Arthur’s Grave at Glastonbury Revisited: The Irish connection November 16, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
Beachcombing thought that today he would return to Arthur’s remains at Glastonbury, that extraordinary moment in the late twelfth century when the monks of Britain’s oldest monastery ‘discovered’ Arthur’s body just outside their church: diggings revealed a trunk tomb and giant bones. True, Beachcombing looked at this matter several months ago, when he suggested that the bones might have belonged to a prehistoric creature. But the story came back to life in his mind thanks to an article he recently read by an American scholar, John Carey.
John Carey – for those who don’t know – is a WANW who manages to combine bizzarist tendencies with rigorous scholarly standards. He specialises in Celtic studies where he is to his academic kin what Adrienne Mayor is to Classics professors – a minor immortal in a universe in which most of the gods have long since died… Ragnarok by footnote and tenure committees. He has also produced some fascinating articles for the Temenos Review, where he reveals elect Neo-Platonic sympathies. O qui perpetua mundum ratione gubernas… Go dance to the music of the spheres, John!
Given all this, any article or book by John Carey is an invitation to a bumpy but always exciting ride into the past and a short piece – ‘The Finding of Arthur’s Grave’ – that he published in 1999 in Ildánach Ildírech is no exception. Carey’s argument is essentially that Arthur’s grave was a Glastonbury fake: in this he agrees with almost every other historian. However, Carey goes on to argue that the story was borrowed from an Irish tale relating to Clonmacnoise, a monastery in the Irish Midlands.
Here it might be worth recalling that there are several different versions of how Arthur was ‘discovered’ at Glastonbury. Our most extensive description (in Gerald of Wales) claims that Henry II had heard of the burial from an ancient British-Celtic bard who told the king that the body would be found in a tree at sixteen feet (at least) of depth. It should also be remembered that the monks found this body with a single deadly wound.
Arthur’s body… in our own days was discovered at Glastonbury between two ancient stone pyramids erected in the holy cemetery, hidden deep in the ground in a hollow oak and revealed by wonderful signs and marvels: it was afterwards moved into the church with honour and committed properly to a marble tomb. In the grave there was a leaden cross, under the stone and not above, as is typical today, with the words on it…: ‘Here lies buried King Arthur with Guinevere, his second wife, on the Isle of Avalon’… Arthur had two wives, the second buried with him there and her bones were in the tomb with his. But they were separated from them so that the two thirds of the grave, at the head naturally, were given over to Arthur’s bones, while the bottom third, at the feet, held the woman’s bones apart. There was a blonde lock of the woman’s hair found still coloured. But when a monk snatched greedily at this lock and lifted it up, the lock crumbled straightaway into dust. Now Arthur’s shinbone when measured against the shin of the tallest there by being fixed in the ground… went more than three inches over that one’s knee. The skull, meanwhile, was spacious and so large that it seemed to be of a freak or prodigy, with a hand’s breadth for the eye-socket alone. And there were ten or more wounds there, all of which had scarred over, except for one greater wound which had left a substantial hole.
Carey’s Irish ‘original’ appears late (as is the habit of Irish tales) in a fifteenth-century Irish manuscript and tells how a poet Mac Coise heard of a fairy warrior having been buried at the monastery of Clonmacnoise. He went to king Congalach who took him to the monastery to prove or disprove the story. The monks denied burying any man in the last three months, but on digging a new grave they found:
‘blood and fresh birch leaves’ and eventually they discovered ‘a man in the midst of it, his face downward…. Then they lifted the body up out of the grave. Yellow hair upon his head. A single huge wound in his flesh. He was twenty-five feet tall. They gazed on him for a while, and then the grave was filled in over him. Everyone came next day to see him, and to determine what they should do about him. The grave was dug up again, and his body was not found there, and nothing is known of him since.’ (Carey’s translation).
Carey argues that the story of Arthur’s body and this ‘giant’ have parallels. A poet tells a king, who has monks dig up the grave of an other-worldly being in their cemetery, one who died by a single wound. Carey then argues about whom took the story from whom: granting Clonmacnoise priority.
Beachcombing suspects that Carey is right about the parallel but not the nature of the parallel. Wouldn’t it be easier to postulate a background ‘Celtic’, ‘Insular’ (?) or ‘Indo-European’ (??) motif whereby a poet informs a king of a buried body of an otherworldly hero? Where are heroes buried? Graveyards that are often (in Christian times) in monasteries. How do warriors die? More often than not from a single wound.
Glastonbury wouldn’t have needed the Clonmacnoise story then. Rather both would be the bastard (Christian) children of a far older archetype.
For Beachcombing the most interesting part of Carey’s argument is actually off to the side. Carey speculates about the birch remains and notes that Tacitus refers to Germanic criminals being punished by being buried alive pinned down by trees (12): ‘the coward, the unwarlike, the man stained with abominable vices, is plunged into the mire of the morass with a hurdle put over him’ (‘ignavos et imbelles et corpore infames caeno ac palude, iniecta insuper crate, mergunt’). A fact confirmed by many bog burials in the Germanic heartlands.
Do we have then a mythical echo of an actual discovery of an ancient body held down by a trees either in Ireland (at Clomacnoise?) or overseas that then got mixed up with the forementioned archetype?
Or would it be better to look into the sacral associations for birch in early Irish myth? ‘I went out to the birch wood because a fire burnt in my head…’ (Actually the original is ‘hazel wood’ but Beachcombing hopes you get his point).
Readers will note that Arthur is, as always, nowhere in sight by the time we bid John Carey and the Monastery of Clonmacnoise farewell. That reminds Beachcombing: isn’t the disappearance of the body quite Arthurian?
Beachcombing is thinking of putting together an Arthurian week in the new year. Any idea for unusual Arthurian stories – particularly modern ones – do let Beachcombing know. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com He’d also love to give more publicity to John Carey’s writings.