 12 disciples, and by extension King Arthur being surrounded by his 12 knights.

“These are not limited examples. A great deal of Arthurian history draws directly upon famous motifs, events and legends that occurred in first century Judaea, including the Holy Grail, the line of Fisher Kings, and the revolt against the Romans.

“It all points to the Knights Templar stumbling upon a secret biblical history during their time in the Holy Land. And reproducing it as British history, because it was too heretical to mention openly.”

Whatever its origins, the Arthurian story has provided a rich vein for authors and more recently filmmakers to tap into.

Arthur has been played by Richard Harris, Sean Connery, Clive Owen and even Monty Python’s Graham Chapman – but the tale is not always a sure-fire recipe for success as the latest retelling King Arthur: Legend of the Sword fell foul of both critics and moviegoers.