King Arthur – The grave

Given the prolific belief that Arthur would eventually return from the island or valley of Avalon, his grave is rarely mentioned. We first find a reference to it in the early Welsh poem known as The Stanzas of the Graves, which discusses the grave sites of famous heroes. The pertinent line reads “anoeth bit bet y Arthur”. This line has been translated as “Arthur’s grave is hard to find”, “a grave for Arthur would be ridiculous”, and “the wondrous grave of Arthur”.

Anoeth is the difficult word; it is an intensifier compared to the English “incredible”. It could mean that the location of the grave is mysterious, or that the grave itself has mysterious properties. Thus, it is unclear what, exactly, the line is indicating, but it does seems to anticipate later legend in suggesting a enigma surrounding the final resting place of the legendary king. William of Malmesbury, in 1125, wrote that the location of Arthur’s grave was unknown and that the Britons expected his eventual return, and this sentiment is echoed throughout the Middle Ages, even after the discovery of his “grave” at Glastonbury.

A much clearer description of Arthur’s grave was reported by Giraldus Cambrensis in De Instructione Principum. About 1190, the monks at Glastonbury Abbey, supposedly directed by Henry II, who had heard tales from bards, located Arthur’s grave in the abbey churchyard and exhumed it. The grave, six feet underground in a hollowed oak tree between two stone pyramids, was unmarked on the surface. The Britons had apparently buried Arthur this way so that the Saxons would not defile the sepulcher. A cross, face down atop the wooden coffin, according to Giraldus read:

“Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Wenneveria his second wife on the Island of Avalon.”

Hence, the identification of Glastonbury with Avalon. Within the oak, two skeletons were found. Arthur’s was notable for its enormous bones and a wound in the skull, presumably delivered by Mordred at the final battle. A tuft of golden hair was found on Guinevere’s skull, but it crumbled to dust when a monk touched it. The monks moved the bodies to a marble tomb to prevent any violation. Contemporaries of Giraldus also reported the finding; all reports differ in details – some significant, such as the exact writing on the cross – but Giraldus’s is the most detailed.

Some modern scholars have accused the Glastonbury monks of the twelfth century of deliberate fraud, orchestrated to enhance the reputation of the church and to bring in much needed funds following a disastrous fire. Such a scheme is not unlikely, but is impossible to prove. The cross itself, whether authentic or a forgery, seems to have existed, but it has been lost. We have a drawing of the artifact in a 1607 book by William Camden, and some scholars have suggested that the words – “Here lies buried the famous King Arthur on the Island of Avalon” – contains antiquated forms and spellings that would have been unknown to a twelfth-century forger.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure, perhaps influenced by the report of the cross, said that Arthur’s gravestone read (just as Malory):

Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus
“Here lies Arthur, king that was, king that shall be.”

In any event, the report seemed to have little effect on the medieval romances, which continued to describe Arthur’s journey to Avalon after the final battle. In the Vera Historia de Morte Arthuri, his body is said to disappear from the funeral bier in a mist. Cervantes spoke of the widespread folklore belief that Arthur had been changed into a crow and would some day find his true form again. The great “Briton hope” of Arthur’s return thus remained alive. Malory is an exception, and even he hedges, merging both versions of Arthur’s end and leaving room for doubt as to whether the body delivered to Glastonbury was truly Arthur’s.

See also
King Arthur and Guenevere’s Grave | The Legend of King Arthur