At The Tomb of King Arthur

At The Tomb of King Arthur

Wood, Charles T.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 8 (1991)


The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey lie in Somerset about 30 miles south of Bath, 14 miles south of Wells. It is a lovely and magical spot, but in the Middle Ages its grandeur must have been truly impressive. Although far removed from the wealth of urban centers, Glastonbury enjoyed the revenues of extensive land holdings while its church, dedicated to the Virgin, was arguably the second largest in Western Christendom. Indeed, by the start of the fifteenth century the abbey had achieved such stature that one of its abbots, John Chinnock, was selected to head the English delegation at the Council of Constance. Nor, in medieval terms, were these successes difficult to explain, for Glastonbury traced its origins back to a foundation by Joseph of Arimathea, guardian of the Holy Grail, uncle of the Blessed Virgin, and, in the Bible, that noble decurion who had so freely loaned Christ the use of his tomb, albeit temporarily. Moreover, in 1191 the monks had also discovered the bones of King Arthur in their graveyard, a discovery that was eventually to lead to the realization that Arthur had been the direct descendant of Joseph, though only on his mother’s side.

Compelling in the Middle Ages, these claims are typically viewed with less favor today. In most accounts they emerge as little more than charming legends that give an added air of enchantment to an enchanting place. Still, if the associations of Joseph and Arthur with Glastonbury are purely legendary, one should ask just why these claims were ever made, just why a Benedictine monastery should have found it desirable to link its fortunes to those of Britain’s most famous king–and then to those of a man who became Britain’s foremost apostle largely as a result of Glastonbury’s high claims for him.

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