King Arthur’s Glastonbury Grave: The Greatest Hoax of the 12th Century
When the grave of the legendary English King Arthur was discovered on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey in the year 1191, it seeded a cult that would continue to bring visitors to Glastonbury for nearly a millennium right up until the present day. Following the discovery, the abbey’s popularity exploded, and pilgrims came from all over England to see the shrine of the famous king. But was this discovery genuine, or was it a meticulously planned hoax designed to bring fame and wealth to Glastonbury’s monastic community? Was the finding of Arthur’s grave a happy coincidence, or the most successful publicity stunt of the 12th century? Whatever you may believe about the legends of King Arthur, to the people of 12th century England, Arthur was a very real person, and the discovery of his grave made the legends tangible, like never before.
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, which reveal the immense wealth and power of this monastery in ancient times. (Igor / Adobe Stock)
Glastonbury Abbey: The Wealthiest Monastery in England
Glastonbury Abbey was the wealthiest monastery in England at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD and remained one of most powerful and influential institutions right up until the dissolution of monasteries in 1536-1541 under King Henry VIII. Glastonbury had long enjoyed the patronage and protection of the English monarchy, as well as national and international fame through its association with prominent saints such as St Patrick and St Gildas.
Glastonbury was also one of the oldest religious sites in all of Britain. Archaeological digs at Glastonbury in the 1960s conducted by Ralegh Radford revealed evidence of possibly early Christian or pre-Christian activity dating back to the 6th century AD, suggesting it had been a sacred site for many hundreds of years. Radford’s finds would also seem to substantiate claims made by the Glastonbury religious community that it was the “birthplace of Christianity” in England.
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According to their own histories, recorded by William of Malmesbury in his Antiquities of Glastonbury, the original church was built on the site by Joseph of Arimathea and his 11 brethren, who were gifted the Isle of Glastonbury by a British pagan king called Lucius. It was consecrated to the Virgin Mary 31 years after the Passion of Christ. The monastery was then later founded on the same site by St Patrick, who became first abbot of Glastonbury. Upon his death, he was buried in the Old Church.
The elegant medieval remains of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey. (Public domain)
Glastonbury Abbey’s Reputation Made For Church Politics
Glastonbury Abbey’s antiquity and reputation made it a highly influential player in Church politics, but unlike the other major monastic houses in England, Glastonbury had no substantial claim to a founding patron and that put them at somewhat of a disadvantage.
Canterbury, for example, garnered international attention with the brutal murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, claiming him as their patron saint and making a fortune from tourism, including selling “Becket’s Blood” to visitors, a curative tonic supposedly made with a drop of Becket’s actual blood.
Glastonbury tried to stake their claim on St Patrick as their patron, but unfortunately for them the Irish had a much more convincing claim to St Patrick. Most of his bodily remains were buried in Downpatrick (south of present-day Belfast), not at Glastonbury.
The abbey was fortunate however, to be in possession of a huge collection of relics from many important saints, and so Glastonbury’s lack of a patron saint did not diminish its ability to attract wealthy patrons and tourists.
That is, until a devastating fire in 1184 burned down most of the monastery and almost entirely destroyed its priceless collection of relics. Glastonbury Abbey then faced a financial crisis. The cost of rebuilding was considerable and without the relics as a source of income, finding the funds was not easy. Even after rebuilding work had begun, the abbey came into further hardship when Bishop Savaric of Bath sought approval from the pope to claim Glastonbury as part of his “territory.”
Glastonbury Tor, shown here, has long been argued as the location of legendary Avalon. (Eugene Birchall / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Arthur and Avalon: The Legends That Saved Glastonbury
Under threat of takeover, and suffering financial hardship, the monks of Glastonbury decided that only the patronage of a suitably important founding father would protect them from disaster. King Arthur was an apt choice.
Following the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Arthur’s popularity had skyrocketed, and his fame spread across all tiers of English society. Geoffrey’s work had also closely associated King Arthur with the Virgin Mary, making him a suitable patron for Glastonbury. The abbey’s association with the Virgin Mary dated back to the very beginnings of the Old Church, which was dedicated to the holy virgin.
There were two methods by which Glastonbury Abbey associated itself with King Arthur. The first was the claim that Glastonbury Tor was “Avalon,” the final resting place of the legendary hero. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale, when Arthur falls in his final battle with the treacherous Mordred he is taken to the Isle of Avalon to be healed and it was said that he waited there, sleeping, until the prophesied time of his glorious return.
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Geoffrey makes no mention of where Avalon is located. In fact, it was a historian called Gerald of Wales who first put forward a case for connecting Avalon to Glastonbury in Book 1 of his Instructions for a Ruler: “The place now called Glastonbury was of old called the Isle of Avalon. For it is like an island, surrounded by marshes, and hence called in British Inis Avalon, that is, the Isle of Apples” (so called due to the large numbers of apple trees that grow there). Although it was not an island surrounded by water in the 12th century, the geo-topography of Glastonbury Tor suggests it was once an island and the terrain surrounding it was likely underwater during the time when Arthur supposedly lived.
The “supposed” location of the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere on the grounds of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. (Tom Ordelman / CC BY-SA 3.0)
“Discovering” Arthur’s Grave
The most effective way for the monks of Glastonbury to associate their institution with King Arthur was to claim possession of his earthly remains. And since no remains had, as yet been unearthed, they set about staging the discovery of his remains in their very own cemetery.
The historian Gerald of Wales was most likely invited to visit the abbey and witness this miraculous event, recording it in Instructions for a Ruler as follows: “In our own days his body…was discovered at Glastonbury between two stone pyramids…buried deep in the earth in a hollow oak and indicated by wonderful, almost miraculous, signs, and it was brought into the church with honor and deposited becomingly in a marble tomb.”
The exhumation was quite an event. Large screens were erected around the tomb beneath the two stone pyramids to shield it from view as the monks dug down well below the level at which one would normally expect to find a monk’s grave, until they struck a large metal cross bearing the inscription “Here lies buried the glorious king Arthur and Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.” Beneath it rested the giant bones of King Arthur and the smaller remains of his second wife, Guinevere. The glorious discovery was joyfully carried by the monks into the main church and entombed before the high altar.
The discovery of King Arthur’s grave proved to be, over time, incredibly lucrative for Glastonbury Abbey. Pilgrims and tourists flocked to Glastonbury to see the tomb of the fabled hero, bringing with them a steady stream of income for the monastery. Royal visitors also came to Glastonbury in the centuries that followed to pay their respects to King Arthur’s tomb, bestowing generous gifts and patronage upon the religious community that served as his guardians. One such visitor was King Edward I, who came to Glastonbury in 1278 with his wife, Queen Eleanor, to preside over the reburial of King Arthur and Guinevere’s remains.
King Henry II, the first Angevin king, links his name and destiny to the legendary but real-enough King Arthur. (Public domain)
The Once and Future King Joined With The Angevin Dynasty
The association of King Arthur with the English monarchy began with Geoffrey of Monmouth, who dedicated a manuscript of the History of the Kings of Britain to King Stephen in 1136. The Angevin dynasty, that began with King Henry II in 1154, looked to Arthur as a sort of founding father in much the same way as Glastonbury Abbey did, except that the Angevin kings claimed to be direct descendants of King Arthur’s bloodline. Henry II makes this claim quite plainly in Glastonbury’s charter records, tracing his own lineage back to “the glorious Arthur.”
It is possible that the discovery of King Arthur’s grave was actually not orchestrated by the monks of Glastonbury at all. It may have been a cunning political coup executed by King Henry II for his own benefit.
Gerald of Wales cryptically hints at this possibility: his version of events being that Arthur’s remains were found because of visions granted to “religious men,” but also because Henry II heard a legend from a minstrel historian that told of Arthur’s final resting place and the king then told this to the monks at Glastonbury. Although Henry II died in 1189 before the grave was found, it was possible he sparked the search for and discovery of Arthur’s grave.
Henry II had several reasons to benefit from being the instigator of such a momentous discovery. Since the murder of Thomas Becket at the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral, after a period of heated discord between Becket and the king, and at the hands of Henry II’s own men, the king’s relationship with the Church became even more rocky than before.
The continental church declared an interdict on the king, effectively dispossessing him of much of his lands in France, and international pressure intensified when Henry II made no efforts to arrest Becket’s killers while he was away in Ireland during 1171. In 1172, the matter came to a head and the king was forced to negotiate a solution with the papacy in Rome, which involved Henry II vowing to go on crusade as penance for his actions.
King Henry II did not visit Canterbury Cathedral, the scene of his great crime against religion, until 1174 after Becket was made a saint in 1173, to do public penance at Saint Thomas’ tomb. Becket’s tomb was fast becoming one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in medieval Europe, increasing the already significant wealth and influence of the Canterbury religious community.
It is entirely plausible that Henry II might have sought a way to draw some of the attention away from Canterbury by offering another institution as an equally attractive alternative for pilgrims, one that could become the new center of English Christianity. As one of the oldest, most powerful abbeys in the country, Glastonbury presented a viable opportunity.
King Henry II and Thomas Becket. In the end, King Henry II paid heavily for his involvement in the death of “St Becket.” (Peter of Langtoft / Public domain)
Arthur, King of the Britons?
The other major benefit Henry II may have seen from the discovery of King Arthur’s grave was to quell the potential for Welsh rebellion against the English crown. Throughout his reign, King Henry II struggled to maintain English rule over Welsh lands, the Welsh undoubtedly resentful of being made subject to a foreign overlord.
King Arthur had long been a symbol of Celtic nationalism. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Britons (from whom the Welsh were descended) were not destined to rule in Britain until the time of Arthur’s prophesied return from Avalon.
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The histories of Glastonbury Abbey tell of how the Britons still await his return “like Jews awaiting their Messiah,” clearly envisioning him as a hero worthy of leading the Welsh to victory over the English and reinstating them to their “rightful place” as sovereigns of Britain. As king of the Britons, Arthur could have been a rallying point for Welsh rebellion, but to claim him as an ancestor of the English royal line would have also bolstered the monarchy’s right to rule the whole island of Britain, including Wales.
The discovery of Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury was the final nail in the proverbial coffin of this Celtic nationalist vision. If Arthur was proven to be dead and buried, on English soil what’s more, it would put an end to any notion of him returning to lead a revolt in favor of the Welsh territories.
Of course, Henry II’s brilliant political power play did not stop the Welsh from rebelling against the English crown, even without Arthur as a symbolic rallying point. And Glastonbury Abbey’s enormous influx of wealth and fame could not save them from the ravages of the Dissolution of the Monasteries of England.
Nonetheless, the discovery of King Arthur’s grave in 1191 proved to be such a magnificently successful hoax that no real doubt would be cast on the story until several hundred years later. Whoever was behind it, the monks or Henry II, they ultimately pulled off the greatest publicity stunt of their time.
Top image: The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, England. Source: Artem Mazunov / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
Carley, James P. 1996. Glastonbury Abbey: the holy house at the head of the moors adventurous. Gothic Image.
Carley, James P, ed. 2001. Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian tradition. Brewer.
Gerald of Wales. Instructions for a Ruler. Ed. and trans. Robert Bartlett, 2018. Clarendon Press.
Reno, Frank D. 1996. The historic King Arthur: authenticating the Celtic hero of post-Roman Britain. McFarland.