The location of the grave of King Arthur has been the subject of several novels in recent years. Between Ariana Franklin, Phil Rickman and Peter Ackroyd, to name but three, it seems that this is a subject which has become, if not fashionable, certainly worth a place in historical fiction. The proliferation of other books on the same subject had nothing to do with why I chose it to write about. It was in fact a shock to me to find that others had been moved to write about the same thing as myself soon after I had begun mine. But I like to think anyway, that my take on it, like all the rest, is a little different and in its own way, displays a unique angle.
Most writing, both in recent fiction and in long-standing documentary history books, suggests that the location of the grave is not at Glastonbury Abbey, where King Henry believed it to be. They have good reason to think so, though no proof exists either for their rejection of the location, or Henry’s acceptance of it. Thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries, and the passage of time, there are no remains, which is a great pity, because we will never know for sure. But when the King sent his people to investigate, and to dig up the contents of the grave, there was a certain amount written about it, and it is my contention that whether today we can see reasons for doubt, those who were present at the time, genuinely believed that what they had found was exactly what they were looking for, the bones of the mightiest of all the Kings that Briton had ever known, Arthur himself. When they exhumed the ancient remains of a large man and a small woman, buried with a lead cross bearing the legend in Latin, ‘Here lies Arthur King of all Briton and his second wife Guinevere’, they believed that it was telling the truth.
Most historians sneer at the idea that the grave was actually that of King Arthur, positing that the bodies which were brought to the surface were quite other, and the whole thing was a hoax on the part of the monks of Glastonbury to increase their income. It is true that the abbey at Glastonbury had suffered serious setbacks due to a fire some years earlier, which burnt much of it to the ground but that does not prove they lied about finding King Arthur’s grave.
Besides, for those who found it, if we take Gerald of Wales as our significant text, since it was written at the time; the find was quite genuine. It was King Arthur and Guinevere, who were found, and the description of it in Gerald is so touching and mysterious that we cannot read it and reject it. We are drawn instead to believe with them, that here lay a giant man who had once been a king, and the woman who was his final companion, in life and in death. Gerald even describes how he was allowed to stand King Arthur’s femur bone beside him and by measuring it was able to estimate Arthur’s height to be well over the height of even a fairly tall man.
Of course Gerald is not beyond exaggerating for a good story, and Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote so elegantly of a King Arthur introduced us to a template which simultaneously excites our admiration and reassures us of protection.
To find his remains in Glastonbury was at the time a great, important moment, and though historians have set it aside as irrelevant fantasy, to those alive at the time, it was a confirmation that he had lived. My latest novel The Bardic Monk, follows their quest to find the grave and stays with them in their belief that it was indeed Arthur. That way it fits with everything I experience on a feeling level, about Glastonbury and its history.