Me and The Monk

I have been asked more than once why The Bardic Monk is my own favourite of the books I have written, and as I am going into Awen Teifi, one of our local bookshops this week-end to sign copies of it, this is a good time to say why it’s important to me.

My compulsion to tell the story began when I read of a figure cloaked in mystery who appeared in a number of history books. The role attributed to him is that he was the man who spoke to King Henry II , giving him precise instruction where he might find the grave of the long dead King Arthur. This whispering in the King’s ear is not always agreed upon by historians. Perhaps the whole idea of the majestic visitor to St Davids, holding confab with an unknown character,  is a bit much for the historian, who would like us to think that the King made up this mythical figure, to disguise the fact that he had already buried some remains where he could find them and say ‘Here is Arthur.’ Why he would do such a thing is anybody’s guess.Regardless of the historians opinions I fell in love with the story of the mystery man, who persuaded the King to ride to Wales, whispered his secret to him and maybe even drew him a little map, like something out of Blyton, and sent him off to Glastonbury. There again the historians dispute the location. They usually say that the monks of Glastonbury only claimed it was there in order to make money.But I read Gerald of Wales, and he tells it like it was, with all the detail of the Glastonbury Abbey graveyard, and the size of the bones that came out of the ground, and the cursed monk with the urge to touch the golden hair of Guinevere. This was a story which once read I had to believe, and was dying to get on with writing. I also wanted to give the man who spoke to the King his finest hour of being recognised for what he did. He may be wearing a monkish gown, but he is no ordinary monk, he is a Bardic Monk, and they were few and far between. Gerald gives us two distinct descriptions of the King’s informer. One of them is ‘an unknown soothsayer’ and the other is ‘a Welsh monk’. In Christopher Snyder’s book The World of King Arthur he tells us it was a ‘British Bard’. I have seen him elsewhere described as a ‘Breton and monkish’ and I have revealed him in my book as an Awenyddion, or Bardic Monk one of  the high cast Awenyddionau, whose poetry and lyrical writings were composed through vision and deep meditation. It is St Davids Day on Sunday, and though the monk in the story is not St David himself, much of the story takes place at the cathedral, and its presence is relevant throughout.

So I love the book because it happened in the 12th century which I had enjoyed writing about so much in A Court in Splendour. I also love it because I took a figure out of history who was nameless and faceless even though he talked with a King, and I gave him a voice and name. And last it is my favourite because so much of it occurs at the cathedral in St Davids and I feel privileged to have created a personal connection with it.

The Grave of King Arthur

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.