The Exhumation of Arthur's Body at Glastonbury by
HERE IN THE ISLE OF AVALON LIES BURIED THE RENOWNED KING
ARTHUR, WITH GUINEVERE, HIS SECOND WIFE
From "Liber de Principis Instructione" c.1193
The memory of Arthur, that most renowned King of the Britons, will endure for ever.
In his own day he was a munificent patron of the famous Abbey at Glastonbury, giving many donations
to the monks and always supporting them strongly, and he is highly praised in their records. More
than any other place of worship in his kingdom he loved the Church of the Blessed Mary, Mother of
God, in Glastonbury, and he fostered its interests with much greater loving care than that of any
of the others. When he went out to fight, he had a full-length portrait of the Blessed Virgin painted
on the front of his shield, so that in the heat of battle he could always gaze upon Her; and whenever
he was about to make contact with the enemy he would kiss Her feet with great devoutness.
In our own lifetime Arthur's body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the
legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending,
that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot. The body was hidden
deep in the earth in a hollowed-out oak bole and between two stone pyramids which had been set up
long ago in the churchyard there. They carried it into the church with every mark of honour and
buried it decently there in a marble tomb. It had been provided with most unusual indications which
were, indeed, little short of miraculous, for beneath it, and not on top, as would be the custom
nowadays, there was a stone slab, with a leaden cross attached to its under side. I have seen this
cross myself and I have traced the lettering which was cut into it on the side turned towards the
stone, instead of being on the outer side and immediately visible.
The inscription read as follows:
There are many remarkable deductions to be
made from this discovery. Arthur obviously had two wives, and the second one was buried with him.
Her bones were found with those of her husband, but they were separate from his. Two thirds of the
coffin, the part towards the top end, held the husband's bones, and the other section, at his
feet, contained those of his wife. A tress of woman's hair, blond, and still fresh and bright
in colour, was found in the coffin. One of the monks snatched it up and it immediately disintegrated
There had been some indications in the Abbey records that the body would be discovered
on this spot, and another clue was provided by lettering carved on the pyramids, but this had been
almost completely erased by the passage of the years. The holy monks and other religious had seen
visions and revelations. However, it was Henry II, King of England, who had told the monks that,
according to a story which he had heard from some old British soothsayer, they would find
Arthur's body buried at least sixteen feet in the ground, not in a stone coffin but in a
hollowed-out oak bole. It had been sunk as deep as that, and carefully concealed, so that it could
never be discovered by the Saxons, whom Arthur had attacked relentlessly as long as he lived and whom,
indeed, he had almost wiped out, but who occupied the island [of Britain] after his death.
That was why the inscription, which was eventually to reveal the truth, had been cut
into the inside of the cross and turned inwards towards the stone. For many a long year this
inscription was to keep the secret of what the coffin contained, but eventually, when time and
circumstance were both opportune the lettering revealed what it had so long concealed.
What is now known as Glastonbury used, in ancient times, to he called the Isle of
Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is
called 'Ynys Avallon', which means the Island of Apples and this fruit used to grow there
in great abundance. After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, who was the ruler
and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him
off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the
district had also been called 'Ynys Gutrin' in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from
these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name 'Glastingebury.' The word
'glass' in their language means 'vitrum' in Latin, and bury' means
'castrum' or 'civitas'.
You must know that the bones of Arthur's body which were discovered there were so
big that, in them, the poet's words seem to be fulfilled: All men will exclaim at the size of
the bones they've exhumed (Virgil, "Georgics," I.497)
showed me one of the shin-bones. He held it upright on the ground against the foot of the tallest
man he could find, and it now stretched a good three inches above the man's knee. The skull
was so large and capacious that it seemed a veritable prodigy of nature, for the space between the
eyebrows and the eye-sockets was as broad as the palm of a man's hand. Ten or more wounds could
clearly be seen, but they had all mended except one. This was larger than the others and it had
made an immense gash. Apparently it was this wound which had caused Arthur's death.
From "Speculum Ecclesiae," c.1216
In our own lifetime, when Henry II was reigning in England, strenuous efforts were
made in Glastonbury Abbey to locate what must have once been the splendid tomb of Arthur. It was
the King himself who put them on to this, and Abbot Henry, who was later elected Bishop of
Worcester, gave them every encouragement.
With immense difficulty, Arthur's body was
eventually dug up in the churchyard dedicated by Saint Dunstan. It lay between two tall pyramids
with inscriptions on them, which pyramids had been erected many years before in memory of Arthur.
The body was reduced to dust, but it was lifted up into the fresh air from the depths of the grave
and carried with the bones to a more seemly place of burial. In the same grave there was found a
tress of woman's hair, blond and lovely to look at, plaited and coiled with consummate skill,
and belonging, no doubt, to Arthur's wife, who was buried there with her husband.
The moment that [he saw],this lock of hair, [one of the monks], who
was standing there in the crowd, jumped down into the deep grave in an attempt to snatch hold of
it before any of the others. It was a pretty shameless thing to do and it showed little reverence
for the dead. This monk, then, of whom I have told you, a silly, rash and impudent fellow, who had
come to gawp at what was going on, dropped down into the hole, which was a sort of symbol of the
Abyss from which none of us can escape. He was determined to seize hold of this tress of woman's
hair before anyone else could do so and to touch it with his hand. This was a fair indication of
his wanton thoughts, for female hair is a snare for the feeble-minded, although those with any
strength of purpose can resist it.
Hair is considered to be imperishable, in that
it has no fleshy content and no humidity of its own, but as he held it in his hand after picking it
up and stood gazing at it in rapture, it immediately disintegrated into fine powder. All those who
were watching were astounded by what had happened. By some sort of miracle, not to say . . ., it
just disappeared, as if suddenly changed back into atoms, for it could never have been uncoiled
and examined closely . . . this showed that it was even more perishable than most things, proving
that all physical beauty is a transitory thing for us to stare at with our vacant eyes or to grope
for in our lustful moments, empty and availing nothing. As the philosopher says: 'Physical
beauty is short-lived, it disappears so soon' it fades more quickly than the flowers in
Many tales are told and many legends have been invented about King Arthur and his
mysterious ending. In their stupidity the British people maintain that he is still alive. Now that
the truth is known, I have taken the trouble to add a few more details in this present chapter. The
fairy-tales have been snuffed out, and the true and indubitable facts are made known, so that what
really happened must be made crystal clear to all and separated from the myths which have accumulated
on the subject.
After the Battle of Camlann . . . killed his uncle . . . Arthur: the sequel was that
the body of Arthur, who had been mortally wounded, was carried off by a certain noble matron, called
Morgan, who was his cousin, to the Isle of Avalon, which is now known as Glastonbury. Under
Morgan's supervision the corpse was buried in the churchyard there. As a result, the credulous
Britons and their bards invented the legend that a fantastic sorceress called Morgan had removed
Arthur's body to the Isle of Avalon, so that she might cure his wounds there. According to
them, once he has recovered from his wounds this strong and all-powerful King will return to rule
over the Britons in the normal way. The result of all this is that they really expect him to come
back, just as the Jews, led astray by even greater stupidity, misfortune and misplaced faith, really
expect their Messiah to return.
It is worth noting . . . just as, indeed . . .
placed by all, as . . . are called islands and are known to be situated in salt water, that is to say
in the sea.
It is called Avalon, either from the Welsh word 'aval', which means apple,
because appletrees and apples are very common there, or from the name of a certain Vallo who used
to rule over the area long ago. In remote times, the place used to be called 'Ynys Gutrin'
in the Welsh language, that is the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river
which flows round it in the marshland. As a result, the Saxons who occupied the area later on called
it 'Glastonia' in their language, for in Saxon or English 'glass' corresponds to the
Latin word 'vitrum'. From what I have said, you can see why it was called first 'the Isle
of Avalon' and then 'Glastonia'. It is also clear how this fantastic sorceress came to be
adopted by the story-tellers.
It is worthy of note that the Abbot called . . . also from the letters inscribed on
it, although they had been almost obliterated long ago by the passing of the years, and he had the
aforesaid King Henry to provide the main evidence.
The King had told the Abbot on
a number of occasions that he had learnt from the historical accounts of the Britons and from their
bards that Arthur had been buried in the churchyard there between two pyramids which had been
erected subsequently, very deep in the ground for fear lest the Saxons, who had striven to occupy
the whole island after his death, might ravage the dead body in their evil lust for vengeance. Arthur
had attacked them on a great number of occasions and had expelled them from the Island of Britain,
but his dastardly nephew Mordred had called them back again to fight against him. To avoid such a
frightful contingency, to a large stone slab, found in the tomb by those who were digging it up,
some seven feet . . . a leaden cross had been fixed, not on top of the stone, but underneath it,
bearing this inscription:
HERE IN THE ISLE OF AVALON LIES BURIED THE RENOWNED
KING ARTHUR, WITH GUINEVERE, HIS SECOND WIFE
They prised this cross away from the stone,
and Abbot Henry, about whom I have told you, showed it to me. I examined it closely and I read the
inscription. The cross had been attached to the under side of the stone and, to make it even less
easy to find, the surface with the lettering had been turned towards the stone. One can only wonder
at the industry and the extraordinary prudence of the men of that period, who were determined to
protect at all costs and for all time the body of this great man, their leader and the ruler of
this area, from the possibility of sudden desecration. At the same time they ensured that at some
moment in the future, when the troubles were over, the evidence of the lettering cut into the cross
might be discovered as an indication of what they had done.
. . . it had indicated,
so Arthur's body was discovered, not in a stone sarcophagus, carved out of rock or of Parian
marble, as would have been seemly for so famous a King, but in wood, in an oak bole hollowed out
for this purpose and buried deep in the earth, sixteen feet or more down, for the burial of so great
a Prince, hurried, no doubt, rather than performed with due pomp and ceremony, as this period of
pressing disturbance made only too necessary.
When the body was discovered from the
indications provided by King Henry, the Abbot whom I have named had a splendid marble tomb built
for it, as was only proper, for so distinguished a ruler of the area, who, moreover, had shown more
favour to this church than to any other in his kingdom, and had endowed it with wide and extensive
lands. By the judgement of God, which is always just and which in this case was certainly not
unjustified, who rewards all good deeds not only in Heaven above but on this earth and in our
terrestrial life . . ., church . . . others of his kingdom . . . the genuine [remains]
and the body . . . of Arthur to be buried in a seemly fashion . . . and gloriously . . . And . . .
Translation by Lewis Thorpe