An ancient and symbolic story links King Arthur to Beckery, which is one mile west of Glastonbury Abbey.
The story is that King Arthur visited Beckery and there was granted a vision of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. She presented him with a crystal equal-armed cross. This experience led Arthur to adopt a new coat-of-arms replacing the Red Dragon with a crystal cross on a green background and an image of the Virgin and Child in the top left hand corner.
Several other strands are sometimes included in the story. One is that King Arthur first sees a dead body in a bier, and when he asks who it is he sees an old priest from Nyland, who then dies. Another is that all this occurred in the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene. It is sometimes further said that the king arrived at dawn one Ash Wednesday, to find the door guarded by fiery swords so that no-one unworthy could enter. Another strand is that, Mary having appeared with the baby Jesus in Her arms, the child is taken as the sacrament and his flesh is eaten, but afterwards he reappears whole and unharmed. Another strand is that King Arthur visited as part of his preparation for the Battle of Badon.
Rahtz’s archaeological dig in 1969 found proof of a male monastic community having lived at the Beckery location long held sacred and known as Bride’s Mound. However, he dated it as early Anglo-Saxon, i.e. seventh or eighth century. He also found evidence of Roman occupation on the site – but nothing in-between. Rahtz’s date is strikingly consistent with the notice in William of Malmesbury that a charter gave land at Beckery to Glastonbury Abbey in 670. The charter itself is regarded as dubious; but the acquisition of the land at that time by the Abbey may nevertheless be genuine.
William of Malmesbury also recorded an oral tradition sacredly transmitted at Glastonbury Abbey that St. Bride, Ireland’s greatest early Christian woman leader, visited Glastonbury in 488 and again in 504. She too is said to have stayed at Bride’s Mound.
The website http://arthurianadventure.com/bride%27s_mound.htm tells that a Christian hermit lived on Bride’s Mound in the fifth century. This points to a basis on which all the stories and the archaeology can be reconciled. A hermit lived on Bride’s Mound (which could easily have happened without archaeological trace, especially not trace that would have been noticed in the 1960s, which is when this location was excavated): a site spiritually favourable, for a straight (ley?) line drawn from the Abbey to the Beckery location marked on the O.S. map “chapel remains” continues to the church at Greinton (= Grian’s settlement (ton), Grian being the Sun (god) in Druidic Britain), and thence to other churches in Westonzoyland, North Petherton, and Broomfield (and in the other direction, to Pilton); St. Bride stayed with this hermit in 488; a couple of years afterwards, King Arthur visited him and had his vision; nearly a couple of centuries later, soon after 670, a small monastic community gathered there and built a chapel; the chapel presently became known as St. Mary Magdalene’s.
What matters in the story is its symbolic elements. First a dead body. Then the dying priest from Nyland which is itself the abode of the dead – in the Celtic British Brythonic language “ny” means “not” so Nyland is “the land of those who are not”, as is also shown by its alternative name Andrewsey, “ey” in old English meaning “island” (because it was an island in the marshes) and “Andrews” being just an English spelling of “an drws”, “the door of An”, An being the Goddess of the Otherworld. (c.f. Camlan, Caml an…. of which more another day.) Then, filtered through church-tidied hands, the dying and restored god Jesus.
Brought back into a fifth-century cultural context, these images tell primarily that Arthur was being given a talismanic symbolic protection against death – clearly something he needed as the warrior leader before going into what was to be his greatest battle – and secondly that this magical protection was Christian. The crystal cross given by Mary, the one element common to all versions of the story, is a Christian symbol for the essential elements of purity and of victory over death. Heraldry, of course, did not exist in the fifth century; but the symbol of replacing the dragon with the cross conveys the message that Arthur, ruler of a Celtic kingdom (red dragon) though he was, relied on the Christian God for his protection. The act of Mary giving it to him represents his being accepted by her and Christ. Arthur is shown to have divine legitimacy in the Christian order. It all happening at the dawn of Ash Wednesday is a way of saying symbolically that Arthur underwent a ritual penance or spiritual purification – an obvious cultural necessity before gaining the right to this divine protection. Even the attribution of all this to a chapel of St. Mary Magdalene is not casual, anachronistic though it be if viewed literally: for this Mary was, in the Gospel, the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection. She too is therefore a symbol of victory over the danger of death.
The flaming sword, a symbol not otherwise associated with Beckery and not a normal theme in Christianity either, compares directly with the bright flashing sword of light in lines 18 and 19 of Taliesin’s esoteric poem Preiddeu Annwn. In the poem, this is a symbol for the light of the third or spiritual eye of wisdom in the forehead (and also of the energy of prana in the ida channel in the spine) which can only be penetrated by a “worthy” person (and not, as line 17 of that poem assures, by a “timid person who is not initiated”).
The overall message is that Arthur is worthy, wise, and spiritually purified and divinely accepted. He is the right ruler, and is therefore magically protected from death.
And all this has nothing at all to do with “Arthurian” romance and the lays of Breton minstrels, nor with the fantastic “history” created by Geoffrey of Monmouth that elevated Arthur to ruler of vast lands. It is a simple oral tradition with credibility (though, of course, no certainty) as a story of genuinely fifth-century origin, and one that places King Arthur in Somerset.
To be sure, since all the individual components of the story are symbolic, it is rational to suspect that its being located at Bride’s Mound may also be symbolic. Kathy Jones – http://www.kathyjones.co.uk/glastonburygoddess.html – says that Bride’s “symbol is a White Swan”. White is, naturally, the colour of purification; and of the star at the centre of the spiritual eye through which the successful initiate’s mind will travel after crossing the bar of the flaming sword and entering that door (Taliesin’s drws porth vffern). The swan is a symbol of advanced spirituality: plainly, for its famed habit of seeming serene on the surface while working vigorously out of sight; and esoterically as a symbol that Celtic Britain imported from ancient India where the white swan (hansa) is the vehicle of the Supreme Being (Brahma) and of the goddess of wisdom and learning Saraswati, and is the symbol of spiritual discrimination. The location of Mary’s gift to Arthur may be all about his having, being given, or the story’s creator asserting that he had been given, the quality of spiritual discrimination.
But, all that said, Bride has numerous sites in her name in Britain from the He-brides Islands to St. Bride’s Bay in Pembrokeshire to St. Bride’s church below Ludgate in London, yet this Arthur story is sourced only in Somerset. The story tells us that King Arthur wins his spiritual spurs in Somerset. It does so because this is where his kingdom lay.