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Arthur's Grave
Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset

[Friday - 05/07/99] Early stories tell us that Arthur was taken to the Isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds after the Battle of Camlann. Late tradition assumes that he died and was buried there, though earlier sources indicate the whereabouts of his grave to be unknown. Hence his lying under a mysterious hill waiting to return and lead his people to victory. Avalon is traditionally identified as Glastonbury and Arthur is thus assumed to have been buried at the ancient Abbey there. This was an eminently suitable spot for the last resting-place of the High-King: the most holy place in Britain, for Glastonbury's Vetusta Ecclesia or "Old Church" is said to have been founded by St.Joseph of Arimathea himself.

The tale which has spread farthest is that, in 1171, Henry II, staying at St Davidís in Wales, heard from a Welsh bard the tale of Arthurís death and burial at Avalon, and was insistant with the Abbot that search should be made for the relics. But it was not until 1191, in Richard Iís time, under Abbot Henry de Soliaco, that the spot indicated by the bard was searched, and the bodies discovered at a depth of sixteen feet. A leaden cross inscribed (according to the fullest form reported by Giraldus Cambrensis), "Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon with Guinevere his second wife", served to identify the relics, which lay in the trunk of a hollowed oak; Queen Guinevereís flaxen hair was there to be seen, but fell into dust when touched. The bones of Arthur were of gigantic size.

Once found, they were given a foremost place among the sacred treasures of Glastonbury; on the occasion of the visit of Edward I in 1278 they were translated to a prominent place before the high altar, and there - apparently in a tomb of black marble - they remained until the Dissolution. It seems strange that no interest whatever was shown in their preservation at that time.

Unfortunately, the identification of Glastonbury with Avalon immediately follows the miraculous events of 1191 not long after a disastrous fire made the discovery of pilgrim-attracting relics a top priority. Such an addition to the prestige of the place as would be conferred by Arthurís relics would have been most opportune. The Norman Kings, moreover, were concerned about the prospect of a Welsh rebellion, and were eager to prove that King Arthur was certainly dead and would not return to lead it.

Arthur's memorial cross disappeared in the 18th century, but a 1607 engraving by Camden survives. Unfortunately this does not show any mention of Guinevere, though this could have been engraved on the reverse. Alcock identifies the lettering to be of tenth century style and suggests the cross was placed in the grave at this date when St.Dunstan had the ground level of the cemetery raised and any standing memorials removed. Similarly dated leaden crosses have been discovered associated with burials excavated at nearby Wells Cathedral.

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Last modified on Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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