Monday, 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.


The Renowned King Arthur
The cross certainly existed. It is mentioned by Gerald of Wales, whose own testimony of the events surrounding the discovery of the burials has been taken as the official version, even though he was not there at the time and other, quite different, versions of the story exist. The cross remained in Glastonbury until at least the seventeenth century (and there is some suggestion that it was found in 1982 amongst sludge dredged from a pond in the grounds of Forty Hall in Enfield, Middlesex). The historical writer John Leland published a transcript of the inscription in 1544, and William Camden included a drawing of it in a book published in 1607. According to these sources, it read as follows:


(‘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 Avalon’.

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:

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.

Geoffrey’s 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.

The Isle of Avalon
The greater problem is that if the Isle of Afallach, or Avalon, existed at all, then geographically it could have been anywhere - off the coast of France, in Wales or elsewhere in Britain. Prior to the official announcement concerning the discovery of Arthur and Guinevere’s graves, and, of course, the lead cross, there seems to have been nothing in writing to link Glastonbury with ancient Avalon. Yet the assumption, post 1191, that Glastonbury was not just the Isle of Avalon, but also the resting place of Arthur and Guinevere, influenced the Grail romances composed after this time, particularly Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, written c. 1200, which has Joseph of Arimathea’s brother-in-law Bron carrying the Grail to the ‘vaus d’ Avaron’, a French misspelling of the ‘vales of Avalon’.

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 of 1184.
None of this is to say that Arthur of the Britons might not have been connected with Glastonbury or Somerset in general. He is recorded as having come to Glastonbury in a Life of Gildas, a monk and scribe of the sixth century, known as ‘the wise’, who entered the monastery after being forced to flee his hermitage on Steep Holme, a remote island in the Bristol Channel, following repeated attacks by pirates. Written by Caradoc, a monk from the monastery at Llancarfan in Wales, around the same time as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, thus c. 1130-1140, his Life tells of a pagan king named Melwas, ruler of the Summer Land, i.e. Somerset, who wickedly carried off Arthur’s wife ‘Guennuvar’ and imprisons her in his impregnable fortress on Glastonbury Tor.

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 their differences.’

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:

The Latin from whence this history was drawn into Romance was taken in the Isle of Avalon, in a holy house of religion that standeth at the head of the Moors Adventurous, there where King Arthur and Queen Guenievre lie, according to the witness of the good men religious that are therein, that have the whole history thereof, true from the beginning even to the end.


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.

William of Malmesbury
In my opinion, the appearance of Perlesvaus did much to revitalise the psychic archetypes which exist in the enchanted landscape around Glastonbury. It also conveys the reality of its subtle energy matrix, expressed through the twelve-fold division of the terrestrial zodiac. Despite this, as a romance it was exploited by the monks of Glastonbury and used by them to support their perceived link not only with King Arthur and the Holy Grail, but also with Joseph of Arimathea and his mission to Britain. Yet the lengths they went to in order to demonstrate Glastonbury’s perceived role as the site of Britain’s first church is exemplified no better than the changes they made to an important work by the Anglo-Norman cleric William of Malmesbury (c. 1095-1143), who is regarded as a studious and erudite historian of his age. In his book Gestis Regum Anglorum Libri Quinque (‘The Acts of the Kings of the English’), written in 1125, he records that Ine, a Christian king of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex (d. AD 728), founded the monastery of 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:

No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ erected the church of Glastonbury. Nor is it dissonant from probability; for if Philip, the Apostle, preached to the Gauls [the peoples of France], as Freculfus relates in the fourth chapter of his second book, it may be believed that he [Philip] planted the word on this side of the Channel also.


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:

There is on the confines of western Britain a certain royal island, called in the ancient speech Glastonia … In it the earliest neophytes of the Catholic rule, God guiding them, found a church, not built by art of man, they say, but prepared by God himself for the salvation of mankind, which church the heavenly Builder himself declared - by many miracles and many mysteries of healing - he had consecrated to himself and to holy Mary, Mother of God.

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.

Having discovered 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.
Even though there is persuasive evidence to assume an extremely early foundation for Glastonbury’s ‘Old Church’, accepting that Joseph was sent by Philip as a missionary to Britain is impossible to believe from the evidence provided. It is much more likely that the references to Joseph of Arimathea’s journey arrival in Avalon are based on the contents of the Grail romances, which unquestionably influenced certain statements made in William’s De Antiquitate. What is more, they themselves are likely to have been influenced by medieval legends concerning the eternal travels of the ‘wandering Jew’, occasionally identified as Joseph of Arimathea, who was a popular folk hero throughout Europe by this time..

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.

The Prophecy of Melkin
An even more fantastic evolution of the story concerning Joseph of Arimathea’s association with Glastonbury was to follow in the mid fourteenth century with the appearance of a book entitled Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (‘The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey’), written by a monk named John of Glastonbury. It sets out the case for the abbey’s long association with Joseph of Arimathea, and includes a list of the disciple’s descendants ending with King Arthur himself (and was thus simply an updated version of the Grail family featured in the romances). Among the literary fragments contained in this work is the so-called ‘Prophecy of Melkin’, an appealing mixture of Christian and ‘pagan’, or Eastern, oracular outpourings. Melkin, most probably as corruption of Maelgwyn, a king who reigned in Britain c. AD 540, was said to have been a contemporary of Merlin the Magician, even though there exists no reference to him before this time. Despite the knowledge that the different components of Prophecy of Melkin strongly suggest that it was put together c. 1250, it contents do deserve some consideration:

The Isle of Avalon, greedy in the burial of pagans, above others in the world, decorated at the burial place of all of them with vaticinatory little spheres of prophecy, and in future it will be adorned with those who praise the Most High. Abbadare, powerful in Saphat, most noble of pagans, took his sleep there with 104,000. Amongst them Joseph de Marmore, named ‘of Arimathea’, took everlasting sleep. And he lies on a forked line close to the southern corner of the chapel with prepared wattle above the powerful venerable Maiden, the thirteen aforesaid sphered things occupying the place. For Joseph has with him in the tomb two white and silver vessels [‘cruets’] filled with the blood and sweat of the prophet Jesus. When his tomb is found, it will be seen whole and undefiled in the future, and will be open to all the earth. From then on, neither water nor heavenly dew will be able to be lacking for those who inhabit the most noble island. For a long time before the Day of Judgment in Josaphat will these things be open and declared to the living. Thus far Melkin.


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.

Abbot Beere
Leaving behind the abbey, I had enough time before dusk to visit St John’s church in the High Street, where in the fading light I found and photographed a stained glass window containing a heraldic shield of some significance. It belonged to Richard Beere, Glastonbury’s penultimate abbot (1493-1524), and is described as ‘a green cross raguly with blood drops and two cruets’. The green and living cross, known also as the engrailed cross, was the one on which Jesus was crucified, while the drops of blood and cruets signify, quite obviously, the Holy Blood collected by Joseph of Arimathea.

Abbot Beere’s 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 Twelve Hides
The belief first expressed in the revised copies of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate that the twelve disciples of St Philip were each granted a hide of land is unknown before this time, although it is undoubtedly linked with a curious entry for Glastonbury in the Domesday Book, a survey of who owns what, and who pays what, commissioned by William the Conqueror following the Norman conquest of 1066. It reads: ‘Glastonbury Church has in that town 12 hides which have never paid tax.’ This is an interesting statement, for holdings which were exempt from paying tax generally held some special status, most obviously that they were originally granted by a royal patron. Although this might initially raise the question as to whether such a patron was Arvirargus, or some other pagan king, it is more likely to have been a king who lived after the collapse of the Roman Empire, perhaps even King Ine, the first historical patron of the monastery according to William of Malmesbury.

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.

Joseph’s Tomb
Abbot Beere’s devotion to Joseph of Arimathea reveals some important facts about Glastonbury’s involvement in the evolution of the Grail legend. Why exactly is made clear by the attitudes of one Polydore Vergil, an Italian by birth, who was installed as the Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1504 as proxy for his non-resident kinsmen Adrian de Castello, on whose authority he acted. He was said to have dismissed the stories of King Arthur and the Grail, and despised the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Yet he wholeheartedly endorsed the account of Joseph of Arimathea’s mission to Britain. Since his previous position was the Prebendary of Brent in Wells Cathedral, just 10 kilometres (6 miles) from Glastonbury, he would have been an important acquaintance of Abbot Beere.

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.

Joseph’s tomb 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 of Christ.

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:

It was a moved tomb and a tomb that had been moved in haste, as the tradition had said. For wherever metal clamps had held the stones together, they were missing, and the stones were badly broken there. Moreover, there is a plinth inside to receive the silver ark with the saint’s remains. On the top are the stumps of the uprights of the feretrum or metal grill on which pilgrims hung their offerings, and which guarded the relics.’


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 with these thoughts still churning around in my mind that our party moved into the north transept, known also as St Catherine’s Chapel, and here I saw for the first time the tomb of ‘John Allen’, which I had no idea existed until I read the Revd. Lewis’s passionate book on the subject. It commanded a central position on the floor, and from its distinctive decorative style I recognised it immediately as a late fifteenth century stone box tomb of considerable size. Its lid, and thus any inscription it might bear, was obscured by a rectangular glass case containing a silk velvet cope that covered a coffin-shaped object, which I later learned was a coffin pall made in 1774. Thus I saw no indication of it carrying the initials J.A., or the Caduceus symbol of the god Hermes. Whether or not these had been deliberately obscured seemed unclear, although there was an immediate sense that somebody did not want too much attention to be drawn towards this sarcophagus, which would once have contained the remains of someone of considerably high status.

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?
These were passionate and very compelling thoughts, and even though the box tomb dates only to the late fifteenth century, it is possible that it once contained a silver coffin that preserved the remains of an individual revered as Joseph of Arimathea. Yet nothing positive existed to suggest that Joseph of Arimathea even collected the Blood of Christ, let alone travelled to a distant land called Britain and ended his days at Glastonbury. That John Bloom found an ancient burial in 1345 is likely, although whether its discovery fulfilled the Prophecy of Melkin is another matter altogether. Nothing is known about the nature of the remains unearthed, nor whether any artefacts were found with them. Indeed, the very items which might have helped identify the grave as that of Joseph of Arimathea, the two cruets in ‘white and silver’, are distinctly missing from the story.

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 Feet …
Despite the lack of hardcore evidence for the presence of Joseph of Arimathea in Glastonbury, from the age of Abbot Beere onwards through to the present day have become convinced that Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury. What is it that makes them believe so easily in a clearly medieval tradition which has no precedent before this time? The answer is the dozens of local folk stories from Cornwall to Somerset, via North and/or South Wales, which infer that Joseph passed this way en route to Glastonbury. For instance, certain Welsh genealogies insist that Joseph, under the name St Ilid, or Ilud, was granted land to found a church, or college, known as Cor Eurgain, at Llanwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan, and that only afterwards did he journey on to the Isle of Afallach, or Avalon, to establish a church here. However, there is every reason to conclude that these genealogies post date the Grail romances by centuries.
A tradition that has built up in Cornwall in particular states that Joseph belonged to a family who used ‘Phoenician traders’ to export tin from Britain, permitting the disciple to journey at will between the eastern Mediterranean and the Bristol Channel. Even the Guild of Cornish Tin Miners appears to accept this story as fact, for they would shout out ‘Joseph was in the trade’ whenever the metal was flashed. Yet in addition to the view that Joseph came to Britain, not just for tin, but also for lead, copper and other metals mined in the Mendip Hills of north Somerset, there exists a conviction that he was sometimes accompanied on these journeys by his ‘nephew’ Jesus, either as a child or before he started his ministry at the age of 30. For instance, among the inhabitants of the remote village of Priddy at the northern end of the Mendip Hills nothing can shake the belief that Jesus once walked this way in the company of Joseph of Arimathea - a conviction which might well have inspired the English visionary painter and poet William Blake (1757-1827) to write:


And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s pastures green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?


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.

Did Henry de Sully arrive in Glastonbury with similar plans to elevate Glastonbury to the status of a major pilgrim centre, like Fecamp Abbey in France? The benefits of finding Arthur’s remain were manifold. Firstly, it would raise the morale of Glastonbury’s monks, following the destruction of the monastery and its holy relics in the great fire of 1184. Secondly, by displaying the remains in a suitable tomb, the abbey church would become a major pilgrim centre, generating, as in the case of Fecamp, an enormous annual income. There is thus every reason to believe that this was indeed the intention not only of the abbot, but also the monks themselves who went along with the ruse.

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.