“Legend: A traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” (New Oxford American Dictionary)
When I was ten years old I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It was the longest book I had ever read, but I was completely entranced by the story. The son of Uther Pendragon, who befriends the great wizard Merlin, is set for a life of a squire, but then defeats the odds and frees the mighty Excalibur from its stone prison and goes on to be King Arthur.
It’s my second favorite story (the first is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells). As a child, it was easy for me to accept the story—with all of its adventures, supernatural enemies, and heroes—as truth. As I’ve gotten older and learned that not everything is as it seems when it comes to the legends and long forgotten mysteries of the world, I’ve come to a few conclusions of my own. Thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth (and some other research which I’ll share with you), I believe King Arthur, Guinevere, Uther Pendragon, Excalibur, and Merlin (because he’s my favorite) existed around 500 AD. I believe the Holy Grail (the cup Jesus drank from during the Last Supper) is real. And more importantly, I believe all the legends, stories, monsters, heroes, and supernatural beings of the past were all rooted in a form of truth. Because in every great story of our past that seems to be completely impossible or drenched in imagination, there is still a bit of truth behind it.
Glastonbury Abbey by Archeology.com
When I was researching King Arthur, I came across Glastonbury Abbey. Glastonbury Abbey was first a Celtic religious center, but became a Benedictine monastery thanks to the first Saxon Abbot, Beorthwald, who served from 670 AD to 678 AD. The history of the abbey goes back to the times of Jesus. It is said that an old church on the abbey was dedicated by Jesus himself to his mother, Mary. A highly regarded historian, William Malmesbury, was a guest at the abbey during the 1230s. He called the church “the oldest church in England,” which is why it became known as the Old Church.
Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy follower of Jesus, who was responsible for his burial. It is believed he was given the Holy Grail by the apparition of Jesus, and decided to travel to England along with twelve followers to bury the Grail. When Joseph and his followers arrived in Britain, they landed on the island of Avalon and climbed up Wearyall Hill, where they rested. After their long rest, Joseph and his followers established the Old Church and buried the Holy Grail. Joseph buried the Holy Grail underneath the Tor (the entrance to the Underworld), and the spring that flows at Chalice Well on the grounds of the Abbey is said to come from where the Grail is buried.
The second version of the story comes from William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,” where he made the claim that Jesus came along with Joseph and his followers. And that’s how Jesus established the Old Church.
The next legend is basically a continuation of the first version. When Joseph reached Wearyall Hill (fun fact: it’s called Wearyall Hill because when Joseph and his followers reached the top, he exclaimed, “We are weary all!”), he planted his staff in the ground and rested on it. In the morning when he and his followers awoke, the staff had taken firm root in the ground. It is from this staff that the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury Abbey comes from. There were three thorn trees in all before the 17th century. The thorn trees were considered holy because they bloomed at Christmas and Easter. In the 17th century, during the civil wars between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, Puritans cut down the thorn trees because they believed them to be superstitious. Locals kept some buds from the trees and replanted them, and if you go to Glastonbury Abbey you can see them. The most notable are at St. John’s Church and Chalice Well.
From all these stories, you can see why Joseph of Arimathea was a prime literary figure during the 12th century, but it’s time to move on from him and to the pièce de résistance.
What do Tintagel in Cornwall, South Cadbury in Somerset, Caerleon in South Wales, and Glastonbury Abbey all have in common? They are all places that are linked to King Arthur! Glastonbury Abbey is considered his and his queen’s final resting place. The 5th and 6th centuries, the possible times King Arthur was alive, were considered the Dark Ages or the Post Roman Period in Britain. There was very little information during these centuries to document all that happened, so very little evidence of King Arthur’s existence can be found. This is why some historians doubt he was real, while others see him as the warrior king who led the Britons to victory against the Anglo-Saxons in their mission to conquer Britain.
In the 12th century, King Arthur was all the rage. His stories were called Arthurian Romances. Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to write about Arthur, in his book called the History of the Kings of Britain, completed in 1138. Geoffrey’s work provided the main details of the King Arthur stories. King Arthur’s first battle in Tintagel, his final battle against Mordred in Camlann, his father Uther Pendragon, his wife Queen Guinevere, his mighty sword Excalibur, and his friend Merlin (again, my favorite). Now, just as in my blog post about “The Croglin Grange Vampire,” other writers took Geoffrey’s original work and added new characters (such as Lancelot) and created new adventures. The Holy Grail, supernatural enemies, and the Knights of the Round Table were just a few of the new variations to the plot. The stories of King Arthur took hold of Medieval England; they were so popular everyone knew them. It was a cult classic. People were craving more information on King Arthur; they wanted him to be real. One single sliver of evidence that he was, and the frenzy that would take place would be unreal.
And in 1191, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey unearthed a hollowed-out log that had written on it: “Here lies buried King Arthur and his wife Guinevere.”
Of course, the skeptics had to ruin it. They poked holes in the story. They said the stories of Joseph of Arimathea and King Arthur were all invented by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, since the Abbey was destroyed by a great fire in 1184. There were some researchers who did their best to find evidence to support the monks, but the hollowed-out log and bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were lost in 1539. Archaeologist Raleigh Radford said he found the original burial site when he was excavating Glastonbury Abbey in the 1950s and 1960s, but the legends are all that connect King Arthur to Glastonbury Abbey.
Researchers and skeptics believe the monks promoted the site with the stories of King Arthur, Christ, and Joseph of Arimathea to get money. It’s hard to disagree; there is little evidence. And with the hollowed-out log and bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere being lost in 1539, it’s hard for us in modern times to not believe that it was all just a hoax.
Then again, I’m different from those skeptics and researchers who just want to accept it as a hoax. I don’t think it was. I think it was all real. I think the monks did discover the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. If it was a hoax, why did the monks wait seven years to unveil their discovery after the fire in 1184? The History of the Kings of Britain came out in 1138, forty-six years before the fire at Glastonbury, and it still maintained its popularity. If the monks knew that, why wait? It only took them a couple of years to rebuild most parts of the Abbey, so why did it take them so long to find the hollowed-out log?
Time machines haven’t been invented, yet. We can’t know every detail completely, but King Arthur and The Holy Grail have both played important roles over these many centuries since they were first mentioned back in medieval times. Historians and researchers should be more active in finding the truth of Glastonbury Abbey. For all we know, Merlin could’ve gone to Glastonbury, too, and his wand could be buried there.
So I say, let the legends of Glastonbury live on! One day, I’m going there to do some snooping… I mean researching!
Be sure to sound off in the comments below and let me know what you think of Glastonbury Abbey!