The stories of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table are also fairy tales to all appearance; yet they are based on facts, and pertain to the History of England. — H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 2:393
Old tales and traditions, along with their symbolic content, in many cases contain real historic events. In the year 1184 a conflagration destroyed the famed Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, in the Southwest of England. In 1191, during the rebuilding of the monastery, the monks made a sensational and profitable discovery: in the old Celtic churchyard they came upon a grave which supposedly contained the remains of King Arthur and his Queen Guenievre (Guinevere). The bodies are said to have been found in an oak tree trunk some five meters below the ground, at the south side of the Lady Chapel. This discovery resulted in an increased number of pilgrims and donors who supplied the monks with the means to build the new monastery, which was to become the largest in England.
On 19 April 1278 the royal remains were moved in the presence of King Edward and Queen Eleanor (Eleonora of Castile) to a grave of black marble which remained until the monastery was dissolved in the year 1539. A monk, describing the event, relates:
The Lord Edward . . . came to Glastonbury . . . to celebrate Easter, the following Tuesday . . . at dusk, the Lord King had the tomb of the famous King Arthur opened. Wherein, in two caskets, painted with their pictures and arms, were found separately the bones of the said King which were of great size, and those of Queen Guinevere, which were of marvellous beauty . . . On the following day . . . the Lord King replaced the bones of the King and those of the Queen, each in their own casket, having wrapped them in costly silks. When they had been sealed they ordered the tomb to be placed forthwith in front of the High Altar. — Graham Ashton, The Realm of King Arthur, pp. 25-6
The same eye witness mentions also a leaden cross whose Latin inscription reads: "Here lies Arthur, the renowned king, in the Isle of Avalon." The finds connect King Arthur and Glastonbury with the mythical Avalon.
During the Reformation the grave was destroyed, only the bottom of the chamber remaining. In the year 1931 the remains were found in the Western choir near the original site of the high altar. A plaque in the grass states: THE SITE OF KING ARTHUR'S GRAVE.
One may wonder what became of the grave's contents after 1539. History has nothing to say on this point, but as long as Glastonbury Abbey existed the monks profited by the rumor that the renowned Christian hero-king Arthur lay buried before the high altar in their church. The kings of England also took advantage of Arthur's status, claiming that the throne they occupied had formerly been that of a king of kings. Henry VIII is said to have been particularly eager to identify his family line, Tudor, with the remarkable king of the past. The Tudors originated in Wales and Welsh interest in King Arthur was great. Queen Elizabeth I, Henry's daughter, could therefore claim to be descended from King Arthur.
Arthur was one of the princes in Southwestern England who fought against the invading Saxons and their allies, the Angles, Jutes, and Frisians as well as the Picts and Scots who came from the north, after the Romans left England in the 5th century, but it is no easy task to arrive at a reasonably accurate chronology of King Arthur's life as that was the darkest period of the Middle Ages, the chaotic 5th and 6th centuries. The monk Gildas (d. 570) does not mention Arthur in his work De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, nor does the Venerable Bede of the 8th century in his Historia ecclesiastics gentis Anglorum.
The oldest extant writings on King Arthur appeared in the 9th century in Historia Britonum, a compilation by the Welsh priest Nennius. In the 10th century Arthur is mentioned in Annales Cambriae in connection with the battles at Mount Badon and Camlann (Camlaun). The 12th century yielded two well-known sources on Arthur: William of Malmesbury's "On the Antiquity of Glastonbury" and Geoffrey of Monmouth with his Historia Regum Britanniae.
In The Realm of King Arthur, Graham Ashton gives a chronology which follows in abbreviated form:
Following Arthur's death at the battle of Camlann, his fame and that of his knights of the Round Table spread all over Europe. Like religion, cultural impulses — science, literature, music, the art of song, tradition, legends, etc. — most often follow the trade routes. The Arthurian legends journeyed with merchants and other travelers from country to country, from city to city, from monastery to monastery, from court to court. The Norman bards, the trouveres, created their own versions of the story material and so too did the German Minnesinger and the troubadours of Provence. A rich literature developed and has continued to grow. Even in our own time new Arthurian tales are constantly coming to light.
During the centuries following Arthur's departure a remarkable thing happened. From a provincial chieftain he became transformed into a lofty conqueror figure surrounded with a saga glow, a noble nature, a champion of peace and justice, a solar hero, a king of kings. We see here an example of
the old custom of using prominent people as foci for presenting traditional wisdom. . . . In the Arthurian tales, the racial memory of a very ancient series of initiatory experiences, remote from the communal recollection, appears to have been fused with the impact of a more recent personality. Petty chieftain or spectacular ruler of high character and achievements, a well-known figure was chosen to be a peg on which to hang sublime concepts, and became "Arthur." Such men or women in past eras were made into type-figures for our emulation. If there was actually a Celtic tribal leader thirteen or more centuries ago around whom tales were woven, the essence of the Arthurian myths nevertheless predates his era by a large period of time. The original seems to belong in the mists of the past when an earlier civilization flowered.
Some time during the latter half of the Middle Ages — year unknown — a man in Glastonbury Abbey in England was occupied with writing down the Arthur tales which in the French version, a 13th century manuscript, are known as Perceval le Gallois ou le conte du Graal. The source of his inspiration was a Latin text of unknown age, which apparently was preserved at the monastery. The French medieval manuscript gives us the following information:
The Latin from whence this History was drawn into Romance, was taken 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 lie. (Translated by Dr. Sebastian Evans into old English and titled The High History of the Graal. It is this account which comprises the Ariadne thread in Katherine E. Maltwood's A Guide to Glastonbury's Temple of the Stars, published in England in 1935.)
The unknown author who transformed the Latin text's message and "drew it into Romance," must have known the great Glastonbury zodiac in Somerset, England, and its former function as a Mystery site. He knew that the "Isle of Avalon" lay at the "head of the Moors Adventurous" and that there stood "a holy house of religion" (Glastonbury Abbey) and further that King Arthur and his Queen were there interred. The mythical King Arthur was created by the unknown author himself, who wove together the pre-Christian tales of the zodiacal constellations with the Christian legend of the Grail.
At the end of the 16th century, the learned Dr. John Dee had rediscovered Glastonbury's great star map, which again was soon forgotten. A number of other British poets, visionaries, scientists, students of ancient religions, sensed secrets in the English landscape. William Stukeley, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alfred Tennyson, and many others intuitively sought the secret knowledge of antiquity, whose key had long since been lost. In A Guide Maltwood describes her years of searching for the Glastonbury zodiac's different figures, which are formed with the aid of hills and waterways (natural or artificial features of the terrain) in "the vale of Avalon." The solar and stellar temple at Glastonbury, sixteen kilometers in diameter, lies there like a gigantic star chart in relief and is included in ordnance survey maps of the area. The zodiac contains the picture gallery of the Arthurian legend as it is depicted in The High History, and on that great stage, which reflects the traditional astronomical star map of the northern hemisphere, is played out the Arthurian drama. One may imagine the stellar vault spread out like an enormous garden. In The High History it is called the Garden of Eden.
Katherine Maltwood, like many other researchers, is of the opinion that the original story, from which comes the Christianized legend of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, may be the history of initiation ceremonies which took place in former times on this fabled site, which the first Celtic Christians and later the monks of Glastonbury inherited from pre-Christian forebears. It must once have been a significant source of knowledge and have had certain responsibilities connected with it, since the cloistered hierarchy for some 1,500 years spent time and work to maintain the vast installation. The High History states that the monks "had the whole history about it, truthful from beginning to end." The monastery itself was (is) situated in the effigy of Aquarius, represented by a giant bird, a Phoenix, drinking from a "spring of blood" (Graal), which is a radioactive source of iron. Maltwood notes that
It is remarkable that the monks' burial ground in the precincts of Glastonbury Abbey lies on the Ecliptic like the Romano-British burial ground in Leo. So it is not surprising that it was said that the Sun King, Arthur, was buried under the High Altar.
In her search Katherine Maltwood identified first Sir Lancelot (Leo) and gradually the other "personae" in The High History: Sir Gawain (Aries), the Fisher-king (Pisces), Sir Percival (Aquarius), King Gurgalain (Taurus), King Arthur-Hercules (Sagittarius), etc.
The hero of the Arthurian drama is of course King Arthur, whose figure combines two constellations, the Archer and Hercules, the latter represented by Homer in his Odyssey as the great archer, deified, hence immortal. In the Glastonbury zodiac Arthur extends over the vale of Avalon, reflecting the original figure in the starry spaces above.
Among the Phoenicians, who are believed to have shaped Glastonbury's gigantic "holy Graal table" more than 4,000 years ago, at the time when "Taurus led the year," Hercules was known as Melkarth, the king.
In his Outline History of Freemasonry, J. S. M. Ward cites the Leyland-Locke manuscript: "Pythagoras, a Grecian, travelled to acquire knowledge in Egypt and Syrias and in every land where the Phoenician had planted Freemasonry." (Maltwood, p. 5)
Roaming the countryside where every episode in the history of the Holy Grail has its physical location, Mrs. Maltwood was haunted by the feeling of imminent revelation. One summer afternoon, standing on a low hill and looking out across the plain towards the distant ramparts of Camelot, she saw both visually and intuitively the elusive secret. References in legends and old histories to hidden giants in the landscape, the story that King Arthur never passed away but sleeps for ever in the hills, the close identification of every feature in the Glastonbury landscape with the heroic cycle, the great wheel of the constellations turning above the hills and plains, all these clues led Mrs. Maltwood towards a secret lost for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Aerial photographs in Taunton Museum show the giants as she discovered them and a recent film reveals details of their drawing, every line formed by some feature of the landscape whose individual quality, perceptible to every sensitive person, contributes towards a fuller understanding of the figure of which it is part. Mrs. Maltwood received the message, transmitted through time, that the peculiar quality of a certain spot is perceptible to men of all ages, that nothing is lost. For the men of some great past civilisation, accustomed to measuring the greater cycles of time, of which we are now unaware, marked the landscape with signs that can be interpreted by human beings of any race or age. — John Michell, The View over Atlantis, 1969, p. 8.
According to the Glastonbury legend, Christianity is supposed to have come to England very early through Joseph of Arimathea and his followers. As Glastonbury was a well established Celtic religious center both before and during the Roman occupation in England and as zealous Christians sought the sacred sites of the past, it is possible that Glastonbury's claim to be the new religion's first foothold in that country may be true.
Joseph of Arimathea, according to the legend, is said to have brought with him the chalice which Jesus of the gospels used at the last supper, which took place in the upper story of a house (zodiacal sign) which belonged to a man who bore a water pitcher (Aquarius). Humanity is presently in the vestibule of that "house." The previous sign or house was the fishes (Pisces), a twelfth part (2,160 years) of the great precessional cycle of 25,920 years. The legend also tells that the chalice Graal was buried at Glastonbury Tor which rises 150 meters above the "vale of Avalon."
For King Arthur and his knights the search for the Grail was the essential purpose in life. An old French manuscript from the 14th century shows a picture of the knights gathered for a feast at the Round Table. The chalice Graal, covered with a white silk cloth, stands in the center of the table, but none of those present might see the object itself. When the chalice was removed, all those present made a solemn vow to continue the search for it in order to be able to see the Graal "openly," without a covering.
It has been supposed, not without grounds, that the Arthur story tells of the development of man the pilgrim toward a high state of spirituality. The pronouncement in Lewis Spence's Encyclopaedia that the Grail "is always visible to one who is worthy and qualified to behold it," suggests an inner search rather than an outer.
The Glastonbury zodiac, like Stonehenge, is a temple of the sun and its estimated age of more than 4,000 years takes us back to the age or sign of Taurus. But the question remains unanswered: "Whose was the consummate genius that could see in these rivers and hills a complex circular design, and having envisaged it as a Zodiac, command such skilled labour to carry it out that the stars and the calendar fitted the composition to a nicety," (Maltwood, p. 108). The finished creation is one of singular power, relatively indestructible and now, ages later, it stands as witness to a distant cultural epoch and its dominant ideas.
The Egyptians said that Hercules had a place in the Sun; in Somerset he had its secret up his sleeve, for to find the Ecliptic Circle of the Temple of the Stars, the point of the compasses must be placed on the forearm of Hercules in order to trace the Sun's path through the Zodiacal constellations. Thus "the point within the circle" lies up the King's sleeve. Having drawn the Ecliptic by means of this key, we find that the stars fall into their correct Effigy figures, which is the proof that there is neither fake nor fancy about the genuineness of these constellations. — Maltwood, addendum to A Guide
Our forefathers far beyond the historic era were one with nature, whose very system they copied. They sensed their communion with all life, all consciousness, and they built their temple according to the plan of the great world Architect-Builder himself. They brought the expanses of the heavenly vault down to earth, gave them terrestrial measurements, spread them out here like an enormous garden — the Garden of Eden as it is called in The High History.
This is the land from which flow the four rivers, where the Tree of Life stands in the middle of Paradise, where the "Tree of the Polar Star" forms the zodiacal cross, the four directions with their four watchers.
This temple of nature is like the "chapel" that is not despoiled. "Never was that chapel ravaged, nor did it fall into disrepair, but remained as untouched thereafter as before, and so still stands."
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1988/January 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Theosophical University Press; translated from "Soltemplet vid Glastonbury," Teosofiskt Forum (8:3), Fall 1988)