One of the most exciting things about any historical figure is finding out where their body is now located. And there is good reason for believing that King Arthur was historical (see the article ‘Was King Arthur Real?’). That being the case, his body must be somewhere.
Of course, it is not the case that everyone from the sixth century has a surviving burial place. Many individuals, particularly warriors, would have died on the battlefield and been left to rot or be eaten by animals. But given Arthur’s extremely high status, even if he was not actually a king (as many researchers think), it would be exceedingly surprising if he had not been given a proper burial. So, it is reasonable to believe that his grave does exist, somewhere in the world.
There are many theories about where Arthur’s grave was, so let us have a look at several of them and see which one is most convincing.
The most popular site for Arthur’s grave is Glastonbury. This is a town in the county of Somerset in south west England, so it is in the general vicinity in which Arthur appears to have been active. In fact, he is even recorded as fighting against an enemy at ‘Glastonia’ in the Life of St Gildas.
But the reason why Glastonbury is viewed as his burial place is far more concrete than just generally because he was likely active in this area. No, the reason this is claimed as his gravesite is very clear and specific: the grave itself was supposedly stumbled upon by monks in the 12th century.
These monks allegedly uncovered a coffin containing the bones of a man and a woman, along with a lead cross describing who was buried there: King Arthur and his wife Guinevere. Ever since then, this site has laid chief claim to the location of Arthur’s grave. Even now, there is a whole tourist industry built around the supposed discovery and Arthur’s apparent association with the area.
The idea that Glastonbury was the site of Arthur’s burial seems appealing for another reason. The monks who claimed to have discovered the grave also claimed that Glastonbury was the Isle of Avalon (in fact, this was written on the lead cross). As it happens, although it is no longer an island, it is known that Glastonbury used to be surrounded by miles of watery marshland, essentially being an island. Thus, its claim for being Avalon appears to make a fair amount of sense. Furthermore, Arthur was said to have been taken to Avalon after being mortally wounded, so the idea that he was also buried there is perfectly reasonable. This being the case, identifying Avalon with Glastonbury makes logical sense of the notion that this was where Arthur was buried.
However, there are problems with all of this. Firstly, should the ‘discovery’ of Arthur’s grave in the 12th century be accepted as genuine? Or are there reasons for doubting that it was authentic?
It is known that the monastery at Glastonbury was undergoing financial hardship immediately prior to the ‘discovery’. There had been a fire not long before, which had burnt down the monastery. The monks were in desperate need of making more profit, so what better way to increase visitors to the area than claiming to have uncovered the grave of the famous King Arthur?
Of course, circumstantial evidence like this is not proof that it was fake. What does qualify as proof that it was fake is the fact that the style of the lead cross and the style of Latin used thereon do not at all match Arthur’s time. The cross was created centuries later, quite possibly by the monks who claimed to have discovered it. Thus, there is no reason at all to believe that the remains in the grave had anything to do with Arthur.
A much more modern theory is that Arthur was buried in Baschurch. This theory is fundamentally rooted in the idea that Arthur was actually the same as a king named Owain Danwyn (commonly spelt ‘Ddantgwyn’ by advocates of this theory). According to these theorists, Owain was the king of Powys during Arthur’s time. He supposedly used the Roman fortress of Wroxeter as his base.
With this foundation laid, the details of the theory are quite straightforward. There is a medieval Welsh poem, Eglwyssau Bassa (Churches of Bassa), which appears to suggest that the kings of Powys were buried in the titular location, the Churches of Bassa. This has been widely identified with Baschurch in Shropshire. Thus, if the kings of Powys were buried in Baschurch, and if King Arthur was actually Owain Danwyn, a king of Powys, then he would logically have been buried in Baschurch.
To add to the case, there is a local legend that a prince was buried, with his men nearby, in the Iron Age earthworks known as the Berth. This is on the outskirts of Baschurch. This can be taken as supporting evidence for the Berth at Baschurch being the site of Arthur’s grave. After all, there are legends of Arthur being buried with his men, apparently similar to this local legend.
To add to the case, at the Berth is a place called Birch Grove. ‘Birch’ was the original meaning of ‘Sir Bedivere’s’ name. According to the romance tales, he took up residence at the site of Arthur’s grave. Thus, so the theory goes, this place name at the Berth may come from an English translation of Bedivere’s name.
This theory also incorporates a similar line of reasoning to that which the advocates of Glastonbury have used. It appears that the Berth was formerly surrounded by water, thereby being an island in the centre of a body of water. Just like with Glastonbury, supporters of this theory claim that the Berth was therefore actually the Isle of Avalon to which Arthur was taken after being mortally wounded.
All in all, this theory seems to have more to recommend itself than the previous one. However, there are a number of crucial flaws in the theory that make it completely untenable.
Firstly, there are significant reasons for rejecting the claim that Arthur was Owain Danwyn. For one thing, Owain was still alive when Gildas wrote his De Excidio, 43 years after the Battle of Badon. According to the Annales Cambriae, Arthur’s final battle took place only 21 years after that battle. The evidence strongly indicates that Arthur was not still alive when Gildas was writing, meaning that he could not have been Owain.
Secondly, even if this identification is somehow correct, Owain was not the king of Powys, despite the claims of the supporters of this theory. He was actually the king of the kingdom of Rhos, a relatively small area near Gwynedd. So even if all the kings of Powys really were buried at Baschurch, Owain would not be included among them. This fact alone completely dismantles the theory.
The local legend of a prince being buried at the Berth is not that significant in view of the fact that the poem mentioned earlier clearly states that at least one king of Powys, Cynddylan, was buried in that area. Hence, it should be no surprise that there is a local legend to that effect.
The similarity between the meaning of Bedivere’s name and the existence of a ‘Birch Grove’ is an interesting coincidence, but given that it is a grove of trees, it is probably just referring to birch trees. If it was ‘Birch Chapel’ or something else that would not intuitively be named after a type of tree, then the case would be slightly stronger. But as it is, there is no reason to believe that the name of that grove has anything to do with Bedivere.
Regarding the fact that the Berth was formerly surrounded by water, making it similar to the Isle of Avalon, this connection is also weak. It was not the case that the Berth was an island in the middle of a huge body of water, such as the miles of watery marshland surrounding Glastonbury. Rather, it was simply in the middle of a sizable lake. This does not really match the idea conveyed by the legends of Arthur being sailed away across the sea.
In view of the fundamental flaws mentioned earlier and the weaknesses of the supposed connections between this location and Arthur’s legendary burial site, it seems that we should look elsewhere for the grave of Arthur.
Mynydd y Gaer
Another theory about Arthur’s grave is the theory that he was buried on Mynydd y Gaer in Glamorgan. Originally, the advocates of this theory pointed to the ruins of St Peter’s Church as the likely location of Arthur’s burial, but it seems that they now point to a nearby pass on the mountain as the gravesite.
In certain romance accounts of Arthur’s grave (such as The High History of the Holy Grail), it is said to have been atop a mountain from which a stream flowed. There were supposedly several hermitages nearby. The grave itself was said to have been underneath a ‘chapel’ in which a hermit lived.
In another romance source, Le Morte d’Arthur, the gravesite is said to be in a chapel (just like in the sources mentioned above) which was between two cliffs. There was also a hermitage between these two cliffs.
If the information from these multiple sources is combined, then the resultant description of the gravesite is a chapel and hermitage between two cliffs on the top of a mountain with a stream going down it, with at least two other hermitages nearby on the mountain.
The advocates of this theory believe that Arthur was a king of south Wales. If we work from that basis (and see the article ‘Was King Arthur Welsh?’ for some of the evidence for him being active in and ruling over south Wales), then the pass on top of Mynydd y Gaer does seem to be a plausible candidate. The two sides of this pass might have developed into the ‘two cliffs’ in Le Morte d’Arthur, with a chapel and hermitage between them.
There are the remains of a small rectangular building, about the same shape, size and orientation as the St Peter’s Church on a nearby part of the mountain. This suggests that it could very well be the remains of a small chapel or church. On the other side of the pass are the very scant remains of a small circular building. It is impossible to confirm what it was, but in theory, it could have been a small hermitage (and it does not appear to be much good for anything else).
The nearby St Peter’s Church stands on the site of a hermitage from the sixth century, so that makes at least one additional hermitage on the mountain outside of the pass. Interestingly, the Welsh name for this is ‘Llanbedr’. The ‘Llan’ element signifies ‘church’ and the ‘bedr’ is who the church is named after. Given that Bedivere was said to have lived as a hermit at the site of Arthur’s grave (as we mentioned earlier), and the Welsh form of ‘Bedivere’ is actually ‘Bedwyr’, perhaps this was originally ‘Llanbedwyr’, but then the name gradually got corrupted into ‘Llanbedr’.
There are also various other remains on the mountain in that general vicinity, any one of which could have been an additional hermitage, just like in the legends.
And, of course, all of this is at the top of a mountain with a stream flowing down it. So the situation here is an excellent match for the location of Arthur’s grave as discerned from combining the various romance tales that describe different aspects of it. Therefore, it could be that Arthur is buried underneath the ‘chapel’, or the small rectangular building within the pass on Mynydd y Gaer (allegedly, this pass is locally known as ‘the Pass of the Soldier’, bringing to mind Arthur being termed ‘the Soldier’ in The Wonders of Britain).
Of course, this case is almost entirely built on rather late evidence. The romance tales are generally viewed as fictitious. However, it does seem likely that they preserve at least some genuine traditions. After all, it is obvious that they were built on existing sources known to the authors, rather than them just inventing everything from scratch.
Nonetheless, it is impossible to state how likely this theory really is. Despite using late evidence, it uses the earliest evidence that is available (for none of the truly early sources describe Arthur’s grave).
In conclusion, we can see that there are several different theories about the final resting place of Arthur. It is impossible to develop a strong theory, for the only written evidence that can be used is from many centuries after Arthur’s time. Nonetheless, if Arthur was a king of South Wales, the pass on top of Mynydd y Gaer does seem like the most likely location for his grave, as this is an area in South Wales which appears to match the combined descriptions of Arthur’s gravesite as found in the romance tales.
Of course, it is possible that a different location elsewhere in the British Isles matches the description found in the romance tales. But it appears that only those who believe in an Arthur who ruled over Glamorgan have really attempted to find a location that matches that description. Perhaps in the future, another researcher will point out an alternative site elsewhere in Britain that matches the available written information just as well.
The only way of really determining for sure where the grave of Arthur is located is if a tomb is exhumed which contains a memorial stone clearly indicating the body as being that of King Arthur’s. It has not happened yet, but we can hope that one day it will.