Monday 1 August 2011

The Celtic Messiah

The Abduction of Guinevere
Throughout Arthurian Romance  Guinevere is commonly portrayed with two weaknesses; her love affairs with Arthur's best knight, and very susceptible to being abducted.

    Appendix I

    The stillness of the dead world's winter dawn
    Amazed him, and he groaned, 'The King is gone.'

    The Celtic Messiah
    In his Deeds of the Kings of England  William of Malmesbury made a clear distinction between the Arthur of historical fact and the Arthur of legend. William clearly thought the king warranted a fuller history.

    Just over a decade later Geoffrey of Monmouth provided William with his historical account and gave the world the first full chronicle account of King Arthur. Geoffrey's account in History of the Kings of Britain was a medieval literary masterpiece; an unprecedented coming together of historical fact, myth and poetic licence, and was accepted as historical fact by many and remained so for five hundred years.

    But, in so doing Geoffrey had given the British a  champion, a saviour hero; he had created a Celtic Messiah

    William of Malmesbury
    William of Malmesbury is considered a competent and scholarly historian, first publishing his Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings) of the English c.1125, publishing a revised edition before 1140.

    Between these dates he spent a considerable amount of time at Glastonbury and produced the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury. This has survived only in a form heavily interpolated by later writers from the 13th century. However, the original text of the earlier part can be reconstituted from the later, revised edition of  Deeds of the Kings, which incorporates large sections from his work on Glastonbury. Whilst at Glastonbury he carried out a detailed examination of the archives there, his analysis of the records of the old church is considered as thorough as any medieval historical investigation.

    Significantly, Arthur nowhere occurs in connection with Glastonbury in the genuine works of William of Malmesbury; the passages in which the King is brought into connection with the Abbey exist only in the later interpolations in the surviving text of the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury, William's original work rewritten by the monks of Glastonbury to accommodate later 'developments' at the Abbey, the monks making no claim whatsoever as editors or revisers of the historian's work from the previous century. [2]

    In his original works William makes mention of Arthur only in his proper context along with the likes of Vortigern and Ambrosius, as such he writes:

    “This is that Arthur of whom the trifling of the Britons talks such nonsense even today; a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories.”

    As we have seen above, Arthur's first connection with Glastonbury is recorded in the Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan written in the first quarter of the 12th century. But, in essence, this is no more than a tale explaining the gift of lands to the Abbey using the backbone of a now lost Celtic Otherworld voyage similar to the surviving Irish echtrae.

    Both  William of Malmesbury and Caradoc of Llancarfan were aware of 'Ynyswitrin' as the British name of Glastonbury, but this appears to be a backward etymology in an attempt to explain the Saxon name of the Somerset town. Both William and Caradoc were writing at the request of the ecclesiastical community of Glastonbury. Yet absent from the works of both men is the suggestion of any knowledge of Glastonbury equating with Avalon. Indeed, arguably the greatest author of the 12th century and creator of Arthurian history, Geoffrey of Monmouth fails to make the connection either. Geoffrey mentions 'Avallon' but twice in his Historia Regum Britanniae, (History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136); firstly as the place were Arthur's sword Caliburn was forged and secondly he merely states that, when mortally wounded Arthur was taken there:

    “And even the renowned king Arthur himself was mortally wounded; and being carried thence to the isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds,”

    In his later Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin, c.1148) Geoffrey describes the last sojourn of the king in more detail, but avoids the name Avalon completely and refers simply to the Fortunate Isles, as a Celtic island paradise.

    Significantly, three major writers of the first half of the 12th century fail to connect Glastonbury with Avalon. This equation first appears with the discovery of Arthur's tomb between two pyramids in the ancient cemetery at Glastonbury Abbey in 1190 or 1191. Prior to this date Glastonbury was evidently not aware of its Arthurian legacy. The inscription on the leaden burial cross read:

    “Here lies the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.”

    The effect was two-fold: the lead cross confirmed this was Arthur's remains, the King was dead and Glastonbury was Avalon.

    The wording on the cross had been chosen carefully; Geoffrey's first full chronicle history of the King had come to an end with the death of the “renowned king Arthur” and here were those exact words on his burial cross. A copy of Geoffrey's work is known to have existed at the Abbey.

    Accounts of the discovery vary, as do records of the wording on the cross. The first account of the exhumation of Arthur's grave at Glastonbury is provided by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) in Liber de Principis instructione (On the Instruction of Princes  c.1193):

    “Although legends had fabricated something fantastical about his demise (that he had not suffered death, and was conveyed, as if by a spirit, to a distant place), his body was discovered at Glastonbury, in our own times, hidden very deep in the earth in an oak-hollow, between two stone pyramids that were erected long ago in that holy place. The tomb was sealed up with astonishing tokens, like some sort of miracle. The body was then conveyed into the church with honour, and properly committed to a marble tomb. A lead cross was placed under the stone, not above as is usual in our times, but instead fastened to the underside. I have seen this cross, and have traced the engraved letters -- not visible and facing outward, but rather turned inwardly toward the stone. It read: 'Here lies entombed King Arthur, with Guenevere his second wife, on the Isle of Avalon'.”

    Gerald claims he was shown Arthur's tomb and relics by the Abbot Henry de Sully (Soilli), who was Abbot of Glastonbury from 1189 until being consecrated as bishop of Worcester in December 1193. Gerald's version is clearly not an eye-witness account, evidently he was not present at the exhumation, which, if it had taken place in 1191, Gerald must have visited the Abbey sometime between 1192 – 93. By the time of his visit Arthur's relics had been transferred to a new tomb within the church. [3]

    In writing his second, and slightly different, account of the discovery of Arthur's grave in Speculum Ecclesiae (1216) Gerald states the wording on the cross read as:

    “Here In The Isle of Avalon Lies Buried The Renowned King Arthur, With Guinevere, His Second Wife”.

    In this later account Gerald explains that Geoffrey's account in the Vita Merlini is clearly at fault and provides the 'correct' version:

    “Many tales are told and many legends have been invented about King Arthur and his mysterious ending. In their stupidity the British people maintain that he is still alive. Now that the truth is known, I have taken the trouble to add a few more details in this present chapter. The fairy-tales have been snuffed out, and the true and indubitable facts are made known, so that what really happened must be made crystal clear to all and separated from the myths which have accumulated on the subject.

    After the Battle of Camlann. . . the sequel was that the body of Arthur, who had been mortally wounded, was carried off by a certain noble matron, called Morgan, who was his cousin, to the Isle of Avalon, which is now known as Glastonbury. Under Morgan's supervision the corpse was buried in the churchyard there. As a result, the credulous Britons and their bards invented the legend that a fantastic sorceress called Morgan had removed Arthur's body to the Isle of Avalon, so that she might cure his wounds there. According to them, once he has recovered from his wounds this strong and all-powerful King will return to rule over the Britons in the normal way. The result of all this is that they really expect him to come back, just as the Jews, led astray by even greater stupidity, misfortune and misplaced faith, really expect their Messiah to return.”

    In both accounts Gerald goes on to explain Glastonbury as the Isle of Avalon.

    Writing the official history of the Abbey nearly one hundred years after the great discovery of 1191 in Historia de rebus gestis Glastoniensibus, Adam of Damerham, provides another account of the discovery of the remains of Arthur:

    "The King [Richard I] ....elevated as Abbot, Henry de Sully, Prior of Bermondsey, a man born of royal stock...He, frequently urged to dispose more fittingly of the famous king Arthur (for he had lain for 648 years near the old church, between two pyramids, once magnificently carved, one day surrounded the place with curtains and ordered that digging should be carried out...The Abbot and convent, raising up the remains, joyfully translated them into the great church, placing them in a double tomb, magnificently carved. The King's body was set by itself at the head of the tomb, that of the queen at the foot or the eastern part, and there they remain to the present day."

    Exhumation of Arthur and Guinivere by Judith Dobie

    There are several other accounts of the discovery of Arthur's grave at Glastonbury, such as detailed in the Chronicle of Margam Abbey and Ralph of Coggeshall, all giving differing versions, indeed the Margam Abbey account claimed that three bodies were found, the third being that of Mordred. Of course, the treacherous and adulterous nature of Mordred portrayed in later Arthurian Romance meant this was unthinkable and consequently was not pursued by other writers.

    Notable amongst these accounts of the discovery of Arthur's grave. According to the Margam and Ralph of Coggeshall accounts it was found when  a monk from the Abbey insisted on being buried between the pyramids in the ancient cemetery. But according to Gerald of Wales and the Glastonbury accounts king Henry II was told of the location of Arthur's grave by a Welsh bard; oddly, armed with this information, they made no attempt to exhume Arthur's bones until after Henry's death, some two years later. [4]

    Gerald claimed to have handled the leaden burial cross and he alone makes reference to Guinevere as 'his second wife'. Later accounts clearly following Gerald also make the same claim, however, neither Ralph of Coggeshall nor  Adam of Damerham report this. The cross appears to have been real enough and was later seen by Henry VIII's antiquarian John Leland in the 16th century and William Camden who published a sketch in the 1607 edition of his 'Britannia'. The epigraphy of the cross has been dated to pre-12th or possibly the 11th  century. Ralegh Radord considered it to be at least prior to the Norman Conquest. [5] But there are no claims of the inscription dating from Arthur's flourit of the late 5th century. The cross has conveniently long since disappeared denying opportunity for further examination with modern techniques. The cross may well have been in existence in the 12th century at Glastonbury, but it has the reek of medieval copyists and forgers.

    Archaeology of the Abbey Precinct
    Excavations carried out at the Abbey in the 1960s, directed by Ralegh Radford set out to discover the earliest religious activity on the site. Radford uncovered an ancient cemetery of stone-lined graves where, nearby he found traces of a small timber structure thought to be the original church. The excavations also discovered several post-holes which Radford interpreted as traces of at least four early wattled oratories, characteristic of an early Celtic monastic settlement. However, there was no dating evidence found for these features and all lay beneath later Anglo-Saxon features. He also found two mausolea within the ancient cemetery. These rectangular tomb-shrines were designed to hold the bodies of saints or revered members of the community and probably marked by a standing cross. Mausolea of this type are relatively rare in Britain, being more common in Gaul and belonging to an early class of burial. One of the mausolea was found 50 feet south of the Lady Chapel and thought to have been marked by the southern of the two crosses, or pyramids as described by William Malmesbury in the early 12th century. According to Gerald of Wales this was the place Arthur's grave had been found by the monks of the Abbey in 1191.

    During his excavations at this site Ralegh Radford found evidence of previous disturbance of a large hole dug between the pyramids which soon after was refilled with soil containing many mason's chippings of Doulting stone, a local stone which was first used at Glastonbury during the reconstruction of the Abbey immediately after the fire of 1184. Radford asserted that it was certain that the large hole he found between the site of the pyramids represents the excavation for the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere.

    Ralegh Radford was co-founder with Geoffrey Ashe of the Camelot Research Project which later carried out large-scale excavations at South Cadbury, Somerset, in 1966-70 under the direction of Leslie Alcock in search of Arthur's Camelot. These three men have been largely responsible for promoting Arthur as an historical figure who was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. [6]

    William of Malmesbury's original account describes how the first church was built by the disciples of Christ. He did however seem rather sceptical of this and whilst admitting that this was of course possible he added the comment, “I will leave such disputable matters and stick to solid facts”.  The later medieval interpolations to William's text claim that twelve disciples were sent over from Gaul with Joseph of Arimithea. They were each given land in portions identified as the 'Twelve Hides'. They built  a wattle church in honour of the Blessed Mary 31 years after the Passion, i.e. 63AD. The place was then deserted until King Lucius and the missionaries came over from Rome, as recounted in Bede and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, but these sources failed to mention Glastonbury. [7]

    As we have seen above both William and Caradoc of Llancarfan were commissioned by by the Abbey to provide an explanation for the acquirement of lands by the Abbey. The motive of both Caradoc's account, stating that Arthur gave lands to the Abbey, and William's claims of a charter that he dated to 601AD listing an Abbot with an apparent British name is to provide a pre-Saxon foundation story for the Abbey. The existence of the charter is doubted by most historians.

    Indeed, there seems to be very little evidence for a pre-Saxon presence at the Abbey. There is evidence of some minor Roman activity on the site, a small quantity of pottery sherds and one or more possible Roman wells, one of which was located outside the south-east corner of the site of the old church which may have been associated with something earlier in this area. But further than that we cannot venture with any confidence. However, it must be stressed that the Roman material, such as pottery sherds, found during excavations of the Abbey precinct were all in soil moved in medieval times. Thus, to date no Roman finds have been discovered that can be considered in a primary context. [8]

    In his original text William refers to the wattle church having been covered over with wooden planks and roofed with lead by Paulinus, the English missionary who was Archbishop of York in 625 – 33AD. Bede relates a similar account of Paulinus. This is the old church which William called the vetusta ecclesia, and was the first to do so. This is the earliest church known to have been in existence at Glastonbury which was seen and was described by William in the 12th century and survived until the fire of 1184. [9] It is unlikely to be older than the 7th century. However, it seems unlikely that a wooden construction would survive 5 centuries and the original church must have been repaired or rebuilt on several occasions. 

    Indeed, William describes the church of the Saxon king of Wessex, Ina, of the early 8th century as secondary to it, appended to the older building, implying that the vetusta ecclesia was directly west of this stone building. [10]

    Ralegh Radford's excavation at the Abbey revealed evidence of a ditch and bank to the east of the early church thought to define the inner enclosure of the monastic settlement. The bank on the west side has been largely levelled by subsequent building on the site. [11] This common boundary feature was known as the vallum monasterii, a feature which can often be found in various saints' Lives. In the early days of the Church this boundary defined, and separated, the sacred from the profane. The ditch, internal bank and beneath it in the earlier ground surface failed to reveal any dating evidence, suggesting the vallum is part of the primary layout of the Abbey. However in other ditches on the site finds have been dated to the Saxon period. It is not known how far the vallum extended to the north or south or where the other sides lie. [12]

    The enigmatic earthwork of Ponter's Ball may have been part of the smaller boundary and has the appearance of a Dark Age dyke but finds ranging from the Iron Age to the medieval period leave the date uncertain. The greater enclosure of the Abbey may well have been a vast monastic estate comprising the traditional 'Twelve Hides'.

    Excavations carried out on Glastonbury Tor between 1964 -66 revealed evidence for a Dark Age settlement. Pottery sherds from amphorae, storage or transit vessels for wine, olive oil and other materials imported from the Mediterranean, dated to the 5th and 6th centuries. These imports are fundamental to the dating of Dark Age sites in the west of Britain. [See: Camelot Abandoned]  A number of animal bones, mainly cattle but also sheep and pig, along with evidence of several timber structures were uncovered on the summit of the Tor in the vicinity of the surviving medieval tower of St Michael's Church. On the north side of the later church two graves were found leading to suggestions of this being the site of a hermitage. The medieval forgery, 'the charter of St Patrick' makes mention of 'two lay brothers' on the Tor named Arnulph and Ogmar. This of course cannot be accepted as historical evidence by any means but it does point to a medieval tradition that there was possibly a secular foundation on the Tor during the time of St Patrick, the late 4th to early 5th centuries. [13]

    However, these structures and Dark Age finds on the Tor are earlier than any structures found at the Abbey site, indeed Ralegh Radford's excavation at the Abbey reported a total absence of sub-Roman dating evidence. [14] Therefore it seems probable that the pre-Saxon presence on the Tor was developed into an early monastic site by the incoming rulers of Wessex, possibly one of the earliest in Britain. Anglo-Saxon control over the Church in the 7th and 8th century led to a major expansion of Christianity at Glastonbury which was expressed at the Abbey site. This corresponds with the earliest features at the Abbey which date to the 7th century. An Anglo-Saxon monastic settlement occupied the shoulder of the Tor, a flattish area to the west of the summit. As this site expanded it spilled over into the Abbey site with the Tor serving as a hermitage or retreat for monks from the Abbey with use continuing into the post-Conquest period with construction of the stone church, the tower of which survives today, after being rebuilt following damage by an earth tremor.

    The construction of the crypt of the 12th century Lady Chapel at the Abbey destroyed the whole area of the site of the vetusta ecclesia and ruined any possibility of future archaeology finding any dating evidence from the early church.

    Return of the King
    In 1276 Edward I, King of England, had declared war on Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, the last prince of an independent Wales before conquest by the English. Llewelyn had been a constant thorn in the king's side and instrumental in the Welsh uprising. The threat of the return of Arthur to lead the Welsh to victory against Edward played a major part in events at Glastonbury.

    As we have seen above, following the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere in 1190 or 1191, the relics were transferred into the Church, the position of the tomb not specified. However, with the prospect of further Welsh rebellion they dug the King up again in 1278 just to make sure he was dead. Adam of Damerham, a monk at Glastonbury and probably an eye witness, describes the event:

    “The lord Edward....with his consort, the lady Eleanor, came to celebrate Easter....the following dusk, the lord king had the tomb of the famous King Arthur opened. Wherein, in two caskets painted with their pictures and arms, were found separately the bones of the said king, which were of great size, and those of Queen Guinevere, which were of great beauty......On the following day.....the lord king replaced the bones of the king and queen ...each in their own casket, having wrapped them in costly silks. When they had been sealed they ordered the tomb to be placed forthwith in front of the high altar, after the removal of the skulls for the veneration of the people.

    This was to be the ultimate act of dominion by the English king; handling the remains of the great hope of the Welsh. Edward's actions spelled out in no uncertain terms “here is your king, your saviour, I handle his bones. Your king is dead and your hopes with him.”

    For the restless Welsh, their Messiah dead, proven by retrieval of his body, the political consequences were clear enough. The king was dead and could not return to lead them to victory.

    The tomb was destroyed at the Reformation and the bones lost.

    Scholarly opinion believes the exhumation at the Abbey to have been a hoax. The evidence presented above provides no reason to disagree with that. Indeed there is no evidence of a pre-Saxon religious presence at the Abbey site and this likely an overspill from early religious activities on the Tor. [16] Indeed, as we have seen above, the British name for Glastonbury (Ynyswitrin) appears to be an attempt to explain the Saxon name of the town, this being compatible with the town failing to possess a pre-Saxon existence.

    The effects of the exhumation in 1191 proved a valuable source of  income for the Abbey by way of pilgrimage. Remarkably, since the fire on St Urban's day, 25 May, 1184, the relics of several saints had been found there in a very short time [17] and this at a time when, following the death of king Henry II, funding for the Abbey had been switched off with the new monarch, Richard the Lionheart diverting resources into funding the Crusades.

    After the destruction of the Abbey in 1539 following the Dissolution of the Monasteries the relics housed at Glastonbury were scattered to the four winds and lost forever. Excluding the leaden burial cross, which apparently survived until the 18th century, how odd that not one relic exists claiming to be a remnant of Arthur or Guinevere. For such precious relics it is absolutely inconceivable that some local inhabitant did not retrieve just a small souvenir. There are not even any claimants from other religious establishments. Not one skull fragment, mandible or thigh bone exists. Not one item exists claiming to a relic of the Arthur found at Glastonbury in 1191.

    Gerald of Wales liked a good story and cannot be considered a reliable historian by any account, and but for the inexorable denial of three successive kings would have become consecrated as Bishop of St Davids, and potentially the first Archbishop of Wales. [18] We can only assume that this medieval spin-doctor was deemed unsuitable for such a position in the church.

    The discovery of Arthur's remains at Glastonbury must have come as somewhat a shock as William of Malmesbury had stated that “The sepulcher of Arthur is no where to be seen,” (Gesta Regum Anglorum, Book III). Notably, William had had access to the Glastonbury archive before much of it was destroyed in the fire of 1184 but failed to connect Arthur with Glastonbury.

    The mystery of Arthur's grave persists:

    “There is a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
    a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword;
    the world's wonder, a grave for Arthur”


    Appendix II: The Legend of Arthur's Survival

    1. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur from Idylls of the King
    2. R F Treharne,The Glastonbury Legends, The Cresset Press, 1967.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Richard Barber, Was Mordred Buried at Glastonbury, in Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, ed, James P Carley, D S Brewer, 2001, pp.145-159,
    4. C A Ralegh Radford, Glastonbury Abbey, in The Quest for Arthur's Britain, ed Geoffrey Ashe, Pall Mall Press, 1968, pp.100-1.
    5. Ibid.
    6.  Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts, Glastonbury: Archaeology and Myth, The History Press, 2009, p.61
    7.  Philip Rahtz, Pagan and Christian by the Severn Sea, in The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey,  ed. Lesley Abrams and James p Carley, The Boydell Press, 1991, pp.3-38, footnote p.22.
    8. Rahtz and Watts, op cit. p.62.
    9. Ibid. p.91-92.
    10. Ralegh Radford, op cit. p.105.
    11. Rahtz and Watts, op cit. pp.118 – 119.
    12. Ibid. pp.71 – 73.
    13. Ralegh Radford, op cit. p.103.
    14. Ibid. p.100.
    15. Rahtz and Watts, op cit.
    16. Namely Saints Patrick, Indract, Brigit, Gildas and Dunstan, all of whom had stronger claimants to their relics elsewhere. Glastonbury's claims that they held the relics of St Dunstan led to vigorous dispute with Christ Church, Canterbury, where as Archbishop has been interred. Charles T Wood, Fraud and its Consequences, in The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey, ed. Lesley Abrams and James p Carley, The Boydell Press, 1991, pp.273-284.
    17. Treharne, op cit.
    18. "Stanzas of the Graves" (The Graves of the Warriors of Britain), from the Black Book of Carmarthen.

    In Memory of Philip Rahtz (1921 - 2011)
    While researching the Glastonbury excavations I came across the sad news that Philip Rahtz had passed away on 2nd June 2011 at the age of 90.

    The obituary in The Times, 14th June, described Professor Rahtz as a ‘famously hands-on archaeologist and excavator whose innovative teaching at York inspired and challenged a generation of students’.

    * * *