Two Accounts of the Exhumation of Arthur’s Body

Gerald of Wales
Two Accounts of the Exhumation of Arthur’s Body

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis, as he is sometimes known) was a well-known churchman of the twelfth century and the author of seventeen books. He was born in either 1145 or 1146 of three-quarters Norman and one-quarter Welsh extraction, in Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, South Wales. He was the great-grandson of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the Prince of South Wales (on his mother’s side), and the son of William de Barri, a Norman knight. He was self-described as strikingly handsome and quite tall. He possessed boundless energy, strong personal skills and a firm belief in his own ability and importance.

One of his uncles, David FitzGerald was made Bishop of St. David’s in 1148, an event which provided young Gerald with his life’s goal. His ultimate desire was to be consecrated as Bishop of St. David’s, without having to acknowledge the supremacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then to have the Pope elevate his bishopric into the Archbishopric of St. David’s. Although, in his long life, he was never able to satisfy this ambition, it was not for want of effort, as he focused all his considerable energies toward it from the late 1170’s through the early days of the reign of King John.

In the course of things, he was offered, but refused to accept, four other bishoprics in Ireland and Wales, and, thus had to content himself with the lesser post of Archdeacon of Brecon, which he described by saying,

“In this most temperate area I myself have been appointed to a post of some importance, to use the jargon with which we are all so familiar, but it affords me no great promise of wealth and certainly no expectation of ever playing my part in the tragic pomps and ceremonies of this world.

Because of his Norman blood and connection with Welsh royalty, Gerald was well acquainted with those in power, and had many opportunities to serve at the highest levels of twelfth century society. No doubt, it was in connection with that service that he was at Glastonbury in 1190 to witness the uncovering of a grave, said to be that of King Arthur. Gerald refers to Arthur as being a famous, local ruler but never even hints that he might have been a king of the intercontinental proportions suggested by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

Gerald wrote two accounts of this event which are given below. He is generally regarded to be a reliable historian and there is no reason to doubt that he did witness the opening of a grave at the Abbey, over 800 years ago.

From “Liber de Principis instructione” c.1193
The memory of Arthur, that most renowned King of the Britons, will endure for ever. In his own day he was a munificent patron of the famous Abbey at Glastonbury, giving many donations to the monks and always supporting them strongly, and he is highly praised in their records. More than any other place of worship in his kingdom he loved the Church of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, in Glastonbury, and he fostered its interests with much greater loving care than that of any of the others. When he went out to fight, he had a full-length portrait of the Blessed Virgin painted on the front of his shield, so that in the heat of battle he could always gaze upon Her; and whenever he was about to make contact with the enemy he would kiss Her feet with great devoutness.

In our own lifetime Arthur’s body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot. The body was hidden deep in the earth in a hollowed-out oak bole and between two stone pyramids which had been set up long ago in the churchyard there. They carried it into the church with every mark of honour and buried it decently there in a marble tomb. It had been provided with most unusual indications which were, indeed, little short of miraculous, for beneath it, and not on top, as would be the custom nowadays, there was a stone slab, with a leaden cross attached to its under side. I have seen this cross myself and I have traced the lettering which was cut into it on the side turned towards the stone, instead of being on the outer side and immediately visible.

The inscription read as follows:


There are many remarkable deductions to be made from this discovery. Arthur obviously had two wives, and the second one was buried with him. Her bones were found with those of her husband, but they were separate from his. Two thirds of the coffin, the part towards the top end, held the husband’s bones, and the other section, at his feet, contained those of his wife. A tress of woman’s hair, blond, and still fresh and bright in colour, was found in the coffin. One of the monks snatched it up and it immediately disintegrated into dust.

There had been some indications in the Abbey records that the body would be discovered on this spot, and another clue was provided by lettering carved on the pyramids, but this had been almost completely erased by the passage of the years. The holy monks and other religious had seen visions and revelations. However, it was Henry II, King of England, who had told the monks that, according to a story which he had heard from some old British soothsayer, they would find Arthur’s body buried at least sixteen feet in the ground, not in a stone coffin but in a hollowed-out oak bole. It had been sunk as deep as that, and carefully concealed, so that it could never be discovered by the Saxons, whom Arthur had attacked relentlessly as long as he lived and whom, indeed, he had almost wiped out, but who occupied the island [of Britain] after his death.

That was why the inscription, which was eventually to reveal the truth, had been cut into the inside of the cross and turned inwards towards the stone. For many a long year this inscription was to keep the secret of what the coffin contained, but eventually, when time and circumstance were both opportune the lettering revealed what it had so long concealed.

What is now known as Glastonbury used, in ancient times, to he called the Isle of Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is called ‘Ynys Avallon’, which means the Island of Apples and this fruit used to grow there in great abundance. After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, who was the ruler and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the district had also been called ‘Ynys Gutrin’ in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name ‘Glastingebury.’ The word ‘glass’ in their language means ‘vitrum’ in Latin, and bury’ means ‘castrum’ or ‘civitas’.

You must know that the bones of Arthur’s body which were discovered there were so big that, in them, the poet’s words seem to be fulfilled:

All men will exclaim at the size of the bones they’ve exhumed (Virgil, “Georgics,” I.497)

The Abbot showed me one of the shin-bones. He held it upright on the ground against the foot of the tallest man he could find, and it now stretched a good three inches above the man’s knee. The skull was so large and capacious that it seemed a veritable prodigy of nature, for the space between the eyebrows and the eye-sockets was as broad as the palm of a man’s hand. Ten or more wounds could clearly be seen, but they had all mended except one. This was larger than the others and it had made an immense gash. Apparently it was this wound which had caused Arthur’s death.

From “Speculum Ecclesiae,” c.1216
In our own lifetime, when Henry II was reigning in England, strenuous efforts were made in Glastonbury Abbey to locate what must have once been the splendid tomb of Arthur. It was the King himself who put them on to this, and Abbot Henry, who was later elected Bishop of Worcester, gave them every encouragement.

With immense difficulty, Arthur’s body was eventually dug up in the churchyard dedicated by Saint Dunstan. It lay between two tall pyramids with inscriptions on them, which pyramids had been erected many years before in memory of Arthur. The body was reduced to dust, but it was lifted up into the fresh air from the depths of the grave and carried with the bones to a more seemly place of burial. In the same grave there was found a tress of woman’s hair, blond and lovely to look at, plaited and coiled with consummate skill, and belonging, no doubt, to Arthur’s wife, who was buried there with her husband.

The moment that [he saw],this lock of hair, [one of the monks], who was standing there in the crowd, jumped down into the deep grave in an attempt to snatch hold of it before any of the others. It was a pretty shameless thing to do and it showed little reverence for the dead. This monk, then, of whom I have told you, a silly, rash and impudent fellow, who had come to gawp at what was going on, dropped down into the hole, which was a sort of symbol of the Abyss from which none of us can escape. He was determined to seize hold of this tress of woman’s hair before anyone else could do so and to touch it with his hand. This was a fair indication of his wanton thoughts, for female hair is a snare for the feeble-minded, although those with any strength of purpose can resist it.

Hair is considered to be imperishable, in that it has no fleshy content and no humidity of its own, but as he held it in his hand after picking it up and stood gazing at it in rapture, it immediately disintegrated into fine powder. All those who were watching were astounded by what had happened. By some sort of miracle, not to say. . ., it just disappeared, as if suddenly changed back into atoms, for it could never have been uncoiled and examined closely. . .this showed that it was even more perishable than most things, proving that all physical beauty is a transitory thing for us to stare at with our vacant eyes or to grope for in our lustful moments, empty and availing nothing. As the philosopher says: ‘Physical beauty is short-lived, it disappears so soon’ it fades more quickly than the flowers in springtime.

Many tales are told and many legends have been invented about King Arthur and his mysterious ending. In their stupidity the British people maintain that he is still alive. Now that the truth is known, I have taken the trouble to add a few more details in this present chapter. The fairy-tales have been snuffed out, and the true and indubitable facts are made known, so that what really happened must be made crystal clear to all and separated from the myths which have accumulated on the subject.

After the Battle of Camlann. . .killed his uncle. . .Arthur: the sequel was that the body of Arthur, who had been mortally wounded, was carried off by a certain noble matron, called Morgan, who was his cousin, to the Isle of Avalon, which is now known as Glastonbury. Under Morgan’s supervision the corpse was buried in the churchyard there. As a result, the credulous Britons and their bards invented the legend that a fantastic sorceress called Morgan had removed Arthur’s body to the Isle of Avalon, so that she might cure his wounds there. According to them, once he has recovered from his wounds this strong and all-powerful King will return to rule over the Britons in the normal way. The result of all this is that they really expect him to come back, just as the Jews, led astray by even greater stupidity, misfortune and misplaced faith, really expect their Messiah to return.

It is worth noting. . .just as, indeed. . .placed by all, as. . .are called islands and are known to be situated in salt water, that is to say in the sea. It is called Avalon, either from the Welsh word ‘aval’, which means apple, because appletrees and apples are very common there, or from the name of a certain Vallo who used to rule over the area long ago. In remote times, the place used to be called ‘Ynys Gutrin’ in the Welsh language, that is the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows round it in the marshland. As a result, the Saxons who occupied the area later on called it ‘Glastonia’ in their language, for in Saxon or English ‘glass’ corresponds to the Latin word ‘vitrum’. From what I have said, you can see why it was called first ‘the Isle of Avalon’ and then ‘Glastonia’. It is also clear how this fantastic sorceress came to be adopted by the story-tellers.
It is worthy of note that the Abbot called. . .also from the letters inscribed on it, although they had been almost obliterated long ago by the passing of the years, and he had the aforesaid King Henry to provide the main evidence.

The King had told the Abbot on a number of occasions that he had learnt from the historical accounts of the Britons and from their bards that Arthur had been buried in the churchyard there between two pyramids which had been erected subsequently, very deep in the ground for fear lest the Saxons, who had striven to occupy the whole island after his death, might ravage the dead body in their evil lust for vengeance. Arthur had attacked them on a great number of occasions and had expelled them from the Island of Britain, but his dastardly nephew Mordred had called them back again to fight against him. To avoid such a frightful contingency, to a large stone slab, found in the tomb by those who were digging it up, some seven feet. . .a leaden cross had been fixed, not on top of the stone, but underneath it, bearing this inscription:


They prised this cross away from the stone, and Abbot Henry, about whom I have told you, showed it to me. I examined it closely and I read the inscription. The cross had been attached to the under side of the stone and, to make it even less easy to find, the surface with the lettering had been turned towards the stone. One can only wonder at the industry and the extraordinary prudence of the men of that period, who were determined to protect at all costs and for all time the body of this great man, their leader and the ruler of this area, from the possibility of sudden desecration. At the same time they ensured that at some moment in the future, when the troubles were over, the evidence of the lettering cut into the cross might be discovered as an indication of what they had done.

. . .it had indicated, so Arthur’s body was discovered, not in a stone sarcophagus, carved out of rock or of Parian marble, as would have been seemly for so famous a King, but in wood, in an oak bole hollowed out for this purpose and buried deep in the earth, sixteen feet or more down, for the burial of so great a Prince, hurried, no doubt, rather than performed with due pomp and ceremony, as this period of pressing disturbance made only too necessary.

When the body was discovered from the indications provided by King Henry, the Abbot whom I have named had a splendid marble tomb built for it, as was only proper, for so distinguished a ruler of the area, who, moreover, had shown more favour to this church than to any other in his kingdom, and had endowed it with wide and extensive lands. By the judgement of God, which is always just and which in this case was certainly not unjustified, who rewards all good deeds not only in Heaven above but on this earth and in our terrestrial Iife. . .,
church. . .others of his kingdom. . .the genuine [remains] and the body. . .of Arthur to be buried in a seemly fashion. . .and gloriously. . .and. . .inhumed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *