Glastonbury Tor

The modern legend tells that Arthur is still asleep on the island of Avalon, and that he will awaken one day to defend Britain. This belief appears to stem from some confusion among the ancient Welsh over the whereabouts of Arthur's grave. Although the Ancient Welsh chronicle the Annales Cambriae records that Arthur and Medraut both fell at the Battle of Camlann in 537, other sources indicate that the Welsh believed he was still alive.

The Black Book of Carmarthen, dated to at least the ninth century, records that Arthur's grave is a mystery. The writer might only have meant that Arthur's body was never recovered from the battlefield. Perhaps the Battle of Camlann was a particularly bloody battle, and Arthur's body could never be identified. But whatever the case, it is clear from other sources that the Welsh believed he would return to defend them once more. Writing in about 1145, a monk named Herman records how a group of priests from the city of Laon traveled across parts of England and France with holy relics, healing the sick in the hopes of collecting enough donations to rebuild their church. In England, a man with a dried–up hand came to receive healing. During a discussion, he swore Arthur was still alive. The priests dismissed this as ridiculous, and a bitter fight broke out between the men.

One explanation for this enduring belief is the fact that Arthur had been a symbol of hope to the Welsh during a time of great need. Similar legends have developed about men who are known to have been real, historical figures after their deaths. This notion sounds absurd to us in modern times, but in the Middle Ages, the idea of a great hero returning one day was difficult to dismiss, particularly if his grave could not be located.

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Arthur had been carried off to Avalon to be cured of his wounds, and described it as an "island of apples." Some Welsh sources from this time describe it similarly, but none of them mention where it is located. There is one place on Earth, however, which has long been thought to be the resting place of Arthur.

In Somerset, England, there is a large hill known as Glastonbury Tor. This tor was home to a Christian monastery in the Middle Ages and earlier. Archaeology indicates that the hill was an important place of worship even in pre–Christian times. In prehistoric times, a set of ridges was carved over it, forming an elaborate pattern which can still be seen today.

Glastonbury Tor.
Glastonbury Tor. St. Michael's Tower can still be seen on its surface, as well as ridges that date to prehistoric times.

Glastonbury itself is a set of hills surrounded today by rich, flat meadowlands. But in the fifth century, the water levels were much different than they are today, and much of the surrounding area was filled with marshland and swamp. The Tor was essentially an island, reachable only by a narrow ridge of land to the southeast.

In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had discovered the body of King Arthur buried on their land. According to their account, a Welsh or Breton bard had disclosed the long–kept secret to Henry II. Several years later, the abbot ordered an excavation, and seven feet down, they uncovered a stone slab with a large, leaden cross on the underside. An inscription on the cross read HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA (Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon).

Nine feet further down, they uncovered a primitive coffin made from a hollowed–out log. Inside were the bones of a tall man whose skull was fractured. Next to him were some smaller bones and a lock of fair hair, which they concluded was Guinevere. The monks transferred both sets of bones to a large tomb within their church. Some years later, the tomb was opened up by King Edward I and his consort, Lady Eleanor. They transfered each set of bones into its own casket, wrapped in fine silk, and ordered the tomb be moved in front of the church's high altar.

Historians have long thought this claim to have been a hoax perpetrated by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. Several years earlier, the abbey had burned down, and the monks needed funds to rebuild it. Attracting more pilgrims to their site would have helped to raise money. Another motive might have been to gain the favor of their king, Henry II. The Welsh still told tales that Arthur was alive and would return someday. Pinpointing his grave might have helped put an end to this belief, and establish Henry's right to rule over all of England.

But in 1963, an archaeologist named Raleigh Radford excavated the Tor, and found that the monks had dug where they said. The question now is whose bones they found. In 1539, Henry VIII seized control of the abbey when he formed the Church of England, and the last abbot was hung, drawn, and quartered. The tomb was destroyed, and the bones along with it. The cross survived, but it was later lost in the eighteenth century, so it has never been possible to perform carbon dating. All that survives of it is an engraving of one side made by an antiquary named William Camden in 1607. Modern analysis of the lettering inscribed on the cross has dated it to no later than the eleventh century – a full century before the monks made their discovery.

A witness to the cross' discovery, Gerald of Wales, later wrote an account of it from memory. Gerald claims that the cross also mentioned Guinevere. There is no indication of this, and if it did, it was written on the other side. But Gerald's memory cannot be relied on. His account contains other errors, and he may only have been confused because the monks assumed the smaller bones belonged to her.

The King Arthur cross.
The 1607 engraving of the cross by Camden.

Raleigh Radford believes the cross belongs to the tenth century. He has noted that in the fifth and sixth centuries, kings and other social elite were starting to be buried on sacred church grounds, rather than in family plots, as had been the custom. If Arthur was a well–known military leader who was active in Somerset during this time, it is likely he would have been buried at Glastonbury. Indeed, some attempts to locate the Battle of Camlann have placed it in Somerset, and an ancient hillfort believed by some to have been Arthur's stronghold is located there as well. Similar burial sites in other parts of England indicate that a monolith would have been placed over his grave, marking it and perhaps naming some of his ancestry. In the tenth century, this area of the cemetery was surrounded with a wall, and the ground inside it was raised so that it could be said the dead were truly resting in peace. At this time, someone might have made the cross to mark his grave again.

But Geoffrey Ashe has suggested that the cross might go back even further. The writing on the cross is not consistent with any fifth or sixth century lettering that we have on record. But Ashe points out that the spelling of the name "Arturius" is archaic, and there is no record of it being used after the seventh century. The cross could have been placed over Arthur's grave instead of the usual monolith found in other burial sites. The raising of the land in the tenth century would explain why the cross was found underground.

Ashe also believes there may have been a preexisting tradition that Arthur was buried at Glastonbury. No written record that we have today connects Glastonbury with Avalon before the monks made their discovery in 1191. But the fact that the Welsh never produced a rival grave for Arthur, and instead let the English have it freely, may indicate that there was already a tradition which could not be refuted once the monks made their announcement.

Glastonbury Tor is certainly a good candidate for the burial place of an historical Arthur. It was an important burial ground in the right region at about the right time. The marshland which surrounded it explains why later tradition remembered that Arthur was buried on an island, and written records from this period indicate that Glastonbury was thought of as an island by contemporary sources. If an historical Arthur did fight the battles which are attributed to him, he likely would have been buried at Glastonbury.