Glastonbury: The Legendary Avalon, Was King Arthur Really Buried In The Abbey Grounds?

The legends surrounding one of England's most sacred sites attract a multitude of visitors and pilgrims. Was King Arthur really buried in the abbey grounds? Is the Holy Grail hidden in the Chalice Well? Does a maze spiral its way to the summit of the Glastonbury Tor?

The legend surrounding one of England's most mysterious and sacred sites
The legend surrounding one of England's most mysterious and sacred sites

Rising above the flat plains of the Somerset Levels, Glastonbury Tor, with a ruined church tower at its peak, provides an unmistakable landmark for one of Britain's most mysterious places. For Glastonbury, the site of one of the countries earliest Christian buildings, steeped in a wealth of tradition and legend, myth and romance. This small bustling country town attracts visitors of all kinds. Romantics are drawn by the legends of King Arthur, pilgrims by its ancient Christian heritage, mystics look to find the Holy Grail, while astrologers are lured by the rumour of a zodiac said to be laid out upon the landscape.

Glastonbury was almost an island surrounded by marshland or floodwater where the early Christians settled, though quite when is uncertain. The earliest reliable date is about AD 705 when King Ine had founded a monastery here, which became a benedictine house in the 10th century. Archaeological excavations have uncovered traces of earlier buildings made of wattle and daub, while over the centuries many fine stone edifices were constructed, most now traceable in outline only. Substantial remains exist of the main abbey church built in the 13th and 14th centuries, with a mystique all of its own.

The abbey's 12th century Lady Chapel stands on the site of an old earlier church destroyed by fire in AD 1184. This was the 'Old Church', built, according to tradition, by Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who wrapped up the body of Jesus and carried it to his tomb. Legend tells how Joseph later emigrated to Glastonbury and established a church there. Another legend relates how Joseph landed by boat on Wearyall Hill and leaned on his staff in prayer. The staff took root and became the Glastonbury Thorn, which still flowers at Easter and Christmas time in the grounds and in front of St Johns Church.

Was King Arthur Buried At Glastonbury?

Glastenbury's greatest mystery is arguably whether the body of King Arthur lies buried in the abbey grounds. Despite the monks' claim to have discovered his remains, and those of his wife Guinevere, in AD 1190, there is still no considerable uncertainty as to the truth of the story - recent evidence suggests he may have been buried near Bridgend in South Wales.

After Arthur's last battle at Camlann, whose location is unknown, the dying king was taken to the mythical Isle of Avalon. He commanded Sir Bedivere to throw away his mighty sword Excalibur and when the knight tossed it into a lake, a hand reached out of the water and grasped it. Where did this strange event take place? The most popular answer is at the mere, since drained, at Pomparles Bridge near Glastonbury.

The grave in the abbey grounds was discovered after the secret of the burial was revealed by a Welsh bard to King Henry II. The king then informed the Abbot of Glastonbury and, eventually, when rebuilding the abbey after the fire of AD 1884, the monks searched for the grave. About 2m (7ft) down they found a stone slab and lead cross inscribed hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex arturius in insula avalonia, "Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon". About 2.7 (9ft) below the slab was a coffin cut from a hollow log containing the bones of a 2.4m (8ft) man with a damaged skull., as well as smaller bones identified as Guinevere's by the scrap of yellow hair lying with them.

British archaeologist Dr Ralegh Radford confirmed, in 1962, that a burial really had been discovered, but he had no way of showing to whom the grave belonged. The site in the abbey grounds marked today as Arthur's Grave is in fact the place where the bones were reinterred in 1278 in a black marble tomb before the high altar. The original grave is unmarked, but lies 15m (50ft) from the south door of the Lady Chapel.

The Legends Of The Tor

King Arthur has an older connection with Glastonbury in a tale told long before the claimed discovery of his tomb. Melwas, a king of Somerset, kidnapped Guinevere and kept her prisoner at Glastonbury. Arthur came with a band of men to rescue his wife from the king's stronghold believed to have been on the Tor, but a settlement was arranged by the Abbot before fighting began.

During excavations in the 1960s, traces of early timber buildings were found on top of the 150m (500ft) Tor, but whether this was really the king's dwelling place or a monastic settlement could not be established. Whoever lived there had lived comfortably: among the finds were metal-working hearths, animal bones representing many joints of beef, mutton, and pork, and pieces of pottery suggesting Mediterranean wine had been drunk.

During medieval times Glastonbury Monks built a church on top of the Tor and dedicated it to St Michael the Archangel, but it fell during an earthquake. The tower that stands there today is all that remains of a subsequent church built to replace the earlier one. The monks' intention was probably to Christianize the pagan Tor. In legend, it was the entrance to the Annwn, a hidden realm of the Underworld whose lord was Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the Fairies. When the 6th-century St Collen visited Gwyn on the Tor he went through a secret entrance and found himself inside a palace. Subjected to the temptations, he sprinkled holy water all around, only to find the palace had disappeared and he was all alone on the Tor.

The Chalice Well

At the foot of the Tor is an old well whose spring waters sound like the beating of a heart. Because the waters are tinted red with iron oxide, the well is also called Blood Spring. But its most famous name is the Chalice Well, for a tradition has arisen that the priceless Holy Grail was hidden there. The legendary vessel was the chalice used by Jesus at the last supper and was brought by Joseph of Arimathea to England.

The Chalice Well at Glastonbury
The Chalice Well at Glastonbury

The Grail was said to have miraculous powers and after its disappearance was sought in vain by several of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. The Glastonbury legends may have a tenuous basis in fact but they have imbued the area with an aura of mystery that few other places generate.

The 12th-century chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote of Glastonbury Abbey that "It savoured somewhat of heavenly sanctity even from its very foundation, and exhaled it over the whole country..." Despite subsequent changes and modern development, Glastonbury remains still, in William's words, "a heavenly sanctuary on earth".


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