Geoffrey Ashe is something of a rock star in the Arthurian community. Now 90 years old, this historian has written some of the most influential non-fiction books about King Arthur, seeking to uncover Arthur’s true identity and the locations of the legendary Camelot and the Isle of Avalon. Whether or not you agree with his theories (I do on some), he’s considered an expert.
He has advised Arthurian fiction writers from Persia Woolley (who also wrote a series on Guinevere) to Marion Zimmer Bradley (she thanks him in the acknowledgements of The Mists of Avalon) and more recently, Tony Hays (who writes Arthurian mysteries). I am honored to be in such prestigious company. Mr. Ashe told me that anyone who seeks to write Arthurian legend should, “Leave the Grail out of it and resist the temptation to rationalize Mallory. That’s what everyone seems to be doing lately. Use your imagination and tell your own story. Don’t try to tell someone else’s.”
We were lucky enough to have him and his wife, Pat, as guests at Glastonbury Abbey. Before exploring the Abbey grounds with Pat, we sat down for what turned into a two-hour lesson on the area from Mr. Ashe. He was very kind to answer questions as we went along, even multiple ones from me pertaining to aspects of my plot. Because he and his wife gave us so much information, I’ve split it into two posts, this one focusing on the Arthurian ties, and the next on Glastonbury Abbey itself. What follows is a summary of the notes I took. I hope you enjoy learning from him as much as I did.
The Arthurian Period
Mr. Ashe believes the historical Arthurian period to be the mid fifth century, with 458 a likely date for Arthur’s coronation. During that time, the area around Glastonbury would have been under water, with Glastonbury Tor, Chalice Hill and Wearyall Hill being islands due to their height. Because of this, you would have accessed them by water, but it may have been possible to get to the Tor from a small strip of land that joined the Mendip Hills. There was so much water in the area that in the Middle Ages, they were still pumping it out of the area. The surrounding Lake Villages date from the beginning of the Christian era. Fishing and trade would have been very important to them. They lasted until the Saxon Conquest, when they were destroyed.
We All Have A Theory
There are many theories that point to Avalon being sacred before Christianity. Mr. Ashe jokes that “the wisest thing ever said about Glastonbury was uttered by a Benedictine monk: ‘you have only to tell some crazy story in Glastonbury and in 10 years it will be ancient Somerset legend.’” Here are a few he spoke about in-depth:
- Zodiac – The idea that the signs of the zodiac can be found in the surrounding landscape, once quite popular, has fallen out of favor lately. This is mainly because you can only trace the shapes on modern maps. It doesn’t work on maps of the landscape from the Arthurian period.
- Ley Lines – Ley lines – lines of energy – connect a series of seemingly scattered ancient sites and hill forts across Britain. They run in straight lines across the landscape. For the most part, Mr. Ashe believes this is over-hyped, but he does concede that the St. Michael Line, which starts at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, goes through Devonshire and the Tor, continuing northeast into the country, does have an unusually large number of sites dedicated to the saint on it.
- Labyrinth - Many people, Mr. Ashe included (and me, too) believe that paths carved into the hillside around the Tor, which can still be seen today, are actually a Cretan-style labyrinth that was used for ceremonial purposes. This would have been created during the pre-Christian era. Some people propose that these paths were actually terraces for farming, but Mr. Ashe counters that if that was the case they would have been carved on only one side of the hill, the one with the best exposure to sunlight.
- The Holy Thorn - The Holy Thorn at Glastonbury Abbey is from a cutting of the original, one of three in the area (the original was cut down in the 1600s by a zealous Puritan. The others are on Wearyall Hill, site of the original, which we couldn’t go to because it was closed to the public, and the other is at the church of St. John, which was just up the street from our hotel). The tree is a Syrian variety, so it well could have come from St. Joseph, if he really did live in Glastonbury. The other possibility is that it was brought back by soldiers from the Crusades. (And yes, it really does bloom at Christmas time. It blooms in spring, too, and was in flower when we were there.)
Arthur and Guinevere’s Grave
As the tradition goes, in 1191 a group of monks were digging at the Abbey and uncovered a leaden cross marker that bore a Latin inscription which translates, “Here lies the famous King Arthur on the isle of Avalon.” (Some versions also add “with his second wife, Guinevere” to the text.) They dug down a little more and found a hallowed out tree that was a kind of coffin containing two bodies: a large man who had suffered from head trauma and a small woman, whose golden hair was still in tact.
The usual position of scholars is that this was faked by the monks in order to attract pilgrims (and with them, funds) to the Abbey, which was still recovering from a devastating fire in 1184. But Mr. Ashe is not among these. He believes that the discovery could be real. He won’t say for certain that it was Arthur and Guinevere the monks found, but it had to be someone important. To defend this position he notes:
- The Welsh, who have always claimed Arthur as their own, accepted the Glastonbury grave without complaint.
- There is no evidence that the Abbey tried to raise money or attract pilgrims at that time, something that would have been reflected in their own record keeping.
- It was traditional for monks from the 10th century on dig a second grave on top of the first layer in order to make more room. This would explain both why the cross was found lying down (rather than standing as grave markers usually do) and also why the monks had to dig down more to find the bodies.
The leaden cross dates from the seventh century or earlier and appears to be written in a French translation of Latin, one that would have been unknown to the monks who found the grave, so they couldn’t have forged it.
- He also refutes the claims of those who say no one ever connected Arthur and Glastonbury before the graves. He notes that in the life of St. Gildas (c. 1130-1150), it is mentioned that Melwas kidnaps Guinevere and holds her at his stronghold in Glastonbury.
Both Ashe’s are believers that King Arthur died in France. They identify him with the historical Riothamus, who was killed in the Lorre Valley by a blow to the head. They say he was buried in the city of Avallon in France (which also is a city on a hill with abundant apple orchards) and that is where the cross was made. They believe that both the bodies and the cross were brought back to Glastonbury later and interred at the Abbey.
As for me, I think it could be possible they were really buried there, but I doubt it. I guess I would need more proof, which we’re not likely to get.
What about you? What do you think about Mr. Ashe’s theories about Avalon, Glastonbury and the graves of Arthur and Guinevere? What you do believe?