Glastonbury Abbey: fact and fiction

FACT: Glastonbury Abbey existed in the Middle Ages and still does – to a certain extent.

FICTION (maybe): King Arthur and his two-timing wife, Guinevere, were buried there.

First let’s distinguish between myth, legend and fiction Myth never happened (trust me – e.g. Greek and Roman gods, 6 headed monsters, one-eyed ogres  … actually, I do know someone who might fit that description); legend may have happened (e.g. Geoff Hurst’s 1966 World Cup 2nd goal did go over the line); fiction didn’t happen but some fiction is based on legend (e.g. politicians are honest). Get it? So, legend has it that Glastonbury Abbey was built on the site of a wattle and daub church erected by Joseph of Arimathea when he visited the town with the young boy, Jesus. After the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph revisited Glastonbury (or the island of Avalon as it was then) with the Holy Grail and buried it below the great hill of Tor – now the site of the Chalice Well.


Hill of Tor, Glastonbury

Chalice Well, Glastonbury, England_JPG

Chalice Well at the bottom of Tor Hill

Fiction (as legend) then moves forward to AD 540(ish) and the death of King Arthur. He was reputedly taken, mortally wounded, by boat to Avalon. There he died and was buried – at Glastonbury in the ancient burial ground (3 on plan), maybe.


morte d’Arthur (‘so long Art’)

Fact and fiction merge: In 1190 it is recorded that the monks dug up a grave in a cemetery just south of the Lady Chapel (not to mention St Dunstan and Galilee chapels) at Glastonbury Abbey. It contained two skeletons, male and female, and they were deemed to be Arthur and Guinevere. It is not clear what happened to them at that time, but in 1278 they were reburied in a black marbled tomb in the Choir/Chancel of the Nave before the High Altar. King Edward I was present, so it must be true (must it? Bit like reading the Sun or the Daily Mail). After the vandalising of the Abbey in 1539 the bones were no longer to be found.

Plan of Glastonbury Abbey (north at top) (shaded red is what remains)

 glast 1

Toby pointing out the site of King Arthur’s first burial place …. maybe (looking north with Lady Chapel in background)


King Arthur’s tomb of 1278 in the Chancel (looking east, High Altar chain-linked in background with ruins of Edgar Chapel behind that)

Back to fact: The first stone church at the site of the Abbey was built by the Saxon King, Inde, in AD 712 and it was enlarged (the cloisters) by Abbot Dunstan in 940. In 1077, after the Norman invasion, this church was destroyed and replaced with a larger one by Abbot Thurstin. Then, between 1100-1118, Abbot Herlewin demolished this church and built the main Abbey. The Domesday Book of 1086 records it as the richest monastery in the country. The building was destroyed by fire in 1184 and rebuilt. Historical records tell us that rebuilding went on until 1524 and the archaeology gives physical evidence of these previous buildings. The Abbey was finally ransacked in 1539 after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII (there’s someone who had a lot to answer for). Regardless, the remains of the Abbey are well worth a visit.glast4

Interior of Lady Chapel (looking east)

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Nave and Central Tower remains (looking east)

And, of course, Caburn Castle is Camelot …… (it said so in the Sun – or was it the Daily Mail)



Next week: The develoment of societies with archaeological interests

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

met an old American friend of mine the other day in the bar of London hotel of some note. It was Douglas Fairweather Jnr, a famous actor over from Hollywood. He was slumped over a whisky.

“Hi Dougie, what’s the problem?” I enquired detecting a state of morose.

“I’ve come over to make a movie of The Merchant of Venice and they want me to play Shylock.” He responded in some despair.

“But that’s excellent old boy,” I retorted with much enthusiasm, “What’s the problem?”

He replied, “But I want to play the Merchant.”


2 thoughts on “Glastonbury Abbey: fact and fiction

  1. Yet again another fascinating read really enjoyed. Sunday evening 9 O/clock King Tut, I was a little confused. I missed about 10 min as I had a telephonecall about 2/3 the way trough but it appears that possible Epilepsy and maybeincest had a part to play in a serous leg injury just below the knee. I saw the chariotbeing discussed but missed exactly what was said. Confused Jimbo, not from the Mail

    Date: Sat, 25 Oct 2014 09:39:09 +0000 To:

    • Hi Jimbo,
      Yes, I saw that prog. It was a little vague – no comment on the missing ribs or pelvis (I can’t believe Carter did that much damage to the skeleton!). I’m not convinced that the incest had a direct involvement in the death. It has to be something to do with some violence and the damaged bones as the femur did not heal. Also I find it difficult to accept that an epileptic fall could cause such damage to a bone as strong as a femur. As for the club foot, the damage to the two toe bones could be by other means – although the 130 walking sticks are interesting! I’ve asked Chris Naunton (Egyptian Exploration Society) for his views on this (he was involved in the original virtual autopsy in the previous 2013 prog). There is pictorial evidence of Tut in a chariot firing a bow which doesn’t follow the club foot theory – unless that’s ‘poetic licence’!

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