The Legends of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea
ccording to the account by the historian, Gerald of Wales, sometime before Henry II's death in 1189, the king was told by a "British soothsayer" (perhaps an early foreshadowing of Melkin's prophecy) that the burial place of King Arthur was to be found deep down, between two pyramids in the cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey. Presumably, Henry passed this information on to the abbey authorities. Gerald tells us:
In our own lifetime, when Henry II was reigning in England (Henry died on 6 July 1189), 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 (Henry de Sully, appointed abbot on 14 September 1189), who was later elected Bishop of Worcester, gave them every encouragement. (17)
Not a chance find, then, the discovery of Arthur's grave was apparently the result of a concerted search effort (some accounts say the find was accidental). At the designated spot in the churchyard, the monks began digging and found a stone slab seven feet under the ground. On the underside of that slab was a hollowed-out section where a "leaden" cross of very unusual shape had been attached. Gerald tells us that the cross was inscribed as follows:
Here in the isle of Avalon lies buried the renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere, his second wife (18)
There are several other variant inscriptions that have been reported over the years by different writers, with three elements common to all reports (with the exception of one glaringly anomalous account of uncertain provenance). The common elements are: "famous or renowned," "King Arthur" and "Isle of Avalon." (19) Later, we will attempt to show the common origin for these reports, but, for now we return to Gerald's story.
Encouraged by their find, the monks continued digging down to the sixteen-foot level where they found a hollowed-out log containing two bodies, believed to be those of Arthur and Guinevere. The bones of "Arthur" were said to be extremely large in size and the skull they found had, among many wounds, a large "gash," suggesting death by a blow to the head. Gerald's account goes on to tell us of the finding of a tress of "Guinevere's" fine, golden hair which dissolved to dust at the touch of a monk who, we are told, had become enraptured at the sight.
Now, let's consider for a moment the reliability of the detailed report Gerald has given us. As medieval historical writings go, those of Gerald of Wales are considered to be reasonably trustworthy. The precise date of Gerald's birth is not known, but it probably occurred sometime in the mid-1140's in the castle of Manorbier, Pembrokeshire in South Wales. His father was a Norman knight and his mother was half Norman, half Welsh (she was the granddaughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of South Wales), making Gerald's blood three-fourths Norman and one-fourth Welsh royalty. By the late twelfth century, he had become a well-known churchman, and was a gifted, ambitious man, thoroughly convinced of his own ability and importance. His life's goal was to be appointed to the bishopric of St. David's in Wales, a post formerly held by his uncle, David FitzGerald. He never attained his goal, having to satisfy himself with the lesser office of Archdeacon of Brecon, about which he said:
. . .it affords me no great promise of wealth and certainly no expectation of
ever playing my part in the tragic pomps and ceremonies of this world. (20)
With the discovery of "Arthur's grave" Gerald had, perhaps, found a way to play his part in those "tragic pomps and ceremonies." Before we see how that part played itself out, we should look at some aspects of Gerald's earlier career that may help to illuminate later events.
Gerald believed that St. David's had once been the seat of an archbishop. It was his desire, first, to get himself appointed as its bishop, and then to extricate St. David's from its position of subservience to Canterbury. At that point, he believed he could petition the pope in Rome for an elevation of his position to that of Archbishop of St. David's.
Gerald understood, perfectly well, that the key to the realization of his goal was having the support of the king, whose prerogative it was to appoint bishops. Perhaps the king knew of Gerald's designs and perhaps the memories of his misadventure with another powerful churchman (Thomas Becket), just six years before, were still too fresh in his mind. In any case, Henry II denied Gerald a chance at the position when he appointed Peter de Leia to the vacant position in May of 1176. Gerald, however, not knowing at the time that this was as close as he would ever get to realizing his dream, maintained his intense interest in St. David's and in regaining his king's favour.
In 1184, Gerald was summoned to Henry, who was encamped in the Welsh marches, and who named him Court Chaplain. He was to act as a liaison-officer between Henry, Rhys ap Gruffydd (a blood relation on his mother's side) and other local Welsh princes. This tour of duty, more than a year of wandering with Henry's peripatetic court, was a valuable experience through which he would gain much insight into the intricacies of Welsh-English politics. While it is pure speculation on our part, it may not be too far-fetched to believe that Gerald's contact with the local rulers allowed him to learn, first hand, what was in the minds of the Welsh. It is also not hard to imagine that Gerald, in his travels, heard tales of Arthur and reported what he had heard to Henry. Perhaps, it was through Gerald that Henry first learned of the Welsh hope for Arthur's return.
In 1187, Henry II decided to "take the Cross" and to join the Third Crusade. A year later, Gerald, along with Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury, did his part for the war effort by undertaking a preaching tour through Wales for the purpose of enlisting support for Henry's campaign. Gerald even accompanied Henry and his crusaders as far as Chinon, France, but was sent home by the new king, Richard I, where he could be of more "political" use after Henry's death in July of 1189 (21).
While we don't know his mission, the stabilizing of the Welsh situation would be an enterprise worthy of the considerable talents of this man, and we will see if any such political agenda can be discerned in Gerald's account of the events at Glastonbury Abbey.
Gerald tells his story in two separate works. The first is "Liber de Principis instructione," which may have been written as early as 1192-3, but was surely the earliest account of the discovery and the prototype for all subsequent accounts. The second is "Speculum Ecclesiae," written c.1216. The accounts are quite similar in the essential details, but the later version is a bit less objective and more interpretive of the event than is the earlier. Gerald's story is written as if it were an eye-witness account and was probably related to him when he visited Glastonbury Abbey in late 1191 or early 1192.
The timing of the discovery of Arthur's grave is interesting in several respects and proper consideration may help us to appreciate what the event was really all about. The Norman conquest was fully realized by the end of the twelfth century in all of England and the only significant resistance came from Wales. One of the great hopes of the peoples of the Celtic fringe areas (Wales, Cornwall, Strathclyde, Brittany) was that their greatest hero, King Arthur, would one day return and lead them to victory over their enemies.
The Welsh had never submitted to the Saxons and had no intention of doing so with the Normans. It was the Welsh who had created and kept alive the legends of King Arthur and, fuelled by Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Arthur's last days in the "History of the Kings of Britain," their hopes for his return had never been higher. Geoffrey, who completed his fanciful history of the struggles of the Celtic peoples in 1136, left this door open by never stating that Arthur had actually died.
Perhaps the Welsh people may have thought that Arthur's wounds had actually been "attended to" and healed in the Isle of Avalon, and that he was merely waiting for a propitious moment to burst gloriously back onto history's stage to purge their island of this latest round of invaders. A dream like that, if thoroughly ingrained over many years, into an aggressive people's national psyche, could have serious ramifications for anyone hoping to subdue them. From the Normans' point of view, it would be well if they could eliminate that idea from the Welsh mind.
In Europe, the twelfth century saw a renaissance in the creative arts; ranking high among the great works of the age was Geoffrey's "History." It provided a foundation for writers all over the continent to build on, and build they did, constructing the edifice of the life of King Arthur, the greatest legend of all time. In fact, Geoffrey's work became so well accepted that it remained the standard reference on Britain's history for over six hundred years.
It is likely that Geoffrey wrote the "History" with the idea of finding increased favour with his Norman bosses and, to be sure, it contained certain aspects from which the new rulers of the land derived great benefit. For example, Geoffrey's tale gave the Norman kings a pedigree far better than their real one (the Normans were descendents of the rapacious norsemen who had conquered that portion of northern Gaul in the ninth century). They could point to the "History" and claim that their lands were originally Arthur's own lands, and, by extension, that they were his legitimate heirs. It also gave them a national legend that rivalled the legends of the great Charlemagne and, in the process, raised the perception of England to a level equal with that of France.
Somewhat of a nuisance, though, was the fact that this same "History" which, in certain respects was so valuable to the Normans, by not stating outright that Arthur had died, technically allowed for his continued existence, thus giving cause for hope to the Welsh, the only remaining resistance to complete Norman control of the island. The events at Glastonbury in 1190 would provide the corrective for whatever little "deficiencies" the Normans might have found in Geoffrey's "History."
Gerald of Wales' part in the affair would turn out to be a pivotal one, but whether he played his part by accident or by design, we cannot be sure. In his writings, whenever Gerald had reason to mention Geoffrey of Monmouth, he did so in uncomplimentary terms. Although we can't be sure of the reason for the ill feeling, the fact remains that when he devised his account of the exhumation of Arthur's body, Gerald relied as heavily on Geoffrey as everyone else did and borrowed some elements directly from the "History," as we shall see.
Geoffrey's account of Arthur's final battle at Camlann reads:
Arthur himself, our renowned king, was mortally wounded and carried off to the Isle of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to. (22)
This passage from the "History of the Kings of Britain" was the direct inspiration for the burial cross inscription reported by Gerald and, indirectly, for the varying burial cross inscriptions reported by the medieval chroniclers over the years. In creating his thoroughly imaginative "History," Geoffrey went against the grain of early British source material by referring to Arthur as a King. When Arthur is mentioned in the early poems and chronicles, he is always a warrior, often a leader of other warriors, but never a king. He is referred to as "Emperor" in the Welsh story, the "Dream of Rhonabwy," but by the way the word is used in the story, we are led to believe that it must have another meaning, and that it is not intended to indicate royalty. Also, in some of the lives of the saints written in the late eleventh century, Arthur is referred to as a king, but rules a far more limited domain than the one described in Geoffrey. All this indicates a lack of any firm tradition about the figure of Arthur until Geoffrey nailed it down in the "History." In Gerald's account, he uses the title, "King Arthur" and the modifying word, "renowned." These are Gerald's words, but are direct borrowings from Geoffrey.
Another "first" for Geoffrey's "History" was his use of the term "Isle of Avalon," which seemed to be some sort of Celtic "otherworld," a haven of peace and healing, not connected with any known geographical locality. While we take it for granted that Glastonbury and Avalon are the same place, it was Gerald of Wales who made the connection for the first time.
Until the middle of the twelfth century, Arthur had been a character of legend, known only in obscure bardic tales and Welsh battle poems, probably dating from the sixth or seventh centuries. By the late eleventh century, his name had begun to appear in certain saints "lives," that peculiar genre of creative writing of professional hagiographers, that unabashedly combined particles of truth with great quantities of fable for the purpose of "amplifying" the virtues of a particular holy man or his religious house. It is interesting to note that several of the saints whose lives Arthur was said to have had some part in (Gildas, Iltyd, David), were in some way connected with Glastonbury. But, even with all that, Arthur was not exactly a household name, especially among the Norman aristocracy.
Everything changed, however, when the "History of the Kings of Britain" was published. Almost immediately, it began to inspire a flow of new literary works, particularly in Brittany and France which would continue for many years. In the Celtic fringe areas, Geoffrey's story of Arthur was received like water on dry ground and inspired a new hope for an invincible "savior" who would return to lead his people against their enemies.
In King Arthur, Geoffrey had given the Normans a national hero whose reflected glory they could bask in; but they would much rather have their hero dead and in his grave, where he could do them no harm. But, Geoffrey's "History" hinted that Arthur might never have died and that thought troubled them. Less than sixty years later, Gerald of Wales was clever enough to turn the words that Geoffrey used to create the great hero, Arthur, into the words that not only quashed the hope of his return, but also composed the epitaph for his grave.
We get confirmation of this, in no uncertain terms, from Gerald, himself, who said in his exhumation account:
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. (23)
The Celtic people were thus free to hope for whatever they liked, but the discovery of "Arthur's" grave was the final nail in the coffin of their resistance to the Norman regime.
On one level, the discovery can be seen as an elaborate hoax, an orchestrated event that Gerald of Wales played a part in and one that he may even have helped plan. But the Welsh hope would be no less dead if Arthur's grave had been discovered in Cornwall, Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire. Why was Glastonbury chosen as the place for the discovery of Arthur's grave and what did the Abbey have to gain from getting involved with the King Arthur legends?
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