Monday 27 April 2015

The Fourth Crusade, The Shroud and the Grail

"Thus it was that Constantine's fair city, the common delight and boast of all nations, was laid waste by fire and blackened by soot, taken and emptied of all wealth, public and private, as well as that which was consecrated to God ..." - Nicetas Choniates, 13th century Historia.

In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade with the objective of restoring Christian access to the holy places in and around Jerusalem. During the following 200-year struggle for control of the Holy Land perhaps the most perplexing event is the notorious Fourth Crusade in the early 13th Century. The leaders of the Christian army from Western Europe had planned an assault on Egypt, but with their Venetian allies, attacked and laid waste the Byzantine city of Constantinople, the single most bloody and destructive episode of the Crusades against fellow Christians.

The mystery of this self-inflicted slaughter of fellow Christians is made even more confusing by the knowledge that the Pope had expressly forbidden the Crusaders' attack on the Greek Metropolis. What prompted the Latin army to change the target of their crusade and defy the Pope?

The Call to Arms
The Third Crusade (1189–1192) had effectively come to an end with the two great military leaders, Richard I, The Lionheart, of England and Saladin, fighting each other to a standstill. The Lionheart had reclaimed much territory for the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, including the key coastal cities of Acre and Jaffa, and territories of the Crusader kingdom conceded in the aftermath of the Battle of Hattin were restored, yet he had failed to recover the ancient city of Jerusalem. An uneasy truce was negotiated with unarmed Christians pilgrims permitted access to visit the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy city. Essentially the Third Crusade had failed in its prime objective to retake Jerusalem and recover the True Cross, last seen tied upside down to a lance and heading for Damascus following the massacre of the Crusader army at the Horns of Hattin in July 1187. There had been a tradition that the True Cross was carried into battle as a talisman; it was used at the battle of Ramleh in 1103 and in almost every major engagement in the decades thereafter.

By October 1192 The Lionheart had departed the Holy Land for France, vowing to one day return; six months later Saladin had fallen ill with fever and never recovered, dying in March 1993. It seemed the Holy Land was to enter a new era. However, the Lionheart's reluctance to pursue the recapture of Jerusalem would lead to the call for the Fourth Crusade six years later. Pope Innocent III had probably hoped that The Lionheart would make good on his vow to return to the Holy Land and join the Fourth Crusade but in March 1199 he was killed after being hit in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt during a siege at Châlus.

The call for a Fourth Crusade did not initially receive an enthusiastic response. However, by February 1200 Thibaut (Theobald) Count of Champagne and Count Baldwin of Flanders, along with his wife, Marie of Champagne, had taken the cross. At a meeting in Soissons in March the French nobles planned the crusade with a preference to travel by sea to the Holy Land and launch an invasion via Egypt. With the death of Thibaut in May 1201 the north Italian nobleman Boniface of Montferrat was appointed leader of the crusade. Boniface was of good crusading stock, as it were; his father William V of Montferrat took part in the Second Crusade and fought at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. He was a younger brother of William "Longsword", Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, and of Conrad I of Jerusalem, with his nephew Baldwin V crowned co-ruler of Jerusalem in 1183.

After some negotiations, The Treaty of Venice, (1201) was finally agreed in which the Venetians, led by the elderly 'Doge' Enrico Dandolo, providing a fleet and provisions for 33,500 men and 4,500 horses for one year for 85,000 silver marks. In addition, the Venetians agreed to join the crusade themselves providing fifty well-armed war galleys. All booty would be split evenly between the Venetians and the crusaders. The fleet would be ready to sail by June 1202.

The Venetians suspended all overseas trade and put enormous resources into the project to construct one of the largest fleets assembled in the period, purchasing thousands of tons of provisions, and building and fitting out war vessels at an amazing rate. Venice met its obligations to the letter; unfortunately, the crusaders did not. By the summer only around 13,000 men arrived in Venice, a much reduced number, with far fewer Franks than predicted, possibly influenced by the loss  of Thibaut of Champagne and some of the Flemish contingent finding their own way to the Holy Land, sailing direct from Marseilles. This lower numbers of crusaders led to a massive financial shortfall with the Crusade in debt to the Venetians by some 34,000 marks.

In a compromise the crusaders agreed to assist the Venetians in restoring the port of Zara on the Dalmatian coast, their political and economic rival, to their control. The fleet finally sailed in October 1202. When Pope Innocent III learnt of the Crusade's plan to attack Zara rather than relieve Jerusalem, he warned Boniface and his Venetian allies that they would face excommunication if they went ahead with the assault. The Crusade attacked Zara regardless which by November was under the control of the Venetian-Crusade alliance.

The Pope, having forbidden the attack, published an official decree excommunicating the entire crusade as he had threatened. The crusaders requested absolution, but the Venetians did not. With most of their provisions now consumed and little left of the year’s lease on the vessels, the crusade was in desperate straits. With the plunder from Zara being insufficient to pay off the Venetians, an opportunity for a “just cause” presented a solution for the crusaders.

In 1201 the young Alexius Angelus travelled to the west claiming he was the legitimate heir to Byzantium and requested the Crusade stopped off in Constantinople and overthrow the usurper and restore his father to the throne. Alexius’s father, Isaac II, had been deposed and blinded by his own brother, who was then crowned Alexius III in 1195. In return for the crusader's assistance Alexius offered 200,000 silver marks, to provide the crusade with 10,000 men for one year and establish a permanent garrison of 500 knights in the Holy Land. Prior to this he had visited the Pope promising to re-unite the Greek and Latin churches separated since the great schism of 1054. Innocent III declined to get get involved with internal dynastic struggles; his interest was the  re-conquest of Jerusalem.

However, the Venetians had their own agenda and were eager to direct the crusader's attention toward Constantinople; the Greeks had stifled their ambitions to dominate Mediterranean trade for decades. In June 1203 news reached Innocent III that the crusade was to divert to Constantinople. He wrote to the Crusade leaders explicitly forbidding any attack on the Christian city. The Pope's letter, when it did arrive, forced the crusaders to choose between obedience to the pope and fulfilling their obligations to the Venetians. However the letter arrived too late and for a second time the crusade disobeyed the Pope. The crusaders seemed to have lost sight of their original objective to recapture Jerusalem and set sail for Constantinople.

A crusader siege
Devastatio Constantinopolita
The Fourth Crusade arrived at the walls of Constantinople in June 1203. In July they attacked the northern walls of the city with the Venetians starting many fires in that area. Alexius III fled during the night, Isaac II was released from his prison and restored to the throne. His son, Alexius, was crowned co-emperor Alexius IV (1203-4) but was unable to pay the crusade what had been promised. Relations between the Latins and Byzantines quickly soured.

Tired of waiting, the crusaders demanded payment in November. Hostilities erupted as the crusaders began to collect their own payment and starting looting the city. Isaac II died and Alexius IV was unable to stop the crusader attacks. A palace official, Mourtzouphlus (heavy-brow), arranged a coup in February 1204 and had Alexius IV strangled to death. Mourtzouphlus was crowned Alexius V. This appalled the crusaders who saw Mourtzouphlus as a tyrannical usurper who must be removed from office. The crusader's clergy made a ruling that the murder of Alexius IV and the Byzantine failure to accept the primacy of Rome made Constantinople a legitimate target of the Crusade and the Latins prepared for a full scale assault on the city.

However, in defiance of Innocent III, who had forbidden any attack on Christians and especially on Constantinople, the assault began on 8th April 1204, when the Crusade attacked the northern harbour walls. Four days later On 12th April 1204, the crusaders made a second attack at the same location. Because of the efforts of a small group of knights, and an armed priest named Alleumes de Clari, the crusaders gained entry into the city. Thousands of western knights streamed in to the Byzantine capital setting it ablaze devastating one-sixth of the city, and regardless of their crusading vows, subjected it's Christian citizens to a gruesome three-day ordeal of violence, rape and plunder in which the city was stripped of its treasures; enormous amounts of gold, silver, precious gems, and holy relics were taken to be transported back to Europe. Perhaps the best known is the gilt bronze horses from the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which were placed above the entrance to the cathedral of Venice, St Mark's Basilica. One of the crusaders recorded the scene:

“When the city was captured [...] and the palaces were taken over, [...] they found in them
riches more than a great deal. [...] And the palace of Bukoleon was very rich [...] and in it
there were fully thirty chapels, great and small, and there was one of them which was called
the Holy Chapel, which was so rich and noble that there was not a hinge nor a band nor
any other part [...] that was not all of silver, and there was no column that was not of jasper
or porphyry or some other rich precious stone. [And] within this chapel were found many
rich relics: [...] two pieces of the True Cross as large as the leg of a man [...], and the iron
of the lance with which Our Lord had his side pierced, and two of the nails which were
driven through his hands and feet; and one found there in a crystal phial quite a little of
his blood and [...] the tunic which he wore [...] when they led him to Mount Calvary. And
one found there also the blessed crown with which he was crowned [...] and the robe of
Our Lady and so many other rich relics that I could not recount them to you [...].” - Robert de Clari on the Latin conquest of Constantinople, 1204.

The Fourth Crusade never did sail for the Holy Land. The crusaders remained in Constantinople building a new Latin Empire with Baldwin of Flanders elected its first Emperor on 16 May 1204 in the Hagia Sophia, the great church built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Following the ceremony, Constantinople and the Empire were then divided up, with one-quarter (two-eighths) going directly to the Emperor, three-eighths to the Franks, and three-eighths to the Venetians, who also bought the island of Crete from Boniface. The crusaders then set out in all directions to seize Greek lands.

In November 1204 Baldwin wrote to Innocent III advising of the capture of the Byzantine capital, evidently omitting much of the gruesome detail. The Pope is said to have initially reacted with jubilation, even though the crusade had disobeyed him, with the prospect of the unification of the Eastern and Western churches. Only later when he had heard of the three days of carnage did Innocent III react with disgust and condemn the crusade.

However, the Pope recognised the authority of the new Latin Empire in order to end the schism and unite the churches of east and west. He ordered the new Emperor to ensure the Latin rite took root throughout the newly acquired territories and installed three of his most trusted Orders in the area: the Templars; the Hospitallers; and the Cistercians. The two military orders took possession of various Byzantine territories at the disdain of the Emperor and his vassals who did not consider the Templars or the Hospitallers had any rights to the land as they did not participate in the overthrow of Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade is typically characterized as some great fiasco; although it quickly fell out of Papal control one is forced to question how this Crusade ended up so far from its intended destination – was there always a hidden agenda?

A Theory of Accidents?
The slaughter of the Christians of Constantinople has been described as the result of a festering distrust due to declining Crusader-Byzantine relations during the 12th century. The Second Crusade had considered attacking the Greek capital and Richard the Lionheart had taken Cyprus, a Byzantine protectorate, during the Third Crusade, before selling it on to the Templars. Was the failure of the Fourth Crusade manipulated by the Venetians as an anti-Greek conspiracy?

From the many views that have emerged, the finger of suspicion often points firmly toward the Venetians to whom the crusaders owed a large sum of money, and may have been involved in a secret conspiracy to divert the crusade to Constantinople since it was to their economic advantage; the Venetians now had control of the trade routes from the Adriatic to the Black Sea.

The Doge, Enrico Dandolo, is typically cast as the villain of the piece, the man who sparked the flames of  the sack of Constantinople in 1204; he was certainly the architect of the diversion of the Fourth Crusade to Zara in 1203. A man said to be driven by greed and hatred which stemmed from the seizure of Venetian residents at Constantinople and their goods in 1171. Although Venetian merchants had been allowed back in to Constantinople, they had never been fully compensated for their losses. The Massacre of the Latins at Constantinople in 1182 in which the bulk of the Latin community, estimated at over 60,000 at the time, was either wiped out or forced to flee, was an event which Venice had never forgotten or forgiven. The Venetians certainly had the motive and the powerful army of the Fourth Crusade presented the opportunity.

The Massacre of the Latins
However, modern scholars tend to accept Queller's theory that the Fourth Crusade was directed largely by incident and circumstance rather than planned decision. The Fourth crusade has been described as “a thousand or more decisions, often at cross-purposes” made by the leadership of the crusade on the spur of the moment and on the basis of little useful information. As the historian Riley-Smith writes, “The capture of Constantinople seems to have been the result of a series of accidents . . . There is no need even to explain the crusade in terms of the long history of bad relations between crusaders and Greeks; it was a response to a request from a Byzantine prince, made when the crusaders were heavily in debt because of an error of judgement on the part of the six delegates who had negotiated on their behalf with Venice.

This may be true in so much as the sack of Constantinople achieved two goals for the Latins; it installed the rightful heir to the throne of Byzantium; and, secondly, it freed the Fourth Crusade from their debt to the Venetians. Yet the leaders of the Fourth Crusade may have had their own, secret agenda from the very beginning.

The Grail Quest and Relics of the Passion
The city of Constantinople was a wealthy place and within its walls were the riches of an empire.
Immense booty was gained from Constantinople described as “every choicest thing found upon the earth” most of which was sent back to the crusader's homelands. Geoffrey of Villehardouin, the marshal of Champagne, claimed that never had so much booty been won in any city. Material riches were not the only loot; the Greek Metropolis housed many relics of the crucifixion – the recovery of relics of Christ's Passion had been amongst the objectives of previous crusades. So rich was the assemblage of relics at Constantinople it was considered the second Jerusalem.

In the Middle Ages relics were immensely powerful objects, considered to retain the spiritual power of martyrs and saints, in particular early Christian martyrs were the most revered.  Although, from a medieval perspective, relic theft was not necessarily wrong, since it was generally believed that relics could only be stolen if the holy figure wished them to be and would subsequently show approval by performing miraculous deeds at their new home. Many of Europe's most famous relics were looted from Constantinople in 1204: the supposed head of John the Baptist; pieces of the True Cross; hair of the Virgin; and innumerable body parts of various saints all went westward. The list seems endless.

The Imperial Palace of Boucoleon in Constantinople was to the south of the city. Inside this
Imperial complex was the Pharos Chapel. At that time, the chapel kept the most famous collection of relics of Christ, including the cross, the nails, the lance, the sponge, the cane, the crown of thorns, the sandals, the tunic, the stone from the tomb, the sudarium (face cloth) and burial cloths from the tomb. In his eyewitness account of the Fourth Crusade, Robert de Clari, who's brother Alleumes was one of the first through the city walls in the sack of 1204, notes the presence of many of the aforementioned relics, including the Virgin’s veil and John the Baptist’s head.

It would appear the relics of the Passion that were kept in the Pharos Chapel were very quickly taken under Latin control and protected from looting. But later a group of 22 relics of the Pharos collection were sold by the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, to his relative King Louis IX of France between 1239 and 1242 who built the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to house them. This was normal practice; the majority of crusaders who obtained relics during the Crusades sent them back to their local churches.

The city had been a repository for holy relics at least since it became capital of the Roman Empire in 324 AD under Constantine I. Needless to say, relics of Christ's Passion would be the most valued. Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, is said to have travelled to the Holy Land c.326-28 in search of relics of the Passion. She is attributed as having discovered the True Cross and other Passion relics that were brought back to Constantinople.

The Image of Edessa, recorded since at least the 6th century, a square or rectangle of cloth upon which a miraculous image of the face of Jesus was imprinted, the first icon or image of Christ, known as the Mandylion, was brought to Constantinople in 944. The Mandylion has been identified as the burial linen known today as the Shroud of Turin, a 14 foot length of linen cloth bearing the image of a man who appears to have suffered the physical trauma consistent with crucifixion, (folded in four so that only the face was visible), however this identification is disputed by other Sindologists. Whether we accept the Mandylion is the Shroud of Turin or not, it seems certain there was a burial cloth at Constantinople bearing a full figure image as Robert de Clari attests.

The First Crusade had recovered the Lance of Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Christ's side while he hung on the cross, discovered in 1099 during the Siege of Antioch. The Lance of Longinus became identified with the Bleeding Lance of the Grail procession by authors of the Continuations to Chretien de Troyes Story of the Grail in the early 12th century.

Regardless of claims of pagan origins, the Grail Romances were clearly focused on Relics of Christ's Passion as items of the Grail procession; the Holy Lance that drips blood; the chalice of the last supper. Further, the key Grail texts were written under the patronage of powerful Crusader lords. As such, the Grail appears linked to the Holy Land and Jerusalem and certainly to the Relics of the Holy Passion.

The patron of the first story of the Grail was Philip of Alsace, count of Flanders from 1168 to 1191, cousin to King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the leper king, and participated in a crusade in 1177 and departed again for the Holy Land with a Flemish contingent in 1190 where he died a year later from an epidemic at the Siege of Acre. In the prologue to Perceval, or Conte du Graal, Chrètien de Troyes pays homage to his patron for providing the source for the best tale ever told in a royal court. Although he never fully developed the objects of  his 'graal procession', general opinion agrees that if Chretien had finished his Story of the Grail then he would have described them as relics of the Passion; he hints at this by saying 'un graal' (a grail) contained a single mass wafer that sustained the Fisher King.

Philip's father was Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders from 1128 to 1168, who participated in four pilgrimages to the Holy Land, including the Second Crusade in 1147 AD. According to tradition, Thierry returned to his capital Bruges on 7th April, 1150 AD, with the relic of the “Precious Blood” a cloth that Joseph of Arimathea had used to wipe blood from the body of Christ after the Crucifixion. The Basilica of the Holy Blood was built under the direction of the Count of Flanders to house the venerated relic of the Holy Blood.

Following Chretien, Robert de Boron Christianised the Grail even further; Chretien's simple serving dish, un graal, had now developed into The Holy Grail, a Christian relic of the Passion brought back from the Holy Land as used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of Christ at the deposition. At the end of his 'Joseph d'Arimathe' de Boron states he is in the service of Gautier of "Mont Belyal", identified as Gautier de Montbéliard who departed on the Fourth Crusade in 1202 and died in the Holy Land. Robert is said to have been originally from the village of Boron in the district of Montbéliard.

Originally written in Old French, in the first decade of the 13th century, the Perlesvaus, or the High History of the Holy Grail, is a continuation of Chrétien De Troyes' unfinished Story of the Grail, in a rather more mystical tone drawing on archaic Celtic legends. The author of Perlesvaus remains anonymous but has been suggested as a Glastonbury monk or a Templar knight. The prologue outlines the guardianship of the Grail through Joseph of Arimathea's family down to Arthur's times in much the same vein as Robert de Boron's story. Perlesvaus also boasts crusader patronage. Jean de Nesle, like Gautier de Montbeliard, Robert de Boron's patron, was one of the small group of Flemish crusaders who sailed directly from Marseilles during the Fourth Crusade.

The fourth major grail text is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the first treatment of the Holy Grail theme in German, which is associated with Hermann I, the Landgrave of Thuringia, a Crusader veteran, who accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor on crusade in 1197. Wolfram’s poem features a band of Grail guardians whom he calls 'templeisen', generally considered to be a reference to the military order of Knights Templar.

The Blachernae Shroud
The other church in Constantinople concerned with housing relics of the Hoy Passion was at the other side of the town, to the north, the church of Saint Mary of Blachernae, where Robert de Clari saw a burial linen with the figure of Christ raised up every Friday. Notably, his brother Alleumes was first to breach the wall in the northern quarter by the church of the Virgin which was said to have housed the burial linen. Other funeral linens were kept in the imperial chapel of Pharos as noted above, yet the shroud with the whole figure of Christ was very much related to the church of Saint Mary of Blachernae.

There are very few previous references to this cloth and its arrival in Constantinople. However, as we have seen above, it has been identified with the Mandylion brought to Constantinople in the 10th century. There is also a reference by Antoine de Novgorod who, in the year 1200, wrote about the image of the face in the Boucoleon Palace and of the Image of the Saviour in Blachernae. Robert de Clari uses the word 'sydoine' (Syndone, or Sindon) to describe the Blachernae cloth and clearly distinguishes it from other burial clothes without an image. The description of the image of the whole body suggests the cloth of Blachernae was what we know today as the Shroud of Turin, the very cloth that Joseph of Arimathea used to cover Christ’s body after the crucifixion.

The publicity surrounding the weekly exhibition every Friday made it a perfect target for looting during the sacking of the city in 1204. As Alleumes de Clari was first through the city walls in the northern sector near to the church of Saint Mary of Blachernae, where the Shroud was housed, it seems a small group of crusaders had deliberately targeted Christ's burial Shroud when they entered Constantinople in 1204. Robert de Clari testifies to its disappearance; “No one, either Greek or French, ever knew what became of this Shroud when the city was taken.”

In 1205, a year after the Crusader sacking of Constantinople, Theodore Angelus Comnenus, nephew of Isaac II, wrote to Pope Innocent III protesting of the looting; “The Venetians partitioned the treasures of gold, silver and ivory while the French did the same with the relics and the most sacred of all, the linen in which our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after his death and before his resurrection...the sacred linen [is] in Athens.

This linen was in the territory of Otho de la Roche who became Duke of Athens, in the Greek Latin Empire, in repayment for his actions during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. La Roche was a Burgundian knight and counsellor to Boniface of Montferrat, the leader of the Fourth Crusade. If this is assumed to be the same burial linen that de Clari saw bearing the full figure image, the Blachernae Shroud, then there is no further reference to the Shroud in the East after this letter.

The Shroud then disappears for some one hundred and fifty years before reappearing in the 14th century. There are numerous theories as to the whereabouts of the Shroud during those missing years. One such is the family tradition that claims the Shroud, after disappearing from Constantinople, was kept in Ray-sur-Saône castle by the de la Roche family.

The Shroud reappeared at Lirey in the 14th century when it was shown by Geoffroi I de Charny, considered the first owner of the Shroud, in the 1350's, following his marriage to Jeanne de Vergy, a descendant of Otho de la Roche, where the Holy relic was kept in a collegiate church in the Diocese of Troyes not far from Ray-sur-Saône castle. The Bishop of Troyes was not impressed and declared the relic nothing more than a painting, and opposed its exposition.

There are those who argue there is no evidence for the Shroud's existence before 1356, which very conveniently corresponds with the medieval date obtained through carbon dating carried out in the 1980's. And, equally, there are those that claim the Shroud was the same burial linen that Robert de Clari saw bearing a full figure image that was raised up every Friday at Constantinople,  the Blachernae Shroud, which was used to wrap Christ's body after the crucifixion. de Clari adds that after the sack of the city no one knew what happened to it. The missing years of the Shroud, from 1204 to the 1350's, have been the subject of much debate amongst Sindologists. Some claim that it was held by the Templars and the image of the face, or head, on the cloth was the secret idol they worshipped.

As a relic of the Passion, the Shroud must surely rank as the most sacred relic of all, and the Templars were said to be guardians of the Holy Grail. However, there is no public record of the Templars involvement in the Fourth Crusade, yet Innocent III placed them in the newly acquired Byzantine lands shortly after the sack of Constantinople. That the Shroud should end up in their hands is perhaps not so surprising.

It seems a rather fitting conclusion that the most sacred Holy relic of them all was first shown at Lirey, in the Diocese of Troyes, near to where the first Grail romance was written some two centuries earlier. We have seen that the patrons of the four key Grail texts were crusader lords, though not necessarily Templars; however, these writers certainly knew of the Templars achievements in the Holy Land. Thus, the Grail Quest ends as it begins; in Troyes.

Did the nobles of north-eastern France, the leaders of the Fourth Crusade, have one objective in mind from the very beginning; a series of accidents or a quest for relics?

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Notes & References
Michael Angold, The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context, Routledge, 2003.
Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades, Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Malcolm Barber, The Impact Of The Fourth Crusade In The West: The Distribution Of Relics After 1204, in AE Laiou, ed. Urbs capta: the Fourth Crusade and its consequences, Realités Byzantines (10). Lethielleux, Paris, France, 2005, pp. 325-334.
Richard W. Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Harvard University Press, 2004.
Noel Currer-Briggs, The Shroud and the Grail, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.
Barbara Frale, The Templars, Maverick House, 2009.
Barbara Frale, The Templars and The Shroud of Christ, Maverick House, 2011
Charles Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe, Yale University Press, 2012.
Patrick J. Geary, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, 2011.
Michael Haag, The Templars: History and Myth, Profile Books, 2011.
Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, The Second Messiah: Templars, the Turin Shroud and the Great Secret of Freemasonry, Century, 1997.
Dhira Mahoney, ed. The Grail: A Casebook, Garland, 2000.
William A. Nitze, On The Chronology of the Grail Romances. I The Date of the "Perlesvaus"-(Concluded), Modern Philology, Vol. 17, No. 11 (Mar., 1920), pp. 605-618.
Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade: And the Sack of Constantinople, Pimlico, 2005.
Donald E. Queller and Thomas F. Madden, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, University of Pennsylvania Press; 2 edition, 1999.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History, Yale University Press, 1990.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, ed. The Atlas of the Crusades, Guild Publishing, 1991.
Ian Wilson, The Shroud, Bantam Press, 2010.

The Shroud of Turin
The first public exhibition of the Shroud of Turin in five years opened on 19 April 2015 in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, where the famous relic has been kept since 1578.
The exhibition will end on 24 June 2015.

For further information see:

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Wednesday 15 April 2015

The Mysterious Disappearance of the 9th Legion

On Friday 17th April the Stafford and Mid Staffs Archaeological Society welcomes Dr Andrew Fear who will be talking about ‘The Mysterious Disappearance of the 9th Legion

Andrew Fear is a senior lecturer at Manchester University who specialises in Roman and Visigothic Spain; he also is an authority on Early Christianity.

The mysterious disappearance of the Ninth legion remains a mystery. It has provoked much debate, produced one famous and several not so famous novels, and two films in recent years. This talk looks at what we know about the end of the ninth and asks the question ‘was Rosemary Sutcliffe right?

One theory was that the legion was wiped out in action in northern Britain soon after 108, the date of the last inscription of the Ninth found in Britain, perhaps during a rising of northern tribes. This view was popularised by the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth in which the legion is said to have marched into Caledonia after which it was never heard of again. Other scholars have put forward alternative theories which could place their demise to a later date.

The Mysterious Disappearance of the 9th Legion
A lecture by Dr Andrew Fear
St Bertelins church (ST16 1JF), Holmcroft Road, off Eccleshall Road, Stafford.
The Lecture starts at 7.30 and visitors are more than welcome at the cost of £2.

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Monday 6 April 2015

The Burial Cross of King Arthur

“Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon”

Arthur's burial cross 
based on Camden's sketch
The Discovery of Arthur's Grave
With Henry II's death in 1189 and the accession of his son Richard to the throne funds where diverted to the cause of the Crusades. Glastonbury was in desperate need of funds following the fire of 1184 which destroyed the Abbey church. Pilgrims were a major source of income for religious houses; the more relics one held the more pilgrims would come to the site.

King Henry II was told of the location of King Arthur's grave at Glastonbury by an anonymous Welsh bard at Cilgerran Castle in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, where the king had stopped whilst on his way to Ireland in 1171. On his return Henry instigated a search at the Abbey and the grave was duly discovered, or so the story goes.

The body unearthed was confirmed as that of the renowned King Arthur by a leaden burial cross found in the grave with an inscription which also identified that this place, Glastonbury, was indeed the ancient Isle of Avalon.

These claims immediately raise suspicions; Henry II died 1189 and the search for Arthur's grave was not carried out until 1190 or 1191. Further, there are several versions of the discovery of the grave, including Ralph of Coggeshall in 1221 and Adam of Damerham 1290's, each offering slightly different details; there are at least five different versions of the inscription on the leaden burial cross found in the grave.

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), often quoted as the primary source providing the earliest account of the exhumation around 1193, in "Liber de Principis instructione" he claims to have handled the bones and the leaden cross at the invitation of the Abbot, Henry de Sully. Gerald provides the only account of the inscription on the cross to include Guinevere as Arthur's second wife. Later, in "Speculum Ecclesiae," c.1216, Gerald repeats the claim that the search was carried out at the instigation of Henry II:

“The King had told the Abbot on a number of occasions that he had learnt from the historical accounts of the Britons and from their bards that Arthur had been buried in the churchyard there between two pyramids which had been erected subsequently, very deep in the ground for fear lest the Saxons, who had striven to occupy the whole island after his death, might ravage the dead body in their evil lust for vengeance. ….. To avoid such a frightful contingency, to a large stone slab, found in the tomb by those who were digging it up, some seven feet. . .a leaden cross had been fixed, not on top of the stone, but underneath it, bearing this inscription:


They prised this cross away from the stone, and Abbot Henry, about whom I have told you, showed it to me. I examined it closely and I read the inscription. The cross had been attached to the under side of the stone and, to make it even less easy to find, the surface with the lettering had been turned towards the stone.” [Gerald of Wales, Speculum Ecclesiae, c.1216]

Gerald's writings are the most literary and innovative of the all accounts of the exhumation in which he reports visions and revelations had been seen by holy men and declared that records at the abbey contained "signs" of the body's presence in Glastonbury and the letters inscribed on the ancient cross shafts (i.e. the pyramids) in the cemetery "almost obliterated by age" suggested the same. However, William of Malmesbury, regarded a reliable historian, considered the pyramids recorded a list of previous abbots and the like but made no mention of Arthur with Glastonbury.

The account of Ralph of Coggeshall differs from Gerald's in stating that the cross was “placed” on the coffin. Ralph also claims Arthur's body was found while they were cutting a grave for another monk who wished to be buried in that particular spot in the cemetery. An account from the chronicle of Margam Abbey, thought to be copied from a monastic circular sent out by Glastonbury Abbey within several years of the event, is the only report that mentions the discovery of Mordred's tomb in the same grave.1 Adam of Damerham's later account adds the interesting detail that during the excavation the grave site was surrounded by drapes or curtains conjuring images of a modern crime scene.2

John Leland, King Henry VIII's antiquarian, claimed to have handled the leaden burial cross that he said was nearly a foot in length, when he visited the Abbey between 1533 and 1539. Leland makes no mention of the inclusion of Guinevere in the inscription. A sketch of the cross included in the 1607 edition of William Camden's Britannia also fails to mention Guinevere.

Where the monks dug in 1191
Following the exhumation Gerald  asserts that the bodies were entombed in the Lady Chapel, telling us that, “They carried it into the church with every mark of honour and buried it decently there in a marble tomb.” [Liber de Principis Instructione, c.1193] The Margam Abbey version also notes that the body of Arthur was transferred "with suitable honour and much pomp" to a marble tomb in the abbey church.3 It appears the bodies remained in the Lady Chapel for the next 88 years.

Adam of Damerham, writing a hundred years after the event, does not dwell on the exhumation of 1190/91 but focuses on the visit of Edward I and Queen Eleanor to Glastonbury in 1278 and the ceremonial transfer of the bones of Arthur and Guinevere to a black marble tomb in front of the high altar in the larger church.4

“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.”

There may have been some delay in transferring the relics to the new location prior to Edward I's visit. According to a contemporary account in the Annals of Waverley the relics of Arthur and Guinevere were extracted and placed in the Abbey's treasury, in the east range of the church, until they could be more fittingly located.5 In Adam's version of the transfer of the remains to the new tomb there is no mention of the tomb in the Lady Chapel but the Abbot Henry de Sully is actually described as having King Arthur and Guinevere's remains carried directly to the adjoining majorem ecclesiam. 

A site for the new black marble tomb was constructed in a central position before the High Altar, the most important site in the whole church, the Celtic warlord located between the tombs of the Anglo-Saxon kings Edmund the Elder and Edmund Ironside. The tomb was fashioned with two lions at each end, a cross at the head and an image of King Arthur at the foot. The top of the black marble tomb bore the following inscriptions:

Here lies Arthur , the flower of the kings , and the glory of the kingdom,
Which of the characters, and honesty, and with eternal praise , commend.

Here lies Arthur, the second wife is buried here ,
Who was worthy the heavens of the virtues prolific of offspring .

This was the same epitaph that Leland saw and wrote down when he visited Abbot Whiting between 1534 and the fall of the monastery in 1539.

This however was not the final resting place for the legendary King Arthur. In 1368 Walter de Monington (Abbot 1342-1375) extended the length of the choir by 40 feet, adding 2 bays, and accordingly re-positioned the tomb so that it would continue to occupy its prominent place by the High Altar. Monington had this area redecorated at the same time making the area inaccessible for some years. During this period Arthur's bones were probably again housed in the Treasury.6

A hundred and seventy years later Arthur and Guinevere's remains disappeared along with the marble tomb after the Abbey was wrecked at the hands of Henry VIII's commissioners during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. A plaque now identifies “The Site of King Arthur's Tomb”:

Plaque marking the site of Arthur's tomb 1278 - 1539
The discrepancies between the accounts of the medieval chroniclers has generally led to the acceptance of the discovery of Arthur's grave at Glastonbury being a complete hoax. Even so, if the cross was genuine perhaps the discovery of the grave was a real event?

The Glastonbury Excavations
Courtney Arthur Ralegh Radford was born in 1900 in the shadow of the Arthurian Revival, a generation stimulated by Tennyson's poetry, the Idylls of the King. His father and grandfather were friends of William Morris, the English textile designer and poet associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris was a close friend of the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti who used Malory's Le Morte Darthur as inspiration for their Arthurian art.

Most of those in charge of the earlier excavations at Glastonbury Abbey were personal friends of either Ralegh Radford  or his father. Indeed, his father was a close friend of Frederick Bligh Bond, who excavated Glastonbury Abbey between 1908 and 1921. His father took him to visit the excavations in 1910, and from 1925 onwards Ralegh Radford visited the site every year while the excavation was in progress, stimulating a lifelong fascination with the medieval monastery and its Arthurian connections.

The associations of Tintagel with the Arthurian legend compelled Ralegh Radford to excavate there in the 1930’s. He adopted a highly romantic view of the post-Roman west country; a “heroic age” linked with the figure of King Arthur. However, Ralegh Radford was not alone in his romantic obsession with Arthur; in the 1960's, he was instrumental in creating the Camelot Research Committee with a team of like minded researchers such as Leslie Alcock and Geoffrey Ashe.  The search for the “Real Camelot” led to excavations at Cadbury Castle (Somerset) under the program of the Camelot Research Committee.7

During excavations at the Abbey in 1962 Ralegh Radford searched for evidence of Arthur's grave. He used Gerald's account of the exhumation to determine the site in the old cemetery, south of the Lady Chapel, where he found evidence that a large irregular hole had been dug and then shortly afterwards refilled in the 1180's or ’90's.  The bottom of the hole had disturbed two or three of the slab-lined graves belonging to the earliest phase of the Celtic cemetery. He claimed evidence for his precise dating was found in the presence of Doulting stone chippings in the hole, a stone which, he argued, was first used at Glastonbury in the rebuilding of the Lady Chapel in 1184–89. Ralegh Radford was convinced that he had found the location where the monks dug in 1191 for the grave of King Arthur and Guinevere.8

However, on re-examining the excavation records Roberta Gilchrist of the University of Reading has argued that this feature was merely a pit and its identification as Arthur’s grave was based entirely on medieval accounts of the excavation, which, as we have seen above, are rather spurious at best and certainly unreliable. Doulting stone has been identified as the principal building material used in ALL phases of Glastonbury Abbey stonework including Anglo-Saxon carvings. It was certainly used before the rebuilding of the Lady Chapel in the late 12th century. Further, the slab-lined graves were cut into the layer of clay that Dunstan had laid to raise the level of the old cemetery in the 10th century and therefore must be later.9

The Site of the black marble tomb by the High Altar
If the discovery of Arthur's grave in 1190/91 was indeed genuine then Ralegh Radford had certainly not found the site. Yet, the most telling factor is the leaden burial cross. Alarmingly, there are significant differences in the wording of the inscription on the cross as described by men who had claimed to have actually handled it; five different versions of the inscription on the cross  have been reported, but only Gerald of Wales mentions the inclusion of “Guinevere, his second wife.10

Not only does the cross identify the body as that of Arthur but also conveniently identifies Glastonbury as the Isle of Avalon. Yet even that unscrupulous old cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth had failed to make the connection of Glastonbury with Avalon. Geoffrey mentions “Avalon” but twice in his Historia Regum Britanniae, (History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136); initially as the place were Arthur's sword Caliburnus was forged; and secondly he merely states that Arthur, mortally wounded, was taken there. In his later Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin, c.1148) Geoffrey provides more detail for the last journey of the King, but avoids the name “Avalon” completely and refers simply to the Fortunate Isles, as a Celtic island paradise, the abode of Morgan and her sisters.

The wording on the cross had been chosen carefully; Geoffrey's chronicle history of King Arthur 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.11

However, the cross was apparently still in existence in the 16th century when Leland handled it during his visit to Glastonbury and in the early 17th century when Camden sketched it and included it in his 1607 and 1608 editions of Britannia; however, there is some variation in the shapes of the letters between the two editions.12

So much of the authenticity of the discovery of Arthur's grave depends on this leaden burial cross. Yet, the only graphic representation that has come down to us is Camden's sketch in his Britannia. Leslie Alcock13 argues that the “evidence of the leaden cross can only be discounted if we maintain that Camden's drawing is not an accurate facsimile”.

It seems likely that Camden had not actually seen the cross but had in fact copied an earlier sketch. But what did he copy? In his description of the leaden cross, Camden says that it was “drawn out of the first copie in the Abbey of Glascon.14 A copy of a copy originating from the Abbey itself certainly raises suspicions; the authenticity of Camden's sketch of the cross, our only representation of it, is looking dubious already. Further, earlier editions of Camden's Britannia featured the letters only. Armitage Robinson,15 adds that in “Gibson's edition (1695) the arrangement of the letters upon it, would seem to have been an after-thought on Camden's part: it is only the antique form of the letters for which he expressly vouches.” Camden's sketch then is likely to be his visual representation of the cross and not an accurate facsimile. Presented with this evidence one is forced to question what value the burial cross can possibly provide in determining the authenticity of the discovery of the grave?

The Discovery of King Arthur's Grave - John Mortimer (c.1767)
The Burial Cross Re-discovered?
The cross was apparently last seen in the 18th century, in the possession of Mr. William Hughes, Chancellor of Wells, then disappeared.16

Then in December 1981 a Mr Derek Mahoney turned up at the British Museum with what appeared to be the burial cross of King Arthur. Mahoney  claimed the inscribed lead cross was found during dredging of the lake  in the grounds of Forty Hall, Enfield, Middlesex in 1981. Mahoney refused to leave it for further examination and it was never seen again. The museum employee, Sue Youngs, managed to note that the cross was exactly 6 and seven-eighth inches tall, precisely the height shown in Camden's drawing in Britannia.17 Of course we cannot be certain whether Camden's sketch was full size or scaled; the sixth edition of Britannia published in 1607 figured the first appearance of an illustration of the cross. The page size was twelve and a half inches which could have contained a full size drawing if, as Leland claims, the cross measured about one foot in length. This supports the notion that Camden copied a copy and that Mahoney's cross was indeed a replica based on Camden's sketch. We seem to be getting further away from the original burial cross, if it ever existed.

Earlier that year, in October, Mahoney had contacted he Local History Unit claiming to have recovered an artefact from the bed of the lower lake whilst silt clearance was being undertaken at Forty Hall. Mahoney claimed he was in possession of the Glastonbury Cross, being about 30cm high and inscribed with the legend “HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA” (“Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon”). The story appeared on radio and in the local papers.18

London Borough of Enfield, the Council, who owned the land where the lake is, took Mahoney to court in an attempt to recover the cross and served an injunction. Mahoney flatly refused to reveal its whereabouts, claiming he had hidden it in an “inert” container that no one would find. Refusing offers of legal aid he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for contempt but would be released as soon as he revealed the whereabouts of the cross.

Mahoney had been a lead pattern maker working for a well-known local firm of toy-makers who produced detailed lead models of cars. He had also been a member of the Enfield Archaeological Society. There is no obvious link between Glastonbury and Enfield other than that the antiquarian Richard Gough, an editor of Camden’s Britannia in which an illustration of the cross appeared, and a keen collector of antiquities, had lived at nearby Gough Park from 1714 until his death in 1809. However, there is no mention of the cross in any of Gough’s papers, or any reference to the object in any catalogue of his collection when it was sold at Sotheby's in 1810.

Mahoney had been involved in legal wrangles over a property transaction and the episode was dismissed as a publicity stunt. Sadly Mahoney, embittered and unwell, is believed to have taken his own life, and the secret of his cross with him.19

Edited 10/04/2015

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Both Antonia Gransden - Growth of the Glastonbury Legends and R Barber - Was Mordred buried at Glastonbury, in Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, DS Brewer, 2001, argue that the date of composition of the Margam Abbey account is uncertain, but it is believed to have been written within a decade or two of the original discovery in 1190/91 and may possibly be one of the earliest accounts of the discovery. Margam is the only report that mentions the additional discovery of Mordred's tomb, stating that there were three separate coffins; one each for Arthur, Guinevere and Mordred. Only Margam and Ralph of Coggleshall state the monks dug between the two pyramids where a dying monk had requested to be buried. Both their accounts of the inscription on the leaden cross are identical. It seems that the Margam and Ralph of Coggleshall accounts derive from a common exemplar which may have been of  Glastonbury provenance.
2. Gransden, Ibid., considers that Adam of Damerham's account does not appear to be totally independent of Gerald's. The latter of Adam's two accounts written, a hundred years after the event, is derived almost word for word from Gerald's version in the Speculum Ecclesiae - or a source common to both accounts. The other is substantially the same as Gerald's, albeit in different words, with the exception of one or two additional items, such as the mention of screens surrounding the exhumation. Another passage in Adam resembles one in Gerald's earlier account in De Principis Instructione.
3. Gerald records the bodies were moved within the monks' church and placed in a tomb at the centre of the choir. W Nitze, in The Exhumation of King Arthur at Glastonbury, Speculum, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Oct., 1934), pp. 355-36, argues the Lady Chapel (presumably unfinished) is meant. The Margam Abbey account also records the translation of the relics to a marble tomb within the Abbey church which is often confused with the visit of Edward I to Glastonbury in 1278, and, mistakenly, the reason the Margam account is often given a late 13th century date.
4. Edward I's visit in 1278 followed on the Edwardian invasion of Wales in 1277. Conveniently the discovery of the grave and cross proved that Arthur was not merely sleeping but indeed dead, and that the Welsh resistance was doomed, as their messiah could not return. However, it failed to prevent a further Welsh rebellion five years later in 1282.
5. James P Carley and Michelle P Brown, A Fifteenth Century Revision of the Glastonbury Epitaph, in Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, DS Brewer, 2001.
6. Carley and Brown, Ibid.
7. See: Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, Penguin, 1971, pp. 73-80, for his hypothesis that the Glastonbury Exhumation was not a monkish forgery.
8. CA Ralegh Radford, Glastonbury Abbey, in Geoffrey Ashe, editor, The Quest for Arthur's Britain, Pall Mall press, 1968, pp.107-108.
9. Roberta Gilchrist, Courtney Arthur Ralegh Radford, in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy XII, British Academy, pp. 341-358, 2013.
10. All these medieval accounts are very similar, essentially informing the discover that this was Arthur's grave in the Isle of Avalon, but with the fundamental difference, found only in Gerald's account, of the inclusion of Guinevere, his second wife. Suggestions that part of the cross is now missing or the Guinevere inscription is on the underside form a weak counter argument; no account mentions an inscription on the underside and Camden's drawing appears to show a complete cross.
11. S C Morland, King Arthur's Leaden Cross, Somerset & Dorset Notes & Queries, 31, 1984, pp.366-67, notes that the epithet “inclitus” (renowned) is not known to have applied to Arthur until after Geoffrey of Monmouth.
12. Aelred Watkin, quoted in James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996, says the lettering on the burial cross is identical to the lettering on a 12th century tympanum on the north door of St Mary's church at Stoke-sub-Hamdon, about one mile from Montacute in Somerset, barely 18 miles from Glastonbury.
13. Leslie Alcock, op.cit.
14. Richard Barber, Arthur of Albion: An Introduction to the Arthurian Literature and Legends of England, Boydell Press, 2nd Edition, 1973, pp. 58-9. (Re-issued as King Arthur: Hero and Legend).
15. J Armitage Robinson, Two Glastonbury Legends, Kessinger, 2003, (facsimile reprint of 1926 edition).
16. Sharon Turner, History of the Anglo-Saxons, from the earliest period to the Norman Conquest, Volume 1, Philadelphia, 1841. p.201, states that in Whitaker's “Manchester”, Dr Whitaker was told that the cross had lately been in the possession of Mr Chancellor Hughes of Wells.  Armitage Robinson (Two Glastonbury Legends, p.59), states that he can find no reference to Chancellor Hughes in Whitaker's “History of Manchester” published in 1771 and 1775, and suggests that Turner may have obtained information directly from Whitaker.
However, James P Carley, (Glastonbury Abbey, p.178), notes that the last fully reliable account is to be found in the late 17th century manuscript (Bodleian Rawlinson B.416A, fol.10v) where it is reported that the lead plate from the underside of the cover of Arthur's coffin at the Dissolution of the Abbey was within the Reverstry of the parish church of St John's in Glaston is now lost.
17. Peter Hancock, Hoax Springs Eternal, Cambridge University Press 2015.
18. Geoffrey Gillam, The King Arthur Cross, The Bulletin of the Enfield Archaeological Society, No 151, December, 1998.
19. Richard Mawrey, The Mystery of the Glastonbury Cross, in History Today, April, 2012.

Glastonbury Abbey photographs - the author.

* * *

Thursday 2 April 2015

The Arthurian Revival

“...the persistence of Arthurian subjects in the arts, from the earliest crude carving to the latest Hollywood spectacle, confirms that the appeal of the legend extends beyond the literary texts.” 

The Decline of a Legend
Throughout the evolution of the legend, Arthurian imagery emerged alongside the growth of literary texts, enjoying aristocratic patronage and a pan-European audience, reaching its zenith in the four centuries from 1100 to 1500. Yet, Arthurian iconography also appears independently of any known literary source as demonstrated in the sculpture on the north-portal archivolt (1100 - 1140) of Modena Cathedral in Italy.

Rarely have Arthurian subjects appeared in the arts during times when the Arthurian texts are neglected; periods of the legend's greatest popularity, the Middle Ages and the Victorian era, are reflected in artistic output. Even so, records indicate that the surviving objects are but a small fraction of the original output.

 Historia Regum Brittaniae illuminated manuscript (13th Century)
Surviving manuscripts suggest the first Arthurian texts were not illustrated, but throughout the Middle Ages the legend featured in illuminated manuscripts of unequalled splendour. The earliest known Arthurian miniature is found in a Flemish manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Brittaniae from around 1180 with an embellished initial illustrating Arthur in combat with the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel. More elaborate illustrations began to appear in France in the 13th century, the eldest from around 1220 in a manuscript of the Vulgate Cycle, with a flurry of Arthurian Romance and Grail texts following.

After reaching its peak in the mid-15th century aristocratic patronage for Arthurian iconography began to decline with the advance of print technology which brought the illustrated legend to a wider audience. The emergence of block books, with pages of text and simple illustrations cut into a single block of wood, providing a less expensive alternative to hand painted manuscripts. Printing of “broadsides”, single sheets with printing on one side featuring a poem and an image, perhaps, of a knight, were the first form of popular literature marketed on a mass scale.

Wynkyn de Worde published the first illustrated Malory in 1498 after inheriting Caxton's printing works in London following Caxton's death in 1491. Using Caxton's 1485 Malory text, Wynkyn embellished each chapter heading with a simple woodcut illustration and reissued Le Morte Darthur in 1529.

Although little evidence survives, Arthurian iconography was now mainly used in pageant design in costumes and banners rather than monumental pieces of art. The interest in Arthurian extravaganza continued under the patronage of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, but with his death in 1612 the popularity of the Arthurian legend dwindled as England followed the European trend in adopting classical tastes. After more than a century of declining popularity the Arthurian legend quietly slipped into obscurity.

The Arthurian legends remained out of favour until the 18th century when the Gothic Revival sparked an interest in the medieval past for a select audience. Country houses began constructing garden follies such as mock castles, false ruins and imaginative grottoes, permitting the gentry to escape into medieval fantasy. The appeal of the Arthurian legend might have returned to the aristocracy but the revival of Arthurian imagery trailed behind the recovery of interest in the literature with Arthurian subjects rare in the popular arts.

The Bard - Thomas Jones (1774)
The only 18th century painter making reference to Arthur was John Mortimer who was one of the first painters of this period to depict a scene from the legend when he illustrated the discovery of Arthur's grave (The Discovery of Prince Arthur's Tomb by the Inscription on the Leaden Cross c.1767).  A few years later Thomas Jones painted a landscape with Merlin by a megalithic structure, thought to be Stonehenge, (The Bard, 1774), and subjects from Spenser's Faerie Queen enjoyed a modest revival but a full return to the Arthurian legend in the popular arts was not to come until the general public were to become reacquainted with the legend.

During the 18th century Arthur's status reached its nadir with the once and future King becoming linked with figures of folklore such as Jack the Giant Killer and Tom Thumb. Low interest in Malory's Le Morte Darthur in the 17th and 18th centuries is reflected in its lack of publication for nearly two hundred years with nothing emerging in print since the Stansby edition of 1634.

William Stansby’s 1634 edition of Malory
 (Source: The Camelot Project, University of Rochester)
Bishop Thomas Percy rescued an old manuscript collection of poetry from his friend Humphrey Pitt's house in Shifnal, Shropshire, which the housemaid was using to light the fire. The grubby old manuscript contained mainly ballads and poems which Percy emended and even removed pages before passing the document to the printer without making copies. Joseph Ritson, a fellow antiquary, was among those who criticised Percy for his poor treatment of the original manuscript. The “Percy folio”, as it became known, also included Reliques from the Arthurian Cycle and when published as the “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” in 1765 it was generally well received and inspired poets such as William Wordsworth and Walter Scott.

Scholarly interest in pre-Norman history of Britain was now on the increase but differing theories concerning the historicity of Arthur began to emerge. In his “History of the Anglo Saxons” (1799) Sharon Turner devoted a chapter to the examination of Arthurian tradition and came to the conclusion that the legends were based on slender historical evidence yet conceded, genuine or not, Arthur was a significant figure.

Joseph Ritson went on to write the “Life of King Arthur” in 1803, but not published until 1825, which provided the first thoroughly documented discussion of the problems of Arthurian scholarship. Ritson concluded,  “No character, eminent in ancient history, has ever been treated with more extravagance, mendacity and injustice, than the renowned Arthur, the illustrious monarch and valiant commander of the Britons.

In the early 19th century Walter Scott, a respected antiquary, novelist and poet, with an interest in Arthurian romance edited and published “Sir Tristem” (1802), made many references to Malory in “Marmion” (1808) and included Arthurian material in the “Bridal of Triermain” (1813). Scott had plans to publish a new edition of Malory but surrendered the task to Robert Southey who edited the reprinted edition of Caxton's Le Morte Darthur in 1817 which was to become a source of inspiration to artists of the Victorian era.

Yet, the Arthurian legend was conspicuous by its absence from the walls of the Royal Academy until 1826 when "Henry II Discovering the Relics of King Arthur in Glastbury Abbey" by George Cattermole was exhibited, his source thought to have been Thomas Warton's 1777 poem "The Grave of King Arthur" when, in his passage through Wales to Ireland, Henry II was informed of the whereabouts of the grave by a bard at Cilgarran Castle, Pembrokeshire.

The medieval period continued to be used as a model of inspiration into the early 19th century with the emergence of a complex artistic and literary movement known as Romanticism. William Blake's paintings and poetry with mystical undercurrents have been characterised as part of the Romantic movement which had a compelling influence on the 20th century, although largely unrecognised during his own lifetime. However, Blake's work was not significantly influenced by the Arthurian legend; elements of the legend feature in the “Emanation of the Giant Albion” and the Glastonbury Legend is the focus of his epic poem “Prelude To Milton” that became the popular hymn “Jerusalem”.

Following the inattention of Romanticism a new generation of poets was now emerging who would bring the Arthurian legend to its greatest popularity since the Middle Ages.

The Arthurian Revival
In 1839 the Scottish painter Ronald McIan exhibited "Mark, King of Cornwall and his retinue", a subject from Walter Scott's 1802 edition of “Sir Tristrem”, the first use of a medieval Arthurian text as a source. In 1847, another Scottish painter, William Bell Scott, exhibited the first oil painting at the Royal Academy in which Malory's Le Morte Darthur was named as the source. Bell's “King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment” quoted from Malory Book XXI, chapter vii, attached to the title in the catalogue; “Some men say in many parts of England, that Arthur is not dead; but by the will of our Lord Jesu, carried into another place, that he will come again and win the Holy Cross. And men say it is written on the tomb, 'Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rex furturus' – Romance of Arthur.”

King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment - William Bell Scott (1847)
The republication of Malory's Le Morte Darthur in the early 19th century stirred public interest in the Arthurian legend but it wasn't until Tennyson's reworking in a series of Arthurian poems rekindled popular interest in the legend. Tennyson was known to own a copy of the early 19th century reprint of  Malory which provided the source material for his first published works “The Lady of Shalott” (1832) “Sir Galahad” and “Morte d'Arthur” (1842) Tennyson's early poems had whet the appetite but it wasn't until the first publication of  “Idylls of the King” in 1859, covering the career of Arthur from birth to death, that the Victorian public's hunger for all matters Arthurian became insatiable; Idylls sold 10,000 copies within the first week. Following centuries of obscurity the Arthurian legend was about to make a spectacular return to British art.

The first indications of mainstream interest in the Arthurian legend emerged in landscape painters before the publication of Idylls of the King stimulated by the appearance of Tintagel Castle in guidebooks and itineraries for the new Victorian pastime of tourism. Yet the powerful attraction of Tintagel's ruined castle perched on the precipitous cliffs on the desolate headland called Tennyson to write of the babe Arthur being washed up on the shore at Merlin's feet. Inspired artists included William Collingwood who's “King Arthur's Castle at Tintagel” was shown at the Royal Academy in 1843 and Samuel Palmer who visited Tintagel in 1848 and produced a number of sketches and watercolours. The following year he exhibited “King Arthur's Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall”.

In the 1860's, immediately after publication of  Idylls of the King, landscapes with Arthurian associations became particularly popular. John William Inchbold was one of a number of younger British landscape painters to be inspired to turn to mountain subjects by Ruskin's Modern Painters, visiting the Alps together in 1856 and 1858. In 1860 Inchbold stayed at Tintagel in Cornwall. Thomas Woolner, Francis Palgrave, and Alfred Tennyson encountered him there while they were on a walking tour, as described by Palgrave: “At a turn in the rocks [we met] that ever graceful, ill-appreciated landscapist Inchbold: whose cry of delighted wonder at sight of Tennyson still sounds in the sole survivor's ear.” In 1862 Inchbold exhibited the painting “King Arthur's Island”, inspired by this visit, at the Royal Academy  The title included a quotation from “Guinevere”, one of the Idylls published in 1859.

The Pre-Raphaelites
William Dyce was commissioned in 1848 to decorate the Queen’s Robing Room in the then-new Palace of Westminster. He decided to illustrate various Christian virtues with scenes from the Arthurian legends. By the time Dyce’s paintings were open to the public in 1864, Tennyson’s Arthuriad was the dominant literature and established him as a poet. His last Arthurian work “Merlin and the Gleam” (1889) was written as his biography.  

The Victorians regarded the Arthurian legend as the starting point of their history; the revival of interest in Arthur and his court regarded him as a national hero. Following Malory's Arthurian epic Dyce had trouble adapting tales of courtly love and an unfaithful queen brining about the fall of the kingdom for the Victorian Age. Instead he chose the subjects of his frescoes by concentrating on the virtues displayed by Arthur's Knights as part of the ancient code of chivalry: "Religion"; "Courtesy"; "Generosity"; "Hospitality"; "Mercy"; "Fidelity"; and "Courage". He had completed the first three murals by 1852, but his work progressed slowly with the last two projected frescoes, "Courage" and "Fidelity", uncompleted at the time of his death in 1864. The sculptor Henry Armstead was commissioned to complete the Arthurian theme; he carved a series of oak bas reliefs along each wall beneath Dyce's frescoes.

Before his death Dyce had befriended three young Royal Academy students in London and introduced their work to John Ruskin. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, all under 25 years of age, formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Holman Hunt considered Dyce to be the most profoundly trained and cultured of all the painters of the time.

The arts and crafts movement was inspired by the writings of the critic John Ruskin and spearheaded by the work of William Morris, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, reaching its height between about 1880 and 1910.  Dyce, along with Ford Madox Brown, acted in part as mentors to the younger men, came to adapt their own work to the Pre-Raphaelite style. Dyce's later work was Pre-Raphaelite in its spirituality and attention to detail.

Influenced by Romanticism, the Brotherhood defined themselves as a reform movement rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerism period of European art which came after Raphael and Michelangelo. The Brotherhood immediately began to produce highly convincing and significant works, striving to revive the deep religious feeling and naive, unadorned directness of the Florentine and Sienese schools of the 14th and  15th-centuries. The Pre-Raphaelites were fixed on portraying things with near-photographic precision but their work was devalued by many painters and critics. The Brotherhood's mediaevalism was attacked as regressive and its extreme devotion to detail was condemned as ugly and jarring on the eye.

Charles Dickins was a leading critic of the Brotherhood after the exhibition of  Millais' painting "Christ in the House of His Parents" (The Carpenter’s Shop),1849–50, partly for its realism which displayed Christ's home as an ordinary family defying all current expectations that religious art should depict the Holy Family in a highly idealised way. In his magazine Household Words, Dickins wrote;

“In the foreground of that carpenter's shop is a hideous, wrynecked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness. that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England ...”

Undeterred, the Brotherhood found support from Ruskin, the man said to have coined the term “Medievalism”, who wrote to The Times defending their work. However, by 1853 the original Brotherhood had virtually dissolved with only Holman Hunt remaining true to its stated aims. But the term "Pre-Raphaelite" stuck to Rossetti and others, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The Pre-Raphaelites and the artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement tended to favour Malory; Burne-Jones was drawn to the mystical, secret, and ritual aspects of the legends; Dante Gabriel Rosetti to the erotic; and William Morris to the idealism and the concepts of brotherhood and fellowship.

For Morris and Burne-Jones Arthuriana was a shared mania feeding off Malory's text. Morris was predominately a designer who was influential in the Arts and Crafts Movement during the Victorian era, producing poetry and designs for his firm Morris and Co. Burne-Jones and Morris corroborated on The Grail Tapestries.

The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon - Edward Burne-Jones (1898)
Three scenes tended to dominate the Brotherhood's Arthurian cycle: The Lady of Shalott, Tristan and Isolde, and the Passing of King Arthur. Edward Burne-Jones's monumental 24 feet long painting "The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon" was the culmination of a succession of contemporary writings and works of art based on the Arthurian legend in which the hero-king was taken as an exemplar of how life could still be lived in the Victorian age.  Burne-Jones  attention to detail was obsessive with the "The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon" seemingly taking over the later part of the artist's life; he was 49 in 1881 when he started work on it and was still working on it at the time of his death in 1898, when he considered the painting still required another two months' work. Sadly, this monumental piece of Arthurian art was purchased for the Museo de Arte de Ponce Collection, Puerto Rico, in 1963, but made a brief return to Britain in 2008 when it was displayed at the Tate.

Before closing, mention must be made of John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) who worked after the dissolution of the Brotherhood but continued to work in the Pre-Raphaelite style for which he was known as “the modern Pre-Raphaelite”. The Arthurian legend was perhaps his favourite subject matter. One of Waterhouse's most famous paintings is “The Lady of Shalott” (1888) inspired by Tennyson's poem of the same name:

And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance -
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

The Arthurian Revival lasted for the duration of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901). The single most important person in this revival was Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

N J Lacey et al, eds. Arthur in the Arts, in The Arthurian Handbook, Second Edition, Garland, 1997.
N J Lacey, et al, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, Garland, 1995.
Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Christine Poulson, The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920, Manchester University Press, 1999.

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