King Arthur: Buried at Glastonbury Abbey?

The Fiction Show of c1191

In c1191, monks of Glastonbury Abbey dug up remains purporting to be the earthly remains of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere. Experts on the twelfth century are, I understand, agreed that the dig happened alright, but that the connection between what was dug up and King Arthur was wholly fictional.

For one thing, Guinevere was invented in the twelfth century: no early source about Arthur names his wife. Besides, the story put out in the 1190s was that the woman’s body was seen with a lock of golden hair – as might have been on the head of an English queen; but not one of sixth-century Celtic Britain. Thirdly, the inscribed cross found in 1191 below ground at a layer above the bones asserted that there lay King Arthur “in insula avalonis” – on the Isle of Avalon. The Isle of Avalon was also invented in the twelfth century: it was one of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s realms of fable.[1] Besides, there is no basis for supposing that anyone of the sixth century was buried with an inscribed cross; no other such crosses have turned up despite the considerable number of sixth-century graves that have been discovered.

Until recently, historians thought that the inscription was tenth century, and that it might have been added when the Abbey cemetery was raised by Abbot St. Dunstan. They now say that the appearance of tenth-century writing is itself phoney; the inscription was recent at the time it was “found”.[2]


Signs and Wonders: Not Disbarred

The next question, though, is: however phoney the show in c1191, why King Arthur there – Glastonbury? Certainly, the fact that the monks said that King Arthur was buried there does not, in its cultural context, mean by itself that there was any factual basis for their so saying. They said that Joseph of Arimathea came to live and die at Glastonbury, and this has zero basis in fact.

In what James Carley calls the official version of the events of c1191, Geraldus Cambrensis said that the site of King Arthur’s burial was “revealed by strange and almost miraculous signs…. Certain indications in their [the Abbey’s] writings, and others in the letters engraven on the pyramids…. Others again were given in visions and relations vouchsafed to good men and religious, yet it was above all King Henry II of England that most clearly informed the monks, as he himself heard from an ancient Welsh bard”.[3]

Carley’s own close review of William of Malmesbury’s record of what was on the Abbey’s pyramids is sufficient to show that this element of Geraldus’s “signs” adds up to nothing. Like the “Artognou” stone inscription excavated at Tintagel, Glastonbury Abbey’s pyramids are, in the story of Arthur, a red herring.

Geraldus’s reference to “indications in the… writings” can be set alongside William of Malmesbury’s words of c1125 in his book “The Deeds of the Kings of England”, where he calls Arthur “a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories as one who long sustained his tottering country and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war”[4]. The implication is that something about a real Arthur was recorded in the Abbey library, but not much – not at any rate, anything William found substantial enough to write up in either of his books. This record could well have included the words which formed the Battle of Badon entry in the Annales Cambriae, telling of Arthur’s victory and his the carrying the image of the Cross on his shoulders; and maybe little, perhaps nothing, more. William’s words after “histories” are a paraphrase of the words of praise that Gildas gave to Ambrosius Aurelianus in his book “De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae”, immediately prior to his report of the Battle of Badon that, infamously, does not name its victor. Perhaps William read both Gildas and the Annales Cambriae words and deduced, not without good cause, that in regional military resistance to English advances, Arthur successfully carried on where Ambrosius left off. All of which is relevant to an understanding of who the real King Arthur was, but says nothing about whether he was buried at Glastonbury.  

It is the “Welsh bard” component of the “signs” that makes political sense. King Henry had a clear political motivation to “prove” to the Welsh that King Arthur was dead, because the “once and future king” legend had by this time become attached to his name and Henry wished to curb its risk of fomenting rebellion. Henry would therefore have had motivation to bribe, cajole, threaten or force anyone his informants led him to believe knew the truth to reveal the whereabouts of King Arthur’s grave. But he would have cared little where the answer was. What mattered was that the Welsh would believe it to be genuine. If there had been any counter-tradition in circulation, this could have been hard to squash. There are only two credible possibilities for Geraldus saying that a bard named Glastonbury as the burial site. One is that it was, behind the vows of bardic secrecy, the true answer. The other is that nobody knew, that the answer (and maybe the bard, too) were fictitious, and that Glastonbury was picked out of thin air – one might imagine, by Abbot Blois, as a favour to King Henry II. It at least had the merits of being a Christian site of great, but unknown, antiquity; and with a cemetery to match.

“Visions and relations vouchsafed to good men and religious” is, as in other Abbey contexts, code for “the oral knowledge within the Abbey secretly passed down the generations”.

The combination of the “bard”, the “visions and relations vouchsafed”, and the “indications in the writings”, while not to the modern mind proof of anything, is stronger than the components individually in indicating that the burial of Arthur at Glastonbury, in contrast to the identification therewith of the bones and inscription that were dug up in c1191, is genuine. It is also to be noted that, in the age of veneration of relics, disputes arose about Glastonbury’s claims to those of St. Patrick, St. Dunstan, Sts. Aidan, Bede, Hilda and other Northumbrian saints,[5] but no other claimants ever came forward asserting that they and not Glastonbury had King Arthur.

I offer a basis for the claim that the Abbey buried King Arthur to have been true and yet for the man’s bones not to have been there in 1191. The most sacred thing to have done in 538 if the Abbey did bury King Arthur would not have been to sink his coffin to the south of the Old Church.[6] It would have been to take it by silent water craft through the meres that are now the drained Somerset levels[7], to a final resting place at Nyland, one of the Abbey’s “Seven Holy Islands” – Nyland’s other name is Andrewsey, a portmanteau word meaning “the isle (ey) of the door (drws) of the Queen of Heaven (An)”, i.e. the door to the Otherworld (Annwn).[8]





[1] As with so many of his imaginative creations, Geoffrey did not invent Avalon out of totally thin air. There is a poem titled Avallenau attributed to Myrddin, a bard who lived about 100 years after Arthur. (Geoffrey Latinised his name to Merlinus and used it for a major character in his story.) The author indicates within the Avallenau poem that he composed it in c620. The English for avallenau is “apple trees”. The poem is an esoteric work delighting in the chakras. For Geoffrey to use the word for an imaginary otherworldly place of healing, filled with apple trees, was therefore far from silly.

[2] Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury, 2009: p 59 report the similarity of the inscription writing to one of known twelfth century date at Stoke-sub-Hamdon.

[3] James Carley, Glastonbury Abbey, 1996: p148.

[4] ibid, p154.

[5] ibid, Chapter 5

[6] The earliest person named on the Abbey cemetery’s pyramids is Abbot Bregored, the last Celtic British abbot, who died in c670. All the names on the pyramids other than Bregored appear to be English. (ibid, pp150-151). Archaeologists found evidence of “two mausolea dating from the Celtic period” (ibid, p150; Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury: 2009, p111). Despite these, however, Rahtz and Watts (p109) date the origin of the cemetery to “the seventh to eighth centuries”. The burial of kings and abbots there may not pre-date Bregored.

[7] Tennyson, author of the imaginative and beautiful fiction poem Morte d’Arthur,  presumably knew this.

[8] See previous blog post (26 July 2013) on the Seven Holy Islands.