Is Arthur's Grave at Glastonbury Genuine?
The medieval historian, Gerald of Wales, tells us that sometime before he died in 1189, King Henry II sent a
message to the abbot of Glastonbury Abbey regarding the location of the grave of King Arthur. An unnamed Welsh bard had
allegedly given this information to Henry and he had kept it to himself until the time was right to divulge it.
In 1190, the Glastonbury monks, presumably acting on this information, uncovered a hollowed-out log
containing two bodies, while digging between two stone pyramids standing together in the abbey cemetery. The log coffin
had been buried quite deep, at around 16 feet down. A stone slab cover had been found at the seven foot level. Attached to the
underside of the slab was an oddly shaped cross with a Latin inscription on it, naming the occupants of the coffin as the renowned
King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere.
Beside Gerald's account, there were several current versions of the discovery of the grave and cross. Each
account was different from the others and included or omitted details which the others did not. There were, at least, five
reported versions of the inscription on the cross. This inconsistency in the details of the story has led some to think that a hoax
was being perpetrated by the monks for the purpose of generating pilgrim traffic to the abbey.
After all, hadn't their magnificent abbey church, the most glorious in all England, possibly in all of
Christendom, been destroyed by fire in 1184, just six years before? And hadn't their greatest pilgrim attraction, the
"Old Church", the ancient cradle of British Christianity been burned up with it? Also, since their chief benefactor,
the recently departed Henry II, was no longer in a position to finance their efforts to rebuild, it would not take a great leap of
imagination to expect that some other scheme to raise funds would have to be developed.
There are certain difficulties with the hoax theory, though, one of which was that the abbey never really went
to great lengths to publicize the discovery. Another is that the abbey enjoyed and benefited from a reputation for integrity and
uprightness. Also, if the abbey had been willing to sacrifice its reputation for this deception, then wouldn't it have made
sure that all aspects of the story were consistent and that everyone involved was using the same story?
The timing of the "discovery" seemed fortuitous for the abbey, but, surprisingly, nothing is heard
of the grave or the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere until about forty years later when there is a report of them being moved to
another vault. The bodies remained in storage until the year 1278, when Edward I came to Glastonbury to preside over
their re-interment in a new marble coffin, underneath the high altar, in the newly rebuilt abbey church. It seems that if a
hoax were being perpetrated, it would've been monumental stupidity to allow your main attraction, your meal ticket,
your passport to untold riches to sit in cold storage, losing 88 years of pilgrim dollars.
The final disposition of their bodies is unknown, but they probably didn't survive the Dissolution of the
abbey by Henry VIII and his zealots in 1539. The burial cross, though, did. It was seen by John Leland in 1533 and illustrated
for a book, "Britannia", by William Camden in the early seventeenth century. It was last reported in the possession
of one William Hughes, an official of Wells Cathedral, sometime in the early eighteenth century.
Below are collected most of the historical details relevant to the Burial Cross of King Arthur:
A cross was found during the excavation of a grave site next to the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey in 1190.
The cross was said to be "leaden".
The cross was fastened to the underside of a stone slab located seven feet down (the actual bones were found at
the 16 foot level), and the inscription was turned in toward the stone slab.
Gerald of Wales' account states that the inscription was on one side of the cross.
There are two more or less contemporary accounts of the dig; one by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis or
Gerald de Barri) and the other in the Margam Abbey Chronicle (thought to be copied from a monastic "newsletter"
sent out by Glastonbury Abbey, reporting the discovery).
The Margam account stated that the grave site was discovered by accident, that there were three separate
coffins (one each for Arthur, Guinevere and Mordred) and that the wording on the cross did not mention Guinevere.
Gerald of Wales' account, penned later, said that the grave site location was given to the monks by none
other than Henry II, after it had been revealed to the great monarch by a Welsh bard. It stated also that there was only one
coffin (actually a hollowed-out log, split into two sections, one each for Arthur and his queen) and that the cross specifically
mentioned her by name (see version two, below).
Ralph of Coggeshall in 1193 supported the version told by the Margam Chronicle. This should not be viewed
as unqualified support for Margam since Gerald of Wales didn't write up his eyewitness account until 1195. Until then,
Margam was the only game in town.
Adam of Domerham, writing in 1290, and John of Glastonbury, around 1350, tell us that there were two
tombs and adds the interesting detail that while the digging was being done, the grave site was surrounded by white
draperies or curtains.
There are five different versions of how the cross was actually inscribed:
"Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon"
"Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon"
"Here lies interred in the isle of Avalon the renowned King Arthur"
"Here lies Arthur, the famous King, in the isle of Avalon"
"Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his fortunate wife in the isle of Avalon"
The letterforms used in the inscription are not consistent with any known fifth or sixth century script.
The only unifying elements in all five versions are King Arthur, death and Avalon. With that established, the
following argument could then be constructed: Arthur's last resting place is the isle of Avalon, Arthur lies in Glastonbury,
therefore Glastonbury is the isle of Avalon.
The only drawings of the cross (that we know of) were done by one William Camden for the 1607 and 1608
editions of his historical work, Britannia. There was some variation in the shapes of the letters between the two editions.
The usually reliable John Leland, writing in 1533, actually held the cross in his hands and said that it measured
nearly a foot in length and that it bore the words written in the Margam Chronicle (see version one, above).
The cross was attached to the marble coffin in which "Arthur's" bones were reinterred in 1278
by Edward I, and remained there until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, after which it spent the next hundred years
or so in the Revestry of the parish church of St. John Baptist, Glastonbury (according to the late seventeenth century document
Bodleian Rawlinson B.416A, folio 10v ), after which it disappeared from view and wound up in the early eighteenth century in
the possession of a certain Mr. William Hughes, Chancellor of Wells.
The story of the cross doesn't end there, though; it continues even to the present day. There have been several
reports in this century that the cross has been found, but in each case, the reports have proven to be false. Those erroneous
reports don't mean that the cross does not exist, only that it hasn't been found.
The Exhumation of Arthur's Body at Glastonbury by Giraldus Cambrensis