Researchers Claim Glastonbury Ancient Legends Made Up By Cash-Strapped Monks
The famous legends of King Arthur and his round table, among other ancient myths, were stories made up and peddled by enterprising monks at Glastonbury Abbey to make some cash, say researchers. What’s more, these legends muddied modern research into the site by “clouding the judgement” of past experts.
These are the claims being made recently by a team archaeologists from the University of Reading in UK after a four year study.
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, England. (CC BY 2.0)
As reported by The Guardian the physical history of the site has been reexamined and the conclusions are:
“Those feet, immortalized in William Blake’s poem Jerusalem, never walked on the green and pleasant land of Glastonbury; the oldest church in England was not built there by Christ’s disciples; Joseph of Arimathea’s walking stick does not miraculously flower every Christmas after 2,000 years. And it turns out that the supposed link with King Arthur and his beautiful queen, Guinevere, is false too – invented by 12th-century monks faced with a financial crisis in the wake of a disastrous fire.”
Archaeologists claim the Glastonbury monks clouded the history of the site by deliberately designing renovations after a fire in 1184. The redesign is said to have employed a purposeful archaic architectural style to generate a mythical feel, supporting popular legends and thereby raising more money from eager pilgrims.
In addition, “Arthur’s supposed grave has been revealed as a cemetery pit containing material dating from between the 11th and 15th centuries, offering no evidential links to the era of the legendary 5th and 6th century leader,” reports Culture24.
The Legendary King Arthur: "And when they came to the sword that the hand held, King Arthur took it up." (Public Domain)
Recent archaeological studies, and reassessment of older projects at the abbey between 1904 and 1979, are now casting doubt on the previous historical assumptions of the site, and the myths surrounding it.
Inside ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. (CC BY-ND 2.0)
History of the Legendary Site
Described as “one of the most romantic religious sites in England,” Glastonbury Abbey, the ruins of a monastery established in 712 AD, is the nexus of many ancient myths and historical events featuring prominent figures, such as legendary King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, the Christian Joseph of Arimathea, and England’s King Henry VIII.
Glastonbury is popularly said to be the resting place of King Arthur, and nearby locations are connected to stories of the Holy Grail. Legend has it that it was founded by the venerated saint Joseph of Arimathea in the first century, and it is believed to be the site of the earliest church in Britain. 12 th century writings connect Joseph with the Holy Grail, with him bringing it to Britain from the Holy Land in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie.
Joseph of Arimathea by Pietro Perugino. (Public Domain)
Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey church, Somerset, England. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Other tales say that the church was built by Jesus himself to honor his mother, Mary.
One widespread story involving the “holy thorn” has originated from the area. In that legend, on the spot where Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury, he pierced the earth with his staff (in some versions made from the wood of the crucifixion cross), and a hawthorn tree sprouted there.
This, the “Glastonbury Thorn” stood on Wearyall Hill and was said to bloom twice a year (unlike other hawthorn trees which bloom only once a year). It was said to bloom every Christmas day for 2,000 years (until vandals cut it down in 2010, causing much grief and outrage, local and international). Hawthorn trees have been propagated by grafting in and around Glastonbury many times in order to preserve it.
A Glastonbury Thorn at Glatonbury Abbey, 1984. This tree died in 1991 and was removed in 1992. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The site suffered a devastating fire in 1184. It was rebuilt, and had become one of the richest and most influential monasteries in England by the 14 th century.
This power did not go unchallenged long. The Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII dismantled the church, taking their money and land. Richard Whiting, the last abbot of the Glastonbury Abbey was viciously killed by hanging, then drawn and quartered as a traitor to the crown at Glastonbury Tor in 1539.
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Researchers Allegedly Bewitched
Citing a lack of physical evidence to prove the historical legends, the team of 31 specialists led by Roberta Gilchrist, professor of archaeology at the University of Reading and now a trustee of Glastonbury, “found that generations of her predecessors working at the abbey were so bewitched by the legends that they either suppressed or misinterpreted evidence that did not fit,” reports The Guardian.
Site of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere's purported original tomb beneath the high altar. Archaeologists now say it was filled with material dating from between the 11th and 15th centuries. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The archaeologists uncovered several surprising finds, including: a previously unknown prehistoric settlement of Romans and Saxons, predating the earliest monastery; A glass-working complex which has been radiocarbon dated to approximately 700 AD, making it the earliest evidence for glass-working in Saxon England; and it was found wine was imported from the continent to the site at an even earlier date, as shown by ceramic fragments.
Archaeological finds from Glastonbury Abbey. Credit: University of Reading
Perhaps more to legend than ‘made up’ stories
However, there are those that believe that ancient legends might have been retellings of actual historical figures and events. Author and researcher Ralph Ellis writes,
“Arthurian history is traditionally set in the fifth or sixth centuries, the era of the Dark Ages. This is a period in British history that is not simply ‘dark’ because of an economic and social collapse following the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, it is also ‘dark’ because it lacks any historical records. This makes it difﬁcult to decipher what was happening in this era, and it is this lacuna in British history that has enabled the life of King Arthur to remain enigmatic and semi-legendary for so long. Had Arthur been a king of the fourth or ninth centuries, we could easily have determined if these legends were fact or ﬁction, but Arthur has managed to slip into a historical crevasse where there are many known unknowns and several unknown unknowns.”
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This raises the idea that the chronicles of King Arthur and other legends during the Dark Ages may not be untrue simply because they cannot be proven through pottery sherds or skeletal remains. It may be possible that the ancient scribes poorly documented a real king or man, or an ancient history, either purposefully or accidentally, and these stories endured. Could modern interpretations of legends now be clouding the ancient past?
King Arthur's knights, gathered at the Round Table, see a vision of the Holy Grail. (Public Domain)
The ancient myths that have resonated through time will not be so easily vanquished, if the continuing popularity of Glastonbury Abbey is any judge. And while researchers might point to the empty burial site of the mythical King Arthur as an absence of evidence, more important perhaps are the insights that come from the social history of the period gleaned from these legends.
The findings of the researchers are reportedly going to be added “gently” to the new Glastonbury guidebook so as to remain sensitive to legend.
According to the University of Reading, the main thrust now at the site is to inform future interpretation and development of the Abbey: “Glastonbury Abbey: archaeology, legend and public engagement aims to improve visitors' understanding of spatial layout, chronological development and archaeological evidence, while also exploring the Arthur and Arimathea legendary connections.”
Gilchrist explained, “We are not in the business of destroying people’s beliefs. A thousand years of beliefs and legends are part of the intangible history of this remarkable place.”
Featured Image: Glastonbury Abbey. (Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
By: Liz Leafloor