Gerald of Wales
and the Exhumination of Arthur
Gerald of Wales (or 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.
Liber de Principis Instructione, c. 1193 | The Legend of King Arthur Speculum Ecclesiae, c. 1216 | The Legend of King Arthur