Arthur’s cross?

Detail from The last sleep of Arthur by Edward Burne-Jones (1898): Wikimedia Commons

A discussion centred on the Glastonbury Cross, an object claimed by the 12th-century monks of Glastonbury Abbey to have been excavated from above a Dark Age grave in their cemetery and inscribed with the name Arturius or Arthur. The text is substantially that of an article written for Pendragon, the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in late 1997.

Cross purposes

On April Fool’s Day, 1982, an extraordinary story broke nationally in the UK. Back in November 1981 Derek Mahoney, while searching through mud excavated from an Essex lake, found a small lead cross. At the British Museum the Keeper of Medieval and Later antiquities noted that the cross was within an eighth of an inch of the size of the cross alleged to have been found above King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury in 1191. But, following on from his family’s dispute with solicitors over a house sale, Mahoney said he had subsequently buried the cross in a “completely waterproof” container “well down in the ground” because possession of the cross gave him “power and authority”.

Where exactly had he got this cross? Dredging operations at the lake at Forty Hall, Enfield in Essex had revealed, he said, some old Elizabethan bricks in a wall, and later a knife — and the cross. These were all photographed. When the foreman involved in the pond-clearing apparently raised no objections,¹ Derek Mahoney took the objects home. Enfield Council, after hearing of the cross from a report in The Enfield Advertiser, successfully prosecuted him for retaining an object discovered on their land. He was jailed for contempt of court.

After nine months, Mahoney was brought before a High Court judge to reconsider. He refused. With remission his sentence would have ended in July 1983. But then, on March 21st 1983 , he was released. The judge said there was “no point” in his serving any more of his sentence as he was prepared to stay in prison “until doomsday” rather than give up the cross. A curious legal decision!

Suspicions were aroused, however, when it emerged that Mahoney was once employed by Lesney Toys as a mould maker. Geoffrey Ashe considered the whole affair to be “a false alarm”. And yet there were attenuating circumstances.

Continue reading “Arthur’s cross?”

Advertisements

Something rotten

Henry Irving as Hamlet: Edwin Longsden Long (1829-1891)

If the Morte d’Arthur was ever played on the Victorian stage we all know at whom we would have hissed. If Judas is the villain of the New Testament, who betrays his lord and causes the break-up of the fellowship of the Last Supper, then Mordred is clearly the villain in Malory who betrays his lord and causes the break-up of the fellowship of the Round Table. if Judas dies on a tree like his lord, Mordred dies by the sword like his lord too.

Let’s take a closer look at this well-known rotter! He’s the nephew of King Arthur, some say his illegitimate son; he covets the throne and the power. The picture drawn by Malory [in Book One of the Winchester manuscript] seems to be borne out by the earlier Welsh Triads in which Medrawd came to Arthur’s court at Celliwig in Cornwall: there he ‘left neither food nor drink but, worst of all, dragged Gwenhwyfar from the royal chair and struck her a blow’. This was one of the Three Unrestrained Ravagings of Britain; the second was when Arthur did tit-for-tat at Medrawd’s court.

If Mordred is black through and through he strangely reminds us of another Dark Age figure who is traditionally associated with black. This one too has claims on the throne, plots against the king through what he regards as the queen’s infidelity and would strike the queen (through someone does try to restrain him). He too is a prince, a nephew of a king, but also a king’s son; and he kills, and is killed by, the king. If this too sounds like melodrama, it is; it’s part of the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But the difference is this: Hamlet is the hero, but Mordred the villain.

One might raise objections, of course. The blood relationships, though ambiguously described above, are different. Hamlet was possibly an historical Danish prince called Amleth, Mordred [Medraut in the earliest form of the name] a character in British legend. Moreover, history is full of royal intrigues, and to say that Mordred is like Hamlet in this respect is not a very profound conclusion. In other words, the differences are greater than the superficial similarities.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment.

Continue reading “Something rotten”