King Arthur's Burial Cross
The cross existed at one time and may still exist in some dark cellar or dusty attic. If found, it would be the only tangible relic in existence associated with King Arthur and could provide important clues as to whether or not it was his grave that was opened on that day in 1190.



King Arthur's Burial Cross

Discovery of the Cross
he medieval historian, Gerald of Wales, tells us that sometime before he died in 1189, Henry II gave a message to the monks of Glastonbury Abbey regarding the location of the grave of King Arthur. He also tells us that Henry had gotten the information from an unnamed Welsh bard.

Gerald's account goes on to say that the Glastonbury monks, presumably acting on this information, had uncovered a hollowed-out log containing two bodies, while digging between two stone pyramids standing together in the abbey cemetary. 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, and attached to its underside 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 report written in "Liber de Principis instructione" c.1193, there were several other versions of the discovery of the grave and cross which appeared in various chronicles over the years. Each account was a bit different from the others and either included or omitted details which the others did not. At least five different versions of the inscription on the cross have been reported, and this inconsistency in the details of the story has led many scholars to think that a great hoax was being perpetrated by the Glastonbury monks for the purpose of generating pilgrim traffic to their abbey.

Adding to the suspicions aroused by the above inconsistencies, the case for a "monastic hoax" gains more strength when we consider that there were several obvious motives for it:

  • the monks' beloved abbey church, the most glorious in all England and possibly in all of Christendom, had been destroyed by fire in 1184, just a few short years before.

  • the abbey's greatest pilgrim attraction, the "Old Church," England's oldest Christian structure which dated back many hundreds of years, had been burned up with it.

  • the abbey's chief benefactor, the recently deceased Henry II, was no longer in a position to finance their efforts to rebuild and the new king, Richard, was more interested in using his money to go "Crusading."

    A popular legend, current among the British people, claimed that King Arthur had never actually died and that he would one day return to his people when their need was great. While it is easy for modern people to discount a story like that, the twelfth century was an age of great credulity, and since no one could point to the location of Arthur's actual burial place, the legend couldn't be so easily discounted. Amazingly enough, no one had ever even claimed to know where the grave was, let alone try to identify it. A verse from the Welsh "Stanzas of the Graves" (aka The Graves of the Warriors of Britain), states:
    There is a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
    a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword;
    the world's wonder, a grave for Arthur
    The historian, William of Malmesbury, confirms that the whereabouts of Arthur's burial place is unknown, and that silly legends have been created as a result:
    . . .tomb of Arthur is nowhere beheld, whence the ancient ditties fable that he is yet to come.
    Given the immediate need for cash to rebuild their abbey, the death of their chief benefactor and a willingness to engage in questionable practices to serve what they believed was a noble end, it would take no great leap of the imagination to expect that the Glastonbury monks would come up with some other scheme to raise funds. In King Arthur, it would seem that they had a ready-made solution to their problems: a major legendary figure whose grave could attract all the pilgrims that the Old Church did, and, at the same time, enhance the abbey's reputation for sanctity and prestige as the final resting place of saints and kings.

    Having said all that, it must be noted that there are a few difficulties with the "monastic hoax" theory. First of all, if we are going to credit the monks with the imagination and effrontery necessary to perpetrate a hoax of this magnitude, then we should also expect them to be able to manage the public relations campaign that would be needed after the "discovery" of Arthur's body.

    Instead, we see several different accounts of the exhumation of the grave and, over the years, we get several versions of what was inscribed on the cross. The varied accounts of the inscriptions are as follows:
    Ralph of Coggeshall, "Chronicon Anglicanum," c.1225

    "Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon"

    Margam Abbey (Wales), "Chronicle," some date it early 1190's, others, 14th century

    "Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon"

    John Leland, 1542

    "Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon"

    William Camden, "Britannia," 1607

    "Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon"

    Monks of St. Albans, "Chronica Majora," mid- to late-13th Century

    "Here lies the renowned King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon"

    Adam of Domerham, "Historia de rebus Glastoniensibus," 1291

    "Here lies interred in the isle of Avalon, the renowned King Arthur"

    Gerald of Wales, "Liber de Principis instructione," c.1193

    "Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon"

    Gerald of Wales, "Speculum Ecclesiae," c.1216

    "Here lies buried the famous King Arthur in the isle of Avalon with his second wife Guinevere"
    Shouldn't we expect that if the monks had been willing to risk this deception in the first place, that they would have made sure that everyone was telling the same story? Another troublesome thing is that while the fortuitous timing of the "discovery" of Arthur's grave might seem highly suspicious to us, the monks didn't follow up by doing what we might expect them to have done if they were really trying to pull off a hoax. We would expect them to have launched a major publicity campaign, announcing the discovery to the world. We would expect to find evidence that a major influx of pilgrims had been planned for. We would expect to find documentary and literary evidence that Glastonbury had, in fact, become a more important place of pilgrimage than it had already been.

    Surprisingly, we see none of that. Other than a few mentions in monastic chronicles through the years, there is no record of any "advertising blitz." There were no new structures built to enshrine the bodies or to house or otherwise accommodate the pilgrims. And there was nothing written to suggest that the "discovery" at Glastonbury attracted any unusual attention, at all.






    From their grave, the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere may have been translated to a tomb inside the newly rebuilt Lady Chapel, which had been completed in 1186. After the discovery in 1190, nothing is heard of the tomb or the bodies until many years later when they are reported by the "Annals of Waverley" to be in the treasury in the east range of the abbey church, awaiting a move to a more fitting location. The bodies remained there until the year 1278, when Edward I came to Glastonbury to preside over their re-interrment in a new marble coffin, underneath the high altar, in the recently rebuilt great abbey church (a marker indicates the spot where the tomb stood; see photo above). Arthur's cross was laid on top of the tomb for all to see, and there it remained for about 250 years.

    The final disposition of the bodies is unknown, but they probably didn't survive the Dissolution of the abbey by Henry VIII and his zealots during the English Reformation in 1539. The burial cross did, though. It was seen and handled by John Leland around 1540 and illustrated for the 1607 edition of "Britannia" by William Camden. It was last reported in the possession of one William Hughes, an official of Wells Cathedral, sometime in the early eighteenth century.

    The story of the cross doesn't end there, but continues on to the present day. There have been several reports in the 20th 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, yet. It may, even now, be gathering dust in an attic or a cellar, or perhaps lying unseen underneath a pile of logs in an outdoor shed. But, if it were to be found, it would be our only tangible link to the strange events at Glastonbury over 800 years ago.

    What We Know About the Cross:
    • A cross was found during the excavation of a grave site next to the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey.

    • The date of the discovery was reported as taking place in 1190 (Adam of Domerham) and 1191 (Ralph of Coggeshall). This discrepancy can be accounted for by allowing for inaccuracies in the calendar that was in use in the late 12th century.

    • Adam of Domerham said that Arthur's grave was discovered 648 years after his death. If we take Geoffrey of Monmouth's word for it, the date of the Battle of Camlann and, presumably, his death was 542. The simple addition of 542 + 648 = 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.

    • There are five different reported versions of how the cross was inscribed (see above).

    • Gerald of Wales' account states that the inscription was on one side of the cross. He also says that the inscription included a reference to Guinevere. Camden's illustration of the cross shows the inscribed side, but there is no mention of Guinevere, there.

    • The letterforms used in the inscription are not consistent with any known fifth or sixth century script, but are more likely to be of the tenth century.

    • The earliest and most contemporary account of the dig is by Gerald of Wales (aka Giraldus Cambrensis, aka Gerald de Barri).

    • Ralph of Coggeshall's account states that Arthur's grave was located, accidentally, while digging a grave for a monk whose fervent desire was to be buried between the pyramids.

    • Gerald of Wales' account, said that the grave site location was given to the monks by Henry II, after it had been specifically revealed to him 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.

    • Adam of Domerham, writing in 1290, and John of Glastonbury, around 1350, tell us that there were two tombs and add the interesting detail that while the digging was being done, the grave site was surrounded by white draperies or curtains.

    • The Margam account stated that there were three separate coffins (one each for Arthur, Guinevere and Mordred) and that the wording on the cross did not mention Guinevere.

    • Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to use the term Isle of Avalon, but he didn't equate it with any geographic place. The first equation of Glastonbury and Avalon came in Gerald of Wales' account.

    • There are three common elements in the five inscriptions: King Arthur, burial or interrment and Avalon. The following syllogism can be constructed using those common elements: 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 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 "Assertio Inclytissimi Arturii," having held the cross in his hands during a visit to the abbey around 1542, said that it measured nearly a foot in length.

    • The cross was attached to the top of the marble coffin in which Arthur and Guinevere's bones were reinterred in 1278 by Edward I.

    • The cross remained there until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, after which it spent the next hundred years or so in the Reverstry of the parish church of St. John Baptist, Glastonbury (Bodleian Rawlinson B.416A, folio 10v, see Carley, p. 178 )

    • The Cross disappeared from view and wound up, in the early 18th century, in the posession of a certain Mr. William Hughes, Chancellor of Wells.



    The Arthur Cross Rediscovered? A 1981 hoax involving a fake cross.


    Bibliography:
    ......................................

  • Ashe, Geoffrey, King Arthur's Avalon: the Story of Glastonbury, Barnes & Noble, 1992

  • Barber, Richard, King Arthur: Hero and Legend, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1961

  • Carley, James P., Glastonbury Abbey, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1988,

  • Chambers, E.K., Arthur of Britain, Cambridge: Speculum Historiale, 1927, 1964

  • Newell, W. W., William of Malmesbury on the Antiquity of Glastonbury, PMLA, XVIII (1903)

  • Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain, Penguin Books, 1966

  • Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gerald of Wales: The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, Penguin Books, 1978




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