Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Avalon and the Death of King Arthur



The accounts of King Arthur's final battle remain much the same throughout later literature, with Arthur being taken to Avalon after he is mortally wounded as we are told by Geoffrey of Monmouth:

...and being carried thence to the Isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, he gave up the crown of Britain to his kinsman Constantine, the son of Cador, duke of Cornwall, in the five hundred and forty-second year of our Lord's incarnation.

While all literature tells us that Arthur is badly wounded in the Battle of Camlann, the date of the battle seems to vary and we are often not told whether King Arthur dies from his wounds after reaching Avalon.  In Wace's Roman de Brut, this final detail is left open for the reader's interpretation.

...Arthur himself was wounded in the body to the death.  He caused him to be borne to Avalon for the searching of his hurts.  He is yet in Avalon, awaited of the Britons; for as they say and deem he will return from whence he went to live again.  Master Wace, the writer of this book, cannot add more to this matter of his end than was spoken by Merlin the prophet.  Merlin said of Arthur - if I read aright - that his end should be hidden in doubtfulness.  The prophet spoke truly.  Men have ever doubted and - I am persuaded - will always doubt whether he liveth or is dead.


Like is Geoffrey's Historia, Wace tells us that Arthur bade that he should be carried to Avalon in this hope in the year 642 of the Incarnation.  He gives a much later date for the battle but agrees with Geoffrey that Arthur hands over his kingdom to Constantine: commanding him to hold it as king until he returned to his own.  The earl took the land to his keeping.  He held it as hidden, but nevertheless Arthur never came again.

The end of Arthur's life is much the same in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, with Arthur being taken to Avalon by Morgan le Fay to be healed of his wounds. 

Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me pray for my soul.
Avalon by raysheaf

Malory does not tell us that Arthur dies from his wounds, again leaving it up to the reader to interpret.

Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross.  I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life.  But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus.

Despite these accounts leaving King Arthur's fate open to interpretation, later tradition assumes that Arthur died and was buried in Avalon, which is traditionally identified with Glastonbury.  Glastonbury has been deemed as suitable for a High-King,; the most holy place in Britain due to Glastonbury's Vetusta Ecclesia or Old-Church, which is said to have been founded by St. Joseph of Arimathea.  The Isle of Avalon is also known as the 'place of apple' and apparently Glastonbury was once known as the 'Isle of Avalon'.  While no one today would consider Glastonbury to be an island, in the 5th century it was surrounded by lakes and marshes for several kilometres.  And it was, for centuries, noted for its delicious, red apples.  While this is an interesting coincidence, it is not absolute proof that Glastonbury is the Avalon of Arthurian legend.




Glastonbury was once the richest and most important abbey in the country but, in the 12th century, the abbey and some of the surrounding buildings burned to the ground.  Then, in 1190, the monks were in desperate need of pilgrim-attracting  relics.  After receiving information, which had been passed onto King Henry II by 'an ancient Welsh band', that King Arthur had been buried on the grounds of Glastonbury.  They dug beneath 'two pyramids' and later claimed that they had discovered the bones of both King Arthur and Guinevere.  To prove that the bones were authentic the monks produced an inscribed leaden cross which they claimed to have discovered above the grave.

Gerald of Wales, a medieval historian, wrote two accounts of this claimed discovery.  One was included in Liber de Principis instructione, written in 1193.
"Leaden cross found in Arthur's grave, Glastonbury" William Camden

In my 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...  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 underside.  I have seen this cross myself and I have traced the letting which was cut into it on the side turned toward the stone, instead of being on the outer side and immediately visible.
The inscription reads as follows:

HERE IN THE ISLE OF AVALON LIES
BURIED THE RENOWNED KING ARTHUR,
WITH GUINEVERE, HIS SECOND WIFE

...There has been some indication 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 erased by the passage of the years...  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 16ft 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.

There were other accounts of the discovery of the grave and the cross which appeared in various other chronicles, all of which included or omitted details which others did not.  It total there are at least five other versions of the discovery, all of which have differing details.  These inconsistencies led many scholars to believe that a great hoax had been perpetrated by the Glastonbury monks.  Adding to their suspicions aroused by these differing accounts, the possibility of this having been a hoax gains strength when the Glastonbury monks' other possible motives came to their attention.
In 1184, Glastonbury abbey church, the greatest in England, and some say 'possibly in all of Christiandom', was completely destroyed by fire - just a few short years before the 'discovery' was made.  Their greatest pilgrim attraction, the Old Church, burned along with it.  The monks' chief benefactor, King Henry II, died and King Richard was unconcerned, leaving the monks with no one to finance their efforts to rebuild.  The location of Arthur's grave had never been identified nor even speculated about, giving the monks an opportunity to provide a location for it.  To top it all off, the Norman Kings were concerned about the possibility of a Welsh rebellion and were keen to prove that King Arthur was indeed dead, meaning he would be unable to lead a rebellion.  This would, in turn, discourage the rebellion and provide peace of mind.  Some speculate that the Norman Kings and Glastonbury monks may have even planned the hoax together.

The Old Church as it may have looked in 712AD
The monks apparently documented the discovery of the tomb but, like in many historical 'discoveries', all the physical evidence - the bones, coffin, and the leaden cross - has been lost, leaving us with nothing but the tracings made before it disappeared.  Unfortunately, there is no way to say if these tracings are accurate or not.  The inscription, however, gives the opportunity to date the lettering.  On closer examination the style of some letters within the text were not used until long after King Arthur's time, meaning the cross was almost certainly a forgery.

All we can really glean from Arthurian literature is that Arthur fought and was wounded during the Battle of Camlann before being taken to the Isle of Avalon.  Whether he died from his wounds is left unclear, although we can assume that he did eventually die.  Where he was buried is not known for certain, but some believe that his grave was discovered in 1190 by the Glastonbury monks, while others believe that King Arthur never existed.  And then there are those that think King Arthur and his knights still live but are sleeping, waiting for when they are most needed.