Although it is not common, given that they are set in the post-Roman era, the Arthurian legends sometimes feature characters from the Bible. Let’s take a look at one particular character, Joseph of Arimathea, who is probably the most important and prominent Biblical character who appears in the legends of King Arthur.
Who Was Joseph of Arimathea?
Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four gospel accounts of the Bible. He is described as being a rich man from Arimathea, a city in Judea that is usually identified today with the modern town of Rantis, about 22 miles from Jerusalem. He was a secret disciple of Jesus – secret because he was a member of the Sanhedrin (the high court of the Jews) and was afraid of openly declaring his faith in Jesus due to the fear of what others would think, given that the Jewish leaders generally hated Jesus.
Nonetheless, after the execution of Jesus, the gospels portray him as mustering up the courage to reveal his true faith by approaching Pilate and asking for Jesus’ body. He does this so that he can then give Jesus a proper burial in a tomb that had evidently been recently made for Joseph of Arimathea and his family. After hastily preparing the body for burial using spices and wrapping it in linen, Joseph placed Jesus’ body in the tomb and had it sealed.
And this is all that we know about him from the contemporary and near-contemporary sources. You could be forgiven for thinking that he does not seem to have much to do Britain or King Arthur. But read on and see how, despite the extreme lack of detailed information about this man, people in later times produced all sorts of theories and speculations about him.
From a fairly early stage, writers added extra details to the story of Joseph. Many of these early embellishments were relatively innocuous, being fairly plausible if not necessarily accurate. For example, the second-century Gospel of Peter describes Joseph as a friend of Jesus and of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea in Jesus’ time. Given that he was a secret disciple of Jesus, the claim that he was a friend of Jesus is not too unlikely, as long as ‘friend’ is used in a loose sense (for the very fact that he was a ‘secret disciple’ shows that he clearly did not have an open friendship with Jesus).
The idea that he was a friend of Pilate is less inherently likely, though not impossible, given that Joseph was a member of the high court of the Jews. However, the fact that Joseph was afraid to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus would argue against the two of them being friends.
Later, in the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus, there is an account which describes Joseph being briefly persecuted by the Jewish elders for his care of Jesus’ body. Although this was written a few centuries after the fact and is therefore of very doubtful authenticity, there is nothing really shocking or unusual about this basic concept.
However, considerably later accounts concerning Joseph of Arimathea make some rather more outlandish claims about him. Notably, Joseph was often made a relative of Jesus through some means, though the exact relationship was not consistent. For example, one claim that appears in Orthodox tradition was that he was the uncle of Mary the mother of Jesus, being the younger brother of Mary’s father Heli. This would make Joseph the great-uncle of Jesus.
Other records describe him as the uncle of Joseph the father of Jesus, which would likewise make him the great-uncle of Jesus, though through his father’s side rather than his mother’s side.
Yet another tradition claims that Joseph was the direct uncle of Jesus, not his great-uncle. This tradition makes him the brother of Mary.
Needless to say, the Bible makes no mention of any such connection with the family of Jesus, and it is likely that these later traditions simply attempt to build a reputable background for this rather enigmatic figure. The fact that the traditions are so contradictory indicates that they were based on nothing more than the vague idea that he was somehow related to Jesus.
It is sometimes said that the fact that Joseph was granted permission to take Jesus’ body is evidence of his being a relative, since it is claimed that it was the duty of a close relative to deal with the body of a crucified criminal. However, claims that the standard procedures involving the type of execution involved in Jesus’ case are well known and well documented are actually greatly exaggerated, there being basically no especially detailed descriptions of the process and its aftermath in ancient literature. So the fact that Joseph received Jesus’ body is not actually evidence that he really was related to him.
However, these later additions to the story of Joseph are not as unlikely as the traditions that developed about him even later. One tradition – found in a 13th century interpolation of William of Malmesbury’s 12th century On the Antiquity of Glastonbury – stated that he travelled with Philip, one prominent evangelizer in the first century, when the latter allegedly preached in Gaul. There was already a prior tradition of Philip preaching in Gaul, dating back to at least as early as the ninth century. It was apparently also mentioned by Isidore of Seville in the early seventh century.
The fact that records about Philip’s preaching campaign in Gaul are so late make them very doubtful, and the fact that Joseph of Arimathea is only mentioned in yet later accounts makes it even less likely that he ever really went to Gaul.
Nonetheless, the legend as recorded in the 13th century interpolation of William of Malmesbury’s work claims that Joseph and his companions sailed to Britain and arrived at Summerset. The king of this region was said (apparently first by John of Tinmouth in the 14th century) to be Arviragus, a shadowy, but historical, king of Britain in the first century CE. Precious little is known about him from early historical sources, but Geoffrey of Monmouth associated him with the general region of the west, near Summerset.
This pagan king is said to have given 12 portions of land to Joseph and his followers. On this land, they are said to have built a wattle-and-daub church. This was supposedly on the site that later became Glastonbury, thus giving an incredible provenance to Glastonbury in medieval times. A few traditions even claim that Joseph’s grave was at Glastonbury.
It does not seem like a coincidence that this legend associating Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury first appears in the 13th century, at about the same time as the ‘discovery’ of Arthur’s tomb there. The latter ‘discovery’ has often been explained as an attempt by the monks at Glastonbury to renew interest in their monastery after it had gone through difficult times, including a recent fire. It seems almost certain that the legend of Joseph was created for exactly the same purpose.
Even later legends present an even unlikelier scenario. They present him as being a trader of tin from the tin mines in Cornwall, hence being rich, as the canonical gospels describe him. Of course, there is a multitude of ways that he could have been rich which do not involve trading from thousands of miles away, but in any case, this must have appeared to be a way to make the connection between Joseph and Britain seem historically plausible.
Some modern sources claim that Joseph was known to the Romans by the title ‘nobilis decurio’, which supposedly means ‘master of mines’. Joseph is indeed referred to by this term in one of the Apocryphal sources, but it actually means ‘honourable councilman’, having nothing at all to do with mines.
In any case, these legends about Joseph being a tin merchant go so far as to say that Joseph took his ‘nephew’ Jesus on a trip with him to Britain when Jesus was just a boy. This legend is the basis for William Blake’s famous poem which contains the lines:
“And did those feet, in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?”
Needless to say, just as there is no evidence for Joseph travelling with Philip to Gaul (if the latter ever did preach in Gaul, which is unlikely given the lateness of the earliest sources), there is certainly no evidence for this even later form of the legend, Joseph bringing the young Jesus to Cornwall and Summerset.
A version of the legend that is even later still is actually more plausible, though it is undoubtedly historically worthless since it comes from very late sources. According to the Iolo Manuscripts, a figure named ‘Ilid’, who is identified as Joseph of Arimathea, became the companion of Bran the father of Caradoc in Rome, after the latter (known to Romans historians as Caratacus) had been defeated by the Romans in Britain and taken back to Rome. The legend states that the apostle Paul converted Bran and his family in Rome, and then they returned to Britain, with Ilid (Joseph of Arimathea) in their company, thus bringing Christianity to Britain.
In the Arthurian Legends
Joseph of Arimathea appears in the Arthurian legends in a number of different capacities. One of these ways is directly related to the aforementioned legends. Many versions of these tales often mention Joseph bringing something very special with him to the island of Britain: the Holy Grail.
Robert de Boron was the first to associate Joseph of Arimathea with the Holy Grail. He claimed that Joseph had somehow come into the possession of the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. This cup was then supposedly used by Joseph to collect some of the blood of Jesus while caring for his body after his execution. Joseph was then said to have settled in ‘far-off lands’ to the west.
His brother-in-law Hebron (or ‘Bron’) was then given possession of the Grail and continued the journey to the west (showing that, at this point in the late 12th century, there was no firm tradition that Joseph himself had actually reached Britain). The Grail is then passed on to Hebron’s son Alain, who likewise continues going west. It is by this means that the Holy Grail eventually ends up in Britain, where it is then able to feature in the tales of King Arthur and his men. It is said to have remained in the possession of Hebron’s family, passing down from father to son, until the time of the Grail Quest in King Arthur’s time.
Later, in the tales of Joseph that portray him as travelling to Britain, he is shown to be the one who personally takes the Grail to Britain, in line with the tales about him founding Glastonbury on the land given to him by Arviragus. John of Glastonbury, of the 14th century, was one of the first to specifically state that Joseph brought the chalice containing Christ’s blood and sweat to Britain.
One local tradition regarding this states that the place where Joseph hid the Grail is underneath a deep well, known as Chalice Well. This site is famous for its flow of red water, as if it were actually blood (it is really because of the strong iron content in the water).
Another legend which cannot go unmentioned is the legend about Glastonbury Thorn. This is a type tree at Glastonbury which is remarkable for its tendency to blossom twice a year, once in spring and once in winter. There are several of these trees in the area now, due to grafting, but there was originally just one on Wearyall. According to local legend, Joseph of Arimathea placed his staff in the ground at this spot while he was resting, and then the staff took root and grew into this tree.
Joseph of Arimathea also appears in the Arthurian legends in a different but related capacity. We have already mentioned that the Holy Grail was said to have remained in the hands of the descendants of Joseph’s family, through his brother-in-law Hebron. Later versions modified the descendent slightly so that these Grail-bearers were actually the descendants of Joseph himself. The lineage was said to have continued through to King Pelles, the father of Lancelot’s lover Elaine. She was the mother of Galahad, making him a fitting Grail hero.
In the 15th century Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, Joseph of Arimathea is seen by Galahad when he received a vision of the Holy Grail.
However, through a different line, diverging at Pelles’ grandfather Lambar (also spelt ‘Lambord’), Joseph was said to have been the ancestor of Arthur himself. Lambar was presented as the paternal grandfather of Igraine, the mother of Arthur.
Of course, these genealogies were created simply to attribute a higher level of prestige to these characters – the pedigrees found in earlier Welsh sources differ completely from these ones which go back to Joseph of Arimathea. And, in addition, the number of generations between Joseph and Igraine, or Joseph and King Pelles, is wholly insufficient to stretch back to the first century.
In summary, we can see that the legends surrounding Joseph of Arimathea gradually grew up around the small historical core contained in the gospels. At first it was only fairly simple, historically-plausible claims which were added to accounts of his life, and then gradually there came to be more and more outlandish claims. He was said to have collected the blood and sweat of Christ in the vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper, and then this vessel was passed from Joseph to his relatives until it finally reached Britain and became the Holy Grail searched for by Arthur’s knights.
Later, it was said that Joseph himself brought the Holy Grail to Britain and founded a church at Glastonbury, making it the oldest Christian site in Britain. Connected to this, Joseph and his family appear in the Arthurian legends as the guardians of the Holy Grail, with the Grail seeker Galahad emerging from this line. Thus, although it seems that the tales of Joseph of Arimathea travelling to Britain (and Glastonbury in particular) were invented to bolster the reputation of Glastonbury while it was going through difficult times, we can see that he and his traditions have had a large impact on the legends of King Arthur.
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur