THE LOST CHAPTER
ISLE OF AVALON
31 December 2001. We made our way towards the near perfect
ruins of the Lady Chapel (also known as St Joseph’s Chapel), built
in a Romanesque style on the site of the ‘Old Church’ in
1186. This was two years after a devastating fire demolished much of
the monastery and destroyed most of its holy relics, and just five years
before the ‘discovery’ of Arthur and Guinevere’s remains.
According to the Welsh churchman Gerald of Wales, who visited the monastery
within a year or two of the event, the search for the graves was inspired
by King Henry II. Apparently, he had been told by a Welsh ‘soothsayer’
that Arthur’s remains would be found deep beneath the ground inside
‘a hollowed-out oak-bole’, exactly midway between two stone
‘pyramids’ (tiered funerary monuments) located in the churchyard,
close to the chapel.
That the graves of important individuals were found here is not in dispute, for the excavations conducted in 1962 by archaeologist Dr A. Ralegh Radford provided conclusive evidence that a large hole had been dug at the spot just after the fire, and that it had been temporarily left open before being refilled. Furthermore, at the bottom of the pit were evidence for the presence here of two to three slab-lined graves from the very earliest burial period. All that was under suspicion was the identity of the remains, which were said to belong to Arthur, Guinevere and, originally, Arthur’s son Modred, whose name was quietly dropped after initial newsletters advertising the discovery prompted a fierce reaction from those who found the story too incredulous, as the romances he is portrayed as entirely evil. Even setting this anomaly aside, what evidence was there to suggest that the bodies found - one of which, according to Gerald of Wales, was of gigantic size with an enormous shinbone and a skull that bore several cut marks - were those of Arthur and Guinevere? The answer is an inscribed lead cross supposedly found attached to the underside of the stone slab that marked the whereabouts of the graves, with its inscription supposedly turned in to face the stone surface.
HIC IACET SEPULTUS
(‘Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon’)
Tellingly, it does
not mention Guinevere, although other variations of the inscription
do include her name. For instance, Gerald of Wales, who claimed to have
touched the lettering on the cross, said the inscription read: ‘Here
lies buried the renowned King Arthur, with Guenevere his second wife,
in the Isle of Avalon’. It has also been proposed that a second
inscription referring to her interment was to be found on the cross’s
reverse (nowhere is there any reference to the interment of Arthur’s
son Modred). The manner in which the Latin characters are written, and
the style of language used, has implied to some scholars that the inscription
dates back to the tenth century, hundreds of years after the age of
Arthur. Thus they conclude that the lead cross was manufactured and
placed over the grave when the level of the cemetery was increased in
order to take more graves, an event which occurred during the time of
Abbot Dunstan in the second half of the tenth century. However, it is
the wording of the inscription which gives away its true age, for Arthur
is alluded to as inclitus rex, the ‘renowned king’, while
the place of burial, i.e. Glastonbury, is given as the ‘Isle of
Unfortunately, these elements of the inscription echo the words of Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1154), a Welsh cleric (and later Bishop of St Asaph) who around the year 1136 wrote a book entitled Historia Regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain’), and spoke of Arthur’s final fate in the following, quite unique, manner:
work was arguably the first Anglo-Norman account of Arthur’s life
and deeds, and it unquestionably influenced the authors of the Grail
romances. Long thought to be more romance than history, time has proved
the accuracy of his writings again and again. Yet his statement that
the great British chieftain, here elevated to the role of ‘renowned
king’ was ‘carried off to the Isle of Avalon’, following
his fateful battle at Camlann, where he slew his evil son Modred, was
entirely new. This is despite the fact that Arthur had previously been
mentioned in Welsh annals in connection with the equally mysterious
ynys avallach, the ‘isle of apples’, an otherworldly
realm in the west. Somehow, Geoffrey assumed that the place-name ‘Avalon’,
which featured in existing French texts, was derived from the Welsh
avallach, with its first component aval, or afal, meaning ‘apple’,
leading him to conclude that the two places were one and the same. In
turn, this confusion resulted in the monks of the abbey connecting the
name Ynys Avallach, and thus Avalon, with Glastonbury which was at the
time noted for its apple trees and had anciently been known as Ynys
Gutrin, or Yniswitrin, the Isle of Glass, a name associated in Celtic
myth with an otherworldly abode with impregnable walls of air. How this
association came about is not clear, although it probably accounts for
the Anglo-Saxon place-name ‘Glastonbury’, and is explained
by the fact that in Roman times the town was a prominent island situated
on the edge of the British Channel, the waters of which have since withdrawn
to their present position some 25 kilometres (16 miles) west-north-west
of the town.
It is safe to assume that Glastonbury only became associated with the name ‘Isle of Avalon’ following the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, meaning that the lead cross must have been fashioned after its first appearance in c. 1136. This theory is supported by the fact that it refers to Arthur as the ‘renowned king’, Geoffrey’s own term for the British warrior. Previous to this time Arthur was named in Welsh annals only as a chieftain, commander or great leader. Another piece of damning evidence against the greater antiquity of the cross is that an Anglo-Norman tympanum above the entrance door to the church of St Mary at Stoke-sub-Hamdon, a mile or so from Montacute, where Glastonbury Abbey held lands, has carved lettering identical to that of Arthur’s Cross. It dates to the second half of the twelfth century, suggesting that the cross is of a similar age.
Even though de Boron
did not suggest that Joseph of Arimathea ended his days in Britain,
the author of the First Continuation, written c. 1190-1200, already
had Joseph bringing the Grail to ‘the White Isle’, i.e.
Britain (‘One part belongs to England, which is enclosed and locked
by the sea.’), and continuing the family line there. It is easy
to see how the monks at Glastonbury might have been tempted to capitalise
on such open-ended storylines in order to provide the monastery with
a greater antiquity, especially in the wake of the devastating fire
According to the
story, Arthur finally finds out where his queen is being held and, after
calling forth his armies from Devon and Cornwall, marches on Glastonbury
and besieges Melwas’s stronghold. Eventually, through the intervention
of St Gildas and the abbot the monastery, Melwas hands back the queen
and makes his peace with Arthur in the ‘temple of holy Mary’,
a reference to the Old Church on the site of which the present Lady
Chapel was built. Both kings then endow the monastery ‘with many
lands and privileges in commemoration of the peaceful settlement of
Despite the existence
of this story, extracted perhaps from some now lost work in the library
at Llancarfan’s ancient monastery, there is nothing further to
link King Arthur with Glastonbury prior to this age. However, historian
James P. Carley, in his scholarly work entitled, simply, Glastonbury
Abbey, published in 1988, accepts that such stories ‘suggest
that Glastonbury was somehow associated with the development of some
of the most important Arthurian hagiographical traditions.’
Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that his Historia Regum Britanniae was derived from ‘a very old book in the British language’, given to him by one ‘Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford’. Whether such a book ever existed is unclear, and it seems more likely that much of the material for this book and another work entitled Prophetiae Merlini (‘Merlin’s Prophecies’), written in 1151, came from Welsh source material. Whatever the origins of Geoffrey’s books, the King Arthur he portrays is unlikely to have had much in common with his historical ancestor. Introducing Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail into the equation was inevitably going to muddy the waters still further, particularly in connection with Glastonbury. As I already knew, the writer of the Grail romance entitled Perlesvaus, written c. 1190-1210, claimed that:
Clearly, there is an allusion here both to Glastonbury Abbey and the discovery of Arthur and Guinevere’s remains in 1191, showing that the romance was influenced by this crucial event in the monastery’s long history. Moreover, it also contains certain scenes, particularly Lancelot’s arrival in Avalon, which suggest that the author was also familiar with the Glastonbury landscape, a factor accepted by historian James P. Carley. And who is to say that the author of Perlesvaus might not have paid the town a visit after reading about the discovery of Arthur and Guinevere’s graves. Yet beyond this possibility there is nothing to show that any of the Arthurian stories it contains relate specifically to Glastonbury.
Having read William’s book, the abbot of Glastonbury, Henry de Blois, invited him to write the Lives of various saints connected with the monastery’s long history. As a consequence, William traveled to Glastonbury in 1129 and composed a new book entitled De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie (‘The History of Glastonbury Abbey’), of which the earliest extant copy dates only to c. 1247 and was written by one of the monks of Glastonbury. It clearly contains whole sections that post-date William’s lifetime, including fake charters, a reference to the great fire of 1184 and a list of abbots subsequent to his death. More disconcertingly, there are chapters regarding Glastonbury’s history which are unlikely to have been present in the book’s original form. This we can be sure of because after Willaim’s visit to Glastonbury, he updated his earlier work, the Gestis Regum, introducing revised material about the abbey’s antiquity lifted directly from his new book on Glastonbury. Here he now asserts that its church was ‘certainly the oldest I am acquainted with in England’. How old he does not say, and instead goes on to refer to the arrival of Christianity on British shores under the guiding influence of Tertullian (c. 160-240), a prominent father of the Roman church. William also speculates on the assumed presence of early Christians beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire, especially in Scotland and Ireland. He thus concludes that the Christian faith might well have reached Britain before this time, and that certain records he has seen profess that:
This was a huge leap forward from William’s original claim that the abbey was founded by King Ine, so was he correct? A Life of St Dunstan, Glastonbury’s most celebrated abbot, written c. AD 1000, reproduces a letter alleged to have been sent by St Augustine to Pope Gregory during his mission to Britain in c. AD 596/7 which reads:
If this reference
is not a medieval interpolation inserted into a copy of a much earlier
work, which has to be considered, then it is clear that there was certainly
something very special about the foundation of Glastonbury’s Old
Church on the site of which the present Lady Chapel arose. Yet what
convinced William of Malmesbury that those responsible might have been
‘disciples of Christ’? Was it simply the word of the abbot,
Henry de Blois, who was one of the country’s most influential
churchmen of his day, and to whom William devoted the preface of De
Antiquitate, or was it something else altogether? One can only speculate,
however, it seems clear that by 1247 the monks had severely altered
William’s De Antiquitate, and were thus almost certainly
responsible for various statements it makes concerning Joseph of Arimathea’s
arrival in Glastonbury, which it identifies as Avalon, material not
found in the revised form of his earlier book the Gestis Regum.
The passages in question
tell the story of how, following the conversion of the Franks (i.e.
the Gauls), St Philip despatched twelve trusted disciples to Britain
to continue the work of spreading the gospel, their leader being his
‘very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord’.
They set out on their journey, we are told, ‘in 63 AD, the fifteenth
year after the assumption of the Blessed Mary’, and confidently
began to preach the faith of Christ. On their arrival in Britain the
kingdom’s barbarian king, along with the people therein, refused
to accept this new faith, but because the ‘saints’ had come
from afar they were granted ‘a certain island on the outskirts
of his territory on which they could live, a place surrounded by woods,
bramble bushes and marshes and called by its inhabitants Yniswitrin’.
Later, two other kings who, although pagan, having learnt of the sanctity
of their lives, ‘granted and confirmed to each of them a portion
of land. From these saints, it is believed, the “twelve hides”
derive the name by which they are still known’.
After remaining on
the island for a while, the ‘saints’ were incited by a vision
of the archangel Gabriel to build a church ‘in honour of the Virgin
Mary, the holy mother of God, in a place that was pointed out to them
from heaven.’ They, quick to obey the divine command, ‘completed
a chapel as they had been instructed, making the lower part of all its
walls of twisted wattle, an unsightly construction no doubt but one
adorned by God with many miracles.’ It was honoured in the name
of the blessed Virgin, and, eventually, the saints passed away, and
the chapel fell into disrepair and became a ‘lair for wild beasts’.
This was until the Virgin Mary intervened and guided two holy men who
led a mission into the kingdom during the reign of Lucius, a legendary
king of the Britons.
Desiring to lead
his subjects unto the faith of Christ, Lucius sent a plea to Pope Eleutherius,
thirteenth in line from St Peter, and as a result received two missionaries,
Phagan and Deruvian (Faganus and Duvianus in Geoffrey of Monmouth),
who baptized the British king and put an end to paganism throughout
much of the island. On their journeys they came upon ‘the island
of Avalon’ and, with God’s guidance, were led to the site
of the ‘old Church built by the hands of the disciples of Christ’.
This took place, the book says, 103 years after the arrival in Britain
of the ‘disciples of St Philip’, i.e. in AD 166.
the oratory, Phagan and Deruvian were filled with ineffable joy and
made the decision to prolong their mission by nine years. Shortly afterwards,
they uncovered documents which spoke of St Philip sending the twelve
disciples to Britain, so that they might know at once that Christians
had earlier inhabited the spot. Moreover, ‘a heavenly oracle’
inferred that the Lord had especially chosen this place ‘before
all others in Britain to invoke the name of his glorious mother.’
Furthermore, King Lucius confirmed the right of Phagan and Deruvian
and their twelve companions to hold the twelve hides given to the twelve
disciples of St Philip by the three pagan kings. In time, they restored
the Old Church and added another oratory made of stone, which was dedicated
to Christ and the holy apostles Peter and Paul. However, elsewhere in
the book the two missionaries are said to have built an oratory ‘in
honour of St Michael the archangel’ which was to be found on ‘the
peak of a hill which rises on that island’, a sure reference to
the church of St Michael built on Glastonbury Tor.
That the concept of the ‘wandering Jew’ derives not from the gospel stories mentioning Joseph of Arimathea, but from a statement made by Jesus in connection with the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John might also explain why in various medieval chronicles Joseph is cited as the paranymphos, the guardian of Mary, the mother Jesus, a role given in the same gospel to John himself. These legends imply that whilst in Ephesus John entrusted Mary into Joseph’s keeping and that she accompanied him to Britain, a huge update to the existing account of Mary’s ultimate fate, which in Catholic tradition ended with the Assumption, her ascent to heaven.
According to Glastonbury
scholar James P. Carley, who has written an essential paper on Melkin
and his prophecy, the ‘little spheres of prophecy’ probably
refer to small representations of the twelve signs of the zodiac, plus
the sun at their centre, once contained in a mosaic design upon the
floor of the Lady Chapel seen and cryptically described by William of
Malmesbury, following his visit to the abbey in c. 1129. Since Melkin
was said to have been an astrologer and geometer, I would be inclined
to believe that these astrological symbols present in the Old Church
before it burnt down in 1184 represented the heavenly influences which
have manifested in more recent times as the so-called Glastonbury Zodiac.
Despite its rich
astrological content, which begs explanation, the Prophecy of Melkin
also provides another enormous update in the story of Joseph and his
followers’ arrival in Britain, and was very likely influenced
by Grail romances such as Perlesvaus, where the idea of Joseph having
a sarcophagus is introduced for the first time. Here it states that
his sepulchre is located in a chapel attached to King Fisherman’s
Castle. It opens miraculously to expose the holy remains when Perceval,
a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea, arrives to liberate the fortress
from the King of Castle Mortal.
According to the
Prophecy of Melkin, lying with Joseph of Arimathea are two vessels,
or ‘cruets’, one white and the other silver, filled with
‘blood and sweat of the prophet Jesus’. This is yet another
fantastic development in the history of the Grail. Instead of one single
holy vessel being brought to Britain by Joseph and/or his family, the
reader is now presented with the existence of blood-relics in two receptacles,
one perhaps for the blood and the other for the sweat. The idea that
‘blood and water’ poured from Jesus’s side after one
of the soldiers standing by pierced it with a spear comes from the alleged
witness account of the Passion given by the writer of the Gospel of
John, seemingly the apostle himself. On the other hand, the concept
of two cruets replacing the Holy Grail might well be linked with the
two cruets used in the feast of the Eucharist in Catholic tradition.
One contains the wine of the sacrament, signifying the Holy Blood of
Jesus, while the other is filled with water, representing the physical
world, and when the two are mixed in the Eucharistic chalice it symbolises
the unity of God and man.
Joseph’s transformation from being the guardian of the Holy Grail to the bearer of two cruets containing the ‘blood and sweat’ of Jesus Christ cannot have been achieved by the monks of Glastonbury alone. Something of importance had occurred with respect to the evolution of the Grail legend in the 150 or so years between the writing of the main Grail romances, c. 1180-1220, and the appearance of John of Glastonbury’s book, c. 1342. Stories started to circulate Britain suggesting that instead of there being one authentic receptacle, or graal, in circulation, there were in fact two - one perhaps with Holy Blood collected by Joseph of Arimathea at the time of the Crucifixion and another vessel of equal calibre which was later given into his care, the reason why the cruets of the sacrament had now replaced the chalice as the symbol of the Holy Grail. How exactly this story might have come about would have to wait until another day.
These were thoughts
that accompanied me as our party strolled from the tranquil ruins of
the Lady Chapel, along the length of the chancel to the marked rectangular
area in front of the site of the high altar where a black marble tomb
once contained the human remains of individuals identified as Arthur
and Guinevere. As I looked on, with an attitude of respect, a hippy
girl walked up and placed a single flower by the sign identifying the
importance of the spot. It was a heart-felt gesture, and one which showed
the affection with which the Glastonbury legends are still revered by
the youth culture of today.
As profound a mystery as the Prophecy of Melkin might conceal, its true significance was the manner in which it helped establish the whereabouts of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. It was at Glastonbury, and inside this sepulchre were the two cruets of silver, confirming for the first time the monastery’s link with the Grail outside of the romances. Yet time was to distort this memory, for today it is believed that the Grail was hidden by Joseph in the vicinity of Chalice Well, which lies beyond the eastern limits of the abbey ruins. Beneath it is Chalice Well, the source of a powerful chalybeate spring, which produces water which stains everything red due to its high iron content. Although its exact age is unknown, rumours have persisted for over a hundred and fifty years that this is the true location of the holy vessel, or cruets (the two variations have never quite gelled together), brought here nearly 2,000 years ago by the disciple of Christ.
open devotion to Joseph of Arimathea was due to a huge revival of interest
in the Glastonbury legends that occurred in the fifteenth century. Partly,
this was due to the publication in 1485 of Caxton’s celebrated
edition of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (‘The
Death of Arthur’), written around 1469-70. It was the most complete
version of the tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail ever written,
and would go on to inspire John Boorman’s classic film Excalibur
(1981). Yet beyond this was the growing belief that because of Joseph’s
voyage to Glastonbury, Britain was the first nation outside of Rome
to embrace the faith of Christ, a subject which the ecclesiastical authorities
of the day felt important to establish for political reasons, especially
since other European countries put claim to the same title. For instance,
the Spanish Church asserted that St James the Great reached Spain first,
while the French insisted that Dionysius the Areopagite, or St Denis,
had carried the gospel to the pagan Gauls before anyone else. The matter
was debated at the councils of Pisa in 1409, Constance in 1417, Sienna
in 1424 and Basle, Switzerland, in 1434. Among those churchmen putting
forward Britain’s claim at the last of these councils was Nicholas
Frome, abbot of Glastonbury (1420-1456), while at Sienna in 1424 one
of the dignitaries present was Nicholas Bubwith, the Bishop of Bath
and Wells, in whose diocese Glastonbury fell.
In the case of Britain, the envoys asserted that on his arrival in Britain Joseph of Arimathea and his eleven followers were granted a holding of twelve hides by a sympathetic pagan king, a claim originally made in the revised copies of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate. By the fifteenth century this enigmatic king had been named as Arvirargus, who had previously received a mention in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. According to him, Arvirargus was a British king who held out against the Romans at the time of the invasion in AD 43, but later submitted to Emperor Claudius, who ruled AD 41-54. As part of a peace treaty, Claudius gave his daughter Genvissa in marriage to Arvirargus (the Welsh Gwairydd). He again revolted, forcing him to be subdued by the forces of Vespasian. Even though Arvirargus is said by Geoffrey to have been King Lucius’s great grandfather as well as the founder of the city of Gloucester, next to nothing is known about this British king, for he goes unmentioned in the books of those Roman writers who chronicled the conquest of Britain. Only one other reference is known, and this is in a work entitled Satire by Juvenal, a late first and early second century Roman satirist. In an address to the Emperor Nero about a turbot caught, the blind man Veiento proclaims: ‘A mighty presage hast thou, O Emperor! of a great and glorious victory. Some King will be thy captive; or Arviragus will be hurled from his British chariot. The brute is foreign-born: dost thou not see the prickles bristling upon his back?’ So, did King Arvirargus really provide Joseph of Arimathea and his disciples with a holding consisting of exactly twelve hides of land?
The fact that the holding belonging to Glastonbury Church consisted of twelve hides, probably has some a hidden significance, relating, if not to twelve disciples being granted a hide each, but to the divine nature of Glastonbury expressed through the sacred canon of numbers. A hide is generally taken to be 120 acres, and so 12 X 120 = 1440 acres, which just happens to be the length of the perimeter wall of the conceived New Jerusalem in St John’s book of Revelation. It might be argued that there was a conscious attempt in medieval times to establish Glastonbury as an earthly representation of this heavenly concept, a theory strengthened by the reference in Melkin’s Prophecy which speaks of ‘Abbadare, powerful in Saphat, most noble of pagans, took his sleep there [in the monastery’s cemetery] with 104,000.’ James P. Carley asks whether this should in fact read 144,000, the number of people witnessed in Revelations 7:4. Whatever the case, Glastonbury’s Domesday Book entry does provide compelling evidence that the monastery was anciently considered a place of special status, and that the monks were very much aware of this fact.
Another, often overlooked,
factor that will have fuelled Abbot Beere and Polydore Vergil’s
passionate interest in Joseph of Arimathea is the claimed discovery
of his tomb, the principal reason for my visit to St John’s church
that afternoon. In the year 1345 one John Bloom, or Blome, of London
is said to have been granted a licence under Edward III to dig for the
body of the saint in the monastery’s cemetery, provided that the
abbot and monks had no objections. Remember, this was around three years
after the appearance of John of Glastonbury’s ‘The Chronicle
of Glastonbury Abbey’, in which Joseph’s marble sepulchre
is alluded to within the Prophecy of Melkin.
The discovery of
Joseph’s tomb is attested by R. de Boston, ‘a monk’
who in 1367 recorded that: ‘The bodies of Joseph of Arimathea
and his companions were found in Glastonbury.’ However, other
accounts suggest that nothing had been found before 1420, when, following
a request by none other than Henry V, king of England, as to the fate
of Joseph’s remains, the abbot, Nicholas Frome, reported the discovery
on the south side of cemetery of three coffins at a depth of xx meters
(17 feet), one of which contained the bones of twelve individuals. Another
coffin found inside the Mary Chapel was said to have contained a corpse
adorned in fine linen which exuded a delicate scent. It was enclosed
in another larger coffin, and the body subsequently identified as that
of Joseph of Arimathea, the bodies of the 12 men in the other coffin
presumably being his 12 hermits.
According to the
Rev. Lionel Smithett Lewis, the vicar of Glastonbury during the first
quarter of the twentieth century, the remains were ‘put in a silver
casket which could be raised at will from a stone sarcophagus, the base
of a shrine to which frequent pilgrimage was made.’ Moreover,
in a work entitled De Sancto Joseph Ab Armathia, printed by
Richard Paynson in 1520, miracles regularly occurred in the name of
St Joseph at the abbey church, including the healing of Mrs Lyte of
Lytes Cary, a notable of the neighbourhood, and the Vicar of Wells,
a fact which cannot have gone unnoticed by Polydore Vergil.
is recorded as having been located ‘at the east end of the crypt
under St Mary’s Chapel, … [causing] the whole chapel constantly
to be called St Joseph’s Chapel.’ Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles
of England, Scotland and Ireland, first published in 1577, spoke
of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb and chapel at the end of the church.
Tradition asserts that the sarcophagus remained in position until 1662
when it was removed at night to the churchyard of St John’s church,
where it went unnoticed until 1928. In that year ‘loving hands
brought it reverently into the church and placed it in the ancient St
Katherine’s chapel, [that is] the north transept. The tomb was
generally known as the John Allen tomb.’ Those ‘loving hands’
were those of the Rev. Lewis, and according to him it bore the initials
J.A., for Joseph of Arimathea, between which was a Caduceus, the winged
serpent wand of the Greek god Hermes (Roman Mercury). Although a strange
sign to be associated with one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, Hermes
was the god of travellers, and, as I had established to my satisfaction,
in medieval legend Joseph was identified as the so-called ‘wandering
Jew’, who was forever made to walk the earth preaching the doctrine
According to the Rev. Lewis in his famous work St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, first published in 1922, when the lid of the sarcophagus was removed, the following points became apparent:
Afterwards, a glass
top is said to have been placed over the tomb, and since that time it
has remained undisturbed. Although generally identified as the resting
place of ‘John Allen’, others, the Rev. Lewis asserts, secretly
revere it as the shrine ‘of him who gave up his own tomb for Christ
and found a tomb in far-off Britain, and brought that country to the
feet of Christ.’
It was no coincidence
that immediately behind the tomb, within the transept’s northern
window, was Victorian stained glass showing scenes from the life of
Joseph of Arimathea. One showed his assumed role in the judgement of
Jesus by the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, a second showed Jesus’s
Deposition from the Cross, a third Joseph carrying the two cruets to
Glastonbury and the fourth the disciple meeting King Arvirargus on his
arrival in Britain. Above these scenes was a full length stained glass
of Joseph holding the two cruets in the style of a late fifteenth-century
stained glass representation of the saint to be seen in the east window
of the church of All Saints in nearby Langport.
Needing to know more
about the stone tomb, I tried to attract somebody’s attention
in the hope that they might throw further light on its presence here.
No one would admit to knowing anything about it, although a busy verger
did indicate that some information was to be found in a framed notice
attached to a nearby pillar. This stated only that the tomb belonged
to ‘John Alleyn’, who died in ‘1475’. It also
recorded that prior to being moved to its present position, it had been
out in the churchyard, and that the silk velvet cope that covered the
coffin pall dated to around 1500 and probably belonged to one of the
monastery’s abbots, presumably Abbot Beere himself. Not surprisingly,
there was no reference whatsoever of Joseph of Arimathea’s link
to the tomb.
As I stared at the
sarcophagus in wonder, waiting for the verger to ask us to leave before
locking up the church, I asked myself some pressing questions. Did this
tomb once contain the earthly remains of the disciple of Christ who
planted the seed of Christianity in Britain within a generation or so
of the death of the Redeemer? Did pilgrims once flock to this shrine
in order to pray for the help of the saint who collected the blood and
sweat of Jesus Christ at the time of the Crucifixion? More importantly,
did Joseph bring the Holy Grail to Glastonbury?
If Glastonbury Abbey had possessed the cruets containing the blood and sweat of Jesus Christ then there is no way that this fact will not have been recorded somewhere. The possession of such revered holy relics would have dwarfed the claims of any other religious house in Britain. Yet nowhere are there any references to this effect, making it clear that the story of the discovery of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb is extremely suspect.
And Did Those
These are the opening lines of his celebrated hymn ‘Jerusalem’, which no better invoke the spirit of ancient Albion, Blake’s name for Britain. Such powerful statements have provided a spiritual basis on which to accept Joseph of Arimathea’s mission to Britain, with believers in these stories being adamant that they are real, and that they predate the Grail romances. Why Jesus’s name became associated with various locations in southern England remains unclear, but more obvious is how Joseph came to be associated with first-century Roman Britain. Quite simply, it was the result of the circulation of the first Grail romances, and the very shrewd actions of the Glastonbury monks under the control of Abbot Henry de Sully. He had arrived at Glastonbury in 1189, some five years after the great fire and just two years before the discovery of Arthur and Guinevere’s graves. Previously, he had been the abbot at Fecamp Abbey in Normandy, which through it claims to possess blood-relics of Jesus had emerged as one of the great pilgrim centres of France. It generated an enormous annual income both for the abbey and the local community, which was required to feed, entertain and accommodate the thousands of pilgrims that would descend on the town each year.
Accusing a saintly
abbot and his community of pious monks of fabricating such an important
event in British history might seem somewhat harsh when we remember
that these men were servants of God. However, it is an open fact that
in the 150 years after the Norman Conquest a great many religious houses
in England deliberately concocted stories regarding their foundation
in antiquity by making up spurious saints’ Lives, faking ancient
charters and claiming to find the graves of legendary saints, or founders,
generally through divine intervention. At many of the great abbeys and
cathedrals in the country there existed a fierce rivalry concerning
prestige, status and power, and Glastonbury was at the heart of that
battle. As one commentator on the subject has said, it is ‘coming
to be more generally realised that [in the English Church in the Middle
Ages] forgery was a profession’.
Yet over and above
these considerations, the ‘discovery’ of Arthur and Guinevere’s
graves, whether by accident or design, would have served another primary
function as well - that of demoralising England’s enemies on its
western borders, the Welsh. Their lords waged a constant war on what
they saw as the Norman aggressor and regularly conducted raids across
the border into the Marches region. Moreover, there was always the constant
threat that one day the Welsh would push forward and occupy English
territories. From a mythological point of view, the Welsh believed that
their culture hero Arthur would one day rise again to unite their people
against the English, and so finding his grave at Glastonbury would have
the effect of proving that he was mortal and could never return.
Since Gerald of Wales
in his version of the discovery of Arthur and Guinevere’s graves
states that the inspiration behind the venture was Henry II, then there
is every reason to suggest that the matter was discussed with Henry
de Sully’s predecessor Robert de Winchester prior to the English
king’s death in July 1189. Since Henry de Sully did not arrive
in Glastonbury until September that year, then he can only have learnt
of the matter second-hand, most probably from the monks themselves.
However, such a collision cannot be ruled out for the reasons stated
above, especially as Henry failed on three occasions to subdue the Welsh
through military campaigns and constantly feared their irrational unpredictability.
More unlikely is the involvement of the new king, Richard I, who ceased
funding Glastonbury Abbey’s rebuilding project and instead ploughed
the money into the Third Crusade which took him out of the country for
almost all of his ten-year reign. Whatever the case, no one could have
imagined the impact that the discovery of the graves would ultimately
have, for aside from achieving the aims set out here, it helped focus
the emerging Grail tradition on Glastonbury as the Isle of Avalon and,
as a consequence, brought Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus Christ,
to the monastery’s own doorstep.
Yet even if this is right, and the whole story of Joseph coming to Glastonbury is a medieval confabulation, then one might ask why poets such as the Robert de Boron, the author of the First Continuation, or indeed the writers of any of the other Grail romances, came to believe that Joseph of Arimathea, and/or his family, chose to end their days in Britain? The answer is that from Chrétien de Troyes Perceval onwards the Grail romance revolved around the stories of chivalric virtue and courtly love associated with Arthur and his knights, whose exploits in the land of Britain became popular in Europe following the appearance of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae in c. 1136. Moreover, because Arthur was a British chieftain, the Grail romances revolved around these British culture heroes and thus with Britain itself. Since they also had to have a Christian or spiritual dimension, the romances attempted to embrace both the apostolic succession of Christ and the age of Arthur, a task which, although difficult, was first achieved by the author of the First Continuation as well as Robert de Boron in his Joseph d’Arimathie, who utilised Joseph of Arimathea as the ultimate missionary of Christ through his association with medieval traditions concerning the Wandering Jew. They alone were responsible for bringing the Grail to Britain; the rest simply followed suit and jumped on a bandwagon which has continued to roll through to the present day.
Emerging from the
darkened interior of St John’s church, our party crossed the road
and headed towards the bottom end of the High Street, dominated by new-age
stores and shops selling everything from replica medieval swords to
crystal balls, statues of the great goddess and books on the Holy Grail.
They are a joy to visit, and each time I go to Glastonbury the sheer
atmosphere of not just its sacred places, but also its variety of shops
and emporiums revitalises my inner spirit. Yet at least some of the
town’s precious sanctity is, in my humble opinion, based on false
pretences, and this should not be ignored by anyone trying to get to
the truth of its ancient power, which can still be felt and experienced
today. Even without Joseph of Arimathea, there is enough textual evidence
to demonstrate that Glastonbury was once an island of the dead, a Celtic
otherworld, lying in the western sea, before it received the word of
the gospels at a very early date indeed. Yet who might have been responsible
for its early Christian foundation remains a complete mystery, but what
I had come to realise was that there was no point in pursuing the Holy
Grail here, for the trail in Glastonbury had come to an end. Yet by
some strange irony what could turn out to be one of the most important
developments in Grail research for a very long time had occurred in
Glastonbury only in the past few months.
Yuri Leitch is an artist and historical writer, who at the time was working on the first issue of a new journal on the mysteries of the Knights Templar entitled The Temple. He was also a friend and colleague and had unearthed what is arguably the oldest known pictorial representation of the Grail cup, a discovery which was already causing ripples among writers and researchers in the field. It would surely be the topic of conversation when later we met at Glastonbury’s only curry house, where we intended gathering together for a hearty meal and a few drinks before preparing ourselves for the long walk up the Tor for midnight.
Since writing this chapter for TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY GRAIL, I have had a number of people insist that there is evidence that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain. Yet in every case, the source they offer turns out either to not exist or it post-dates William of Malmesbury's revised Gestis of the early thirteenth century, the one rewritten by the monks of Glastonbury. This includes all Welsh geneaologies mentioning Joseph (as St Ilud or St Iltud), which do not date back in their present form to any earlier than the fifteenth century, and so cannot be used to prove anything. However, if anyone can come up with a scholarly-accepted reference to Joseph of Arimathea's visit to Britain which does pre-date William of Malmesbury's writings, I will be happy to comment on this fact.
All Notes and References have been removed, although they can be made available to those with a serious interest in this subject matter.
Thanks to Paul Weston and Yuri Leitch for their cooperation in putting together this lost chapter.