The Legends of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea
n any comprehensive discussion of the early legends of Britain, the name of Glastonbury Abbey must certainly come up. Over the years, the abbey has become the gravitational center of Britain's legendary universe, largely because of its role in the creation and development of the legends of Joseph of Arimathea and King Arthur. We will attempt to show how and why the abbey came to play the role that it did and to evaluate the importance of Joseph and Arthur to Glastonbury's place of prominence. Along the way, we have found it necessary to make certain speculations. We have endeavored to ensure that none of them are of the "wild and baseless" variety, but they are speculations, nonetheless, and we have tried to label them as such.
Joseph, a Jew from the town of Arimathea, was an early first century figure who played a small supporting role in the swirl of events surrounding Christ's crucifixion, as recounted for us in the Biblical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (1). Arthur was the great King of the Britons, according to legend, who successfully led his armies against the Saxon invaders of his homeland, and who established his glorious and far-reaching empire based on the, then revolutionary principles of nobility and chivalry.
Joseph, so far as we know, never set foot outside the Holy Land, and if he did, there is certainly no reliable evidence that he ever ventured so far from home as Britain. Arthur, at least in the imperial form delineated by his legend, never existed at all. Somehow, though, these two men, so separate from each other in time and space, have become inextricably entwined with the history and affairs of Glastonbury Abbey and should be considered inseparable from it and from each other. The purpose of this article is to examine exactly how and why that came to be so.
Glastonbury Abbey was established as a Benedictine monastery, under Beorhtwald, its first Saxon abbot, during the years 670 to 678 AD (2). Prior to that time, it had existed, for many years, as a Celitc religious center. On the site there stood a church constructed of "wattle and daub," said by local legends to have been dedicated by Jesus, Himself, in honour of his mother, Mary. William of Malmesbury, a historian regarded highly by modern scholars, was a guest of the abbey for a period of time during the third decade of the twelfth century. He called this structure "the oldest church in England," and, henceforth, it was known simply as the Old Church, serving as a symbol for the ancientness of Glastonbury's Christianity.
By Malmesbury's time, the story of the origins of the Old Church had been completely lost to history. Legend, though, was able to supply the missing information, attributing its construction to two early missionaries sent from Rome. In his "History of the English Church and People," written in the early eighth century, the Venerable Bede provides us with some useful background information:
In the year of our Lord's Incarnation 156, Marcus Antoninus Verus, fourteenth after Augustus, became co-Emperor with his brother Aurelius Commodus. During their reign, and while the holy Eleutherius ruled the Roman Church, Lucius, a British king, sent him a letter, asking to be made a Christian. This pious request was quickly granted, and the Britons held the Faith which they received in all its purity and fullness until the time of the Emperor Diocletian. (3)
Bede (c.673-735), a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumberland, was the first scholar to record the history of the coming of Christianity to Britain. In the above account, Bede gives us several historical calibrations, although there are several difficulties with the names and dates he gives us. The first difficulty is that there never was a Roman Emperor named Marcus Antoninus Verus. The name seems to be a composite of actual emperors named Antoninus Pius (138-61), Marcus Aurelius (161-80), Lucius Verus (161-9). The co-Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus were followed by Commodus in 180. Another small problem is that the first of these three emperors, Antoninus Pius, was fifteenth from Augustus, not fourteenth.
According to modern scholarship, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus became co-Emperors in 161 AD (4). Bede gives us the date in another form, however. He tells us they became co-Emperors "In the year of our Lord's Incarnation 156." If true, that would put Christ's birth in 5 AD, a date considerably at variance with the commonly accepted date of 4-3 BC. Also, in the passage above, we are told that a British king, Lucius, made a request to the pope in Rome "during their reign" (the co-Emperors, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, jointly reigned during the years 161-9). The name of the pope to whom the British king appealed is named Eleutherius. Our final difficulty with Bede's report becomes clear when we see that Eleutherius held his papal throne during the years 175-89 AD and did not overlap the co-Emperorship of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, at all.
All this is not to question Bede's reliability as an historian, but merely to point out the pitfalls in coming to hard and fast conclusions based on early sources. To provide a continuous account of how things had come to be, Bede was forced to deal with some areas of history where few, if any, reliable sources were found. In the preface to his "History," he states:
Should the reader discover any inaccuracies in what I have written, I humbly beg that he will not impute them to me, because, as the laws of history require, I have laboured honestly to transmit whatever I could ascertain from common report for the instruction of posterity. (5)
Bede's preface acknowledges the assistance the author had received from various churchmen of his day in the preparation of his "History." He recognizes the Abbot Albinus; Nothelm, a priest of the church of London; the brethren of Lastingham monastery; the most reverend Abbot Esi. No matter how careful Bede's own investigations, one is left to speculate on the degree of academic rigour applied to the historical studies of those men. One possible early source that Bede may have used is the "Liber Pontificalis," literally, "Book of the Popes," a collection of papal biographies believed to have been compiled by a Roman presbyter at the time of Boniface II (530-2). The point is that if Bede, with his sound historical method and closer time proximity, had trouble sorting out this material, then we must be especially careful in drawing our own conclusions.
In any case, the intervening four hundred years between Bede and William of Malmesbury saw some additions to the story, including the names of the two missionaries and a mention of the Old Church.
William tells us in "De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae" (Enquiry into the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury), a work composed while he was a guest of Glastonbury Abbey, that in response to King Lucius' request, Pope Eleutherius dispatched the missionaries, Faganus and Deruvianus (Phagan and Deruvian), to the island of Britain to preach the Gospel. Whatever the precise date of the mission, William puts the time somewhere past the middle of the second century AD. Coming from the continent, the missionaries would probably have landed somewhere in Kent, and must have worked their way toward the west, preaching as they went. On their westward journey, William tells us that they came to Glastonbury, where they constructed a church (6).
There are now no extant copies of William of Malmesbury's "De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae," but what we know of its original text comes from another of William's writings, the "Gesta Regis Anglorum" (Deeds of the Kings of England) into which large sections of the "De Antiquitate" had been transcribed. The earliest version of the "De Antiquitate" that has come down to us is a thirteenth century interpolation by the Glastonbury monks which adds significant "embroidery" not present in the original document.
For example, the later interpolations tell us that Phagan and Deruvian,
. . .came to Britain, as the Charter of St. Patrick and the Deeds of the Britons attest. Proclaiming the word of life, they cleansed the king and his people at the sacred font in 166 AD (7).
The interpolated version also does not claim that Phagan and Deruvian were the original builders of the church at Glastonbury, but that they merely restored an existing church that they had found there. At first glance, this change of story seems to be disadvantageous to the abbey. Monastic houses of the middle ages, as we shall see, were proud of their traditions and were ardent in the veneration of their founders. Glastonbury Abbey, at least in the time of William of Malmesbury, seemed satisfied to be able to trace the possibility of its origin back to the second century. Why would the monks of the thirteenth century, over a hundred years after William had been in residence there, have written Phagan and Deruvian out of their founding legend? Had they discovered new information or did they have other motivations for doing so?
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