A Discussion of King Melwas' supposed Fortress at Glastonbury
By David Nash Ford
Queen Guinevere's Prison?
In Caradog of Llancarfan's Life of St. Gildas, written around 1130, can be found a story telling of St. Gildas' intervention between King Arthur and one King Melwas of the "Summer Country". Melwas had abducted Guinevere to his stronghold at Glastonbury, where Arthur soon arrived to besiege him. However, Gildas, ever the peacemaker, persuaded Melwas to release the Guinevere and the two monarchs soon reconciled their differences. The story can also be found in a Welsh poem known as The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar, the surviving manuscripts of which date from the 16th century. Chrétien is best known for his use of the episode in his Lancelot story, but here the Knight was said to have killed Melwas (alias Meleagaunce), while St. Gildas is never mentioned.
Excavations on Glastonbury Tor, undertaken between 1964 and 1966, revealed evidence of Dark Age occupation around the later Medieval church of St. Michael. The site was entered via roughly cut steps to the West. Remains of structures were slight, though the beam slots of one wooden building were uncovered, and there were post-holes of others. Two further structures were indicated by surviving hearths: one of which was an intriguing metalworker's furnace complete with bellows inlet. Alongside what has been interpreted as a small wooden latrine building, were discovered two 6th century teenage graves orientated North-South. A large empty cairn lay not far away. A vast amount of animal bone was recovered, possibly indicating feasting; and twelve sherds of imported 6th century Mediterranean amphorae. The most interesting find was a small cast bronze head possibly from a staff or bucket escutcheon.
The traditional religious nature of the Tor's summit, shown today by the surviving tower of St. Michael's Church, might suggest a Dark Age monastery had been uncovered there. The church dedication might, in fact, indicate a pagan religious site later converted to Christianity (thus the Devil was conquered by St. Michael). The bronze mask could have been from a Bishop's Crosier. Indeed, St. Patrick is said to have discovered an abandoned hermitage here in the late 5th century. However, this latter reference is highly dubious and there is little else to recommend such an interpretation. Would such a monastery have been founded so near to the great Abbey below? Graves orientated North-South are unlikely to be found in a Christian context, while metalworking and feasting, though undertaken on monastic sites, would certainly fit a secular stronghold better. The capital of the Sub-Kings of Glastenning is perhaps indicated. The reference to Melwas being Ruler in the Summer Country ("in aestiva regione") is, no doubt, a late description of the Kingdom of Glastening transformed into the Saxon Somerset.