ARTHUR'S PASSING

Queens attend to Arthur as he awaits transport to Avalon
A grave for March, a grave for Gwythyr, A grave for Gwrgan of the Red Sword; The wonder of the world, a grave for Arthur. -Songs of the Graves, c. 600

Even this early poem confesses the mystery surrounding the end of Arthur's life. The early legends allow for the possibility of Arthur's return. For instance, some claim that the King and his knights are sleeping in a hidden, magical cave until Britain needs them again. We looked for this cave in several places, including Alderley Edge and Arthur's Cave near the town of Ganarew. Others say he was transformed into a raven. The more realistic claim builds on later traditions that, after his mortal wounding at the Battle of Camlann, he was carried to the Isle of Avalon. In some stories, the Isle of Avalon is a magical place, an otherworld where Arthur still lives, but Avalon is elsewhere depicted as the very real site of the King's burial. The most promising claim to Avalon by far is the town of Glastonbury, but we visited another candiate in 2001, The Berth.


ISLE OF AVALON

The Island of Apples gets its name "The Fortunate Island" from the fact that it produces all manner of plants 
spontaneously. . . and apple trees spring up from the short grass in its woods. All plants, not merely grass alone, 
grows spontaneously; and men live a hundred years or more.
                     -Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, lines 908-914

Many writers claim that, after the Battle of Camlann, the wounded Arthur was laid in a barge and sailed to the Isle of Avalon (Avalonia means Apples in ancient British) for his wounds to be healed. In most of these accounts, though the Island is described with a fair degree of detail, its explicit location is rarely asserted:

'Comfort thyself,' said the King, 'and do as well as thou mayest, for in me is no trust for to trust in. For I will into 
the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound; and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.
                       -Malory, Le Morte Darthur, page 515  

It was there we took Arthur, . . . and Morgan received us with due honor. She put the king in her chamber on a 
golden bed, uncovered his wound with her noble hand and looked long at it. At length she said he could be cured if 
only he stayed with her a long while and accepted her treatment. We therefore happily committed the king to her 
care and spread our sails to favourable winds on our return journey.
                      -Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, lines 930-940

Arthur himself, our renowned King, was mortally wounded and was carried off to the Isle of Avalon, so that his
wounds might be attended to. He handed the crown of Britain over to his cousin Constantine, the son of Cador
Duke of Cornwall.
                       -Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, page 261

There are some texts, though, that do attempt to locate the Isle of Avalon into a particular region of Britain. The Isle of Man, for example, has been presented as Avalon, as well as Bardsey Island in northern Wales. There is a less well-known story, The Death of Arthur, that may have been intended as an addition to Geoffrey of Monmouth's History. It is contained in Richard Barber's Arthurian Legends on pages 30-32, and he claims that this is the first time the story has been published. Only two manuscripts of this exist, and the date of its composition is uncertain. The manuscripts themselves date from the fourteenth century, but the story could be considerably earlier, perhaps 200 years so. In this story, Arthur is wounded during the Battle of Camlann but his death blow is delivered by a youth's spear that was dipped in the venom of an adder. Arthur knows that death is approaching and gives orders concerning his burial to his subjects:

The the king, recovering for a little, gave orders that he should be carried to Gwynnedd, for he intended to stay in
the isle of Avalon, a pleasant and delightful place, and very peaceful, where the pain of his wounds would be eased.
                      -The Death of Arthur, qtd. in Barber, page 31

Arthur is thus taken to Gwynnedd (in south Wales), where he dies and mysteriously disappears in a cloud of mist accompanied by thunderstorms and earthquakes. This description seems to call on a Christ-like archetype of unnatural death as seen in the Bible and even in Macbeth. Though Avalon is located in a particular region in this telling, there is still an uncertainty as to the whereabouts of Arthur's body. No one saw him after he was enveloped in a cloud of mist; could he still be alive? Others in the story say no, for they saw a sealed tomb when the mist clears. The description of the tomb sounds strangely like a variation of the cave legend.

The only place that can account for both the location of the Island and the fate of Arthur's bones is Glastonbury, Somerset. Perhaps the strongest advocate of this account is John Leland, who tells his reader matter of factly:

And ye island which at this day is called Glastenbury, was called in auncient time Avalonia: For it is an Islande 
altogether environed with moorish or fenny groundes: Whereupon in the Brittish tongue it is called Avalon, that is,
an Island fruitefull of apples: For with apples (which in the Brittish tongue are called Aval) this place aboundeth.
                         -Leland, The Assertion of King Arthure, page 55

Glastonbury

Legendary and Historical Background
However, Arthur’s body, which the fables allege was like a fantastic thing at the end, and as it were moved by the 
spirit to far away places, and not subject to death, in our own days was discovered at Glastonbury between two 
stone pyramids erected in the holy cemetery, hidden deep in the ground by a hollow oak and marked with wonderful 
The Cross found at Glastonburysigns and marvels, and it was moved into the church with honor and committed properly to a 
marble tomb. Whence a leaden cross with a stone underneath, not above as it usually is in our 
day, but rather lower nailed on the side, (which I have seen, and in fact I have traced these 
sculpted letters - not projecting and protruding, but carved into the stone) contains the words:
 "Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere, his second wife, in the isle 
of Avalon.
            -Gerald of Wales, c. 1223

This is a section of Gerald of Wales' account of the exhumation of the body of King Arthur from the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey in 1190 or 1191. According to the story, King Henry II was told by a Welsh bard that King Arthur was buried between two "pyramids" (probably more akin to funerary pillars) in the old cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey. The Abbey had suffered a devastating fire in 1184 and was in desperate need of money to rebuild. Perhaps to attract pilgrims and money, the abbot and several monks dug in the place described by the bard. At seven feet down, they found a stone slab with an inset lead cross; at 16 feet down they found a hollowed out log that contained the skeletal remains of an exceptionally large man and a delicate woman.

John Leland describes this cross from his first-hand encounter with it in The Assertion of King Arthure:

It was made of a leaden plate, one foote long more or lesse, which I have beholden with most 
curious eyes, and handled with feareful joyntes in each part, being moved both with the 
Antiquitie and worthinesse of the thing. It conteyneth upon it these wordes in those not so 
greate Romane letters, but indifferent cunningly graven, viz. HIC IACIT SEPVLTVS 
INCLITVS REX ARTHVRIVS, IN INSVLA AVALONIA.
                     -page 60

The sign that marks Arthur's Tomb at Glastonbury AbbeyThis translates to "Here lies entombed the renowned King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon." The lettering on this cross raises some authenticity questions. They are definitely of a pre-Norman style rather than of the late twelfth century, which probably rules out the possibility of a hoax. The letters do not, however, appear to be in the style of the sixth century, when Arthur would have been buried. The cross, then, was probably made sometime during the six hundred year period in between.

This can possibly be explained by the actions of Dunstan, abbot of the Abbey during the mid-900s. To make a more peaceful area for the graves of saints and other important people, he built a wall around the cemetery and filled in the area with earth. Perhaps he had this grave marker made for Arthur to replace an earlier marker worn by time. This would explain the separation of the marker and the grave itself.

The burial itself is also puzzling. Log burials were more common among pre-Arthurian pagan rulers than they would have been for Arthur himself. This suggests that the bones of "Arthur" could have been those of an earlier hero that had been renamed by legend. For example, it has been claimed that the body was of a chief of Cadbury Castle killed during the Roman sack of the fort around 50 AD. Nevertheless, archeological excavations in the 1960s support much of this story. There was an ancient burial on the site specified by the Welsh bard, and this site was dug up and refilled around 1191. There is also evidence of the stone slab as well.

The shoulder from Arthur's Tomb?There is more than archeological evidence to support this theory. The site was home to a wattled Christian church in the pre-Saxon era, and, assuming Arthur lived in the Somerset area (Cadbury Castle, for example), Glastonbury would be an obvious choice for an honored Christian burial. And, even if the Battle of Camlann was fought in Cornwall or in Wales, it would still be possible for Arthur to be buried in Glastonbury; Dark Age rulers were sometimes transported large distances for burial.

After the grave was discovered in 1190, it was moved by order of King Edward I to the interior of the Abbey in 1278. A black marble tomb was built above Arthur and Guinevere within the nave of the cathedral near the high altar. Today there is a marker that identifies the place as the gravesite in the midst of the abbey ruins. After the dissolution of the abbey, the tomb was destroyed, and a portion of a tomb from the right time period is preserved today in the abbey visitor's center. It is thought by The "Isle of Avalon" from Glastonbury TorBligh Bond, the archeologist that excavated the area, to be part of the chain-mail clad arm of King Arthur from the tomb (see above).

The cross says that Glastonbury was the Isle of Avalon. Any visitor today would question this at first, since the town is many miles from the nearest significant body of water. In the time of Arthur, though, the Somerset lowlands were continually flooded and made the area around Glastonbury Tor, for all practical purposes, an island. From the top of the Tor, after a heavy rain, the flooded plains still hint at the area's insular past.

Location and Description

The town of Glastonbury is in the county of Somerset, about ten miles east of Bridgwater on the A39. There are several sites of interest in the area. Pomparles Bridge is south of town towards Street, and Glastonbury Tor is on the eastern side of town. Glastonbury Abbey is conspicuously present in the center of town, and there are several pay parking lots nearby. There is also a small entrance fee.

Geoffrey Ashe and Jake at the site of Arthur's original graveTo see a Streetmap.co.uk map of the area around Glastonbury, click here.

We got into Glastonbury in the late afternoon and rushed up to the Tor after settling in to our room at Little Orchard. We reached the top near dusk and saw the sun set over Avalon. We explored the tower for a while and then headed down the slope to meet noted Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe and his wife Patricia for a late afternoon tea. They were very hospitable, and we set up a private tour of Glastonbury Abbey for the next day.

It was a privilege to get a personal tour of Glastonbury Abbey from Mr. Ashe. The abbey has been virtually destroyed since Henry VIII's dissolution movement in the 1539. When the complex came into disuse, people began to loot the area first for valuables and then for stones. It is said that much of the early road to the nearby town of Wells was paved with pieces of Glastonbury Abbey. Mr. Ashe first showed us around the Lady chapel, which was above a basement chapel dedicated to Joseph of Arimathea.

The next stop was what Mr. Ashe called "the most disappointing part of the tour," the original grave of King Arthur. It is just an unmarked plot of grass along a gravel path. The "pyramids" that Malmesbury and others spoke of have long since disappeared and even today the site remains unacknowledged. We never would have known where it was had it not been for our expert guide.

From there we continued into the nave of the cathedral, where the more recent Arthur's grave is marked. There is a stone standing area in front of a sign that identifies an area demarcated with a rectangular stone perimeter set into the ground. This Geoffrey Ashe and Joe at the site of Arthur's Tombgrave is in the area in front of the High Altar, and there were pools of melted wax around it as if there had been a recent vigil. Nearby there were two wooden panels that you could lift to see some of the cathedral's original floor tiles.

Mr. Ashe also showed us the Abbot's Kitchen, an intact square building that housed a bakery. Inside there is a wooden plaque that lists all the abbots of Glastonbury Abbey.

Journal Reflections

To read Jake's Journal Entry for this day, click here.

For Joe's Journal Entry, click here.

 

The Berth

Legendary and Historical Background

The BerthThe Berth is Phillips and Keatmans' Avalon, the likely burial place of their Welsh "Arthur," Owain Ddantgwyn. The site itself, much like Glastonbury, is surrounded by marshy lowlands that would have been flooded in Arthur's time and would have given the isolated earthwork the appearance of an island. But the theory is based on more than this.

The Canu Heledd, a poem in the Red Book of Hergest, identifies the area around modern day Baschurch as the burial site of the seventh century kings of Powys, specifically the Eglwyseu Bassa (translated as the "churches of Bassa"). The Berth lies in a field just on the outskirts of this town, and seems the most likely site in the area for Powysian spiritual practices. Lilly Chitty, an archeologist investigating the area in 1925, happed upon a local legend that "a prince was buried beneath a mound on the south slope after a great battle and that his men were buried in a longer, narrower mound nearby" (Phillips & Keatman, 171). Overall, archeology at the site has been limited; it is encouraging that early 6th century pottery was found, but perhaps the mound will someday be excavated and uncover the remains of generations of Powysian rulers. A cauldron was found, though, in 1906 in Berth Pool, a small pond immediately adjacent to this hillock. Cauldrons held special religious significance in this pagan society, and some scholars have seen such objects as precursors to the Holy Grail (see our discussion of Dinas Bran). The fact that objects of spiritual significance seemed to have been cast into Berth Pool led Phillips and Keatman to say that perhaps Excalibur itself lies somewhere on the muddy floor.

Location and Description

The Berth and its corresponding pool are just outside the town of Baschurch in mid Wales. From Baschurch, go into Newtown and The marshy lowlands surrounding this Avalonyou will come to a four-way intersection at the north end of the town. Turn right. You will pass a pub called the Boreaton Arms and then cross the railroad tracks. To go the second way, go over the railroad tracks and continue for about a mile until you come to a sign that says "Weston Lullingfields" and points to a narrow paved road on the left. Turn left onto this road and continue for 0.6 miles to a brick farmhouse, then park by the dirt road immediately past the house. Follow this dirt road on foot and it is possible to get to the hill through private farmland by trudging down muddy roads, hopping fences and hedges, and tromping through wet pastures. In a bit you will reach the Berth in front of you. This site was not very inviting, and, as with any site on private property, it would be best to alert the owners of your presence and intentions. You can see Berth Pool from this vantage point, but alternate directions can be found here.

To see a Streetmap.co.uk map of the area around the Berth and Berth Pool, click here.

As we have mentioned previously, this is one of the least inviting sites that we have visited. Firstly, Joe got the car stuck on the muddy lane that turned off of the paved road. After much spinning of tyres (tires) we resigned ourselves to trekking on foot. We found a weak spot in a hedge row and forced our way into an open field. We figured this way would be easier than trudging through the thick muck that had claimed our Nissan Micra. In this field we could clearly see the Berth in front of us. There appeared to be only one fence in our way, and we had hopped plenty of those. We got to the fence and noticed that there were actually two fences with a metre-wide stream running between them. To compound this problem, the banks dropped The ramparts of the Berthsteeply along the fenceline. We gingerly hopped the fence and crossed the stream using an overhanging tree branch. There was still one pasture between us and the Berth. From here we could see the well-defined ramparts that surrounded the low hill. To our left was a raised arm of the fort embankments that extended out into the field to a smaller mound.

If Phillips and Keatman's Avalon theory, this arm would have been a causeway out to the Berth. We had to walk through remnants of Avalon to get out there ourselves. There were several inches of standing water in this field, so we found ourselves hopping from clump to clump of grass, occasionally slipping and landing in the sludge. We were happy to reach the hill, though even it was muddy. It is not very high, and it was an easy walk to the top. This summit was relatively flat, spotted with trees, and afforded us a better view of Berth Pool (though it was still obscured by trees). We also wanted to explore the arms, but had to hop another barbed wire fence to get to them. These peculiar earthworks gave the hill a certain...je ne sais pas. It was then time to head back to the car, and we decided to go back through a different field that didn't look as waterlogged. It turned out to be worse. It was much muddier, and the water in some spots was almost a foot deep and sloshed over the top of our boots. When we got back to the car Joe threw his in the back and donned his driving moccasins.

The bottom line here is not to attempt this trek without knowing what you're getting into. It is an interesting area, but bring some Wellies.

Journal Reflections

To read Jake's Journal Entry for this day, click here.

For Joe's Journal Entry, click here.


THE CAVE LEGENDS

An alternative to a mortal death of Arthur is that he and his Knights have taken refuge in a mystical cave where they will rest until the time Britain needs them most. Often they are said to guard a treasure of some sort, and only those with certain qualities (which differ from legend to legend) are able to find and enter the cave. Arthur's Cave and Alderley Edge are two of the supposed "caves" that have at least a cave like appearance to which the legend is attached. Cave legends also play a part in the lore of Cadbury and the round table at Bryn-Rhyd-yr-Arian. One version of the legend is told in this anonymous poem about Alderley Edge.

Arthur's Cave near Ganarew

Legendary and Historical Background

This cave is unique in the field of candidates for the cave legend in that it can actually be explored. Most of the others are normally hidden from sight and only open in very particular circumstances. Perhaps the legend is descended from an earlier one involving a The three entrances to Arthur's Cavefalse wall somewhere within. Helen Hill Miller, in her The Realms of Arthur, takes a different slant to the legend by hinting at a more military use, saying that the cave's "recesses penetrate very far into the hill, and could hide a substantial force (115). The cave also has a long history of use; the first people to live there were of the Old Stone Age. This is older than any other Arthurian site.

It has a parallel to Cadbury Castle in that it is a cave within a hillfort. The cave is near the Iron Age fort of Little Doward, which provides an alternative to the Vortigern death story told of Nant Gwrtheyrn. Besieged by Ambrosius, the fort catches fire and Vortigern is consumed by the flames. Of course, the Cadbury cave is said to only open on Christmas Eve, and Arthur's Cave is in plain view year round.

Location and Description

Arthur's Cave is just a few miles north of Monmouth on the A40, at the bottom of the southeast slope of the Little Doward Hill. Take the Ganarew / Doward / Crocker's Ash exit. It will curve around backwards and pass a church before crossing over the A40 on an overpass. You will come to an intersection, just over the bridge. Turn left. Go a short distance and turn right at the "T" intersection with a sign pointing to Doward. There is a red phone booth on the left. Drive on this narrow road until it forks, then take the one labeled "Great Doward." This takes you on a road with an open field on your right below the hill of Little Doward. Take the first major right turn; there is a AA "Doward Park" at the corner. Go past this park and in a very short distance there is a small dirt pull off / car park just before a steep descent. Park here and notice the tree marked with yellow paint that says "Cave" and has an arrow. There is a path that this arrow points to at the far side of the car park that takes you through the woods Inside Arthur's Cavedown a well-defined trail. Follow this trail down the hill and you will walk on top of the outcropping that houses the cave. The trail proceeds down and then curves around the front of the cave, which faces a fenced in field on the right and Little Doward Hill on the left. There are yellow arrows painted on trees every so often on the trail.

To see a Streetmap.co.uk map of the area around Arthur's Cave, click here.

After winding along woodland trails in Doward Park for about 5 minutes, we came to Arthur's Cave. The cave is not technically on Little Doward hill, as most of our sources suggested, but rather on a much smaller, adjacent hill to the east. We didn't know this at first; we had to get directions by interrupting a local who was busy building a stone wall along his drive. We followed the yellow arrows that were painted on trees along the trail and found the cave easily. It has three entrances--the rightmost two are more than big enough to walk through (10 feet high or so), but the third is more of a crawler. The cave is not one you can get lost in, as its several rooms are large, open ones. Two of these are simply alleys that lead into the hill, but there is one large, circular room perhaps 25 feet in diameter. Could this have been a meeting place for Arthur and his knights, a Round Table?

Journal Reflections

To read Jake's Journal Entry for this day, click here.

For Joe's Journal Entry, click here.

 

Alderley Edge

The town of Alderley Edge is south of Manchester on the A34, near Wilmslow. The B5087 intersects the A34 in the town. Go on this road towards Macclesfield; it will take you through a residential area. Soon, on your left, there will be a sign marking "the Edge," and there is a roadside shoulder for parking. There is a trail that goes beside a field and then comes to a small flight of Alderly Edgestairs (5 steps, maybe). When you get to the bottom of the steps, turn left. After a short walk, there is a rock with a face carved in it and a stone trough on the ground. This is the site of the cave legend association with Alderly Edge.

To see a Streetmap.co.uk map of the area around Alderly Edge, click here.

Alderley Edge has more of a Merlin association than one with Arthur. There is a cave-legend, though, and the story has been told in several different ways. Most involve Merlin stopping a man on his way to town to sell his horse. The wizard offers to buy it for one of Arthur's Knights to use; the band is sleeping concealed in a cave in the rock. Click here to read one such interpretation.

Journal Reflections

To read Jake's Journal Entry for this day, click here.

For Joe's Journal Entry, click here.

 

Cadbury Castle

The Camelot contender has a cave legend of its own; see the end of the Cadbury discussion for more information.

Bryn-Rhyd-yr-Arian

We have come across some local lore of this area that attaches a cave legend; go here for more information.


THE RAVEN

Marazion

A Raven flying over Marazion GreenLegendary and Historical Background
'Have not your worships,' replied 
Don Quixote, 'read the annals and 
histories of England, in which are 
recorded the famous deeds of King 
Arthur, whom we in our popular 
Castilian invariably call King Artus, 
with regard to whom it is an ancient 
tradition, and commonly received all
over that kingdom of Great Britain, 
that this king did not die, but was changed by magic art into a raven, and that in process of time he is to return to 
reign and recover his kingdom and sceptre; for which reason it cannot be proved that from that time to this any 
Englishman ever killed a raven? 
                      -Don Quixote, Part I, Section XIII.

This is a rather unorthodox account of Arthur's passing, but there are surviving bits of this folklore. In the 1800s, an old man on Marazion Green, near the Cornish town of Penzance, reprimanded a sportsman for shooting at a raven for the chance that it might be King Arthur. This belief may seem isolated, but the raven was actually an esteemed, royal bird in the English west country and in Wales. This is especially seen in the Welsh god Bran, whose name actually means raven.

Location and Description

The town of Marazion is located on the south west tip of Cornwall, on Mount's Bay. If approaching on the A30, follow the signs to Marazion when it intersects with the A394.

To see a Streetmap.co.uk map of the area around Marazion, click here.

St. Michael's Mount at MarazionWe parked in a lot near the shore of Mount's Bay by Marazion Green. We thought it would be interesting to try and get a picture of a raven on the green to go along with that legend. There were plenty of the black birds around, but most of them were picking at garbage on the dirty gravel lot or perched on top of the bathrooms. We tried for thirty minutes to get a majestic, Arthur-worthy picture of a raven. At one point we drove in circles around the lot holding the camera out the window and keeping a lookout for a bird striking a better pose. We finally got a few and narrowed it down to the one above. With some creative cropping, we even made it look respectable.

The main attraction of Marazion was St. Michael's Mount, which was modeled after Mont St. Michel in France, where Arthur is supposed to have fought a giant. Loe Pool was also nearby. We saw the lady of the manor getting chauffeured in her Land Rover across the cobblestone causeway. This stone road is only usable during low tide; at high tide they must take a boat to the shore.

Journal Reflections

To read Jake's Journal Entry for this day, click here.

For Joe's Journal Entry, click here.


All photographs by Joe Boyles and Jake Livingston.
Top picture from The Arthurian Legends.