Beckery Chapel Monasticism and the Legend of King Arthur

Last May, archaeologists excavated seven skeletons at Beckery Chapel near Glastonbury in Somerset. Radicoarbon dating suggests that the male remains are from the 5th or early 6th century and were found at a site where a further 50 to 60 skeletons were uncovered in the 1960s.

One of the skeletons in the monastic cemetery at Beckery Chapel

It is believed that the site is that of a monastic cemetery and is the earliest evidence of monastic life in the UK. The discovery is particularly significant given that legend claims Beckery Chapel to have been visited by the mythical King Arthur himself, one of the most fabled kings in British history and an early embodiment of English national identity.

Whether King Arthur was based on a real-life monarch, was the amalgam of several heroic historic characters, or simply a fabrication by medieval chroniclers seeking to espouse an ideal ‘Englishness’ of character is unclear. However nearby Glastonbury Abbey is heavily associated with Arthurian legend, with Glastonbury Hill often seen as the location of the mythical Avalon.

The Last Sleep of King Arthur at Avalon

Contemporary chronicler Gildas had written of the heroic but failed resistance of one Ambrosius Aurelianus, ‘King of Britain’, against an invading Saxon horde around 500AD. The story was further embellished in the eighth century by the Bede, that most venerable of monks, and then by the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 9th century. This appears to have been the foundation of the Arthurian legend.

The Venerable Bede is the main source for much Anglo-Saxon history
The Venerable Bede is the main source for much Anglo-Saxon history

Not until Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings of the mid-12th century did the saga of King Arthur take a clear form and in the 1170s French chronicler Chretien de Troyes added to the mix ideas of chivalry, knightly tournaments and the Holy Grail.

The ruling Angevin kings tried to claim descent from Arthur whose body (and that of his wife Guinevere) was ‘discovered’ at Glastonbury Abbey in 1191. From thereon many of England’s rulers would claim to be the ‘true heir’ of this benevolent king, however dubious the evidence surrounding his purported life and death.

Medieval depiction of King Arthur and Guinevere
Medieval depiction of King Arthur and Guinevere

‘The legend of Arthur as overlord of all Britain provided a foundation for assertions of English hegemony – or hegemony by whichever Norman, French or half-French ruler sat on England’s throne’. (Tombs, p.17)

Mythology often plays a central role in the founding stories of nations and, to an extent, its failure to be corroborated by historical evidence is irrelevant such is its power over the popular imagination. This is significant, for referencing popular legends in relation to historic discoveries can help draw attention to something that would otherwise be largely overlooked, consigned to the realm of academic journals.

The revelation of this early monasticism is undoubtedly important, for it marks a central place in the history of Christianity in the UK, a force of both unity and destruction for more than 1500 years.

King Arthur probably never existed. Yet his legend, rather than being a distraction from history actually enhances its worth in the public realm by drawing the attention of people to subjects they might not otherwise give a second thought to.

It is not always important how we introduce people to history, even if it is by means that some crusty old scholars might consider deceptive. After all, how often do the ‘facts’ of the past turn out to be as fabulous and nonsensical as the myths that are equally-important in shaping our national identities?

Glastonbury Abbey, inextricably linked to Arthurian legend
Glastonbury Abbey, inextricably linked to Arthurian legend


Tombs, R. The English and Their History (2014)


Islamic Philistines Threaten Mali’s Future

It is believed that Islamist factions, including Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now control two-thirds of Mali, West Africa’s largest country. Since ousting the secessionist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the northern third of the country in the past few months, these barbaric groups have gone on the rampage. Not only do they hope to impose Sharia Law on the helpless Malian populace but the terrorists seemingly wish to destroy any traces of Malian history and with it the Malian national identity.

Ansar Dine use religious justification for wanton destruction

History and nationalism go hand in hand. A state cannot have a unified national identity if its people do not share a distinct history. The history of Mali happens to be particularly rich and is of national, regional and international significance. This rich heritage is symbolised by Timbuktu, the legendary commercial hub of 13th century Africa where gold, ivory and knowledge were shared freely between traders and scholars alike. Ansar Dine and its vile cohorts have since reduced a substantial amount of the desert city to ruins, willingly destroying many of its sacred libraries and mosques where some of the rarest and greatest work of Islamic scholars have long resided.

Thousands of Timbuktu’s legendary works of scholarship are under threat

The destruction of cultural and historical icons is a trait of Al-Qaeda and its many affiliated groups. One need only think of the Taliban’s gleeful destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or Al-Shabab’s desecration of Sufi graves and monuments in Somalia to recognise that anything deemed anathema to the warped principles of these groups is under threat of annihilation.

Many would argue that thethreat posed by Al-Qaeda and its associates to human life is of far greater concern.  Islamic terrorists have shown themselves extremely capable of indiscriminate massacre and torture of innocent civilians. The destruction of history, however, is of equal significance. Should the process of radical Islamisation in Mali not be be reversed soon, children will grow up unaware that they are part of the same nation as their counterparts in distant parts of the country. They will become enemies by default, oblivious to their shared heritage and civilisation and their victories over unscrupulous colonial powers.

The African Union, with aid from international partners, hopes to launch an attack against Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in Mali in the coming weeks. Let us hope that they do not procrastinate further for the future of a nation and a heritage that ought to be shared with the world is at stake. There may be no oil in the ground, but the dusty tomes in Timbuktu’s libraries and the terracotta figurines of the great Mali Empire are of equal, if not greater importance, to the destiny of mankind.