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The Tomb of King Arthur


1 Warner, pp. x-xi.

2 Brewer, p. xiv.

3 Brewer, p. viii.

Liber de Principis Instructione

4 By "British" he means a very early form of Welsh. This was the native language of the Romanized Celtic peoples who inhabited the island before the coming of the Germanic tribes; these Celtic peoples were displaced and driven west into what is now called Wales.

5 The Latin words pomum ("fruit") and pomifer ("fruit-bearing") refer to fruit in general, but here they are translating the Welsh word that specifically means "apple."

6 Thorpe, p. 283 (n. 637), notes that this line is from Virgil's Georgics, I.497.

Speculum Ecclesiae

7 There is only one manuscript for this text (Cotton MS Tiberius B. xiii, on which Brewer's edition is based), and it is very defective; consequently, some words and even some entire sentences are lost. I have attempted to give a sense of what is missing, using brackets for my textual commentary; parentheses, again, are reserved for sorting out some of Gerald's convoluted Latin syntax.

8 This quotation has not been identified.

9 By "British" he means a very early form of Welsh. This was the native language of the Romanized Celtic peoples who inhabited the island before the coming of the Germanic tribes; these Celtic peoples were displaced and driven west into what is now called Wales.

10 The Latin words pomum ("fruit") and pomifer ("fruit-bearing") refer to fruit in general, but here they are translating the Welsh word that specifically means "apple."

11 Thorpe, p. 286 (n. 649), writes that "[n]othing is known of this Vallo, although folklorists have taken him up."

    This page contains a translation of the writings of Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) on the discovery of King Arthur's tomb and remains. Arthur was the national hero of the Welsh, who spent many centuries struggling against the incursion of England. In the early 1060s, Harold of Wessex (later King of England in 1066) became the first English ruler to subjugate Wales. The Welsh rose up periodically throughout the High Middle Ages, often raiding the Marches (the English territories on the Welsh border), even after Wales was officially incorporated into England in 1284 under King Edward I.
    King Arthur was a symbol of Welsh resistance to English oppression, for according to tradition Arthur had fought against invading Germanic tribes on behalf of the Romano-Celtic ancestors of the Welsh. Arthur, said to have been slain at the Battle of Camlann, was supposedly taken to the enchanted Isle of Avalon for the healing of his wounds, so that one day he could return and rally his countrymen to repel the English once and for all. The alleged discovery of Arthur's tomb, then, was propaganda that the English could use against the Welsh, proving to them definitively that their savior was permanently deceased and would never return to liberate them.

Gerald's life

    Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis in Latin) was born in Manorbier, in southern Wales, to an aristocratic family primarily of Anglo-Norman descent, but with some local Welsh blood as well. He spent his adult life as a cleric, and from his writings we learn that he had a passion for ecclesiastical reform that was matched only by his passion for personal advancement in Church offices. Ultimately he grew bitter that he was never promoted as far as he would have liked, which he believed was the result of prejudice against his Welsh heritage.

Gerald's writing on the discovery of Arthur's tomb

    Gerald was a prolific writer throughout his career. Today he is best known for his historical and ethnographic writings, in works such as Topographia Hibernica (The Topography of Ireland), Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland), and Descriptio Kambriae (The Description of Wales). In two of his lesser-known works we find his accounts of the discovery of King Arthur's tomb. A brief description of each is given below:
On the Instruction of Princes — This work exists in only one manuscript, Cotton MS Julius B. xiii. Although it is chiefly a didactic treatise about the virtues required in a good prince, it is also a vehicle for political commentary; for instance, Gerald uses the work to criticize King Henry II and his sons, an indication of his growing hostility toward the English kings.1

Mirror of the Church — This text also exists in one manuscript, the highly damaged Cotton MS Tiberius B. xiii. Here Gerald rails against the excesses of monasteries: ambition, wealth, departure from the observance of their rules, etc.2 Essentially, in this work Gerald "scathe[s] with no sparing hand the monastic degeneracy of his times."3

A note on the translations

    Brackets in the translation represent my own editorial interjections. I use parentheses to help render some of Gerald's complicated Latin syntax into readable English. See the Bibliography for the editions I have used for this translation.

The Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur
Liber de Principis Instructione
[On the Instruction of Princes]

   nbsp; The memory of Arthur, the celebrated king of the Britons, should not be concealed. In his age, he was a distinguished patron, generous donor, and a splendid supporter of the renowned monastery of Glastonbury; they praise him greatly in their annals. Indeed, more than all other churches of his realm he prized the Glastonbury church of Holy Mary, mother of God, and sponsored it with greater devotion by far than he did for the rest. When that man went forth for war, depicted on the inside part of his shield was the image of the Blessed Virgin, so that he would always have her before his eyes in battle, and whenever he found himself in a dangerous encounter he was accustomed to kiss her feet with the greatest devotion.
    Although legends had fabricated something fantastical about his demise (that he had not suffered death, and was conveyed, as if by a spirit, to a distant place), his body was discovered at Glastonbury, in our own times, hidden very deep in the earth in an oak-hollow, between two stone pyramids that were erected long ago in that holy place. The tomb was sealed up with astonishing tokens, like some sort of miracle. The body was then conveyed into the church with honor, and properly committed to a marble tomb. A lead cross was placed under the stone, not above as is usual in our times, but instead fastened to the underside. I have seen this cross, and have traced the engraved letters — not visible and facing outward, but rather turned inwardly toward the stone. It read: "Here lies entombed King Arthur, with Guenevere his second wife, on the Isle of Avalon."
    Many remarkable things come to mind regarding this. For instance, he had two wives, of whom the last was buried with him. Her bones were discovered with her husband's, though separated in such a way that two-thirds of the sepulcher, namely the part nearer the top, was believed to contain the bones of the husband, and then one-third, toward the bottom, separately contained the bones of his wife — wherein was also discovered a yellow lock of feminine hair, entirely intact and pristine in color, which a certain monk eagerly seized in hand and lifted out; immediately the whole thing crumbled to dust.
    Indeed, there had been some evidence from the records that the body might be found there, and some from the lettering carved on the pyramids (although that was mostly obliterated by excessive antiquity), and also some that came from the visions and revelations made by good men and the devout. But the clearest evidence came when King Henry II of England explained the whole matter to the monks (as he had heard it from an aged British poet): how they would find the body deep down, namely more than 16 feet into the earth, and not in a stone tomb but in an oak-hollow. The body had been placed so deep, and was so well concealed, that it could not be found by the Saxons who conquered the island after the king's death — those whom he had battled with so much exertion while he was alive, and whom he had nearly annihilated. And so because of this the lettering on the cross — the confirmation of the truth — had been inscribed on the reverse side, turned toward the stone, so that it would conceal the tomb at that time and yet at some moment or occasion could ultimately divulge what it contained.
    What is now called Glastonbury was, in antiquity, called the Isle of Avalon; it is like an island because it is entirely hemmed in by swamps. In British4 it is called Inis Avallon, that is, insula pomifera [Latin: "The Island of Apples"5]. This is because the apple, which is called aval in the British tongue, was once abundant in that place. Morgan, a noble matron, mistress and patroness of those regions, and also King Arthur's kinswoman by blood, brought Arthur to the island now called Glastonbury for the healing of his wounds after the Battle of Camlann. Moreover, the island had once been called in British Inis Gutrin, that is, insula vitrea [Latin: "The Island of Glass"]; from this name, the invading Saxons afterwards called this place Glastingeburi, for glas in their language means vitrum [Latin: "glass"], and buri stands for castrum [Latin: "castle"] or civitas [Latin: "city"].
    It should be noted also that the bones of Arthur's body that they discovered were so large that the poet's verse seems to ring true: "Bones excavated from tombs are reckoned enormous."6 Indeed, his shin-bone, which the abbot showed to us, was placed near the shin of the tallest man of the region; then it was fixed to the ground against the man's foot, and it extended substantially more than three inches above his knee. And the skull was broad and huge, as if he were a monster or prodigy, to the extent that the space between the eyebrows and the eye-sockets amply encompassed the breadth of one's palm. Moreover, ten or more wounds were visible on that skull, all of which had healed into scars except one, greater than the rest, which had made a large cleft — this seems to have been the lethal one.

The Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur
Speculum Ecclesiae
[Mirror of the Church]

Cap. VIII.

Regarding the monk who, at the discovery of the tomb of Arthur, pulled out a lock of women's hair with his hand, and quite shamelessly accelerated its ruin.

    Furthermore, in our times, while Henry II was ruling England, the tomb of the renowned Arthur was searched for meticulously in Glastonbury Abbey; this was done at the instruction of the king and under the supervision of the abbot of that place, Henry, who was later transferred to Worcester Cathedral. With much effort the tomb was excavated in the holy burial-ground that had been dedicated by Saint Dunstan; it was found between two tall, emblazoned pyramids, erected long ago in memory of Arthur. Though his body and bones had been reduced to dust, they were conveyed from below into the air, and to a more dignified place.
    A lock of female hair — blond and beautiful, twisted and braided with astonishing skill — was discovered in the same tomb, evidently from Arthur's wife, who was buried in the same place as her husband.7 [Standing among the crowd is a monk who sees the lock of hair.] So that he could seize the lock before all others, he hurled himself headlong into the lowest depths of the cavity. Then the aforementioned monk, that insolent spectator, no less impudent than imprudent, descended into the depths — the depths symbolize the infernal realm, which cannot be sated. Thus the monk thought to pull it out with his hand, to take hold of the lock of hair before all others — evidence of his shameless mind, for women's hair entangles the weak-willed, while strong souls avoid it. Hair, of course, is said to be incorruptible, for it has no flesh in it, nor any moisture mixed with it. Nevertheless, as he held it in his hand, having raised it up in order to inspect it (many watched intently and in amazement), it crumbled into the thinnest dust; miraculously it disintegrated, as if reduced to granules. [There are a few words missing here.] For it demonstrated that all things are transitory, and all worldly beauty is for our vain eyes to gaze upon, for performing illicit sensual acts, or for our moments that are susceptible to vanity — indeed, as the philosopher said, "the spendor of beauty is swift, passing, changeable, and more fleeting than the flowers of spring."8

Cap. IX.

Regarding the bones lying intact in the tomb of King Arthur, discovered at Glastonbury in our times, and about the many things relating to these remarkable circumstances.

    Furthermore, tales are regularly reported and fabricated about King Arthur and his uncertain end, with the British peoples even now contending foolishly that he is still alive. True and accurate information has been sought out, so the legends have finally been extinguished; the truth about this matter should be revealed plainly, so here I have endeavored to add something to the indisputable facts that have been disclosed.
    After the Battle of Camlann . . . [A number of words are missing.] And so, after Arthur had been mortally wounded there, his body was taken to the Isle of Avalon, which is now called Glastonbury, by a noble matron and kinswoman named Morgan; afterwards the remains were buried, according to her direction, in the holy burial-ground. As a result of this, the Britons and their poets have been concocting legends that a certain fantastic goddess, also called Morgan, carried off the body of Arthur to the Isle of Avalon for the healing of his wounds. When his wounds have healed, the strong and powerful king will return to rule the Britons (or so the Britons suppose), as he did before. Thus they still await him, just as the Jews, deceived by even greater stupidity, misfortune, and faithlessness, likewise await their Messiah.
    It is significant . . . [Two sentences or so are highly damaged.] Truly it is called Avalon, either from the British word aval9 , which means pomum [Latin: "apple"10], because apples and apple trees abound in that place; or, from the name Vallo, once the ruler of of that territory.11 Likewise, long ago the place was usually called in British Inis Gutrin, that is, insula vitrea [Latin: "The Island of Glass"], evidently on account of the river, most like glass in color, that flows around the marshes. Because of this, it was later called Glastonia in the language of the Saxons who seized this land, since glas in English or in Saxon means vitrum [Latin: "glass"]. It is clear from this, therefore, why it was called an island, why it was called Avalon, and why it was called Glastonia; it is also clear how the fantastic goddess Morgan was contrived by poets.
    It is also notable that . . . [Several words are missing, obscuring the meaning of the first part of the sentence.] from the letters inscribed on it, yet nearly all, however, was destroyed by antiquity. The abbot had the best evidence from the aforementioned King Henry, for the king had said many times, as he had heard from the historical tales of the Britons and from their poets, that Arthur was buried between two pyramids that were erected in the holy burial-ground. These were very deep, on account of the Saxons (whom he had subdued often and expelled from the Island of Britain, and whom his evil nephew Mordred had later called back against him), who endeavored to occupy the whole island again after his death; so their fear was that Saxons might despoil him in death through the wickedness of their vengeful spirit.
    A broad stone was unearthed during the excavating at the tomb, about seven feet . . . [A couple of words are missing.] a lead cross was fastened — not to the outer part of the stone, but rather to the underside (no doubt as a result of their fears about the Saxons). It had these words inscribed on it: "Here lies entombed King Arthur, on the Isle of Avalon, with Guenevere his second wife." Now when they had extracted this cross from the stone, the aforementioned Abbot Henry showed it to me; I examined it, and read the words. The cross was fastened to the underside the stone, and, moreover, the engraved part of the cross was turned toward the stone, so that it would be better concealed. Remarkable indeed was the industry and exquisite prudence of the men of that era, who, by all their exertions, wished to hide forever the body of so great a man, their lord, and the patron of that region, from the danger of sudden disturbance. Moreover, they took care that — at some time in the future when their tribulations had ceased — the evidence of the letters inscribed on the cross could be made public.

Cap. X.

The renowned King Arthur was a patron of Glastonbury Abbey. [Enough words are missing that the rest of this chapter heading is indecipherable.]

     [The beginning of the sentence is lost.] . . . had proposed, thus Arthur's body was discovered not in a marble tomb, not cut from rock or Parian stone, as was fitting for so distinguished a king, but rather in wood, in oak that was hollowed out for this purpose, and 16 feet or more deep in the earth; this was certainly on account of haste rather than proper ceremony for the burial of so great a prince, driven as they were by a time of urgent distress.
    When the body was discovered according to the directions indicated by King Henry, the aforementioned abbot had an extraordinary marble tomb made for the remains, as was fitting for an excellent patron of that place, for indeed, he had prized that church more than all the rest in his kingdom, and had enriched it with large and numerous lands. And for that reason it was not undeserved, but just and by the judgment of God, who rewards all good deeds not only in heaven, but also on earth and in this life. [The end is very defective.] . . . and the authentic body of Arthur . . . to be buried properly . . .
Brewer, J.S., ed. Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, scilicet, Speculum Ecclesiae. Rolls Series, no. 21, vol. 4. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1873. Kraus Reprint Ltd., 1964. Pp. 47-51.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, United Kingdom: Penguin Books Ltd, 1978.

Warner, George F., ed. Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, Vol. VIII, De Principis Instructione Liber. Rolls Series, no. 21, vol. 8. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1891. Kraus Reprint Ltd., 1964. Pp. 126-29.