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Myths & Legends

Marilyn Floyde 2007

1191 Glastonbury – Contender or Pretender?

Glastonbury King Arthur, Burgundy, France
Glastonbury Tor

Something very significant happened in 1191. The Glastonbury monks dug up King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in Glastonbury Abbey’s cemetery. There was a lead cross buried in the tomb, which said it was them. There were ‘two stone pyramids’ which marked the spot.

Gerald of Wales 1146-1223 [Giraldus Cambrensis in Latin] was an eye-witness. He is the first to equate the name ‘Avalon’ with Glastonbury. He mentions the discovery of the tomb in detail in two of his works which can be read in full on the excellent Camelot Project website. The accounts differ slightly, and are written in a peculiarly defensive style. Has Gerald been told what to write and is feeling uncomfortable about it?

Here are ten questions we’d be itching to ask Gerald if we’d been there …. (All of Gerald’s words are taken from his accounts exactly as translated by John William Sutton for The Camelot Project).

Q1 How on earth did the monks know where to start digging to find Arthur’s tomb?

GERALD ‘Indeed, there had been some evidence from the records that the body might be found there, and some from the lettering carved on the pyramids (although that was mostly obliterated by excessive antiquity)...

Q2 What records? Didn’t anyone wonder about those two pyramids before? I mean – it’d been seven hundred years …..

GERALD ‘…… and also some [evidence] that came from the visions and revelations made by good men and the devout. But the clearest evidence came when King Henry II of England explained the whole matter to the monks (as he had heard it from an aged British poet): how they would find the body deep down, namely more than 16 feet into the earth, and not in a stone tomb but in an oak-hollow.

Q3 So there were dreams …. and visions …. And it was revealed to the King himself by an old poet???

GERALD ‘……..this was done at the instruction of the king and under the supervision of the abbot of that place, Henry, who was later transferred to Worcester Cathedral. ….. When the body was discovered according to the directions indicated by King Henry, the aforementioned abbot had an extraordinary marble tomb made for the remains, as was fitting for an excellent patron of that place.

Q4 And how did they know it was the tomb of King Arthur?

GERALD ‘A broad stone was unearthed during the excavating at the tomb, about seven feet . . . a lead cross was fastened -- not to the outer part of the stone, but rather to the underside (no doubt as a result of their fears about the Saxons). It had these words inscribed on it: "Here lies entombed King Arthur, on the Isle of Avalon, with Guenevere his second wife."

Q5 Whoooooa! Let’s take this one step at a time. So Guenevere was buried in there with him?

GERALD ‘A lock of female hair -- blond and beautiful, twisted and braided with astonishing skill -- was discovered in the same tomb, evidently from Arthur's wife, who was buried in the same place as her husband ...

Q6 And she was his second wife? Was she called Guinevere too then? Only presumably Arthur wouldn’t have wanted to be buried with the Guinevere who finally betrayed him with Mordred ……

GERALD ‘Many remarkable things come to mind regarding this….. he had two wives, of whom the last was buried with him. Her bones were discovered with her husband's……

Q7 And what’s all this about Avalon? What’s Avalon got to do with Glastonbury?

GERALD ‘What is now called Glastonbury was, in antiquity, called the Isle of Avalon; it is like an island because it is entirely hemmed in by swamps. In British it is called Inis Avallon, that is, insula pomifera.. This is because the apple, which is called aval in the British tongue, was once abundant in that place. Morgan, a noble matron, mistress and patroness of those regions, and also King Arthur's kinswoman by blood, brought Arthur to the island now called Glastonbury for the healing of his wounds after the Battle of Camlann. Moreover, the island had once been called in British Inis Gutrin, that is, insula vitrea; from this name, the invading Saxons afterwards called this place Glastingeburi, for glas in their language means vitrum , and buri stands for castrum or civitas.

Q8 Geoffrey of Monmouth knew all about Glastonbury. If he’d meant Glastonbury why didn’t he say so?

GERALD ‘Truly it is called Avalon, either …….because apples and apple trees abound in that place; or, from the name Vallo, once the ruler of that territory…..

Q9 Vallo? There’s no record of anyone of that name …..

GERALD ‘Likewise, Insula Vitrea …… evidently on account of the river, most like glass in color, that flows around the marshes. It is clear from this, therefore, why it was called an island, why it was called Avalon, and why it was called Glastonia; it is also clear how the fantastic goddess Morgan was contrived by poets.

Q10 It really isn’t very clear at all. And who is “the fantastic goddess Morgan”?

GERALD ‘….tales are regularly reported and fabricated about King Arthur and his uncertain end, with the British peoples even now contending foolishly that he is still alive. ……. As a result of this, the Britons and their poets have been concocting legends that a certain fantastic goddess, also called Morgan, carried off the body of Arthur to the Isle of Avalon for the healing of his wounds. When his wounds have healed, the strong and powerful king will return to rule the Britons (or so the Britons suppose), as he did before. Thus they still await him …..

Gerald’s world was a world of dualities and confusion. According to him there were two islands: Inis Avallon and Inis Gutrin named variously because of the apple trees, the waterlogged land, the name of a lord whom no one has traced, and the colour of a river. They became one place and were re-named ‘Glastonbury’ by the conquering Saxons. There were two Guineveres: an adulteress, and a flaxen-haired beauty buried with Arthur. Two Morgans: a kindly, noble matron, kinswoman to Arthur, and her legendary ‘fantastic goddess’ counterpart. Gerald was writing about an era that was as remote from him then, as writing about Christopher Columbus without the aid of history books, would be for us today. So he can be forgiven for his confusion – but nevertheless, why was he was drawn into the conspiracy? And conspiracy it undoubtedly was. The accepted opinion now of the dramatic discovery of King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury, is that it was a hoax. Why would such a hoax have come from the very top?

There are two good reasons why the powers that be should have wanted to perpetrate a fraud. King Arthur was a political hot potato in the 12th century. He symbolised the British/Welsh nation. King Henry II would have been very familiar with the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the French writer Wace. They both explore the uncertainty surrounding Arthur’s death and the speculation about his triumphant return. Finding the body of King Arthur would provide incontrovertible evidence to the Welsh nation that Arthur was good and dead, and that he was not about to return to lead their resistance to the conquerors.

For the Abbey, finding the bones of the most successful and revered King in history would provide them with a top-flight pilgrimage shrine at a time when they were in dire need of additional funds. The rich pickings to be had from the scores of pilgrims who would flock to see them would go towards repairing the Abbey church which had burned down a few years before, on St. Urban’s Day. King Arthur’s remains were the last in a long line of ‘miraculous discoveries’ at Glastonbury during this time. Others included the bones of Saint Patrick, Saint Indract, Saint Brigit, Saint Gildas, and Saint Dunstan.

Either way, the conspiracy of crown and church would benefit both King Henry II and Abbot Henry of Glastonbury. The last word goes to Gerald:

GERALD True and accurate information has been sought out, so the legends have finally been extinguished; the truth about this matter should be revealed plainly……..

Cross King Arthur, Burgundy, France

Gerald wasn’t the only witness, though. The cross itself was seen by many reliable people up until its disappearance in the early 18th century, last heard of in the possession of Mr. William Hughes, Chancellor of Wells. Which doesn’t, of course, preclude the fact that it could have been a forgery right from the start. There was Ralph of Coggeshall in 1225, Adam of Domerham in 1291, the monks of St Albans sometime in the 13th century, the monks of Margam Abbey, and John Leland in 1542 who all chronicled their sighting and quoted the inscription. William Camden in 1607 made the following sketch:

They didn’t all agree on the wording, but there are three elements which are common to all:

King Arthur - burial - Avalon

Then, for ever more, the famous syllogism that’s foxed the French for centuries was born:

Arthur's last resting place is Avalon

Arthur’s grave was found in Glastonbury

Q.E.D. Glastonbury is Avalon

Next - The French Evidence

2016: King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy by Marilyn Floyde, has now been republished with fresh findings. Your can order it from www.islandofavallon.co.uk. Now also translated into French.