One of the most famous legends of the Middle Ages is the story of King Arthur. There are many tales of him and his Knights of the Round Table, how he ruled Camelot with his wife Guinevere. All we have are these literary stories, but at the end of the twelfth-century there was a remarkable discovery within the walls of Glastonbury Abbey. Had the remains of King Arthur been found?
The story is told by Gerald of Wales, the royal clerk and scholar who served King Henry II of England. He began writing De instructione principis around the year 1191, making it a part guide on how to be a ruler and part history of Henry’s reign. The work has interested historians as Gerald was in a good position to know of the inner workings of Henry’s court as well as receive news coming in from around England.
In the midst of a section on giving examples of praiseworthy rulers from the past, Gerald inserts a few paragraphs devoted to King Arthur and here explains that his body had been discovered during his own time. He and his readers would already have a good knowledge of this famous figure. A couple of generations earlier Geoffrey of Monmouth had written Historia regum Britanniae, one of the first detailed accounts of King Arthur. Some believed this legend, while others dismissed it as fiction, but during the twelfth-century it was clearly becoming deeply embedded into English lore.
Gerald explains that Arthur’s body was discovered at Glastonbury Abbey, in southwestern England, between two stone pyramids. He writes that the body the monks found was:
buried deep in the earth in a hollow oak and indicated by wonderful, almost miraculous, signs, and it was brought into the church with honour and deposited becomingly in a marble tomb. Here too a leaden cross, placed under a stone, not above it as is the custom in our days, but rather fixed below, which I have seen, for I have touched these letters carved there, not raised or projecting but turned inwards towards the stone, contained: ‘Here lies buried the glorious king Arthur and Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.’
Later on in his account he gives more details, such as noting that two bodies were buried at least sixteen feet deep. One was a man and the other a woman, while space was left for a third body, but “here there was found a blonde tress of woman’s hair, with its shape and colour intact, which, as a monk snatched at it with a greedy hand and lifted it up, immediately crumbled completely into dust.”
Gerald of Wales seems convinced that this was the body of King Arthur. He actually describes seeing it with his own eyes, and finds that the skeletal remains revealed a large man:
For when his shin-bone was placed beside the shin of the tallest man of the locality, whom the abbot pointed out to me, and set on the ground alongside his foot, it came three big fingers’ width above his knee. His skull, too, was large and capacious like a prodigy or wonder, to such a degree that the space between the eyebrows and between the eyes was more than a palm’s width. It showed signs of ten or more wounds, which had all been covered with scar tissue, except for one, greater than the rest, that seemed to have been the only lethal one.
Many historians have dismissed this discovery as an elaborate fraud, committed by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. In 1184 a fire destroyed many of their buildings, so it has been assumed they needed money for reconstruction and used the legend of King Arthur. However Gerald says that it was really Henry II who was responsible for the excavation, explaining that he had heard about the unusual pyramids at the abbey from an old “minstrel-historians” and relayed the information to the monks so they could dig there.
One should also note there are other accounts of the discovery, such as Ralph of Coggeshall, who noted this in his chronicle for the year 1191:
This year were found at Glastonbury the bones of the most renowned Arthur, formerly King of Britain, buried in a very ancient coffin, about which two ancient pyramids had been built: on the sides of these was in inscription, illegible on account of the rudeness of the script and its worn condition. The bones were discovered as follows: as they were digging up this ground to bury a monk who had urgently desired in his lifetime to be interred there, they discovered a certain coffin, on which a leaden cross had been placed, bearing the inscription, ‘Here lies the famous King Arturius, buried in the Isle of Avalon.’
Although much shorter, it corroborates and has differences with a few details in Gerald’s account. Ralph did write about thirty years later, in 1220s, so it might not be surprising that the narrative of this discovery had changed somewhat.
The whole account by Gerald of Wales leaves us with more questions than answers. We are not even sure when it happened – during or after Henry’s reign? If this was not Arthur and Guinevere, who else could have these remains belonged to?
It seems that the monks and chroniclers certainly believed that King Arthur had been discovered, but was this more a case of trying to make the evidence fit their preconceived narrative? Glastonbury Abbey was already over 500 years old at this time, and would have come to be seen as an ancient place with a many mysteries. As the monks attempted to understand the unusual things were coming across – the pyramids, the skeletal remains – it would have be tempting for them to link it with the current in-vogue ideas going around England. King Arthur had to be somewhere so it just made sense that he was here.
These skeletal remains that would be kept at Glastonbury Abbey for another three and a half centuries, but would then be lost as the monastery was suppressed and looted by King Henry VIII in the year 1539. The legends of King Arthur connecting him to Glastonbury remain, and today the small town there is a key destination for those interested in the medieval legend.
You can read Gerald’s account in De instructione principis, which has just been edited and translated by Gerald Bartlett as part of the Oxford Medieval Texts series. Click here to visit the publisher’s website or buy the book from Amazon.com.