Was King Arthur real? Modern historians dismiss him as a myth, but in 1191 the monks at Glastonbury Abbey seemed to prove his existence when they found his tomb.
Nearly everyone has heard stories about King Arthur: his sword in the stone, his knights of the roundtable, his kingdom of Camelot… But there’s actually little to no historic proof of an early British king called Arthur.
The legendary king supposedly ruled sometime around the late 5th or early 6th century and fought against the invading Saxons. However, the first mention of a warrior called Arthur is 300-400 years later when, in 829, a Welsh monk called him a commander who fought alongside the kings of the Britons.
Then in 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth included King Arthur in his History of Kings of Britain – and Medieval storytellers took it from there. They began circulating fantastic tales of King Arthur and his daring deeds – deeds which seemed to grow with each story.
According to Geoffrey’s original story, when Arthur was mortally wounded, he was put in a boat and taken to the Isle of Avalon in hopes that he could be healed of his wounds. And Geoffrey ends his story there, leaving Arthur in Avalon. But at that time, no one knew where the Isle of Avalon was.
Fast forward to Glastonbury Abbey, 46 years after Geoffrey of Monmouth has written Arthur’s story…
Fire Destroys Old Church and Relics
In 1184 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey were in a tizzy. Their monastery, and more importantly their Old Church, had been destroyed in a fire. This wasn’t just any church. It was called the Old Church because it was considered to be the first Christian church in Britain, possibly dating from the first few centuries AD.
The original building was probably a wattle structure, but it had been lovingly protected by an outer covering of wood and lead. The building itself was considered holy, but it was also chock-a-block with sacred relics that had accumulated through the years: bones of saints, pieces of their clothing, splinters of the cross, etc. And they were all displayed in boxes made of precious metals and adorned with jewels. In the 1120s, the church was described as containing “relics and reliquaries too numerous to count.”
The Old Church and its hallowed objects were a big draw for pilgrims who would come to pray at the holy building and the relics inside. Glastonbury was one of the oldest and holiest pilgrimage sites and the donations the visitors brought made them one of the wealthiest too. So, when the monks saw their church and all their precious relics destroyed under a pile of molten lead, they knew they had a big problem. Buildings could be rebuilt, but the loss of so many sacred objects was a disaster.
With money no longer coming in from pilgrimages, King Henry II stepped in with funds to help get the Abbey up and running again. The first priority was to rebuild on the holy site of the Old Church. The monks built the Lady Chapel there and completed it in two years. But three years later, when King Henry died, the funds ran out and work on the rest of the Abbey slowed down considerably.
Finding a Grave
Then one day, in 1191, seven years after the fire, the monks found the answer to their prayers (and money problems) in the old Abbey cemetery. They were digging between two old stone pyramids covered in worn, unreadable markings, when deep in the ground, they found something strange.
After digging six or seven feet deep, they came to a large stone lying down flat. They lifted it out so they could inspect it. A lead cross was attached to the back of the stone – the side facing downward. They pried off the cross and found an inscription hidden on the back of it – the side that had been facing the stone. All the monks were wondering at this strange sight. Then one of them began to translate: “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere his second wife, in the isle of Avalon.” Everyone gasped.
Years earlier King Henry II had sent word to the monks of Glastonbury about Arthur’s burial. He claimed that an old soothsayer had told him Arthur was buried there: very deep in the earth in a log casket.
They had searched the Abbey grounds when they first heard the story but had found nothing. Now this seemed like a miracle that had come at just the right time. If this was really King Arthur’s bones, it would certainly bring back the pilgrims and their sorely needed offerings.
The monks picked up their shovels and began digging again with more vigor. They dug deeper and deeper until, at about sixteen feet, they hit what seemed to be a tree buried horizontally in the earth. It turned out to be a large treetrunk coffin like those used in earlier times.
Word spread and a large crowd gathered (and probably paid) to see the coffin opened. After the monks had dug all around it, they struggled to lift the top off. As they hoisted the wooden lid out of the pit, the remains of two bodies were revealed: a man and a woman. There was also a lock of braided blond hair that looked completely intact – however, when a monk went to pick it up, it turned to dust in his hand.
Everyone was astonished when they saw King Arthur’s skeleton: It was enormous. One monk took the shin bone and held it up against the tallest man there. It extended a good three inches above his knee. His eye sockets were a hand’s width apart, and he had at least ten wounds on his large skull. All had been scarred over except for one large one which had probably been the final blow.
The monks carefully lifted the bones out of the grave and wrapped them in cloth. They would have a new marble tomb made for Arthur and Guinevere and place it in the church.
The discovery of King Arthur’s tomb changed Glastonbury Abbey’s fortunes, as people from far and wide began making pilgrimages to see it. But Arthur wasn’t the only king buried at Glastonbury, three Saxon Kings were also buried there: Edmund I in 946, Edgar I in 975, and Edmund Ironside in 1016.
Edward I’s Visit
As the resting place of ancient kings, Glastonbury had a special place in the hearts of the Medieval monarchs. They liked to fancy themselves as descendants of the courageous King Arthur. In 1278 (87 years after the grave was found) Glastonbury Abbey was completely rebuilt and King Edward I and Queen Eleanor paid a visit.
In a special ceremony, the King and Queen reverently transferred Arthur and Guinevere’s bones to the new marble tomb which had been placed before the high altar. All except for their skulls and knee joints which “were kept out for the people’s devotion.”
Pilgrims flocked to Glastonbury to see King Arthur’s tomb for 348 years. Then in 1539 Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church and demolished monasteries around the country. Glastonbury Abbey was left in ruins and King Arthur’s tomb was lost forever.
The remains of the abbey can be visited today and the place where King Arthur’s tomb once stood is marked by a sign. It reads: “Site of King Arthur’s Tomb. In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his queen were said to have been found on the south side of the Lady Chapel. On 19th April 1278 their remains were removed in the presence of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor to a black marble tomb on this site. This tomb survived until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.”
Historians now say that King Arthur probably didn’t exist, and that the grave discovery was most likely a hoax. But people today are just as intrigued by the mythical king as they were in the Middle Ages. And even though the Abbey is in ruins, they still come to look for Arthur.
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Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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