Glastonbury Arthur’s Avalon
Beside the main roads leading into the dreamy Somerset town of Glastonbury, are a series of signboards welcoming all to ‘The Ancient Avalon’, and causing a nationwide controversy. Glastonbury claims to be Avalon, to be the final resting place of King Arthur, and the site to which the Holy Grail was borne to by Joseph of Arimethea. The claim dates back to some enterprising monks in the late twelfth century, who decided to reap the benefit from the popular Arthurian legends circulating at the time. They claimed to have found the tomb of Arthur in 1190, with an inscription conveniently claiming Glastonbury to be Avalon, which ensured they received flocks of pilgrims bearing donations, coming to see the holy relics.
This practice is still used today, as the Somerset tourist board sell themselves as the ‘Land of Legend’, Ancient Avalon, and continue to draw pilgrims in the shape of tourists and new age travellers on what the media dubbed the ‘Grail Trail’.
The Arthur legend is quite possibly the chief myth of Britain, with well over a hundred sites across the country claiming links with him and his chivalrous knights. The legend has proved rather profitable for Glastonbury in the last eight hundred years. To many experts it is now generally accepted that the monks faked the inscription and the tomb, and that Glastonbury has no right to continue to use Arthur as a means for attracting visitors. But even if Glastonbury never was Avalon, the two have become inseparable.
So who was Arthur, this figure of nationalistic nostalgia, a figure from which radiates waves of legend, and how did Arthur, Avalon, the Cup of Christ, and Glastonbury become intertwined? Arthur is probably no more than a pseudo historical figure, brought to life by the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Caradoc of Llancarfan, Robert De Boron, Laymon, Chretien De Troyes and most notably Sir Thomas Malory. In recent years the Arthur legend has gained more momentum with the hit musical Camelot, John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’, Walt Disney’s ‘Sword in the Stone’ Monty Pythons ‘The Holy Grail’ and First Knight starring Sean Connery and Richard Gere. To find Arthur, the figure who inspired the monks of Glastonbury, the medieval literature of the period must be examined.
Arthur was supposedly a Celtic tribal leader in the period after the retreat of the Romans from Britain. He fought on the side of Ambrosius Aurelianus in holding back the invading Angles, and led the British at the battle of Badon (which supposedly took place before 540AD), and died at the battle of Camlan. So how did a Celtic warrior come to be portrayed as a feudal, Christian King, living in a castle, wearing shinning armour and carrying a magical sword? Ever since the tales of Arthur were first told, each new author has added to the myth, with their own special ingredient. The key point to remember is that Arthur has evolved with each new century that has passed, and has continued to grow in popularity with each new telling. The King Arthur we recognise today, is far removed from the battling warlord on whom he was based. Arthur has come to represent the warrior spirit of Britain, a male Britannia, who is supposed to awake and ride to the countries rescue in its hour of need; the once and future king.
So who was responsible for Arthur’s fortuitous evolution? The first figure of note referred to by all Arthurian historians, is a monk named Gildas, who wrote a book called De Excidio Conquestu Britanniae (on the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in 540AD. This may seem slightly premature, as nowhere in the work does he mention Arthur. Gildas was the son of a British Aristocrat, who attended a school in Wales founded by St Illtud. His book is a criticism aimed at his fellow countrymen, and their failure to live up to the deeds of their forefathers, the stout men who subdued Hengist’s Saxons. The book mentions a phase of catastrophe before Ambrosius Aurelainus began to hold the Saxons back, and their final defeat at the battle of Badon, which he wrote about from memory, so it supposedly happened before 540AD. So why look at Gildas? Nennius, a later writer, states Arthur was the dux beliorum (leader of battles), and led the British at the battle of Badon, which, as Gildas had mentioned this earlier, gave the claim more validity, i.e., the battle was written about within living memory, but it also helped to date Arthur. But Gildas never actually mentioned Arthur. As it turns out Gildas didn’t mention many people in his book, except Ambrosius, whom it is suggested by Philips (1992) he probably admired. Therefore, seeing as he refrains from mentioning other historical figures, he could easily have ignored Arthur’s part, and as he does not mention who led the British at Badon, the claims of Nennius cannot be disproved.
As Gildas became more embroiled within the Arthur legend, people began to assume that they had known one another. Caradoc of Llancarfan, writing in the early twelfth century, states that Arthur played a part in the monk’s life, and states as such in his work entitled Vita Gildae (The life of Gildas). However an earlier Vitae Gildea by a Breton monk called Rhuys, fails to mention this point entirely. Another tale surrounding Gildas is that he met Arthur at Glastonbury, and mediated a dispute between him and a local chieftain. This mirrors another tale from Caradoc, who states that a dispute between king Melwas of Somerset and Arthur, was mediated by the Abbot of Glastonbury. (Incidentally, Caradoc was the first writer to mention Glastonbury in connection with Arthur and made no attempt to associate it with Avalon). By the ninth century Arthur was already a folk hero, and by the early twelfth century, the tales of Britain’s greatest hero were being elaborated upon.
Nennius was a monk living in Bangor around 800AD, and is considered to be the author of the first accounts of Arthur. The following extract is from that work:
“In time the Saxons strengthened in multitude and grew in Britain. On the death of Hengiest, Octcha his son passed from the Northern part of Britain to the Kingdom of the Kentishmen and from him arise the Kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought against them in those days with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was the leader of battles. The first battle was at the mouth of the river Glein. The second, third, forth, and fifth upon another river which is called Dubglas, in the district of Linnuis. The sixth battle upon a river, which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the Caledonian wood that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was in Fort Guinnion in which Arthur carried the image of St Mary the Virgin, his mother. The ninth battle was waged in the city of the legion. The tenth battle he fought on the shore of a river called Tribruit. The eleventh battle took place on a mountain, which is called Agned. The twelfth was on Mount Badon, in which nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day from one attack by Arthur, and no one overthrew them except himself alone. And in all the battles he was the victor.”
Nennius claimed to have compiled the work from what he described as a ‘heap’ of documents at his disposal, however none of the references have since been traced. He doesn’t mention Ambrosius at all, but, as seen from the above passage, goes on at length about Arthur’s campaign, which he took from a poem (circa early sixth century), listing twelve of his victories in order, culminating with the battle of Badon. It has however proven near impossible to determine where these actual battle sites are, except for Badon, which is considered to be somewhere near Bath in the county of Avon. As for Arthur single-handedly killing nine hundred and sixty men, surely this is beyond the capabilities of one man alone. It is thus justly speculated that perhaps Arthur’s host was the only one present at the battle, and he wasn’t joined by any allied troops.
I am not actually trying to discover who Arthur was, but plot how he changed into his present form, therefore I don’t intent to scrutinise the evidential status of these documents. It is enough to know that in the early ninth century a warrior was written about, and he was deemed to be the ‘dux bellorum’ who finally defeated the Saxon hordes at the battle of Badon, in the early sixth century. A battle that was attested to by Gildas writing from the time that it took place. Whether what Nenius said was true or not doesn’t matter. This being the earliest written record based on a poem from the time of the exploits, it is probably the nearest we will get to Arthur in his most basic form. From here on he becomes exaggerated into mythic proportions.
Possibly written around 950AD, comes the Annals Cambriae (Annals of Wales), which discusses events dating back over five hundred and thirty three years, in the form of an incomplete chronology of dates with brief notations. There are two prominent quotes that concern Arthur to be found within them.
“The battle of Badon, where Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and nights, and the Britons were victorious”.
“The strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished, and there was a plague in Britain and Ireland”.
The first quote is dated 518AD, whilst the second is dated 539AD. Here again Arthur is mentioned in connection to Badon, which has now been described as a three-day event. There is again the claim that Arthur went into battle with a Christian mantle, however, this time it is described as the cross of Christ, not the image of the Virgin Mary. Nennius only mentioned him baring the Christian symbol in one battle, this being his eighth.
Have the two been mixed up at some point? It is impossible to say whether the stories have somehow become muddled over the years, due to the fact that each give small bits of information, that do not contradict one another.
The Annals of Cambriae are the first written text known to mention Camlann and Arthur’s death at that battle. That is if you refer to a battle as a strife? It is also the first mention of Medraut, although no explanation as to who he is mentioned.
The Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) Written in the early twelfth century includes a list of Arthur’s battles, just as Nennius had previously supplied. Together, these three documents, the Annals Cambriae, Historia Brittonum and the works of Nennius for the backbone to all Arthurian mythology.
Nennius seems to have been the primary source for William of Malmesbury and his Gesta Regum Anglorum (Acts of the Kings of the English). By the time William was writing (1125AD), there was a host of Arthurian tales being spread by word of mouth throughout the country. William mentions these and disregards them as pure myth. Williams’s work is probably the first time the Arthurian tales were brought together, and the last time that folklore was separated from then accepted historical fact. The Gesta Regum Anglocorum identifies Arthur helping Ambrosius Aurelianus in fighting the Angles, and refers to his triumph at the siege of Mount Badon, where Arthur bore the image of the Virgin Mary throughout the battle. As you can see, Badon has been upgraded to a siege. As William didn’t mention Camlann it is suspected that he didn’t consult the Annales Cambriae, which is contemporary, however Geoffrey of Monmouth almost certainly did.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welsh Cleric who eventually became Bishop of St Asaph. His work entitled Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the King’s of Britain), which he wrote while at Oxford around 1136AD, is generally regarded as the foundation for all future Arthurian stories. The book was not intended to be seen as a work of fiction, and was supposed to represent a highly accurate historical record of the British Monarchy climaxing with the reign of King Arthur. However, coming from a time when accurate historical record were practically non-existent, and history was not seen as a discipline based solely on interpretation of proven fact, Geoffrey probably felt free to exaggerate history as he saw fit. How much he drew on existing documentation, and how much he purely invented is impossible to say, especially as he claimed to own the only true account of Arthur’s life in the form of an ancient book, entrusted to him by Archdeacon Walter. Needless to say this claim has never been validated.
The Historia Regum Britanniae has its account of the fifth and sixth centuries based on established historical figures and events. He portrays Vortigern as a usurping king of Britain who brought over the Saxons to bolster his own positions of power, until they got out of hand. Ambrosius, seen as the rightful sovereign lord who overthrows Vortigern, and pushes the Saxons back. Geoffrey is the first to mention Uther Pendragon as Ambrosius’s successor and Arthur’s father. Arthur succeeds his father, subdues the Saxons, and reigns until the battler of Camlann. If he had stopped there his work might have been credible, but he goes on to give a detailed account of all Arthur’s campaigns in Britain, and all his conquests in foreign empires overseas. Geoffrey’s Arthur reigned from a glorious court, and carried a sword named Caliburn, that was fashioned on the mystical isle of Avalon (Insula Avallonis), where Morgan and her eight sisters ruled over a population that had a life expectancy of well over a hundred years.
He also introduced the esoteric Merlin the Magician, Arthur’s adviser and court sorcerer, who now has as great a following as Arthur, if not more. Not content with introducing just friendly wizards, magical islands and new fantastic conquests, Geoffrey states that Arthur did not die at the battle of Camlann, but was borne away by the good sisters of Avalon, to be healed and live with them there.
Geoffrey’s work was rather successful, and the Anglo-Norman monarchs who ruled Britain were apparently pleased to believe in him, and associate themselves with the heritage of the Kingdom their ancestors had conquered.
Wace is generally the first European writer to be influenced by Monmouth and he composed a poem entitled Roman de Brut (The Romance of Brutus) in 1155. Although Wace doesn’t feature prominently as an architect in the Arthurian mythos, he was the first to introduce an item that is inseparable from Arthur, his magnificent ‘Round Table’ around which sat his fifty greatest knights. Geoffrey gained considerable literary support, and as the imaginations of a medley of writers flourished the Arthurian Romances were born. Arthur’s kingdom became a chivalric utopia after the five stories from Chretien de Troyes between 1160 and 1180AD, with Arthur as a steadfast but fair Christian ruler, with a polished order of goodly knights. Chretien was the first to introduce Guinevere as Arthur’s wife, and Sir Lancelot, the king’s champion, friend and the queen’s lover. Chretien set his stage for courtly romance, and was the first to name it as Camelot.
During the period of the Arthurian Romances, Camelot changed from being a castle to a magnificent city. Separate tales were told of the round table knights, such as Gawain and the Green Knight, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the drama surrounding the sword in the stone and the rightful heir to the kingdom. Many of the classic tales mirror those of older Celtic tradition, updated, modernised, and told in medieval terms.
It was at this time that the monks of Glastonbury Abbey took notice of Arthur and his popularity. In 1184 the abbey had been gutted by a great fire, and the monks were in need of financial support for the restoration. It was thus extremely convenient that they discovered Arthur’s tomb fifty feet from the South door of Lady’s Chapel. Apparently the location of the tomb had been entrusted to one of the previous Abbots by Henry II a good many years earlier. Henry had been told of the grave’s location by a Welsh bard that he encountered while he was travelling in Wales. The monks dug down to a depth of seven feet, and encountered a leaden cross bearing an inscription in Latin;
Hic iacet sepultus inclytus rex arthurius in insula avallonia cum uxore sua secunda wenneveria (Here lies the renown King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon with his second wife Guinevere)
The actual cross disappeared many years ago and the only depiction is from a drawing by William Camden in 1607, from which this picture has been redrawn. Further excavation down another nine feet revealed a large coffin carved from a solid oak, this contained the skeleton of a large man with a head wound, and a lock of golden hair, that is supposed to have been Guinevere’s; this turned to dust when handled. The grave was either a fake, or a complete stroke of luck, for the monks could now profit from Arthur’s popularity. Not only that but the cross labelled Glastonbury as the magical mythical Isle of Avalon, an added bonus. But what about Guinevere being Arthur’s second wife, again this was fortuitous, for at that time there were two equally popular Arthurian sagas, one naming his wife as Guinevere, and the other as Ganhumara. So everybody was kept happy.
Some years later it became generally accepted that Guinevere was Arthur’s one true wife. It was then claimed by the monks that the cross had purely stated:
Hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex arturius in insula avalonia (Here lies the renown King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon)
The new inscription was slightly different in Latin. So was the grave an elaborate hoax to raise funds for the Abbey, which at its height became the largest and wealthiest in the country after Westminster, or was it as the monks had claimed, a fortuitous find? Unfortunately it doesn’t look good for the monk’s credibility. The only written account of the find dating from 1190, was written down by a Welsh man called Giraldus Cambrensis. But he wrote down the accounts of witnesses as he passed through several days after the exhumation, and he did not witness the actual dig.
In 1962 the archaeologist Dr Ralegh Radford excavated the site of the alleged burial, and believes that someone had previously dug in the same position and found an early grave. He found that the stone lining was still there, and he considers it to be part of a graveyard that would have been reserved for honoured tombs. This does not mean that it was Arthur’s tomb, especially because the Arthur they claim to have found (who married Guinevere and was taken to Avalon) was a fictional character created by the more imaginary literary exponents of the time.
James Hudson, an Oxford linguist considers the Latin on the cross to differ from a sixth century inscription, as much as modern English prose differs from a Shakespearean text. Ashe (1968) says that the letters on the cross were crude and not twelfth century at all, therefore if the monks carved it they did a better job than most medieval forgers. It would seem that the cross has become the pivot of the whole argument, so where is it? The cross is lost; the last known possessor of the cross is said to be a Mr Hughes, who lived in nearby Wells in the eighteenth century. We only know what the cross is supposed to look like now because it was drawn by William Camden in 1607.
The original grave is not marked for the tourist to see. What is marked is the position where a large black marble tomb in which they encased his bones, in front of the high altar. This in itself shows the popularity of the Arthurian legend, what other fictional character could end up in such an esteemed position.
Strangely enough, while excavating the grounds after the 1184 fire, the monks found a whole host of medieval celebrities, these included St Patrick, St Gildas and strangest of all Archbishop Dunstan, who had spent the last two hundred years entombed at Canterbury. It would seem that the monks weren’t entirely hedging their bets on Arthur to ensure that the pilgrims would come. But once Glastonbury was supposed to be Avalon, the monks had to keep people believing, this even if it meant re-writing their history.
In 1130AD, Malmesbury had written De Antiquitate Glastontensis Ecclesiae (On the Antiquities of the church of Glastonbury) and didn’t mention any connection between Arthur and Glastonbury at all. By 1247 the monks had rewritten the book, by then the works of Robert De Boran and an English priest called Laymon were in circulation. They wrote of the Holy Grail, and how Joseph of Arimethea brought the cup of Christ to the vale of Avalon. By then the tradition of Arthur being a Christian monarch who dispatched his knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail to heal the land, was well established. In the monks revised edition of De Antiquitate Glastontensis Ecclesiae it is claimed that the first church in Glastonbury was actually established by a foreign merchant called Joseph of Arimethea, which is still regarded by many as fact. Needless to say it completely disagrees with the Malmesbury original. This maintained the façade that Glastonbury was Avalon, Arthur’s resting place, and the home of the Holy Grail. Pretty soon it became accepted as being so, and has remained that way ever since.
There are a few more loose ends, but these are ironed out by the most famous of Arthurian writers, Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote The Morte De Arthur from his prison cell in 1485. The Morte De Arthur (The Death of Arthur) became the standard representation of the romantic cycle in English. He drew together all the most prominent Arthur tales, many taken from the original French romances, and created the Arthur we know today. His work includes Arthur’s dubious birth, and the drawing of Excalibur from the stone to prove his heir apparent. Sir Mallory portrays Arthur in shinning armour, ruling from a fabulous court. He didn’t add to the tales content apart from filling in a few gaps, and placing Arthur firmly in the Plantagenet period.
So how did Malory get past the problem that Glastonbury, by then the accepted Avalon claimed to be the last resting place of Arthur, whilst equally popular tales beheld Arthur as an immortal saviour waiting to return and lead his down trodden country men? Simply he mentions Avalon and Glastonbury separately. He takes Monmouth’s account of Arthur being carried away on a boat to Avalon so that his wounds can be tended, but then has Sir Bedevere encountering a hermit around a freshly dug grave in Glastonbury. The hermit claims that some ladies brought a corpse to him to bury at midnight, which he duly carried out. However, no mention of it being Arthur, or of Glastonbury’s validity as Avalon is made. Malory sat on the proverbial fence, and satisfied his whole audience. He did not support Glastonbury’s claim, nor did he deny it.
Arthur, the very nature of who he is, and what he represents sells Glastonbury to an international audience, through pamphlets, promotional videos and educational films. Glastonbury and Somerset have so much more than Arthur to offer, such as the beautiful Somerset levels, Cheddar Gorge, Wookie Hole, Cadbury Castle, and a wealth of local history available, going as far back as when Glastonbury was considered an island, and the levels were flooded marsh.
But as far as Arthur is concerned, Glastonbury and its sites are in a unique and enviable position, for they are one of two places always associated with him, the other being Tintagel. There is no Arthurian interpretation centre in Glastonbury, nor any other tourist attraction specifically denoting Arthur. The Tor, Chalice Well, and the Abbey don’t rely on Arthur to sell them, he is merely mentioned as a bonus. Although it is plain that Arthur is popular in Glastonbury, with every other side road being named after a character from the romances as well as local housing estates and businesses. The legend of Arthur will ebb and wane in popularity, but Glastonbury will always be his mythical domain, used as a selling point for the numerous tourist that pass through the town.
Ashe, G. A Guide to Arthurian Britain, Aquarian Press, 1980.
Ashe, G. The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, Paladin, 1968.
Greed, J.A. Glastonbury Tales, Presto Print, 1978.
Philips, G. and Keatman, M. King Arthur the True Story, Century, 1992.
Roberts, A. Glastonbury, Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem, Rider, 1992.