Glastonbury and King Arthur

Glastonbury is a town in Somerset. It is set in a cluster of hills and Glastonbury was at one time almost an island as the surrounding Somerset Levels were wetlands. In Celtic times Glastonbury was a centre of overseas trade.

Glastonbury Tor, the highest of these hills had a place in myth and ritual as the door to Annwfa, the Otherworld. And this has probably led Glastonbury to being identified in Arthurian legend as The Isle of Avalon.

One can consider two King Arthur locations here - Glastonbury Abbey (a supposed location of Arthur's grave) and Glastonbury Tor (the inspiration for the Island of Avalon).

Robert de Boron and Perlesvaus was the first to associate Glastonbury (under the name of Avalon) with the Grail story. Joseph of Arimathea was said to have brought the Grail to the Abbey. Arthur was first connected with the Grail in 1130 AD by Caradac of Llancarfan. In his work includes an early version of the abduction of Guinevere by Melwas to Glastonbury.

Glastonbury is also the reputed site of Arthur's grave which was found around 1190. It is said a Welsh or Breton bard gave the location to Henry II, telling him that Arthur was buried in the old graveyard at Glastonbury between two pyramids. At seven feet down, they found a stone slab with an inset lead cross; at 16 feet down they found a hollowed out log that contained the skeletal remains of an exceptionally large man and a delicate woman. The cross with the words ""Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere, his second wife, in the isle of Avalon." has disappeared over time, though modern re-excavation found that there was an actual early burial here. Current belief is that the "Glastonbury grave" was a wheeze to increase revenues for Glastonbury abbey. The Abbey had suffered a devastating fire in 1184 and was in desperate need of money to rebuild.

After the grave was discovered in 1190, it was moved by order of King Edward I to the interior of Glastonbury Abbey in 1278. A black marble tomb was built within the nave of Glastonbury cathedral near the high altar. After the dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey, the tomb was destroyed, and a portion of a tomb from the right time period is preserved today in the abbey visitor's center. Today there is a marker that identifies the place as the gravesite in the midst of the abbey ruins.

The main source of evidence for such a burial is from Gerald of Wales in 1223, and John Lelend in the 16th century

However, Arthur’s body, which the fables allege was like a fantastic thing at the end, and as it were moved by the
spirit to far away places, and not subject to death, in our own days was discovered at Glastonbury between two
stone pyramids erected in the holy cemetery, hidden deep in the ground by a hollow oak and marked with wonderful
The Cross found at Glastonbury signs and marvels, and it was moved into the church with honor and committed properly to a
marble tomb. Whence a leaden cross with a stone underneath, not above as it usually is in our day, but rather lower nailed on the side, (which I have seen, and in fact I have traced these sculpted letters - not projecting and protruding, but carved into the stone) contains the words: "Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere, his second wife, in the isle of Avalon.
-Gerald of Wales, c. 1223

John Leland describes this cross from his own inspection of it in The Assertion of King Arthure:

It was made of a leaden plate, one foote long more or lesse, which I have beholden with most curious eyes, and handled with feareful joyntes in each part, being moved both with the Antiquitie and worthinesse of the thing. It conteyneth upon it these wordes in those not so greate Romane letters, but indifferent cunningly graven, viz. HIC IACIT SEPVLTVS INCLITVS REX ARTHVRIVS, IN INSVLA AVALONIA.

In 1607, William Camden published a drawing of the original lead cross of Glastonbury, which he claimed to have seen while in the possession of Mr. Hughes, a cleric at Wells Cathedral. He also stated that the other side of the cross named Guinevere, but the that side was never drawn. His drawing of the Glastonbury Cross has never been substantiated.

Southern England Arthurian Sites