Famous Exhumations Legendary English King Arthur

About the history of the search for legendary King Arthur's body and a possible exhumation.


KING ARTHUR (?-542?), legendary king of England

King Arthur is primarily legend, but most historians agree that there is or could be some historical basis for Arthurian legends. While there is no concrete evidence he existed, the fact remains that many people believed in him and that his "body" was exhumed several times.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur's first major biographer, the king was injured in battle and taken to the place where all Celtic heroes went when they died, the island of Avalon. However, the fact that Monmouth's biography of Arthur appeared in 1147--over 600 years after Arthur's purported death--makes his information highly suspect. Many places have been identified as Avalon, and one of them is Glastonbury. In 1191 the Glastonbury Abbey burned, and shortly thereafter the monks there claimed to have found Arthur's remains in an old burial ground in the abbey, along with the remains of his queen, Guinevere. The coffin was supposedly fashioned from a hollow log and contained a lead cross inscribed with Arthur's name. A woman's skeleton with a mass of yellow hair was found in the same grave and identified as Guinevere. Whether these were indeed the remains of Arthur and his queen, or merely a ploy to get funds to rebuild the abbey, will probably never be known. Some credibility is given to the story by recent archaeological dating methods, which have established the fact that there was a deep grave from the right time period at the spot indicated by the monks.

On Apr. 19, 1278, these same remains were placed in a black marble tomb on orders from Edward I. A monk, Adam of Domerham, said that "in two caskets with their pictures and arms, were found separately the bones of said king, which were of great size, and those of Queen Guinevere, which were of marvelous beauty." Their skulls were placed on display, and the bones were wrapped in silk and sealed in the tomb. In 1539 the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII, and the tomb and its contents were destroyed. Today, however, the tomb site is marked. Whether Arthur and his queen ever rested there is not known.

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