Savaric, Glastonbury and the Making of Myths: A Reappraisal

(published in the Antiquaries Journal online, March 2016)

Historians have long been aware that the vicious feud between the monastery of Glastonbury and its bishop in the early thirteenth century was responsible for turning Glastonbury’s scriptorium into the most astonishing and inventive manufacturer of forged documents. In what Julia Crick has memorably termed ‘the marshalling of antiquity’, new documents were produced and older ones annotated, all tending to demonstrate the antiquity of Christian Glastonbury, its right to self-government and autonomy from external interference. The monastery’s chroniclers were equally partisan, but historians and archaeologists alike have tended to accept their account of Glastonbury’s more recent history at face value. Correcting the chroniclers’ anti-Savaric bias allows for some fresh thinking on the construction of both the Glastonbury mythos and of the Abbey building itself. It also raises questions about the remarkable reverence with which scholars continue to treat Glastonbury’s ancient texts.

Constructing Buildings

Glastonbury Abbey went through several profoundly unsettling changes in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. A disastrous fire in or about 1184 destroyed the fabled Old Church and much of the rest of the conventual buildings. The king, Henry II, allocated funds for its rebuilding but his warlike son Richard, who succeeded him in 1189, was indifferent to the abbey’s fate. He appointed a self-interested abbot, Henry de Sully, who was bribed with the bishopric of Worcester to stand aside for the thoroughly evil Savaric fitzGeldwin, or de Bohun, bishop of Bath. As a kinsman of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, who kidnapped Richard on his return from the Crusade and held him to ransom, Savaric was sent to negotiate his release, and took advantage of his position to persuade Richard into making him abbot of Glastonbury as well. On his return from imprisonment Richard promptly removed Savaric from office and took the abbey back into royal custody, but Savaric had support from the pope and was able to regain control. He died in 1205, but it was another fourteen years before the convent of Glastonbury was restored to what it felt was its rightful autonomy.

This, in essence, is the official Glastonbury account of this period. Two chronicles cover these dates: one, that of John of Glastonbury, was compiled in the fourteenth century,1 and although John adds certain details, almost all of his information for this period is a paraphrase of an earlier chronicle which ends in 1291 and bears the name of Adam of Damerham. This is the usage followed in this paper, although Julia Crick points out that the chronicle is actually a ‘house production’, the work of many hands. Building on the work of Simon Keynes and John Scott, she has established that the portion dealing with the period in question is in the same hand as a library list dated to 1247 or 1248. It was therefore produced during the abbacy of Michael of Amesbury, described by Crick as ‘a strenuous upholder of abbey privileges’, who from his youth had dedicated himself to restoring the liberties of the monastery of Glastonbury.2 This undoubtedly explains why the feud with Savaric dominates and structures the Damerham account. Events deemed by posterity to be more important, such as the exhumation of King Arthur and even the rebuilding of the abbey itself, receive minimal attention compared to the detailed, blow-by-blow account of the feud, with full supporting documentation. At the same time, a breathtaking cluster of forgeries were created with the purpose of affirming Glastonbury’s deep roots and total independence from the tutelage of the Bishop of Bath.3 Damerham too was a document forged – like a sword – for a specific purpose.

Until 1189, Damerham’s account, though exaggerated, is supported by external evidence. There is archaeological evidence for the fire, 4and although Damerham does not give a date for it he does say that the fire followed the death of the abbey’s custodian Peter de Marcy in 1184. Thereafter the king’s chamberlain Ralph Fitzstephen dedicated the revenues of the abbey to the rebuilding project: ‘what the revenues of Glastonbury could not afford, the king himself made good’.5 This is undoubtedly an exaggeration. As long ago as 1904 St.John Hope pointed out that there was no evidence from the Pipe Roll to suggest that the abbey received any help from the Royal exchequer.’6 As chamberlain, Fitzstephen continued to collect scutage fees in lieu of service from Glastonbury’s knights.7 However, no account for Glastonbury was rendered to the exchequer for the period after de Marcy’s demise in 1184, so it does seem, as Stacy suggests, as though ‘[t]he king assigned the estate’s revenues to the rebuilding of the monastery’.8

Real discrepancies in the records begin in 1189, with the death of Henry II. According to Damerham, his successor, Richard I, had no interest in the building work: his ‘war-like tastes diverted his attention from the building of Glastonbury church. Wherefore the work stopped, because no funds were forthcoming to pay the wages of the workmen.’9 This statement has been taken at face value by most scholars, including at one point buildings archaeologist Jerry Sampson, whose thorough-going studies have revealed some striking similarities in the construction of Glastonbury Abbey and Wells Cathedral, both of which went through major rebuilding programmes during this period. He describes the abbey as ‘a building very much the twin of Wells’, and suggests that work on the two buildings alternated. The different phases can be detected by the use of different building stone. When it was available, both buildings made use of the high quality Doulting stone, whose quarries belonged to Glastonbury. When it was not, the masons of Wells had to make use of stone from their own quarry at Chilcote, ‘a greyer, more pebbly limestone of poorer quality’.10 The use of Doulting stone at Wells thus ceased once Glastonbury had need of it after the fire of 1184, but began again after the death of Henry II. Work on rebuilding the Great Church ‘ground to a halt, he suggests, ‘and while it may have continued sporadically during the mid-1190s, the seizure of the Abbey by Bishop Savaric of Wells, and its incorporation into the new diocese of Bath and Glastonbury in 1199, probably caused major disruption to the building programme.’11

Documentary evidence for this statement, beyond the chronicle, is hard to find. The new king’s lack of interest, according to Damerham, was shared by the abbot he appointed within a month of his coronation, Henry de Sully, whose refusal to help fund the rebuilding process drove the poor monks onto the roads as preachers, taking relics and ‘the indulgences of various bishops’ with them in order to raise the money.12 This statement was probably derived from a still-extant list of indulgence-granting bishops, compiled at the same sort of time as Damerham’s own chronicle; and it is clear from the list that these indulgences were being granted over a number of years (as Bishop of Worcester between 1193 and 1195, Henry de Sully himself offered a twenty-day indulgence to those who contributed toward building works at his former abbey).13 What the list therefore demonstrates is that reconstruction was ongoing, a fact confirmed by the Pipe Roll for 1194-95, years in which the abbey and its revenues had reverted to the crown, which record payments for operationes factas in abbatia – work carried out in the Abbey.14 Damerham himself mentions in passing that in February 1197 there was ‘new work’ (nouo opere) then under way.15 That building work should have continued into the 1190s is not so surprising since, as most scholars accept, one purpose of the exhumation of King Arthur in 1191 was to increase the flow of visitors and their income (and a grant made to the guest-house by abbot Henry and later confirmed by Savaric may be evidence that they were indeed coming).16 Since the exhumation was presided over by de Sully, there is no reason to assume that he did not take an interest in the building-work from the moment that he was appointed.

More recently, Sampson has suggested that the constructional ‘hiatus’ should be shifted back a decade to 1199: “the change back from Chilcote to Doulting stone at Wells is probably best explained by Bishop Savaric’s seizure of Glastonbury abbey on Whitsunday 1199, the canons of Wells presumably benefiting from their bishop’s virtual usurpation of the abbey that owned the best quarry in the district.”17 While it is true that Damerham considered Savaric as a usurper, it does not follow that Savaric himself intended to treat Glastonbury as an asset to be stripped. It was the other cathedrals in the diocese that now came under pressure, as Frances Ramsey points out:

‘It is evident that Savaric’s annexation of Glastonbury posed a very great threat to the status of the churches of both Bath and Wells. From the time of Celestine III’s confirmation [1195] arrangements had been made for the re-ordering of Glastonbury as a cathedral priory and the bishop had adopted the style ‘Bathoniensis et Glastoniensis’. The church of Wells cannot have regarded this as in any way increasing its hopes of retaining its ancient privileges’.18

It was Wells, not Glastonbury, that felt abandoned. On Savaric’s death in 1205 the canons of Wells wrote to the pope bemoaning the neglect they had suffered, ‘deprived so long of the comfort of a ruler, tossed with storms and exposed to various oppressions and perils’, and welcoming the appointment of his successor, Jocelin.19 Sampson suggests that building work at Wells resumed in 1199.20 Yet at the end of his life, Bishop Jocelin claimed that Wells Cathedral had been in danger of collapse when he took over in 1206 ‘because of age’, a phrase which sits ill with the idea of a recent resumption of building work at Wells. ‘Modern experience of builders suggests that any misdemeanour discovered by the client is necessarily someone else’s fault’, says Sampson. Were the workmen of Wells ‘anxious to deflect any blame from their own, more recent, work?’21 Jocelin’s statement might more plausibly be taken at face value, to mean that building work at Wells was neglected but continued unabated at Glastonbury during Savaric’s rule. It may even have accelerated. Between 1202 and 1205, Savaric as bishop and abbot appropriated and dedicated the revenues of two churches ‘to the sacristy and fabric of the abbey’,22 and the papal awards of 1201 and 1205 both make special mention of the fabric .23 It would not be surprising to find that extra attention was being given to what was now the principle building in the diocese; in fact, it would be more surprising if it wasn’t.

Why does Damerham wish to give us the impression that building work all but stopped with the death of Henry II? The simplest explanation for this distortion is that – from the perspective of the Glastonbury chroniclers – everything began to go wrong at this point. The new abbot, Henry de Sully, ‘fled like a hireling’ and abandoned his flock to the ‘wolf’ that was Savaric.24 John of Glastonbury, reviewing events from the fourteenth century, still felt incensed by de Sully’s ‘shamelessness’ and the ‘inhumane greed’ that caused him to desert Glastonbury ‘in his desire for the bishopric of Worcester’.25Modern historians are often tempted to suggest that de Sully was coerced and winkled out of his abbey,26 but there is no reason to doubt John’s inference here: in terms of ecclesiastical hierarchy, bishops ranked above abbots, and from de Sully’s point of view the translation to Worcester was certainly promotion.

The point is worth making because the relative status of abbots and bishops was at the heart of the feud between Savaric and the Glastonbury convent, which was merely one episode in a wider struggle between abbeys seeking exemption from episcopal rights and bishops seeking to enforce them: according to David Knowles, there was an ‘unparalleled’ degree of hostility to the monastic orders at the end of the twelfth century, and a ‘concerted attack’ by bishops on monastic claims led to similar situations to Glastonbury at Coventry and Canterbury.27

At issue, from the monks’ point of view, was their autonomy from external authority, control over property and finances, and the ‘terms and conditions’ of their daily existence, notably the regular reaffirmation of generous food-allowances by good abbots and their circumscription by bad ones. Damerham devotes much more space to these topics than to such details as rebuilding the abbey after the fire, which rather supports Wood’s comment the monks ‘were enjoying the excesses of the good life’:28 this was a cloister that looked back to a Golden Age when they had been pampered by Henry of Blois, abbot from 1126 until 1171, who made liberal provision for the convent ‘since a sufficiency of creature comforts doth incline the minds of men to the service of God’.29 In short, it is important to distinguish between the monastic community, which was clearly feeling under threat from Savaric’s reforms, from the institution itself. Savaric may have been ruthlessly ambitious, determined to remould Glastonbury in his own image, but that does not in any way mean that he wanted to diminish its status, power or reputation. Indeed, why would he?

Constructing legends

The exhumation of King Arthur: dynastic politics and the distortions of Damerham

Henry de Sully’s brief rule at Glastonbury is marked by one of the best-known events in the abbey’s history: the discovery in 1191 of the bodies of King Arthur and Guinevere in the graveyard of the Old Church, identified by the presence of a cross bearing the inscription: “here lies the great King Arthur, buried in the Isle of Avalon”. The bodies were translated to the great church and buried ‘in a nobly-worked double mausoleum’.30 Richard Barber has demonstrated that the many contemporary references are derived from at least three versions, itself ultimately derived from a Glastonbury-generated ‘newsletter’.31

Although most modern historians agree that the exhumation came at a very opportune moment for the rebuilding programme, it is striking that the account in Damerham makes no further reference to it: the exhumation is simply inserted into its chronological context, too well-known an event to ignore but apparently not one to make too much too much fuss about. This is presumably because of Damerham’s desire to minimise any positive developments at Glastonbury during the 1190s. Charles Wood even suggests that the discovery may have generated the prosperity that drew Savaric’s attention in the first place, and subsequently his attempt to reduce the monastic lifestyle, inflated by prosperity, to something more in keeping with the frugal tenets of the Rule of St Benedict.32 Wood’s suggestion may be provocative, but it does serve to highlight the fact that historians have been diverted from thinking about the contemporary context in which this highly formalised piece of dynastic theatre was staged.

Glastonbury had become a plausible burial-place for Arthur since Caradoc of Llancarfan’s Life of St Gildas appeared, sometime between 1130 and 1150. According to Caradoc, queen Guinevere was kidnapped by Meluas, king of the summer country, who hid her at Glastonbury amid its ‘ fortifications of thickets of reed, river, and marsh’. Arthur sought her for a whole year and was threatening war, but St Gildas, then abbot of Glastonbury, succeeded in reconciling the kings, who responded by giving the abbey ‘many domains’ and promised never to ‘violate the most sacred place nor even the districts adjoining the chief’s seat’.33 Antonia Gransden has plausibly suggested that Caradoc was employed by the Abbey to write the script; perhaps he’d been commissioned to make good a lack of Arthurian matter in William of Malmesbury’s account, produced a few years earlier by commission of abbot Henry of Blois and which to judge from the extensive interpolations that Glastonbury’s own chroniclers later made was felt to be woefully inadequate.34

Caradog had nothing to add about King Arthur’s death or final resting-place, however. Damerham states that its whereabouts at Glastonbury was known; other accounts, including those which Barber believes to be the most authentic, suggest that the bodies were found by chance.35 However, the best-known version credits Henry II with the discovery. According to Gerald of Wales, who recounted the story twice in his long career, the king himself had heard about Arthur’s burial at Glastonbury ‘from an ancient Welsh bard, a singer of the past’, who gave him precise instructions as to where to dig, which information he thoughtfully relayed to the abbey.36 Gerald’s dating is certainly wrong, since his account, like the others, places the exhumation under the abbacy of Henry of Sully, who was not appointed until after Henry II’s death. However, since he was in the employ of both kings,37 he was very well placed to have obtained information of this kind; so the emphasis which he places on Henry’s involvement is puzzling and requires explanation.

According to Martin Aurell, Gerald’s account of the exhumation is one of only two occasions in which Henry made any use of Arthur as ‘an instrument of Plantagenet policy’.38 The other, likewise recorded by Gerald of Wales, concerns the conquest of Ireland. There were five reasons, said Gerald, why Ireland should submit to King Henry, one of which was that Arthur had once been Ireland’s overlord: the Irish kings had come to pay tribute to him at Caerleon39. In 1185 Henry sent his son John to Ireland to reassert Plantagenet authority. Gerald went with him as a clerk, and stayed on to serve the ‘seneschal’, Bertram de Verdon40. It was a role in which he may well have been required to adduce evidence to legitimate Henry’s claims to Ireland: his words have a quasi-official feel, and may perhaps have been composed in the first place for some official occasion.

The involvement of Gerald of Wales in propagating these two accounts is very interesting, for both may have had ramifications for John ‘Lackland’, the youngest son of Henry II. His father made repeated efforts to find him fiefdoms of his own, one of which was Ireland. Henry appears to have intended to crown him king of Ireland as early as 1177, but to do so required papal blessing.41 According to Damerham, Peter de Marcy, Henry II’s custodian at Glastonbury between 1182-4, was sent by the king to the Vatican to transact ‘some business’ because his brother (Henry de Marcy, cardinal-bishop of Albano) had the ear of the pope.42 What was it that Henry II wanted to wheedle from the Vatican? Quite possibly an Irish crown; but Pope Lucius however was ‘strongly opposed’, and it was not until 1185/6, when he had died and replaced by a more sympathetic successor, that Henry’s wish was granted. A crown of peacock’s feathers was duly delivered but didn’t arrive until January 1187, by which time everything had changed.43

Whilst one de Marcy brother may have been trying to persuade the pope to grant John a kingdom, the other was maintaining a potential contender for John’s intended earldom of Cornwall. As custodian of Glastonbury Abbey, Peter de Marcy inherited the wardship of Earl Reginald of Cornwall’s illegitimate son William: the exchequer accounts for 1180-1 and again for 1183-4 include clothing allowances for him (and in 1180-1, for his teachers and his servants too).44 Reginald had been one of Henry II’s most trusted followers in England and had enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in Cornwall. On his death in 1175, both lands and title were taken in hand by the king as part-provision for John.45 This upset many people. Perhaps the most bizarre reaction was the theft of St Petroc’s relics from Bodmin priory by one of its own canons. Claiming that Petroc was ‘the chief of the saints of Cornwall ‘, canon Martin took his bones to the Abbey of Saint-Méen in Brittany, ‘asserting strenuously that if that body of the most holy confessor were kept safely and carefully, soon the whole of Cornwall would be subjected to the county of Brittany’.46 Since Brittany was nominally ruled by John’s nineteen-year old older brother Geoffrey, this episode might best be seen as a rather eccentric attempt to influence the succession. Henry intervened, and made sure that the relics were promptly restored to Cornwall.

More prosaically, Earl Reginald’s offspring were not best pleased. At a stroke, the king had disinherited the earl’s legitimate daughters and their husbands, prompting one of them (Aimar, vicomte of Limoges) to rebellion.47 No more is heard of William after 1184; presumably he died young. But in view of his equally-illegitimate brother Henry’s later enthusiasm for reclaiming his father’s title (according to Simon Lloyd, ‘Henry’s greatest aspiration was undoubtedly to secure the earldom of Cornwall’),48 the king had good reason to keep close watch over him, and Peter de Marcy was evidently felt to be an appropriate guardian.

The fact that the de Marcy brothers may have been simultaneously engaged on business connected with the fortunes of John Lackland is noteworthy, particularly since both may have had ‘Arthurian’ ramifications: Cornwall’s Arthurian credentials, already well-established, were dramatically reinforced by the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose widely-disseminated History of the Kings of Britain had brought both Arthur and Cornwall to an international audience.

Henry was building up a specifically western inheritance for John. In addition to Cornwall and Ireland, he had betrothed him to Isabelle, daughter of the earl of Gloucester, who had extensive lands in Wales and Ireland. Given the ‘western’ associations of Arthur, it is quite likely that Henry would have wanted to attach some of that lustre to his son. This may explain the presence of ‘the sword of Tristan’, ensem Tristami, amongst John’s royal regalia, perhaps presented to him when he was knighted prior to going to Ireland, since the Cornish hero’s first martial exploit was to slay an Irish giant.49 Henry, although the ruler of a huge domain, was not himself a king’s son and was very conscious of a need to emphasise his own right to rule. He made strategic reburials of ancient rulers something of a speciality, thereby stressing his dynastic and territorial links with them. In 1162, during a campaign to establish his ascendancy in Normandy, he arranged for a high-profile translation of the remains of two Norman dukes to a prominent position at the abbey of Fécamp.50 In 1161, at his behest, the pope canonised Edward the Confessor, and two years later the new saint’s bones were transferred to a new shrine at Westminster, in this way confirming the sanctity, respect and legitimacy of Henry’s claim to the throne of England.51 The translation of Arthur’s remains, as ruler of the western realms, would fit very well into this pattern; and it is possible that Henry’s appointment of Peter de Marcy was intended as a prelude to a ‘rediscovery’ along similar lines to that which actually occurred in 1191. In this reading, Earl Reginald’s son would have been a prime witness, perhaps required to act as first cheerleader for Arthur’s anointed successor in Ireland and Cornwall in return for a smattering of West Country manors such as his half-brother Henry was to receive in 1194.52 This is admittedly all circumstantial, but it might explain why someone as well-placed as Gerald of Wales was so sure that Henry II was ultimately responsible for the exhumation of King Arthur.

Two things put paid to any interest that Henry II might have had in creating an Arthurian inheritance for his youngest son. The first was the death of John’s older brother Geoffrey, duke of Brittany, in August 1186. Only two of Henry’s five sons were now still left alive, Richard and John, and although Richard was the elder he, like his brothers Henry and Geoffrey, had been tarnished in their father’s eyes by rebellion, and it was widely believed, perhaps with reason, that he intended John to succeed him. The Irish project was abandoned, in William Warren’s words, because ‘John had now become the sole counter to Richard in Henry’s game of keeping his sons in uncertainty about his intentions’.53

Any specifically Arthurian dreams that Henry might have nurtured on John’s behalf were scuppered by the naming of Geoffrey’s son, born after his father’s death in March 1187. According to William of Newburgh (1136–1198), Henry II ‘had ordered that the child be given his own name’; but he

‘was opposed by the Bretons, and by solemn acclamation the child was named Arthur when he was held over the sacred font. Thus the Bretons, who are said to have been long waiting for an imaginary Arthur, are now raising up one who is quite real, and they do so in great hope, in accordance with the opinion that certain prophets express in their long and celebrated Arthurian legends.’54

Several other chroniclers also commented – equally sardonically – on the significance of this name, which Martin Aurell suggests reflects Geoffrey’s own growing receptiveness to Celtic mythology ‘as a weapon in this struggle against his father’.55 From that moment, Henry had no further interest in promoting Arthurianism; indeed, his favourite son had more to gain from suppressing it.

The situation in 1191 was very different. Henry’s refusal to acknowledge Richard as his heir led to Richard’s rebellion of 1188-89. John joined the winning side shortly before his father’s defeat and death in July 1189, and was rewarded by his brother with the revenues from a sizeable estate in England. Richard was careful, however, to keep control of the castles; and on the eve of his departure for the crusade in March 1190, whilst entrusting him with Normandy, he made John swear an oath not to come to England for three years.56 Seven months later, in October 1190, at the Treaty of Messina in Sicily, Richard announced that his three-year old nephew Arthur of Brittany was to be his heir. What were Richard’s motives here? Gillingham and Aurell suggest that he was laying claim to Arthur’s legacy himself, as the crusader hero-king; Everard, more prosaically, points out that the nomination would have served to keep Arthur’s mother Constance, countess of Brittany, loyal to Richard whilst he was away on crusade: like his father, ‘Richard preferred to keep the rival claimants to the throne in a state of uncertainty’.57

What is clear is that a revival of interest in King Arthur at this point cannot have been to John’s liking at all, as those responsible for the exhumation must have been aware. Henry de Sully can safely be described as a Ricardian loyalist. In February 1194, as Bishop of Worcester, he was one of seven bishops to join Archbishop Hubert in excommunicating John for rebellion; he was present at Richard’s council in Nottingham the following month, and again for his re-crowning at Winchester in April.58 He was appointed as abbot of Glastonbury at the great council of Pipewell, one of Richard’s first actions as king of England,59 and it is reasonable to assume that he had qualities that fitted him for the task. Glastonbury cannot have been an easy vacancy to fill. In the wake of a disastrous fire, and nine years of pastoral neglect, a certain combination of skills were necessary to turn the place around. Henry de Sully was clearly a competent and vigorous administrator, and he wasted no time on getting to grips with his task. Elected on September 29, he was already ensconced at Glastonbury by October 8, receiving homage and fealty and promptly commissioning a survey of the abbey’s estates: ‘The regulation of affairs after so long and disastrous a vacancy must have been uppermost in the new abbot’s mind when he began his rule’, as Stacy says.60 Over the next three months a flurry of grants were made to the Abbey by Bishop Reginald of Bath, then with the king’s court, which suggests both royal favour and an awareness of an urgent need to increase the abbey’s revenues.61

Henry de Sully may also have had more specialist skills. According to Damerham, de Sully was of royal lineage, a cousin and a close friend of Henry II.62 It is generally held that Damerham was confusing de Sully with the abbot of Fécamp of the same name, who was said to have died in 1187.63 Derek Baker, however, thinks that this is too much of a coincidence: ”Without further detailed investigation it seems best to retain a single Henry de Sully until the hypothesis is proved untenable’.64

Baker’s observation supports the hypothesis that we are dealing with one abbot rather than two, which is significant since the abbot of Fecamp and the abbot of Glastonbury had very similar achievements. In 1171, less than three years after a major fire had destroyed most of the abbey buildings, the fortuitous rediscovery of a relic of the Holy Blood helped to bring pilgrims back to Fécamp. He had also been abbot when Henry II had organised the translation of the two Norman dukes in 1160-63.65 It is often overlooked that there were four other significant re-interments at Glastonbury in the wake of the fire: St Dunstan, St Patrick, St Indracht and St Gildas (all of whom were the subjects of saints’ lives that had been written within the previous few decades).66 These reburials were credited by Damerham to Henry II’s chamberlain Ralph Fitzstephen, but Bozóky, pointing out that the Fécamp relics had been reburied together with those of various saints ‘which in some measure sanctified the bodies of the two dukes’, suggests that the same phenomenon was at work at Glastonbury too.67 If the reburying of saints was a necessary prelude to the reburying of king Arthur, the same guiding hand must have been behind both operations.

To summarise. At a challenging moment in Glastonbury’s history, when there were expensive building repairs to fund, Richard may have appointed a relative as abbot, with a track-record in strategic reburials and lucrative discoveries, to a theatre in which his father had perhaps already set the scene for the drama of Arthur’s exhumation.

Since the drama had considerable dynastic implications once Arthur had been named as Richard’s successor, it is quite likely that, as Catalina Girbea suggests, Richard was himself involved.68 There is some artefactual evidence for this. At Glastonbury a leaden cross was found in the grave, conveniently identifying the king and the location of his burial as the Isle of Avalon. In Sicily, shortly before leaving for Cyprus, Richard presented King Tancred with Caliburn, ‘the best sword of Arthur, once a noble king of the Britons’.69 It is curious indeed that these two Arthurian artefacts should first come to light within a few months of each other. It is curious also, not that Richard should take such a relic with him on crusade, but that he was willing to part with it so soon on his journey and, on the face of it, to such an unlikely candidate: Tancred had usurped his throne from Richard’s brother-in-law, and had only returned the dowry under duress. But Tancred also ruled a strategic island on the route to Outremer, an important consideration to a crusading king that may explain why Richard betrothed the young Arthur to Tancred’s daughter.70 One chronicler claims that Richard had named Arthur as his heir before he set out on the Crusade,71 which would explain why Caliburn came to be on board Richard’s ship. Since both cross and sword served to affirm the existence of the same legendary monarch, it reinforces the idea of a similar intention: to legitimise the claim of Arthur of Brittany to the throne of England, and to keep the ambition of Richard’s brother John in check.

It is remarkable how little attention has been given by Glastonbury scholars to the possibility of a connection between the exhumation of one Arthur and the nomination of the other. Charles Wood is an exception, but even he is nonetheless constrained by Damerham’s narrative, to which he gives a twist all of his own. Wood holds king Richard responsible for the cessation of building work at Glastonbury, but not abbot Henry de Sully. In this reading, the nomination of young Arthur was a fortuitous coincidence which ‘created a context’ that allowed de Sully to construct a script that would persuade or shame the king into picking up the tab.72 The place of the exhumation in the greater drama of the Plantagenet succession is overlooked: once again, the myopic self-interest of Glastonbury’s medieval chroniclers has succeeded in framing modern historical discourse.

Savaric and Burgundy

Reassessing Savaric as a potential benefactor of Glastonbury, instead of its greatest scourge, allows – in fact requires – a reappraisal of his potential role in the myth-making process. Scholars have rightly focussed on the phenomenal outpourings of the Glastonbury scriptorium once their autonomy from Wells had been more or less confirmed, but there are some intriguing hints to suggest that the myth-makers may have at been at work during the era of Savaric and de Sully too.

Martin Aurell suggests that Richard ‘fostered a new veneration of the mythical king of the Britons’.73 This is a big claim, but in spite of Damerham’s reticence there must certainly have been a lot of interest in King Arthur at Glastonbury in the years immediately after the exhumation.

Two important contributions to the Grail cycle from this period may have Glastonbury connections. Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, written ‘shortly before 1200’, takes the Grail to the ‘Vaus d’Avaron’. ‘Avaron’ is generally taken to be a mis-spelling of ‘Avalon’, widely understood as Glastonbury after the exhumation of Arthur in 1191. De Boron’s work has much in common with the Perlesvaus, written slightly later but which, according to the text itself, was based upon a Latin original to be found ‘in the Isle of Avalon, in a holy house of religion that standeth at the head of the Moors Adventurous, there where King Arthur and Queen Guenievre [sic] lie, according to the witness of the good men religious that are therein, that have the whole story thereof’.74

James Carley thinks it ‘somewhat unlikely’ that the author of the romance came to Glastonbury to consult this book, whose very existence is debateable.75 It seems much more probable that the romance travelled in the opposite direction: that a tale already current elsewhere was brought to Glastonbury and adapted to its purposes. The obvious candidate for ‘elsewhere’ is north-eastern France, where in the early thirteenth century the fame of Joseph of Arimathea was quite precisely situated. All the early copies of Perlesvaus have links with that area;76 Robert de Boron’s acknowledgement of Gautier de Montbéliard as his lord strongly suggests that he came from the Boron that is close to Montbéliard;77 and in the mid-thirteenth century the abbey of Moyenmoutier, near Nancy, claimed to have once possessed the relics of Joseph of Arimathea until they were stolen a century or so previously.78

What makes this so interesting is the fact that Savaric himself may very well have come from the same region. Stubbs, who according to Poole was ‘greatly interested ‘ in the question of Savaric’s origins, believed that his father came from ‘the neighbourhood of Verdun’; Poole suggested that he married a relative of duke Simon of Lorraine.79 At some point before 1197, the emperor Henry VI made Savaric chamberlain of Burgundy. What this role meant in practice is far from clear, but it does suggest that there may well have some intercourse between Glastonbury, Wells, and what’s now the eastern part of France: as Poole rather quaintly puts it, possibly Savaric was in ‘touch with a wide circle of family connexions in Burgundy and the neighbouring country’.80 If Savaric’s entourage at Glastonbury included Burgundians, it is quite possible that their number included trouvères with the talents needed to enhance the history of what he intended would become a new cathedral city.

While it cannot be demonstrated beyond doubt that de Boron, the Perlesevaus or its prototype were known at Glastonbury during Savaric’s time, the Glastonbury scriptorium of abbot Michael’s day was certainly aware of them. A legend current at Glastonbury at least a century earlier had it that the Old Church had been founded by early missionaries, but on this William of Malmesbury was disappointingly non-committal; and in an annotation dated to 1247, “the book of the deeds of the famous king Arthur” is invoked to affirm that “the noble decurion Joseph of Arimathea, together with his son named Josephes and very many others, came into great Britain, now called England, and ended his life there”.81 This was to become the trump card in the Glastonbury pack: taken with the evidence of the Old Church, proof positive not just that Christianity came early to these shores, but that it came specifically to Glastonbury (and not, for instance, Wells).82

According to Cesar Baronius, writing in 1586, Joseph had originally journeyed to France with Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and Martha and her maid Marcella in AD 48; and then, ‘they say he sailed from France to Britain’. Baronius claimed to have found this information in a ‘History of England’ in the Vatican library but, like so many other such citations, this one has proven elusive: Ussher, indeed claimed to have evidence that the History was a modern forgery, ‘written in our times’.83 Joseph was keeping plausible company, however; these three siblings were, as he was, implicated in the miracle of the resurrection. In fact, Joseph was a late addition to the passenger-list. In earlier versions, the boat, “without sails or oars”, just carried Mary, Martha and Lazarus to Marseille. Paul Meyer lists five surviving pre-fifteenth century manuscripts copies of the Vita Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae, Marthae & Lazari, of which the earliest is twelfth century, and comes ultimately from Clairvaux, on the border of Burgundy. The others, surprisingly, are of English provenance, and the earliest dates from the mid-thirteenth century.84 The catalogue of books in Glastonbury library, compiled in that productive year of 1247/48, records another.85 Bearing in mind the geographical provenance of those early Grail stories and of Savaric’s Burgundian connections, Glastonbury’s early interest in this story is very intriguing. Baronius’ ‘History of England’ may be suspect, but Joseph had certainly arrived at Glastonbury by 1247; his story might well have passed through Burgundy, to be adapted and embellished in Savaric’s forgotten scriptorium.


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1For John of Glastonbury, see Carley and Townsend (eds) 1985

2 Crick 1991, 234-238, 242; Carley and Townsend (eds) 1985, 213

3 Crick 1991; Gransden 2001; Wood 1991, 279-80

4Sampson 1995/2007, 11-13

5Standen 2000, I, 46, 47; Scott Stokes 1934, 21. I have used the edition of Adam of Damerham by David Standen, since this is now freely available online. Translations are from Scott Stokes except when indicated otherwise.

6Hope 1904, 187

7Round (ed) 1925, 158

8Stacy 2001, 2-3

9sublimatus in regnum rebus bellicis animum dirigens, ab edificacione ecciesie nuper incepte studium diuertit. Quapropter ab opere cessatum eo quod non esset qui laborantibus stipendia conferret“; Standen 2000, I, 50. The translation is from Willis 1866, 22-3

10 Sampson 2010, 111-112

11Sampson 1995/2007, 15

12diuersorum pontificum indulgenciis“, Standen 2000, I, 56

13 The list is printed in Hearne (ed) 1726 2 383-6; cf Cheney et al (eds) 2008, 32

14Stenton (ed) 1928, 10; Stenton (ed) 1929, 48

15Standen 2000, 1 67

16Ramsey (ed) 1995, 173-4; Gransen 2001, 46; Wood 1991

17Sampson 2010, 113

18Ramsey (ed) 1995, xxxv

19Church 1894, 130

20Sampson 2010, 113

21Sampson 2010, 114-115

22Standen 2000 1 53; Ramsey (ed) 1995, 165-166

23Standen 2000 1 88, 98

24mercennarius uidens lupum uenientem fugisset. Standen 2000 1, 50; Scott Stokes 1934, 22

25Carley and Townsend (eds), 1985, 185

26eg Cheney et al (eds), 2008, xxx

27Knowles 1963, 314, 316

28Wood 1991, 278

29Standen 2000 1 37; Scott Stokes 1934, 15

30Scott Stokes 1934, 33

31Barber 2001, 153; cf Gransden 2001, 50

32Wood 1991, 278-9

33Williams 1899

34 Gransden 2001, 40

35 Barber 2001

36 Carley 1996, 148

37Bartlett 1982

38Aurell 2007, 389

39Dimock 1867 (ed) V148, 319-20

40Bartlett 2004

41Warren 1973, 204 n1

42negocia quedam in curia Romana“, Standen 2000 1 45; Stokes 1934, 19

43Warren 1973, 598-599

44Round (ed), 1909, 16; 1915, 27-28, xxxvii

45Gillingham 2004

46Jankulak 2000, 153-198, esp 195-6; Bozóky 2000, 283; Everard 1998, 99

47Gillingham 2004; Gillingham 1999, 53-54

48Lloyd 2004

49Aurell 2007, 372-373

50Gazeau 2007, 340; Warren 1973, 95

51Bozóky 2000, 278, 281-282; Warren 1973, 223

52Lloyd 2004

53Warren 1973, 599, 617, 622

54quoted in Aurell 2007, 387

55Aurell 2007, 386-388

56Gillingham 1999, 119-120

57Evard 2000, 158-9; Aurell 2007, 390; Gillingham 1999, 3-4

58Stubbs (ed) 1870, III 237, 241, 247

59Gillingham 1999, 109

60Stacy 2001, 2-3

61Ramsey 1995, xxxviii

62de regia stirpe progenitum… cuius consanguineus et dudum familiaris extiterat“, Standen 2000 1 50

63eg Greenaway 1991, Hoskin 2008

64Baker 1971, 92-93n

65Gazeau 2007b, 116-121; 2007a, 169, 189, 340

66Standen 2000 1 47; Stokes 1934, 21-22

67“qui assurait en quelque sorte la sanctification des corps des deux ducs”. Bozóky 2000 281-2

68Girbea 2003, 292

69gladium optimum Arcturi, nobilis quondam regis Britonum‘, Stubbs (ed), 1867 2 159

70Gillingham 1999, 132-138

71Luard (ed) 1865, 64; Appleby (ed) 1963, 29 n1

72Wood 1991, 277; Wood 2001, 88

73Aurell 2007, 389

74Carley 1996, 89

75Carley 2001, 319

76Carley 2001, 311

77Nitze 1953, 280

78Cayon 1857

79Poole 1927, 268 n1

80Poole 1927, 270-271; Ramsey 2004

81Carley 1996, 92

82Lagorio 2001; Stout 2012

83Baronius 1738, 225; Baker 1930, 12

84Meyer 1898, 96 n1

85Williams 1897, 70