The Isle of Avalon — a name even more shrouded in mystery than Camelot or the Holy Grail. But only for some. To many in the southwestern area of England known as Somerset, the Isle of Avalon is not only real, it's just out their back door. For centuries, the Isle of Avalon has been associated with Glastonbury, more specifically Glastonbury Tor. An over 500 foot tall natural hill made by an upwelling of volcanic rock, this majestic mound stands proud of the mostly flat fields known as the Somerset Levels. At the time of King Arthur, this area was a flooded, marshy expanse that grew out of the Severn Estuary leading out into the sea. In essence, it was an island standing out on a broad lake. There are times even today when the area around the Somerset Levels floods, nearly returning Glastonbury Tor to its previous state of an island.
Glastonbury Tor surrounded by a dense fog. It is easy to see this place as the Isle of Avalon.
Occasionally, the area still floods, being only a few meters above sea level. The old shore lines can still be plainly seen as the flat fields at the foot of the Tor give way to the gradual slope running up the side of the hill.
If your goal is to find the history behind the Grail Legend, there is no better place to start looking that Glastonbury. Sitting amid the lush green of the Somerset Levels, this town owes its once and future life to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, which was at one time the most powerful in all England and second in size only to that of Wells Cathedral. According to generally accepted histories, the great church here was began by the Anglo-Saxon King Ine of Wessex in the 8th century, however this place, like the Holy Grail itself claims origins much deeper in legend.
As stated previously, Joseph of Arimathea, the secret follower and great uncle of Jesus, supposedly came to Glastonbury, then surrounded by deep marshland, and climbing Wearyal Hill, planted his staff in the ground and proclaimed it his new home, along with his band of followers. This legend hangs in the air over Glastonbury, as well as that of King Arthur and the New Age mysticism of Avalon, but how much of these legends can be considered true? The previously mentioned famous archeologist once said, “we cannot afford to take mythology at face value.” However, nowhere in this quote or in its intended meaning can one find the statement that mythology has no root in history. In fact, anyone investigating the history of most legends quickly finds that, put simply, the myth came from somewhere. Such is the case at Glastonbury.
Although much of this will be dealt with in depth in my discussions found in other places on this site, I will try to make a few points here to get the would-be investigator started. I will start with this point: There IS evidence, both written and physical, that Joseph of Arimathea was once at Glastonbury. Albeit circumstantial, there are several written accounts mentioning the tradition of Joseph at Glastonbury, at least one of which is from a time before the Arthurian “agenda” is considered to have existed at the site. John of Glastonbury in his fourteenth century “Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey” mentions the prophetic written account of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial site as stated by the 6th century Welsh bard, Melkin. Although identifying the person of Melkin, or the validity of his writing, or for that matter the impartiality of John of Glastonbury’s “Chronicle” are matters for hot debate amongst scholars, one matter of history at the very least sheds a light of credibility on these early writings.
During the dissolution of the abbeys in England during the reign of King Henry the VIII, a man who could be called the very first librarian came to Glastonbury Abbey, for at least the second time, to catalog its holdings. Among the other volumes of which he spoke in such reverential tones, John Leland mentions seeing fragments of Melkin’s writings. As well as this now famous outline of where one might find the final resting place belonging to the abbey’s legendary founder, it would seem that Leland found other examples of his writing, included texts about the life and actions of the fabled King Arthur. Again, the validity of Leland’s writing regarding these legendary issues can easily be called into question. The important part of Leland’s contribution to our study is that he corroborates John of Glastonbury’s story regarding the existence of these early writings. Leland had seen plenty of books in many different libraries all over England. Therefore, if he had merely seen John of Glastonbury’s reference, he would have stated it as such, but he didn’t. He said, to paraphrase, “There, I saw the fragmentary writings of Melkin”.
While normal rules don’t apply when dealing with subject matters deemed “outlandish” or “fantastic” by the world of scholarship, this sort of corroboration would be enough to make the idea at least plausible to consider in any other case. Therefore if someone in the 6th century, contemporary to King Arthur and before a tradition of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury got started, makes mention of these two legendary figures, it begs further investigation. It happens that this is not the only evidence supporting the claim of Joseph being at Glastonbury. The parish church called St. John’s Church stands just across High Street from the abbey’s ruins. There one may find a finely carved and ornamented stone crypt or sarcophagus standing off to the left of the main aisle in a little chaplet by itself. Tradition has it that this is the stone tomb created to hold the lead coffin which once held the remains of Joseph himself. Although even the citizens of Glastonbury know little about the tomb, they all agree that it was once at the abbey, and they think had something to do with Joseph of Arimathea -- an altar perhaps. Historical accounts of pilgrims to Glastonbury just before and after its ruination specifically mention seeing just such a stone tomb in a special place of reverence at the abbey. Later tradition states that the tomb was quickly, and somewhat haphazardly moved from the abbey to the parish church to protect it from having its stone robbed away, or in some other way vandalized.
It is also there that the famous lead cross found in the alleged grave site of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere was kept after the dissolution. Having been variously mounted face-up under a stone slab covering the original burial site and on the grand black marble tomb constructed later near the High Altar to hold these honored remains, was once said to have been kept in the church’s vestry or sacristy as part of the churches sacred relics. Although the two churches basically “grew up” together, the survival of the smaller parish church made it an obvious place to preserve bits and pieces of the town’s illustrious past, and preserve what remained of the abbey’s legendary origins. Although little remains of the abbey’s glorious past, and even less of the memory of what these remains once were, enough exists to pique the interest of those interested, and who somewhat know what to look for. Just as the oldest places in Jerusalem serve as tantalizing attractions to the Biblical Archeologist, Glastonbury should serve as ground-zero for the Arthurian and Grail researcher.
Back to Fact vs. Fiction — Legend