Throughout history, characters who are responsible for making history become a characakture of their true self. The deeper in the past they are and the greater their impact, the larger the disparity between truth and fame. The first president of the United States, George Washington, changed history a little more than 200 years ago, and already historians can see the life of the man becoming a larger than life legend. Unlike George Washington, a man who might later be remembered as the legendary King Arthur would have lived well over a millennia ago, and during a time when there was very little in the way of recorded history.
Given accounts written by historians such as Gildas and Nennius, there can be little doubt that someone once existed who in some ways fit the bill of King Arthur. However if one expects to find a historical King Arthur who completely matches the fanciful accounts of legend, they will surely fail. Similarly, if we proceed under the assumption that there is no historical root for King Arthur, we have already failed.
According to legend, Arthur was a Romano-British warrior who achieved some acclaim during the battles in the 6th century against the invading Saxons. Certainly the Arthur of history would have a quite different appearance as that envisioned by the modern mind. Gone is the shining armor, likewise the long, slender, elaborately decorated sword Excalibur. There is some evidence that the tradition of drawing the sword from a stone as a demonstration of his right to rule might well have been a factual account, but the sword itself would have been a short, broad, tough cleaver of the day.
After a short age of peace, holding back the invading forces, Arthur fought his last battle at Camlann, and fell in battle. The legend states he gave his mythical sword to Bedivere so that it could be returned to the Lady of the Lake from whence it came. Upon his return, he sees his mortally wounded king being carried across the waters to the Isle of Avalon. Some say that the king never died, but upon reaching the enchanted shores of the Celtic Underworld, he became immortal, and will one day return when the land is in the most need.
The names of Arthur and Avalon show up again in the 12th century. A short time after the great fire of 1184, the newly built and re-consecrated Lady Chapel bore witness to a discovery in the ancient cemetery just to the south. In 1191, the grave of King Arthur and his queen Guinevere was found, including a leaden cross bearing the inscription, “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur on the island of Avalon”. Although the discovery has been considered highly suspect at best, several factors suggest something other than a 12th century hoax.
The style of lettering on the latin inscription has been dated to the 12th century due to a similar inscription on the tympanum of a nearby church in Stoke-sub-Hamdon that dates to that century. However, there is some evidence that the inscription is of an earlier style. On the lead cross, the letter “N” more closely resembles the letter “H”. The same curious style can be seen in the 10th century Ramsay Psalter.
Inscription on 12th c. tympanum over chapel door at Stoke-sub-Hamdon church. (Note inscription of "SAGITARIVS")
10th c. Ramsay Psalter (left), engraving of King Arthur's lead burial cross (right)
In the Ramsay Psalter, note the curious style used for the letter "N" in the word "BENEDICTUS". Again, quite similar to the style of "N" used in King Arthur's burial cross. It seems the reason the association between the cross and the tympanum at Stoke-sub-Hamdon was made has more to do with the style of the letter "A" than anything. Although the only clearly visible writing on the tympanum spells out "Sagitarius" and "Leo", there does appear to be remnants of other lettering left along the bottom. A close inspection of these remains just to the right of the "S" in "Sagitarius" reveals what appears to be another letter "N", this time in the traditional style, unlike on the lead cross allegedly discovered in King Arthur's burial.
In addition to the style of lettering, another aspect of the discovery suggest a 10th century origin. A 10th century abbot of Glastonbury named Dunstan covered over the ancient cemetery to protect the oldest burials on the site so that later construction and further burials would not disturb these honored dead. The depth of the stone slab on which the cross was mounted and the further depth of the burial suggests that the cross and stone slab were once at ground level, or else were meant to cover the burial at what was once ground level. Archeologist Ralegh Radford began excavating the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey in the 1960's and rediscovered the grave cut found in the 12th c. by the Glastonbury monks, and found it was exactly as the monks had described it, both in placement and dimension. He also found chips of the stone from which the Lady Chapel is made throughout the area of disturbance, thus proving the monks did indeed excavate at that site, just as the account stated they had. Although this alone does not prove the remains found at that time were those of King Arthur, it does prove the account itself was not a mere hoax. Radford himself believed the style on the lead cross, (available only as illustrations in books written in the 14th and 15th centuries), indicated a 10th c. form instead of a 12th c. fabrication.
This is not to say that this burial is undeniably what it claims to be. It is only to say that we cannot discount the claim offhand. The legend of King Arthur is difficult to reconcile with fact, reason, or history. However, there is ample reason to at least entertain the notion that all is not a mere fabrication. It is simply another piece to the puzzle that needs to be sorted out, and the more pieces, the easier it is to see the whole picture.