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How King Arthur’s Grave Came to Be

Glastonbury Abbey is the traditional burial site of King Arthur. Or at least, that’s what we’ve been told for hundreds of years. Never mind that King Arthur is fictional, although possibly based on several real people we know very little about. When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote History of the Kings of Britain in the 12th century, people took it as historical fact, since the later kings were rather well known. And it was in this era that the monks of Glastonbury Abbey really needed a kick to get the tourist trade revived.

Indeed, the abbey was already famous abroad when the Norman Conquest brought England under French control in 1066. The Norman invaders happily claimed the abbey as their own, adding sumptuous new buildings and enriching it further. The monastery continued to grow and thrive for over a century when tragedy struck. A massive fire in 1184 destroyed nearly all the buildings and treasures that the monks had amassed, converting a famous attraction into a smoking ruin overnight.

As they struggled to get funds to rebuild, the monks needed something to make the abbey seem significant again. It was now competing with Westminster Abbey, which had been established in 1065 and whose soaring architecture was already a marvel. But there was one thing Glastonbury could have that Westminster didn't. In the 1190s, Glastonbury monks let it be known that they had discovered the skeletons of King Arthur and Guinevere in a tree trunk, buried deep underground; they relocated the grave onto the grounds of the Abbey's new church.

As with many later hoaxes, the scheme worked for some time. The abbey was rebuilt, although it never again caught up with Westminster Abbey. And people still go to Glastonbury to see King Arthur’s grave. Recent studies of Glastonbury excavations give more insight into the abbey’s hoax, which you can read about at Ars Technica. -via Boing Boing

(Image credit: Tom Ordelman)


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