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Revealing King Arthur
Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot
By Christopher Gidlow
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Christopher Gidlow
All rights reserved.
The Isle Of Avalon
In our own lifetime Arthur's body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death. (Gerald of Wales De principis instructione: I)
In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey dug a grave between two ancient 'pyramids' in the graveyard for one of their number who had recently died. There had been inscriptions on the pyramids, now illegible due to their 'barbarous character and worn state' (Ralph of Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum: 36).
The monks had to dig deep. According to the Margam chronicle (in Barber 1986: 131) they uncovered a woman's coffin, beneath which was a second, containing a man. Under these was a third, identified by an inscribed lead cross. This was probably a not untypical result of digging in a crowded graveyard beside an ancient church. The lowest coffin was 'an extremely old sarcophagus' (Ralph of Coggeshall: 36).
When Gerald of Wales visited Glastonbury soon afterwards, he was told of only a single coffin, a hollowed-out oak bole, divided two-thirds of the way along its length to include a man's body in the longer part and a woman's, identified by a tress of blond hair, in the shorter (Gerald of Wales De principis instructione: I).
Ralegh Radford's excavation in 1962 found what seems to have been the original hole, irregular in shape and filled in soon after opening, using refuse from the building works of 1184–89. The hole had destroyed two or three of the slab-lined graves belonging to the earliest stratum (Radford 1968: 107). There were no finds to securely date this level, except that it pre-dated the ninth century. Radford theorised they were part of the original church, in place before 688.
When the slab covering the final coffin was raised, the monks found a leaden cross fixed to the underside, with its inscribed face turned inwards towards the slab. Prising it off, they could read the name of the man buried beneath. Abbot Henry showed Gerald of Wales the very cross: Gerald examined it closely, tracing the inscription himself: 'Here lies buried the famous king Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon' (Gerald of Wales De principis instructione: I). Others reported a shorter inscription, without mention of Guinevere (Ralph of Coggeshall: 36), but Gerald is adamant on the wording, recording his surprise that Arthur had two wives.
There is a picture in William Camden's Britannia (1610) of what purported to be the cross in his day. This has no mention of Guinevere and cannot be the object Gerald saw. Gerald insists that the entire inscription was on the inner side.
The blonde hair from the woman's grave disintegrated immediately when touched by a lustful monk (Gerald of Wales De principis instructione: I). However, Arthur's bones were available for inspection. The shin bone was three inches longer than that of the tallest man present. The skull was huge and marked with ten or more wounds. All were mended except the last gash, presumably the mortal one (Gerald of Wales De principis instructione: I).
The sensational find was accepted as real by all contemporaries. There is nothing about the discovery which is obviously outlandish. The bones, while huge, were clearly human. Nevertheless, it is difficult to find any modern description of the discovery which does not include the word 'hoax' (Time Team website) and cast aspersions on the monks or King Henry II as perpetrators of some Piltdown Man-style deception. The details of the discovery are treated as clues in an armchair 'whodunit'. Rahtz (1993: 43, following Gransden 1976) suggests the monks deliberately buried two skeletons and the cross, then invited the famous writer Gerald of Wales to add credence to the proceedings.
The old church at Glastonbury had burnt down in 1184 and the need to pay for rebuilding provided a possible motive. Diversion of donations to the Crusade with the accession of Richard the Lionheart might have added to the financial imperative (Wood 1991: 276). However, no evidence of financial benefit to the abbey has ever been advanced (Ashe 2002: 249). The idea rests on a misunderstanding of how pilgrimages and donations worked. Pilgrims, although they had much in common with modern tourists (Selwyn 1996: 6), did not visit shrines nor part with their money without expecting something in return. This would be in the form of spiritual indulgences or miracles gained by the intercession of the saint. Previous examples of Glastonbury's 'form' included fraudulent claims to possess the relics of Saints Patrick, Brigit, Gildas and Dunstan (Wood 1991: 275). The tomb of King Arthur would provide no such relief. Abbeys always hoped to attract the rich and powerful to be buried in them. Burials would be accompanied by grants of land and other sources of income, which would allow masses to be said on behalf of the dead as long as the Abbey endured. Just finding a king's body at the site would not bring any of these benefits.
Ecclesiastical forgery was rife in the twelfth century, it is true, but it did not work in this way. The wealth of an abbey like Glastonbury rested in is lands, not in its tourist income. Its estates were vast and had supported the already completed rebuilding. The origin of these grants dated back to immemorial antiquity, the accumulated result of bequests by long forgotten Britons and Saxons, buried in uninscribed graves around the site. This sort of explanation would not stand up to the acquisitiveness of Norman and Plantagenet conquerors. The new legalistic framework of government demanded written proof of ownership or the land could be seized.
Faced with this, many ecclesiastical foundations resorted to faking ancient charters or saints' Lives to justify the land holdings (Rahtz 1993: 31). Caradoc of Llancarvan's Life of St Gildas (c.1130) culminates in King Arthur and King Melvas of Somerset bequeathing lands to the abbey (in Wade-Evans 1944). Gerald was told that Arthur had been a generous patron, supporting the monks with many donations for which he was highly praised in the records (Gerald of Wales De principis instructione: I). None of this required the possession of Arthur's actual body.
Gerald unwittingly added another suspect for the armchair detectives. Although it is clear that the discovery of Arthur's tomb was completely unexpected, as no earlier source even hinted he was buried at Glastonbury, after the fact it was claimed that some had been in on the secret. Gerald mentions the abbey records, the letters carved on the pyramids and the visions of holy monks. Most importantly, an old British singer of stories had told King Henry II exactly where the body lay and the king had given the monks every encouragement to find it (Gerald of Wales De principis instructione: I).
This is taken as proving Henry II must have had a sinister motive in faking the burial of Arthur to demonstrate to his Welsh, Breton and Cornish foes that their hope for Arthur's return was vain. He would thus remove a dangerous potential rallying point (Barber 1986: 135, Time Team).
The Plantagenet conspiracy has not a shred of evidence to support it. Henry's knowledge of the site was only brought up after the discovery, to add credibility to the find. Henry died in 1189, so the discovery came too late for his purposes. Why he would have fixed on Glastonbury for his propaganda coup is baffling. With the whole of the Angevin Empire at his disposal, he could have chosen Camelford, Isle de Sein, Caerleon, London, Silchester or Stonehenge or any other location which actually featured in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the definitive biographer of Arthur, rather than coming up with an entirely new one.
Neither Henry nor Richard the Lionheart made any political capital out of disproving Arthur's immortality. Henry's last wars were against his sons and the King of France. His own army (Diceto, quoted in Hallam 1986: 185) included Welsh and Bretons. The discovery of Arthur's body made no difference to the hope for his return, which Gerald reports as still current among credulous Britons in 1216 (Gerald of Wales Speculum Ecclesiae: IX). If the Plantagenets had an anti-Arthurian agenda, they had a strange way of conveying it, supporting writers like Layamon and Wace, whose English and French versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth brought the legend of Arthur's survival to an even wider audience. Richard's actual heir, Henry's grandson, was Arthur of Brittany, presumably named with the legends in mind.
With no proven ulterior motive, the most reasonable supposition is that the monks really did find an unexpected burial. The gigantic size of the bones would probably have suggested an identification with an ancient hero. Virgil (Georgics: I.497, quoted by Gerald of Wales De principis instructione: I), and the Bible (Genesis VI 4) supported the idea that the famous heroes of old had been giants. In the Welsh romance The Dream of Rhonabwy, a twelfth-century Welshman who travels to Arthur's court in a dream is laughed at for his puny size (Gantz 1976: 182). Perhaps if the discovery had been made earlier, the monks might have picked on some other hero, a famous Saxon for example, but in the atmosphere of 1191, it had to be Arthur.
There is no particular reason why it should not have been King Arthur. The man in the grave was apparently a Christian. He was buried in an east/west alignment without grave-goods in the context of a Christian graveyard. From the very earliest accounts of his career, Arthur is portrayed as a zealous Christian fighting pagan Saxons (HB56 and AC: LXII). He is connected with south-east Wales and the Somerset area (Gidlow 2004: 57). Outside a very ancient church in Glastonbury is the sort of place where such a man might reasonably be supposed to be buried.
The major stumbling block is the leaden cross. The object drawn by Camden is not sixth-century; it is very different from the rounded inscriptions of the period, found on stones (Dark 2000: 157). Nor is it typical of the 1190s. A sixth-century cross might have called Arthur a king – the sixth-century writer Gildas uses the word of his contemporaries, in a fairly fluid way. His heirs might even have described him as 'famous'. The eighth-century Catamanus is described on his tombstone as 'the wisest and most renowned of kings' (Dark 2000: 157). The 'Hic iacet' formula would be perfectly acceptable for a British tomb inscription of the period (Knight 1996: 111). The fact that it is almost a direct quotation from Geoffrey of Monmouth (HRB: XI. 2) is one of the biggest reasons for suspecting it.
The most suspect part of the inscription is the one which was to have the greatest impact on the modern perception of the site. It describes Arthur's burial place as being in the Isle of Avalon. Readers of Geoffrey's work, where the phrase originates, had last heard of Arthur en route for Avalon to be healed of his mortal wound. Geoffrey's later Life of Merlin gives details of this paradisiacal land where crops are produced without the need for farmers and people live for over 100 years. It is ruled by nine sisters, the leader of whom, Morgen, is the most beautiful, and a skilled healer and enchantress. It seems a faraway place, only reachable because the steersman knew the sea and stars (White 2004: 22). Geoffrey's description of Avalon is partly taken from the work of the first-century geographer Pomponius Mela, describing the Isle de Sein off the coast of Brittany (Lacy 1988: 33). Geoffrey, whose works show an interest in Brittany, may well have intended that exact location.
The place-name Avalon is derived from the Celtic word for apples (Bromwich 1978: 267). Gerald gives this etymology while rationalising Morgan as a noble cousin of Arthur who organised his burial (Gerald of Wales Speculum Ecclesiae: I.IX). 'Avalon' was familiar to Gerald as the name of the continental birthplace of the famous St Hugh, the Bishop of Lincoln at the time of the discovery (Hallam 1986: 181). In Britain, Aballava, a related form, had been the name of the Roman fort at Brough-by-Sands (Rivet and Smith 1979: 238), but it had never been given as the name of Glastonbury. The suspicion has to be that this was a piece of interpretation by the monks specifically intended to answer the criticism that Arthur's grave should be in Avalon, not Glastonbury.
Glastonbury is presented to the modern visitor as 'Avalon', a mystic region where Arthurian concepts such as the Holy Grail mingle with neo-paganism and assertions of ancient pagan significance. A roadside notice even tells them they are entering the 'ancient Island of Avalon' (Rahtz 1993: 33). This image is presented in the shops which crowd the town and precede access to the abbey. Archaeologist Philip Rahtz characterises modern Glastonbury as a battleground in 'the struggle of the rational against the draw of the irrational', the first represented primarily by the 'archaeological establishment' and those who want a town free of tourists, cars, 'unnecessary shops' and supermarkets. Their opponents are a compendium of foes of Middle England; 'leyliners', 'druids', 'drug-abusers' and 'armed beggars' (Rahtz 1993: 132). A more balanced answer to Rahtz's question 'Whose Glastonbury is it?' can be found in Hutton's recent essay 'Glastonbury: Alternative Histories' (in Hutton 2003).
The only clearly fifth/sixth-century finds from Glastonbury come from Rahtz's excavations in 1964–66 on the Tor. It was an occupation site of high status. Rahtz, after considering all the options, interpreted the Tor as the strong-hold of a local chief (Rahtz 1968: 120). Compared with rulers of sites like Cadbury, the chieftain who lived there was probably 'no Arthur but someone of lesser stature, though quite important at Glastonbury, and doubtless known to the denizens of Camelot' (Rahtz 1968: 120). 'If we wished to put a name to the chief of Glastonbury, it would be Melwas' (Rahtz 1968: 121), Arthur's adversary from Caradoc of Llancarfan's Life of St Gildas. Rahtz now clarifies that, while the Melwas story 'cannot be taken as true history, it is in keeping with the scenario suggested' (Rahtz 1993: 59).
The abbey is owned by the Church of England. Most of the interpretation of the site, not surprisingly, is about early Christianity in England, monastic life and the dissolution of the monasteries. The abbey site is undoubtedly beautiful, with a strong sense of atmosphere. As such, however, it is hardly unique. It is the Arthurian and attendant New Age connotations which have raised Glastonbury to the status of modern pilgrimage site (Rahtz 1993: 10). Rahtz even claims that the majority of those who live in Glastonbury or visit it believe in the existence of Arthur and his connection with the site (Rahtz 1993: 44). If so, and with their expectations stoked by the Avalonian emphasis of the town, they will find little to engage with in the interpretation of the Abbey site.
Interpretation boards in the visitor centre present a muddled version of Gerald of Wales's account of the discovery of Arthur's tomb. It states that visions and old manuscripts led the monks to search out the grave of Arthur. This is, up to a point, what Gerald wrote in Speculum Ecclesiae (I.VIII), though earlier accounts are clear it was actually fortuitous. Since the discovery, we are told, there has been debate over whether the burial was genuine. The person responsible for the sign has already made up their mind, suggesting it was a 'publicity stunt' following the 1184 fire, and that the 'publicity' brought in pilgrims 'and money'. The writer obviously gave up under the strain of trying to disentangle the story of Arthur from the large number of conflicting Arthurian sources: 'By the late fifteenth century the strands of Arthur, Guinevere, the Round Table, Joseph of Arimathea, the Quest for the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Mordred, the Pons Perilous, Avalon and Camelot had become so intertwined that it is now impossible to unravel Glastonbury's true part in the story.' There is not even an attempt to interpret the development of the legend or disentangle irrelevancies. The board (entitled King Arthur) ends in the abbey's comfort zone, the functions of the Saxon abbey and the concept of chantry chapels endowed by rich benefactors. It concludes with a plaintive list of 'some important burials', 'notably three Anglo-Saxon Kings – Edmund I (d.946), Edgar (d.975) and Edmund Ironside (d.1016).' This suggests that the abbey would prefer to have dealt with these 'real' royal burials but appreciated that no-one was going to read a board entitled 'King Edgar' or 'Chantry Chapels'. Without any interpretation of the historical context, the leap from Arthur to the (undated) 'Saxon period' is unexplained.
Excerpted from Revealing King Arthur by Christopher Gidlow. Copyright © 2011 Christopher Gidlow. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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