Monday, 6 April 2015

The Burial Cross of King Arthur

“Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the isle of Avalon”

Arthur's burial cross 
based on Camden's sketch
The Discovery of Arthur's Grave
With Henry II's death in 1189 and the accession of his son Richard to the throne funds where diverted to the cause of the Crusades. Glastonbury was in desperate need of funds following the fire of 1184 which destroyed the Abbey church. Pilgrims were a major source of income for religious houses; the more relics one held the more pilgrims would come to the site.

King Henry II was told of the location of King Arthur's grave at Glastonbury by an anonymous Welsh bard at Cilgerran Castle in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, where the king had stopped whilst on his way to Ireland in 1171. On his return Henry instigated a search at the Abbey and the grave was duly discovered, or so the story goes.

The body unearthed was confirmed as that of the renowned King Arthur by a leaden burial cross found in the grave with an inscription which also identified that this place, Glastonbury, was indeed the ancient Isle of Avalon.

These claims immediately raise suspicions; Henry II died 1189 and the search for Arthur's grave was not carried out until 1190 or 1191. Further, there are several versions of the discovery of the grave, including Ralph of Coggeshall in 1221 and Adam of Damerham 1290's, each offering slightly different details; there are at least five different versions of the inscription on the leaden burial cross found in the grave.

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), often quoted as the primary source providing the earliest account of the exhumation around 1193, in "Liber de Principis instructione" he claims to have handled the bones and the leaden cross at the invitation of the Abbot, Henry de Sully. Gerald provides the only account of the inscription on the cross to include Guinevere as Arthur's second wife. Later, in "Speculum Ecclesiae," c.1216, Gerald repeats the claim that the search was carried out at the instigation of Henry II:

“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. ….. 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.” [Gerald of Wales, Speculum Ecclesiae, c.1216]

Gerald's writings are the most literary and innovative of the all accounts of the exhumation in which he reports visions and revelations had been seen by holy men and declared that records at the abbey contained "signs" of the body's presence in Glastonbury and the letters inscribed on the ancient cross shafts (i.e. the pyramids) in the cemetery "almost obliterated by age" suggested the same. However, William of Malmesbury, regarded a reliable historian, considered the pyramids recorded a list of previous abbots and the like but made no mention of Arthur with Glastonbury.

The account of Ralph of Coggeshall differs from Gerald's in stating that the cross was “placed” on the coffin. Ralph also claims Arthur's body was found while they were cutting a grave for another monk who wished to be buried in that particular spot in the cemetery. An account from the chronicle of Margam Abbey, thought to be copied from a monastic circular sent out by Glastonbury Abbey within several years of the event, is the only report that mentions the discovery of Mordred's tomb in the same grave.1 Adam of Damerham's later account adds the interesting detail that during the excavation the grave site was surrounded by drapes or curtains conjuring images of a modern crime scene.2

John Leland, King Henry VIII's antiquarian, claimed to have handled the leaden burial cross that he said was nearly a foot in length, when he visited the Abbey between 1533 and 1539. Leland makes no mention of the inclusion of Guinevere in the inscription. A sketch of the cross included in the 1607 edition of William Camden's Britannia also fails to mention Guinevere.

Where the monks dug in 1191
Following the exhumation Gerald  asserts that the bodies were entombed in the Lady Chapel, telling us that, “They carried it into the church with every mark of honour and buried it decently there in a marble tomb.” [Liber de Principis Instructione, c.1193] The Margam Abbey version also notes that the body of Arthur was transferred "with suitable honour and much pomp" to a marble tomb in the abbey church.3 It appears the bodies remained in the Lady Chapel for the next 88 years.

Adam of Damerham, writing a hundred years after the event, does not dwell on the exhumation of 1190/91 but focuses on the visit of Edward I and Queen Eleanor to Glastonbury in 1278 and the ceremonial transfer of the bones of Arthur and Guinevere to a black marble tomb in front of the high altar in the larger church.4

“The lord Edward....with his consort, the lady Eleanor, came to celebrate Easter....the following dusk, the lord king had the tomb of the famous King Arthur opened. Wherein, in two caskets painted with their pictures and arms, were found separately the bones of the said king, which were of great size, and those of Queen Guinevere, which were of great beauty......On the following day.....the lord king replaced the bones of the king and queen ...each in their own casket, having wrapped them in costly silks. When they had been sealed they ordered the tomb to be placed forthwith in front of the high altar, after the removal of the skulls for the veneration of the people.”

There may have been some delay in transferring the relics to the new location prior to Edward I's visit. According to a contemporary account in the Annals of Waverley the relics of Arthur and Guinevere were extracted and placed in the Abbey's treasury, in the east range of the church, until they could be more fittingly located.5 In Adam's version of the transfer of the remains to the new tomb there is no mention of the tomb in the Lady Chapel but the Abbot Henry de Sully is actually described as having King Arthur and Guinevere's remains carried directly to the adjoining majorem ecclesiam. 

A site for the new black marble tomb was constructed in a central position before the High Altar, the most important site in the whole church, the Celtic warlord located between the tombs of the Anglo-Saxon kings Edmund the Elder and Edmund Ironside. The tomb was fashioned with two lions at each end, a cross at the head and an image of King Arthur at the foot. The top of the black marble tomb bore the following inscriptions:

Here lies Arthur , the flower of the kings , and the glory of the kingdom,
Which of the characters, and honesty, and with eternal praise , commend.

Here lies Arthur, the second wife is buried here ,
Who was worthy the heavens of the virtues prolific of offspring .

This was the same epitaph that Leland saw and wrote down when he visited Abbot Whiting between 1534 and the fall of the monastery in 1539.

This however was not the final resting place for the legendary King Arthur. In 1368 Walter de Monington (Abbot 1342-1375) extended the length of the choir by 40 feet, adding 2 bays, and accordingly re-positioned the tomb so that it would continue to occupy its prominent place by the High Altar. Monington had this area redecorated at the same time making the area inaccessible for some years. During this period Arthur's bones were probably again housed in the Treasury.6

A hundred and seventy years later Arthur and Guinevere's remains disappeared along with the marble tomb after the Abbey was wrecked at the hands of Henry VIII's commissioners during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. A plaque now identifies “The Site of King Arthur's Tomb”:

Plaque marking the site of Arthur's tomb 1278 - 1539
The discrepancies between the accounts of the medieval chroniclers has generally led to the acceptance of the discovery of Arthur's grave at Glastonbury being a complete hoax. Even so, if the cross was genuine perhaps the discovery of the grave was a real event?

The Glastonbury Excavations
Courtney Arthur Ralegh Radford was born in 1900 in the shadow of the Arthurian Revival, a generation stimulated by Tennyson's poetry, the Idylls of the King. His father and grandfather were friends of William Morris, the English textile designer and poet associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris was a close friend of the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti who used Malory's Le Morte Darthur as inspiration for their Arthurian art.

Most of those in charge of the earlier excavations at Glastonbury Abbey were personal friends of either Ralegh Radford  or his father. Indeed, his father was a close friend of Frederick Bligh Bond, who excavated Glastonbury Abbey between 1908 and 1921. His father took him to visit the excavations in 1910, and from 1925 onwards Ralegh Radford visited the site every year while the excavation was in progress, stimulating a lifelong fascination with the medieval monastery and its Arthurian connections.

The associations of Tintagel with the Arthurian legend compelled Ralegh Radford to excavate there in the 1930’s. He adopted a highly romantic view of the post-Roman west country; a “heroic age” linked with the figure of King Arthur. However, Ralegh Radford was not alone in his romantic obsession with Arthur; in the 1960's, he was instrumental in creating the Camelot Research Committee with a team of like minded researchers such as Leslie Alcock and Geoffrey Ashe.  The search for the “Real Camelot” led to excavations at Cadbury Castle (Somerset) under the program of the Camelot Research Committee.7

During excavations at the Abbey in 1962 Ralegh Radford searched for evidence of Arthur's grave. He used Gerald's account of the exhumation to determine the site in the old cemetery, south of the Lady Chapel, where he found evidence that a large irregular hole had been dug and then shortly afterwards refilled in the 1180's or ’90's.  The bottom of the hole had disturbed two or three of the slab-lined graves belonging to the earliest phase of the Celtic cemetery. He claimed evidence for his precise dating was found in the presence of Doulting stone chippings in the hole, a stone which, he argued, was first used at Glastonbury in the rebuilding of the Lady Chapel in 1184–89. Ralegh Radford was convinced that he had found the location where the monks dug in 1191 for the grave of King Arthur and Guinevere.8

However, on re-examining the excavation records Roberta Gilchrist of the University of Reading has argued that this feature was merely a pit and its identification as Arthur’s grave was based entirely on medieval accounts of the excavation, which, as we have seen above, are rather spurious at best and certainly unreliable. Doulting stone has been identified as the principal building material used in ALL phases of Glastonbury Abbey stonework including Anglo-Saxon carvings. It was certainly used before the rebuilding of the Lady Chapel in the late 12th century. Further, the slab-lined graves were cut into the layer of clay that Dunstan had laid to raise the level of the old cemetery in the 10th century and therefore must be later.9

The Site of the black marble tomb by the High Altar
If the discovery of Arthur's grave in 1190/91 was indeed genuine then Ralegh Radford had certainly not found the site. Yet, the most telling factor is the leaden burial cross. Alarmingly, there are significant differences in the wording of the inscription on the cross as described by men who had claimed to have actually handled it; five different versions of the inscription on the cross  have been reported, but only Gerald of Wales mentions the inclusion of “Guinevere, his second wife.10

Not only does the cross identify the body as that of Arthur but also conveniently identifies Glastonbury as the Isle of Avalon. Yet even that unscrupulous old cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth had failed to make the connection of Glastonbury with Avalon. Geoffrey mentions “Avalon” but twice in his Historia Regum Britanniae, (History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136); initially as the place were Arthur's sword Caliburnus was forged; and secondly he merely states that Arthur, mortally wounded, was taken there. In his later Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin, c.1148) Geoffrey provides more detail for the last journey of the King, but avoids the name “Avalon” completely and refers simply to the Fortunate Isles, as a Celtic island paradise, the abode of Morgan and her sisters.

The wording on the cross had been chosen carefully; Geoffrey's chronicle history of King Arthur had come to an end with the death of the “renowned king Arthur” and here were those exact words on his burial cross. A copy of Geoffrey's work is known to have existed at the Abbey.11

However, the cross was apparently still in existence in the 16th century when Leland handled it during his visit to Glastonbury and in the early 17th century when Camden sketched it and included it in his 1607 and 1608 editions of Britannia; however, there is some variation in the shapes of the letters between the two editions.12

So much of the authenticity of the discovery of Arthur's grave depends on this leaden burial cross. Yet, the only graphic representation that has come down to us is Camden's sketch in his Britannia. Leslie Alcock13 argues that the “evidence of the leaden cross can only be discounted if we maintain that Camden's drawing is not an accurate facsimile”.

It seems likely that Camden had not actually seen the cross but had in fact copied an earlier sketch. But what did he copy? In his description of the leaden cross, Camden says that it was “drawn out of the first copie in the Abbey of Glascon.14 A copy of a copy originating from the Abbey itself certainly raises suspicions; the authenticity of Camden's sketch of the cross, our only representation of it, is looking dubious already. Further, earlier editions of Camden's Britannia featured the letters only. Armitage Robinson,15 adds that in “Gibson's edition (1695) the arrangement of the letters upon it, would seem to have been an after-thought on Camden's part: it is only the antique form of the letters for which he expressly vouches.” Camden's sketch then is likely to be his visual representation of the cross and not an accurate facsimile. Presented with this evidence one is forced to question what value the burial cross can possibly provide in determining the authenticity of the discovery of the grave?

The Discovery of King Arthur's Grave - John Mortimer (c.1767)
The Burial Cross Re-discovered?
The cross was apparently last seen in the 18th century, in the possession of Mr. William Hughes, Chancellor of Wells, then disappeared.16

Then in December 1981 a Mr Derek Mahoney turned up at the British Museum with what appeared to be the burial cross of King Arthur. Mahoney  claimed the inscribed lead cross was found during dredging of the lake  in the grounds of Forty Hall, Enfield, Middlesex in 1981. Mahoney refused to leave it for further examination and it was never seen again. The museum employee, Sue Youngs, managed to note that the cross was exactly 6 and seven-eighth inches tall, precisely the height shown in Camden's drawing in Britannia.17 Of course we cannot be certain whether Camden's sketch was full size or scaled; the sixth edition of Britannia published in 1607 figured the first appearance of an illustration of the cross. The page size was twelve and a half inches which could have contained a full size drawing if, as Leland claims, the cross measured about one foot in length. This supports the notion that Camden copied a copy and that Mahoney's cross was indeed a replica based on Camden's sketch. We seem to be getting further away from the original burial cross, if it ever existed.

Earlier that year, in October, Mahoney had contacted he Local History Unit claiming to have recovered an artefact from the bed of the lower lake whilst silt clearance was being undertaken at Forty Hall. Mahoney claimed he was in possession of the Glastonbury Cross, being about 30cm high and inscribed with the legend “HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA” (“Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon”). The story appeared on radio and in the local papers.18

London Borough of Enfield, the Council, who owned the land where the lake is, took Mahoney to court in an attempt to recover the cross and served an injunction. Mahoney flatly refused to reveal its whereabouts, claiming he had hidden it in an “inert” container that no one would find. Refusing offers of legal aid he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for contempt but would be released as soon as he revealed the whereabouts of the cross.

Mahoney had been a lead pattern maker working for a well-known local firm of toy-makers who produced detailed lead models of cars. He had also been a member of the Enfield Archaeological Society. There is no obvious link between Glastonbury and Enfield other than that the antiquarian Richard Gough, an editor of Camden’s Britannia in which an illustration of the cross appeared, and a keen collector of antiquities, had lived at nearby Gough Park from 1714 until his death in 1809. However, there is no mention of the cross in any of Gough’s papers, or any reference to the object in any catalogue of his collection when it was sold at Sotheby's in 1810.

Mahoney had been involved in legal wrangles over a property transaction and the episode was dismissed as a publicity stunt. Sadly Mahoney, embittered and unwell, is believed to have taken his own life, and the secret of his cross with him.19

Edited 10/04/2015

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Both Antonia Gransden - Growth of the Glastonbury Legends and R Barber - Was Mordred buried at Glastonbury, in Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, DS Brewer, 2001, argue that the date of composition of the Margam Abbey account is uncertain, but it is believed to have been written within a decade or two of the original discovery in 1190/91 and may possibly be one of the earliest accounts of the discovery. Margam is the only report that mentions the additional discovery of Mordred's tomb, stating that there were three separate coffins; one each for Arthur, Guinevere and Mordred. Only Margam and Ralph of Coggleshall state the monks dug between the two pyramids where a dying monk had requested to be buried. Both their accounts of the inscription on the leaden cross are identical. It seems that the Margam and Ralph of Coggleshall accounts derive from a common exemplar which may have been of  Glastonbury provenance.
2. Gransden, Ibid., considers that Adam of Damerham's account does not appear to be totally independent of Gerald's. The latter of Adam's two accounts written, a hundred years after the event, is derived almost word for word from Gerald's version in the Speculum Ecclesiae - or a source common to both accounts. The other is substantially the same as Gerald's, albeit in different words, with the exception of one or two additional items, such as the mention of screens surrounding the exhumation. Another passage in Adam resembles one in Gerald's earlier account in De Principis Instructione.
3. Gerald records the bodies were moved within the monks' church and placed in a tomb at the centre of the choir. W Nitze, in The Exhumation of King Arthur at Glastonbury, Speculum, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Oct., 1934), pp. 355-36, argues the Lady Chapel (presumably unfinished) is meant. The Margam Abbey account also records the translation of the relics to a marble tomb within the Abbey church which is often confused with the visit of Edward I to Glastonbury in 1278, and, mistakenly, the reason the Margam account is often given a late 13th century date.
4. Edward I's visit in 1278 followed on the Edwardian invasion of Wales in 1277. Conveniently the discovery of the grave and cross proved that Arthur was not merely sleeping but indeed dead, and that the Welsh resistance was doomed, as their messiah could not return. However, it failed to prevent a further Welsh rebellion five years later in 1282.
5. James P Carley and Michelle P Brown, A Fifteenth Century Revision of the Glastonbury Epitaph, in Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, DS Brewer, 2001.
6. Carley and Brown, Ibid.
7. See: Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, Penguin, 1971, pp. 73-80, for his hypothesis that the Glastonbury Exhumation was not a monkish forgery.
8. CA Ralegh Radford, Glastonbury Abbey, in Geoffrey Ashe, editor, The Quest for Arthur's Britain, Pall Mall press, 1968, pp.107-108.
9. Roberta Gilchrist, Courtney Arthur Ralegh Radford, in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy XII, British Academy, pp. 341-358, 2013.
10. All these medieval accounts are very similar, essentially informing the discover that this was Arthur's grave in the Isle of Avalon, but with the fundamental difference, found only in Gerald's account, of the inclusion of Guinevere, his second wife. Suggestions that part of the cross is now missing or the Guinevere inscription is on the underside form a weak counter argument; no account mentions an inscription on the underside and Camden's drawing appears to show a complete cross.
11. S C Morland, King Arthur's Leaden Cross, Somerset & Dorset Notes & Queries, 31, 1984, pp.366-67, notes that the epithet “inclitus” (renowned) is not known to have applied to Arthur until after Geoffrey of Monmouth.
12. Aelred Watkin, quoted in James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996, says the lettering on the burial cross is identical to the lettering on a 12th century tympanum on the north door of St Mary's church at Stoke-sub-Hamdon, about one mile from Montacute in Somerset, barely 18 miles from Glastonbury.
13. Leslie Alcock, op.cit.
14. Richard Barber, Arthur of Albion: An Introduction to the Arthurian Literature and Legends of England, Boydell Press, 2nd Edition, 1973, pp. 58-9. (Re-issued as King Arthur: Hero and Legend).
15. J Armitage Robinson, Two Glastonbury Legends, Kessinger, 2003, (facsimile reprint of 1926 edition).
16. Sharon Turner, History of the Anglo-Saxons, from the earliest period to the Norman Conquest, Volume 1, Philadelphia, 1841. p.201, states that in Whitaker's “Manchester”, Dr Whitaker was told that the cross had lately been in the possession of Mr Chancellor Hughes of Wells.  Armitage Robinson (Two Glastonbury Legends, p.59), states that he can find no reference to Chancellor Hughes in Whitaker's “History of Manchester” published in 1771 and 1775, and suggests that Turner may have obtained information directly from Whitaker.
However, James P Carley, (Glastonbury Abbey, p.178), notes that the last fully reliable account is to be found in the late 17th century manuscript (Bodleian Rawlinson B.416A, fol.10v) where it is reported that the lead plate from the underside of the cover of Arthur's coffin at the Dissolution of the Abbey was within the Reverstry of the parish church of St John's in Glaston is now lost.
17. Peter Hancock, Hoax Springs Eternal, Cambridge University Press 2015.
18. Geoffrey Gillam, The King Arthur Cross, The Bulletin of the Enfield Archaeological Society, No 151, December, 1998.
19. Richard Mawrey, The Mystery of the Glastonbury Cross, in History Today, April, 2012.

Glastonbury Abbey photographs - the author.

* * *


  1. Interesting post, difficult to make any sense of the affair with so many contradictory stories. If my memory serves me correctly, Leland says the cross was on top of the marble tomb at the time of his visit, presumably from 1278.
    What is the source for the cross being in the possession of William Hughes, Chancellor of Wells in the 18th century?

    1. Hi Frank,
      Good point, I've updated the post and included my notes with full references to hopefully make better reading.
      Best wishes