Arthurian Landmarks: Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor is a hill in the county of Somerset in south-west England.1  It rises up distinctly and solitarily from the middle of a flat plain and is visible for miles around.  St. Michael’s Church Tower, the remains of a 14th century church, is the only building on the summit.  It bears a striking resemblance to the position of the Wallace Monument near Stirling Castle in Scotland.  Tradition says that Glastonbury Tor is the burial place of King Arthur. 

But wasn’t Arthur taken to the Isle of Avalon after he was wounded in the Battle of Camlann?  That is the most popular version of the tale today, but in the early Middle Ages, the “Matter of Britain” was not yet consistent.  The earliest source that mentions Arthur and the Battle of Camlann is the Annales Cambriae “Annals of Wales,” written down around 1100 A.D.  Under the year 537 A.D. it says, “The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”2  But in 1126, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Historia Regum Brittoniae “History of the Kings of Britain” that,

“[E]ven the renowned king Arthur himself was mortally wounded; and being carried thence to the isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, he gave up the crown of Britain to his kinsman Constantine…in the five hundred and forty-second year of our Lord’s incarnation.”3

It wasn’t until later that the tales of Arthur were established and the idea that he was taken alive to the Isle of Avalon became the default conclusion.

Around 1130 A.D. Caradoc of Llangarfan wrote a book called The Life of Gildas.  He describes how Queen Gwenhwyfar was kidnapped by a “wicked king” and taken to Glastonia.  King Arthur besieges the city and rescues his Queen.  Caradoc describes Glastonia as being an ideal refuge “due to the fortifications of thickets of reed, river, and marsh.”4  Until a few centuries ago, the land around Glastonbury Tor was marshy, and very well could have been covered in water at some point.  This explains why the Welsh referred to it as an island.  In 1193, the writer Gerald of Wales wrote, “What is now known as Glastonbury, used, in ancient times, to be called the Isle of Avalon…In Welsh it is called ‘Ynys Avallon,’ which means the Island of Apples.”5  Ynys Avallon was also called Ynys Gutrin “Island of Glass,” from which the current name Glastonbury derives.

In the 10th century it was rumoured that King Arthur was buried on Glastonbury Tor.  In 1191, the monks of St. Michael’s dug into the Tor with the intention of uncovering King Arthur’s body.  Sixteen feet below the surface they found an oak coffin with the bones of a very tall man and a woman inside.6  Beneath the coffin was an iron cross engraved with the Latin words, Hic Iacet Sepultus Inclitus Rex Arturius In Insula Avalonia “Here in the Isle of Avalon lies buried the renowned King Arthur.”7  The monks took the bones and reburied them in the Abbey.  However, the Abbey and St. Michael’s Church on the Tor were demolished when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.  Only the church tower on Glastonbury Tor remains.  The bones were destroyed and the iron cross disappeared.  All that survives is the eye-witness account of Gerald of Wales and his engraving of the iron cross.

Some scholars note that the time of the discovery of Arthur’s body corresponds with the time the monks were rebuilding their abbey and in desperate need of funds.  The providential unearthing of something that would likely bring plenty of tourism and income seems suspicious.  But the digging of a sixteen-foot deep pit and the detail of the articles found at the bottom, as well as the eye-witness account seem too elaborate to be a hoax.  There is no doubt that a body was found on the Tor.  Whether or not it was King Arthur will never be known.

Even if King Athur was not buried on Glastonbury Tor, there is evidence that the area was in use during the Arthurian period.  Although the ruined tower dates from the church built on the Tor in the 14th century, archaeologists have uncovered building foundations that date from the 5th and 6th centuries, as well as fragments of Mediterranean pottery.  Like Tintagel Castle, Glastonbury was occupied during the Arthurian period, regardless of whether King Arthur existed or not.

Other people have speculated about where the Isle of Avalon might be.  However, the Isle of Avalon was the equivalent of the Irish Tír na nÓg “Land of Ever-Young.”  Although people believed it existed, it doesn’t mean they believed it was a place on an earthly map that one could sail to.  To say that King Arthur was taken to Avalon could be a euphemism for the fact that he did indeed die and, in doing so, went to the Otherworld.  If he was taken to Avalon alive, it would be more accurate to compare his journey with that of Oisín going with Niamh to Tír na nÓg, or the dead Scyld Scefing being set in a ship by his people with the intent that it would find its way to the Otherworld, rather than to assume he was going to an island located on a map, as Tristram sailed to Ireland to be healed by the Lady Belle Isoult.  This is the difficulty of dealing with a figure who was very possibly historical, but in an era where history and myth were still melted together in the minds of the people of that time.


More information regarding the history and archaeological discoveries around Glastonbury Tor can be found on the Historic England website here.

1Tor is an Old English word for “hill.”  The word refers to the hill itself, not the tower on the hill.  Learn more in my blog post, “Tor, Brae, How & Other Hill-ish Words.”

2Annales Cambriae, translated by James Ingram

3Historia Regum Brittaniae, translated by Aaron Thompson, Book XI, Chapter II

4The Life of Gildas, translated by Hugh Williams

5Liber de Principis instructione, translated by Lewis Thorpe

6I have struggled to discern the sequence of events in this episode.  Modern descriptions of this event say that the cross was found 9 feet below the surface, and the coffin another 5 feet below that.  However, Gerald of Wales’ account does not appear to make this distinction.  I have adhered to his version for the sake of simplicity.

7Liber de Principis instructione, translated by Lewis Thorpe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s