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Medieval Sourcebook:
Gerald of Wales:
The Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur,
from On the Instruction of a Prince (De Instructione Principis), c. 1223

The memory of the famous Arthur, king of the Britons, is not to be suppressed, which the histories of the famous monastery of Glastonbury praise greatly, and of which he was the distinguished and generous patron and a magnificent supporter in his day. Truly he loved the church of St Mary the mother of God at Glastonbury more than all the other churches in his kingdom and he promoted it before the others with far greater devotion. In the time when the warlike man lived, he caused to be painted on the inside of his shield a picture of the Blessed Virgin, so that in battle he would always have it before his eyes; and whose feet, whenever he found himself in the turning point of a battle, he was accustomed to kiss with the greatest devotion.

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 signs 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."

Moreover, many notable things happened here; truly he had two wives, the second of which was buried together with him, and her bones were discovered with his, but separate however, so that two parts of the sepulcher, toward the head of course, were considered to be containing the bones of the man, and truly the third, toward the feet, contained the woman’s bones separately; where a lock of a woman’s blond hair was discovered intact with its original color, such that when a certain monk snatched it greedily with his hand and raised it up, at once all of it crumbled into dust.

Most clearly King Henry II of England disclosed to the monks some evidence from his own books of where the body was to be found, some from letters inscribed on the pyramids, although most of it was erased by age, some also through visions and revelations made to good and religious men, just as he had heard from the ancient British bard, how deeply in the earth, 16 feet or more, they would discover the body, and not in the stone tomb but in a hollow oak. And therefore the body lay so deeply, as though concealed, lest it be discovered in any way after his death by the Saxons who occupied the island, and whom by such great work while yet living he had beaten down and nearly destroyed entirely; and for this reason the letters, marks of the truth, were impressed on the back of the cross toward the stone, so that at that time they might hide what it contained, and someday nevertheless might disclose it in the [right] time and place.

Now however what is called Glastonbury was called the Isle of Avalon in ancient times. Truly it is like an island entirely surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in British Inis Avallon, that is "Apple-tree Island." Truly that place abounded in apples, what are called by the British tongue aval. And whence Morgana, noble matron and ruler and patron of those parts, also related by blood to King Arthur, carried Arthur after the battle of Camlan to heal his wounds in the isle which is now called Glastonbury. In the British language this was once also called Inis Gutrin, that is "The Island of Glass"; from these words the invading Saxons afterwards called the place Glastingeburi. Truly glas means vitrum in their language, and buri is castrum, called civitas.

It must also be known that the discovered bones of Arthur were so large that it can be seen to have fulfilled these words of the poet: "And wonder at the giant bones in the opened graves." [Virgil, Georgics I.497] Truly the shinbone of that man (Arthur) when placed next to the shin of the tallest man there, whom our abbot showed to us; and fixed in the ground next to his foot, greatly extended across the knee of that one by three fingers. Moreover, the skull was spacious and large to the point of being a freak or prodigy, so much so that the space between the eyebrows and the space between the eyes would contain entirely a small handswidth. However, ten wounds or more were apparent on the skull, one of which was greater than all the others, which made a large hole, and which alone seemed to have been fatal; the wounds healed in a solid scar.


Gerald of Wales: The Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur, from On the Instruction of a Prince (De Instructione Principis), c. 1223

©1994, translated by Scott McLetchie. Permission granted for non-commercial educational use. Specifically allowed are copies for course packets. For any other printed use (including use by university presses), contact Scott McLetchie. Do not duplicate this etext file on other sites.

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