In 1190 a major fire destroyed a large part of Glastonbury Abbey. During the restoration, monks claimed to have discovered King Arthur’s grave in the Abbey grounds. In the grave were the bones of a giant man, some smaller bones, and a fragment of golden hair. There was also a lead cross with an inscription in Latin. According to Gerald of Wales, the medieval monkish historian who saw the cross, the words read: ‘Here lies the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon with his second wife Guinevere.’
Critics say the Abbey was in sore need of funds to complete the building work. The ability to display Arthur’s grave was a sure crowd puller in the days when the roads, such as they were, were thronged with eager pilgrims on the adventure of a lifetime and out to purge their sins… for a small cash consideration of course.
Then pilgrimage was as ubiquitous as the Spanish package tour of the 1970s, or the charabanc trips our grandparents took. Hundreds of holy shrines, great and small, littered every Christian country. Our Lady had appeared in so many places it is tempting to think she’d done more world tours than the other Madonna.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is about the stories a group of pilgrims told on the 4 day 65 mile trip from London to Canterbury to visit the tomb of Henry II’s intransigent Archbishop Thomas Becket murdered by knights for taking Pope’s side over the King.
King Arthur was enjoying a revival since Geoffrey of Monmouth had published his best-selling ‘History of British Kings’ (Historia Regum Britanniae) half a century before in 1132. Geoffrey had devoted 2 whole two sections to Arthur’s reign. Although the story was not exactly the one we know.
In Geoffrey’s version, Arthur battles the Saxons into submission, subjugates Scotland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and France. While battling the Romans, he is called home to fight his nephew Mordred, who usurped the throne in his absence. He is wounded at Camlann and taken to Avalon.
Geoffrey probably took Camlann from the 9th century chronical ‘History of the Britons’ (traditionally attributed to the monk Nennius) which records Camlann as the battle where Arthur and Mordred fell – although it does not say they were enemies or even related.
Geoffrey has no Camelot, Grail Quest, Round Table or Launcelot for Guinevere to have an affair with. There is not even a Guinevere, Geoffrey calls Arthur’s wife Ganhumara. All these would to come later.
The reason why the monks found Arthur’s grave rather the Holy Grail or the phials of Jesus’ sweat and blood was because no one had thought of it yet. These relics did not become part of the legend of Glastonbury Abbey for another century.
The Holy Grail is not mentioned until Chrétien de Troyes’ last unfinished Arthurian Romance Perceval, le Conte du Graal (the History of the Grail), still being written when Arthur’s tomb was discovered. Chrétien does not say the Grail is the cup used at the last supper or to catch Christ’s blood or brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea. These were all later additions. But he did invent the legend of the affair between Launcelot and Guinevere.
Contemporaries accused Geoffrey of Monmouth making up his entire ‘History of British Kings’. He protested, claiming he copied everything from an ancient book in the British language. But the book was never forthcoming. Because Geoffrey’s own book was such a run-away success, it is unlikely his source would not have come to light if it existed.
Gerald of Wales, Geoffrey’s contemporary, must have the last word on what his fellow clerics thought of Geoffrey’s ‘History of British Kings’. Recounting a story of a man possessed by demons he says…
‘If the Gospel of St John was placed on his bosom, the demons immediately vanished; but when ‘The History of British Kings’ was substituted, they reappeared in greater numbers, and remained a longer time than usual.’
Modern historians point out there was no tradition linking Arthur to Glastonbury before Geoffrey, otherwise it would have been mentioned by the much more reliable medieval historian William of Malmsbury – a fan of both Arthur and Glastonbury. Only a few years before William had written in his ‘Deeds of the English Kings’… ‘Arthur’s grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claim he will return.’ He would have surely mentioned any tradition claiming Arthur was buried at Glastonbury.
The relics of the bones, coffin and the lead crucifix no longer exist, but an engraving of the cross from 1607 does. However it is a different cross to the one Gerald of Wales saw in the early 1200s. Its inscription is different. It makes no mention of Guinevere, instead reading…
Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avalonia
Here lies entombed the renowned King Arthur in the island of Avalon