Geoffrey Ashe King Arthur’s Avalon:
the story of Glastonbury Collins 1958
First published in 1957, this is the post-war book that really re-invigorated interest in King Arthur and the Dark Ages by focusing on the medieval notion that he was buried in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. On the surface all the omens were good: archaeologically there was evidence that there was an ancient cemetery here – in the early sixties a prominent archaeologist, Ralegh Radford, would even pinpoint where 12th-century monks dug for the supposed grave of Arthur – legends placed Dark Age saints here, the medieval abbey was one of the richest (if not the richest) monastic foundation in the country, and many people in recent times have been attracted by the supposed aura of the place. Certainly Ashe, a Catholic, believes there is something special here, and that the legends, even if not true, have a significance beyond the claimed facts; and he has lived on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor for many decades now, a vindication of the magic of this small Somerset town.
If however you don’t fall prey to that magic, see the town as ordinary or – worse – tawdry, doubt that legends are anything other than the product of Rumour and Time, suspect that the tomb of Arthur may have been a publicity stunt by medieval monks and believe that the existing archaeology is at best ambiguous, then King Arthur’s Avalon still stands as a testimony to the ability of a young writer to capture a contemporary yearning for past glories, a zeitgeist that remains attached to Glastonbury well over half a century later and looks certain to be a powerful force for many years to come.
There have been many other books on Glastonbury since, most, I have to say, full of woolly mystical thinking and little else. An excellent survey of the archaeology, history and mystery by the late Philip Rahtz entitled, unsurprisingly, Glastonbury (published jointly by English Heritage and Batsford in 1993) is one of the very few I would recommend for its mix of historical accuracy and informed speculation. King Arthur’s Avalon’s very title, on the other hand, makes assumptions about the existence of Arthur, his status as monarch, his connection with Glastonbury and, indeed, the town’s original name, while the style is a little patronising and certainly of its time; but there is much that one can still profit from, particularly its survey of the part the medieval abbey played in contemporary politics, religion and culture.
Ashe himself has gone on to be a successful writer on a range of other subjects (he received an MBE in recognition of his contributions as a cultural historian), but still comes back to re-visit many of themes he first set out over five decades ago in this seminal book.