NIGHTBRINGER | The Arthurian Encyclopedia

King Arthur and Guenevere’s Grave

Glastonbury remains most famous for its Arthurian connections, which started to appear during the seventh century. The legends regarding King Arthur and Glastonbury really start with his death. If Camelot is indeed to be identified with Cadbury Castle, across the moors, it seems perfectly reasonable to equate Glastonbury with Avalon, which is how many people saw the association.

In 1190 or possibly early 1191, during the abbacy of Henry de Sully, a miraculous discovery was made. Sometime before his death, Henry II was allegedly told by a Welsh bard that the burial place of King Arthur was to be found deep down, between two pyramids in the cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey. Henry presumably passed this information on to the abbot. The theory goes that the discovery of Arthur’s body should, if properly promoted, result in increased pilgrim traffic, and therefore increase revenues for the abbey to continue its reconstruction after the fire in 1184.

The digging began in 1190 just south of the Lady Chapel. The diggers were rewarded by the unearthing, sixteen feet down, of a hollowed-out log containting the remains of Arthur and his queen, Guenevere. With them was a leaden cross with the Latin inscription:

Hic jacet sepultus inclitus Rex Arturius in insula avalonia

“Here lies Arthur, the famous King of the Isle of Avalon”

An alternative of the inscription:

Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rex futurus

“Here lies Arthur, king that was, king that shall be”

This discovery caused a great public stir, but, curiously enough, was not greatly exploited by the abbey. In fact, the disposition of the remains of the bodies was unknown until 1230, when there were kept in the treasury in the east range of the abbey.

Even if the abbey did not use the discovery of Arthur’s remains to its advantage, Edward I seized the opportunity to make political hay. On a visit of the king and queen to Glastonbury in 1278, Arthur’s remains were transported to a permanent resting place in the main abbey church. This public event was designed to be a shattering blow to the Celtic fringes, since, if Arthur was dead, he could obviously not return to help his people in their time of need (a persistent belief among the Celtic people). At the same time, Edward proclaimed his son Prince of Wales, fusing England and Wales, and thereby hamstringing the Welsh independence movement.

When the political and domestic background of the times is considered, this “finding” of Arthur seems extremely conventient. King Henry II was having immense problems with the Welsh, who believed that Arthur was sleeping and would return to lead them to victory. To prove that Arthur was dead by exposing his grave made sound and prudent political sense. Excavations at the same spot have revealed a brake in the charred earth resulting from the fire, and the base of a pyramid that was said to have been next to the graves. These at least confirm a part of the monks’ story.

Also, as the abbey had experienced its terrible fire in 1184, the additional kudos brought to the abbey through this “discovery” ensured many more pilgrimages would be undertaken, thus bringing in the huge sums of money needed for the rebuilding work. After 600 years Arthur was becoming a cult figure, and the monks obviously saw no harm in attaching his cult status to the abbey. Some eighty-seven years after the remains of Arthur and Guenevere had been “uncovered,” they were reburied in front of the abbey’s high altar on 19 April in 1278. Obviously they had lost none of their romantic or political importance, for this reinterment was attended by King Edward I and Queen Eleanor.

The tomb into which Arthur and Guenevere were supposedly placed was made of black marble and survived until the Dissolution in 1539. Its position was rediscovered during the excavation in 1934 and is now clearly marked within the ruins. The inscription at Glastonbury today reads:

The site of King Arthur's Tomb

See also
Arthur’s Tomb | The Legend of King Arthur

Henry de Sully
Died: 23 or 24 October 1195.

A monk, Bishop of Worcester and Abbot of Glastonbury. After the death of Henry II of England, Henry was appointed Abbot of Glastonbury of Richard I of England. During his time as abbot he claimed to find the body of King Arthur around 1191. On December 4th 1193, he was elected to the see of Worcester and concecrated on December 12th 1193.

Edward I of England
Also known as Edward Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots (Malleus Scotorum)
Born: 17/18 June 1239 | Coronation: 19 August 1274 | Died: 7 July 1307

King Edward was very interested in the stories of King Arthur. He visited Glastonbury Abbey in 1278, to open the grave where Arthur and Guinevere was supposed to be, to recover “Arthur’s crown” from Llywelyn after the conquest of North Wales. Edward held tournaments and feasting, such as King Arthur was thought to do – so called “Round Tables.”