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Sunday 16 March 2014

The Lost Tomb of King Arthur

Glastonbury in Somerset is a town about which many fascinating claims have been made. In previous posts I’ve mentioned its reputed connections with Psychic Archaeology, the Knights Templar and even Saint Patrick. My book Bloody British History: Somerset has no fewer than 18 references to Glastonbury in the index. Not all of these are literally “bloody”, although many of them are. There was the group of Irish pilgrims who were massacred while visiting the shrine of Saint Patrick in 708 AD. There was the first Norman Abbot of Glastonbury, who dealt with a group of unruly monks by having them slaughtered at the altar of the church. And then there was the last Abbot of Glastonbury, who was hung, drawn and quartered on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539.

Some of the Glastonbury stories in the book are not so much bloody as mysterious. An example is the supposed discovery of the bones of King Arthur in the grounds of the Abbey in 1191. In my brief account of this, I took the standard modern-day view that it was just a cynical publicity stunt, aimed at luring pilgrims to the Abbey when the monks were short of funds to rebuild it after a disastrous fire. But was it really that simple? I’ve just read a short ebook on the subject, The Lost Tomb of King Arthur by Oliver Hayes – and now I’m not so certain.

I reviewed another of Oliver’s ebooks last year – The Papal Prophecies. That book, although it was a fascinating story, showed signs of having been put together in a hurry to coincide with the election of the new Pope. In contrast, The Lost Tomb of King Arthur appears to be the end result of long and careful research on the subject. It’s part of a series called Celtic Twilight, which seeks to demystify some of the semi-legendary events that took place in the British Isles during the early Middle Ages.

King Arthur, of course, is as semi-legendary as they come. Different parts of the country have their own views as to who he was, when he lived, and what he did. Down here in the south-west, the prevailing opinion is that he was the King of Dumnonia around 500 AD, a century or so after the departure of the Romans. Dumnonia roughly corresponded to modern-day Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, which remained resolutely Celtic while Wessex to the East (Dorset/Wiltshire/Hampshire) adopted the language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.

If it’s true that King Arthur really existed, then he must have been buried somewhere. To be honest, this blindingly obvious fact never occurred to me until I read Oliver’s book. Putting all the myths and legends to one side, where was the most likely place for a king to be interred? People have always buried their important leaders in important places. In Christian times, that generally meant a major religious establishment. If Arthur was King of Dumnonia, it makes perfect sense that he would have been buried at Glastonbury. The monastery there was an important centre of the Celtic Church, and it lay within the boundaries of Dumnonia as they existed in the 6th century.

For Oliver, this is just the starting point. The focus of his book is not on Arthur’s burial in the 6th century, but on the supposed rediscovery of his remains in the 12th century. Did Glastonbury monks really unearth his tomb in 1191, or did they fake it? Oliver’s surprising answer is... neither of the above! I won’t spoil the fun by giving his argument away, but it’s ingenious and persuasive – and it may even be right!

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