“The memory of Arthur, the celebrated king of the Britons, should not be concealed. In his age, he was a distinguished patron, generous donor, and a splendid supporter of the renowned monastery of Glastonbury; they praise him greatly in their annals. Indeed, more than all other churches of his realm he prized the Glastonbury church of Holy Mary, mother of God, and sponsored it with greater devotion by far than he did for the rest. When that man went forth for war, depicted on the inside part of his shield was the image of the Blessed Virgin, so that he would always have her before his eyes in battle, and whenever he found himself in a dangerous encounter he was accustomed to kiss her feet with the greatest devotion.” [Gerald of Wales, Liber de Principis Instructione]
King Arthur in Avalon
The discovery of King Arthur's grave at Glastonbury in 1191 was probably the most significant single event at the Abbey, having a considerable impact on its fortune; by the 16th Century, the wealth of Glastonbury was second only to Westminster. When an audit was carried out for Henry VIII the Abbey was home to 54 monks and its annual wealth was declared as in excess of £3,000, a huge amount for the time. But how did Arthur become associated with Glastonbury?
From the very beginnings of the Arthurian Chronicle tradition and Romance literature in the 12th century King Arthur is linked with Glastonbury. In the Life of Gildas (Vitae Gildae) written around the middle of the 12th century by Caradoc of Llancarfan at the request of the Glastonbury monks, the tale of Guinevere's (Gwenhwyfar) abduction appears for the first time. Melwas, the king of the Summerland, holds her captive at Glastonbury leading to a stand off with King Arthur, who has mustered the armies of Devon and Cornwall. The issue is resolved by Gildas, then abbot of Glastonbury, and in return Arthur grants lands to the Abbey.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to introduce 'Avalon' to the Arthurian Canon as the place where the mortally wounded King is taken after the battle of Camlann, but Geoffrey never linked Glastonbury to Avalon. That would come just a few years later when a French tale claimed the family of Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail, the dish that Jesus used at the last supper, to the Vales of Avalon. The lead burial cross found in Arthur's grave (now lost) had confirmed Glastonbury was Avalon.
In John of Glastonbury's Cronica, Arthur visits a chapel at Beckery and witnesses a strange mass with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child (a similar episode is described in the Perlesvaus at St Augustine's chapel). This causes Arthur to change the arms on his shield to bear the Virgin as stated in the 9th century account in the History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum) at the 8th battle at Castle Guinnion. The shield is also described in the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) in the account of Arthur's victory at Badon. At Beckery the Virgin presented Arthur with a crystal cross (now also lost) which was processed at the Abbey during Lent.
|The discovery of Prince Arthur's tomb by the inscription on the leaden cross
John Mortimer, 1797 (British Museum, Creative Commons license)
Bones and Black Marble
The discovery of King Arthur's grave was during the emergence of the Plantagenets, a dynasty with a curious fascination with Arthurian history. This was the time of the Crusades, the emergence of the Gothic cathedrals, and the first stories of King Arthur and the Grail. According to Gerald of Wales, the Plantagenet King Henry II had been told of the location of Arthur's grave by a bard:
"The abbot had the best evidence from the aforementioned King Henry, for the king had said many
times, as he had heard from the historical tales of the Britons and from their poets, that Arthur was
buried between two pyramids that were erected in the holy burial-ground." Gerald of Wales, Speculum Ecclesiae c.1216]
Writing in the first quarter of the 12th century, and likely before Caradoc of Llancarfan composed Vitae Gildae, William of Malmesbury recorded the existence of these two pyramids south of the Lady Chapel, bearing some inscriptions which he found difficult to read even then and considered them indeed ancient in his day. William had unrestricted access to the Abbey library but failed to connect King Arthur with Glastonbury in anyway. It would appear that in William's time the Glastonbury monks were blissfully unaware of who laid in their Old Cemetery.
A devastating fire on St Urban's Day 1184 destroyed much of the Abbey buildings at Glastonbury, including the Old Church (Vetusta Ecclesia), said to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea himself. Whether the first Glastonbury church had been founded by the disciples of Christ or not, William of Malmesbury said it was certainly the oldest church he knew.
But it wasn't until two years after the death of Henry II in 1189 that the monks decided to excavate in the Old Cemetery. Another version of the discovery of King Arthur's grave claims the monks were digging a grave in the cemetery for a brother who had died and requested to be buried between the pyramids and they found Arthur's remains purely by chance. However, less than a decade after the fire the monks carried out an excavation in the ancient cemetery in 1191, digging where King Henry had apparently suggested. The monks discovered the bones of a tall man bearing evidence of weapon trauma and a woman with blond hair. An inscribed leaden cross found in the grave identified these bones as the mortal remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere lying in the Isle of Avalon. Gerald's account of the discovery of Arthur's grave was written within a couple of years of the event:
“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 honor, 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 of Wales, Liber de Principis Instructione, c.1193]
As we have noted above, accounts of the discovery vary between reports, Gerald of Wales provides the most detailed as he visited the Abbey shortly after the discovery and handled the bones and burial cross, but was almost certainly not an eye witness to the exhumation as suggested by some commentators. Although the discovery is considered a hoax by today's archaeologists and historians it was not challenged at the time and no alternative burial site for King Arthur was claimed by any other ecclesiastical establishment in competition to Glastonbury.
After the exhumation we hear nothing more of Arthur and Guinevere's bones and it is unclear of their whereabouts except for a brief entry in the Annals of Waverley which states that they were held in the treasury in the east range of the abbey church, awaiting a more fitting location. However, it is possible that the tomb itself was the same marble tomb that Gerald had seen on his visit to the Abbey shortly after the exhumation in 1191. It would seem the tomb must have been located in the Lady Chapel as that was the only building completed at that time, before being moved at a later date.
Nearly ninety years after the exhumation the bones were moved to the prestigious position before the High Altar in the newly built Great Church during a visit by King Edward I and Queen Eleanor to Glastonbury Abbey at Easter on 19th April 1278.
Edward I, also known as Edward Longshanks and The Hammer of the Scots, was an Arthurian enthusiast; he claimed to have recovered King Arthur’s crown when he defeated the Welsh Prince Llewellyn and of course he is intimately associated with the Round Table at Winchester. On his journey to Glastonbury he had visited South Cadbury hillfort, later identified by John Leland as King Arthur's 'Camelot'.
Adam of Damerham, a monk at the abbey and eye witness to the translation, describes King Edward's visit in 1278, as such:
“The Lord Edward....with his consort, The Lady Eleanor, came to Glastonbury to celebrate Easter....The following Tuesday....at 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 Guenevere, which were of marvelous 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 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.”
In December 1331, King Edward III and Queen Philippa visited Glastonbury Abbey, following a similar itinerary to his grandfather Edward I, paying due respects at King Arthur's tomb having also visited South Cadbury on route. They prayed before the High Altar where the tomb was then located between the tombs of the Saxon Kings, Edmund the Elder to the north and Edmund Ironside to the south.
The black marble tomb containing the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere remained there in the Great Church, but for one minor move in 1368 when Abbot Walter de Monnington in extending the choir moved the High Altar, relocating the three Royal tombs to maintain their prominent positions.
King Arthur's leaden burial cross was laid on top of the black marble tomb where it remained in peace for 261 years until the Dissolution in 1539.
Copyright © 2018 Edward Watson
The Tomb of King Arthur by Gerald of Wales (Author), John William Sutton (Translator) - from The Camelot Project 2001
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