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Medieval Mythbusting in Glastonbury

Myths made by medieval monks in Glastonbury may have fooled archaeologists searching for King Arthur’s grave

Site of King Arthurs tomb Glastonbury AbbeyArthur’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 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.”

From: Gerald of Wales: The Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur, from On the Instruction of a Prince (De Instructione Principis), c. 1223 © Internet Medieval Source Book1994, translated by Scott McLetchie.

In 1184 Glastonbury Abbey was engulfed in a devastating fire and the monks were left with a dire need to raise money to rebuild their church. That meant raising money by increasing the numbers of visiting pilgrims and that meant keeping the myths and legends alive. Accordingly, the monks laid out the buildings in a very distinctive way to emphasise the ‘earliest church’ story. Seemingly they also manipulated the evidence and ‘created’ the site for the burial of King Arthur. Since then, Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset has held a special place in popular culture.

Glastonbury Abbey source Pinterest
Glastonbury Abbey. Source: Pinterest

– Uniquely, the religious and cult focus of the site was to the west of the Abbey church, centred on the Lady Chapel. This occupied the site of the legendary early church, allegedly founded by Joseph of Arimathea, tells Professor Roberta Gilchrist, who for some years have lead a team of researchers sifting through the history and the archaeology of this iconic place.

The analysis has shown how the medieval monks simply spin-doctored the Abbey’s mythical links to make Glastonbury one of the richest monasteries in the country.

– The monks deliberately designed the rebuilt church to look older in order to demonstrate its ancient heritage and pre-eminent place in monastic history, using archaic architecture style and reused material to emphasise the Abbey’s mythical feel. This swelled pilgrim numbers – and the Abbey’s coffers, says Gilchrist and continues

– It was a strategy that paid off: Glastonbury Abbey became the second richest monastery in England by the end of the Middle Ages. Re-examination of the archaeological records revealed the exceptional scale of the abbot’s lodging, a luxurious palatial complex to the southwest of the cloister.

Archaeoloy Revisited

Model of Glastonbury Abbey in the site museum.
Model of Glastonbury Abbey in the site museum.

The four-year project has reassessed and and reinterpreted all known archaeological records from excavations at the Abbey between 1904 and 1979, none of which have not been published until now.

Analysis revealed that some of the Abbey’s best known archaeological ‘facts’ are themselves myths – many of these perpetuated by excavators influenced by the fabled Abbey’s legends. The project, conducted with the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, involved a team of 31 specialists.

– Our project has rewritten the history of Glastonbury Abbey. Although several major excavations were undertaken during the 20th century, dig directors were led heavily on by Glastonbury’s legends and the occult. Using 21st century technology we took a step back from the myth and legend to expose the true history of the Abbey, Gilchrist says.

Research thus revealed that the site was occupied 200 years earlier than previously estimated – fragments of ceramic wine jars imported from the Mediterranean represents evidence of a ‘Dark Age’ settlement.

The project also explored the archaeological collections of Glastonbury Abbey Museum, including chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal and pottery.

A comprehensive new geophysical survey of the Abbey grounds was also undertaken. A key focus for the researchers was the work of Raleigh Radford, who excavated there in the 1950s and ‘60s. Radford claimed to have discovered a Christian ‘British’ cemetery, a Saxon cloister that was believed to be the earliest in England, as well as the site of King Arthur’s grave, allegedly located by the monks in 1181.

Glass from Glastonbury Abbey found in the excavations
Glass from Glastonbury Abbey found in the excavations. Source: The Museum

However this latest analysis disputes these findings, with the graves Radford judged to be ‘Dark Age’ shown to be later than the Saxon church and cemetery. Additionally the site of Arthur’s ‘grave’ was revealed to be a pit in the cemetery containing material dating from the 11th to 15th centuries, with no evidence linking to the era of the legendary King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.

Professor Gilchrist added: “It’s likely the judgement of excavators like Radford was clouded by the Abbey myths. They were also less critical of historical sources than we are today and did not have the luxury of 21st century technology.

On the other hand the team relying on radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis has been able to make some amazing new discoveries. “We identified an early timber building of very high status, as well as a large craft-working complex of  five glass furnaces radiocarbon dated to c. AD 700. This represents the earliest and most substantial evidence for glass-working in Saxon England”, she tells.

The next stage in the project will see the researchers work with the Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey to enhance the visitor experience. Digital reconstructions and an interactive map will be developed as well as a new guidebook and education packs for schools.

A monograph, which reports on the analysis of the archaeological archives is already available. The dataset is publicly available through a recently completed digital archive.

VISIT:

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Abbey Gatehouse
Magdalene Street
Glastonbury
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BA6 9EL

READ:

Glastonbury Abbey CoverGlastonbury Abbey – archaeological investigations 
by Roberta Gilchrist and Cheryl Green
Society of Antiquaries of London 2015
ISBN-10: 0854313001
ISBN-13: 978-0854313006

 

 

 

 

READ MORE:

Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition
Edited by James P. Carley
Boydell & Brewer 2001
ISBN: 9780859915724

The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s “Cronica Sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie”
By James P. Carley and David Townsend
Boydell & Brewer 1985
ISBN: 9780851158594