Wanderlust; in search of King Arthur - Glastonbury Abbey, UK
Pulling into the Glastonbury Abbey parking lot, I gather my bag and camera and step out of the car to survey the beautiful day that I've been graced with. It's a sunny day with a crisp edge to it. The air smells .....green.
It's off season, so there are few or no people around; just the way I like it. When I sojourn alone I cherish my solitude. Not that I don't enjoy good company. I had departed London two days previous after meeting up with an online friend in a pub to watch a soccer game. I really don't care for soccer one way or another and the Brits at my friend's table were absolutely amusingly appalled that I didn't know every athlete's name and bio. It was a late night treasure of fun and irreverence at the King's Head Tavern, down an alley just south of London Bridge. Next week I was planning to meet another friend in York.
But for the moment I was all by myself smack in front of Glastonbury Abbey. These are the moments you live for.
Arthurian legend permeates the cultural history of the UK. The romantic poets and Pre-Rapahelite painters found the tale - myth or reality - an endless source of creative inspiration. No one really knows if Arthur and his knights of the round table ever existed, or if there was any substance to the tale of the ill-fated and tragic love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, but who of us wouldn't wish for it to be true?
The origins of Glastonbury Abbey lie in the Saxon Era, sometime around 712 A.D. A group of monks had been active in Glastonbury previous to this date, but sometime around 712 is when the first foundations of the chapel were laid. Buildings were expanded and added as the monastery grew, and by the 1100's Glastonbury Abbey was the wealthiest in all of England. In 1185 a fire devastated the Abbey. Reconstruction began immediately, and in 1191 it was recorded that the grave holding King Arthur and Queen Guinevere was discovered on the grounds after a search commissioned by the abbot. The remains were found 16 feet down in an oak casket marked with a lead cross that carried the inscription Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia ("Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon")
Between 1536 and 1541 Henry VII disbanded all the monasteries in England and confiscated all valuables, eliminating over 800 religious communities. After this time the grounds fell to ruin, and it is likely that many of the Abbey stones were taken by local citizens for reuse. The black marble tomb holding the remains purported to be Arthur and Guinevere disappeared into the unknown.
Joseph Campbell said: "Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths."
THROUGH Glastonbury's cloister dim
The midnight winds were sighing;
Chanting a low funereal hymn
For those in silence lying,
Death's gentle flock, 'mid shadows grim
Fast bound and unreplying.
Hard by the monks their mass were saying;
The organ evermore
Its wave in alternation swaying
On that smooth swell upbore
The voice of their melodious praying
Toward heaven's eternal shore.
Erelong a princely multitude
Moved on through arches grey,
Which yet, though shattered, stand where stood
(God grant they stand for aye!)
St. Joseph's church of woven wood
On England's baptism day.
The grave they found; their swift strokes fell,
Piercing dull earth and stone.
They reached ere long an oaken cell,
And cross of oak, whereon
Was graved, "Here sleeps King Arthur well,
In the isle of Avalon."
The mail on each knightly breast,
The steel at each man's side,
Sent forth a sudden gleam; each crest
Bowed low it's plumèd pride;
Down o'er the coffin stooped a priest-
But first the monarch cried:
"Great king! in youth I made a vow,
Earth's mightiest son to greet;
His hand to worship, on his brow
To gaze,his grace entreat.
Therefore, though dead, till noontide thou
Shalt fill my royal seat!"
Away the massive lid they roll'd-
Alas! what found they there?
No kingly brow, no shapely mould;
But dust where such things were.
Ashes o'er ashes, fold on fold-
And one bright wreath of hair.
Genevra's hair! like gold it lay;
For Time, though stern, is just,
And humbler things feel last his sway,
And Death reveres his trust. __
They touched that wreath: it sank away
From sunshine into dust!
Then Henry lifted from his head
The Conqueror's iron crown;
That crown upon the dust he laid,
And knelt in reverence down,
And raised both hands to heaven, and said,
"Thou, God, art King alone!"
AUBREY DE VERE- 1814-1902
At the Tomb of King Arthur depicts the visit of Henry II to the tomb of King Arthur at Glastonbury