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.

The catalyst precipitating the Mahoney family’s campaign against solicitors concerned the auction of a house somewhere in Somerset in 1973. Now, the last claimed whereabouts of the Glastonbury cross was in the possession of a Mr Chancellor Hughes of Wells in the 18th century (Robinson 1926: 59). Had Mahoney somehow acquired the cross in Somerset in the 70s? Indeed, Ashe had already written that it “possibly is still lying unnoticed in some family lumber-room” (Ashe 1957: 222).

On the other hand, Forty Hall in Enfield was in the hands of a certain Richard Gough in the early 19th century. It was this Gough who in 1789 brought out a three-volume English translation of William Camden‘s Britannia. And it was Camden who, in his own 1607 Latin edition of Britannia, presented the first known illustration of the cross, from life as it were. Was Mahoney’s cross a copy made in Gough’s lifetime, as the British Museum suggested at the time? Or was Gough’s illustrated version an accurate facsimile of the cross which, in later years, found its way into Forty Hall’s lake? We many never know. Unless Derek Mahoney (if he is still alive now) relents.²

Cross dating

The first edition of Camden’s Britannia (1590) gave only the inscription on the cross, as already known [in differing versions] from 12th and 13th century accounts, arranged in five lines:

HIC IACET SEP
VLTVS INCLITVS
REX ARTVRIVS IN
INSVLA AVALO
NIA

“Here lies buried the famous king, Arthur, in the Avalonian isle” (Hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avalonia).

The 1607 and subsequent depictions of the object itself, possibly as a result of a change of format (Alcock 1973: 75ff). The cross is shown as about six inches high (15cms) although John Leland in the 16th century [who claimed he saw it] thought it was about a foot long. By now the arrangement of the wording had changed:

Lead cross said to have been found in Glastonbury, from Camden’s Britannia (1607)

The shape of the cross is curious, too. If it were from the Dark Ages, then we might have expected an equal-armed Greek cross related to the chi-rho monogram [a conjoined XP, representing the first two Greek letters of the word Christ]. However, the Latin form we have parallels incised crosses from Anglesey [as in the example pictured, from Llangeinwen]. These have splayed arms and heads with so-called spiked feet, and, by analogy with Gaulish Merovingian and Carolingian prototypes, could be anywhere within a 7th to 11th century range. [The consensus now is that the Anglesey examples date between the 9th and 11th century.] The fitched foot of the Glastonbury cross (from French fiche, a spike) is probably modelled on a portable wooden or metal cross intended to be placed in a base or in the ground.³

Incised cross 9th-11th century, Llangeinwen, Anglesey

Alternatively, pectoral crosses, popular in the Byzantine period, may have provided prototypes. Or the spiked foot may have been based on part of the hinge present on reliquary crosses, which opened up to reveal a holy relic. These were generally three to four inches (8 to 10cms) in height.

Obverse of bronze reliquary cross, Middle Byzantine 9th-10th century ©Trustees of the British Museum, used with permission

So, if the form of the cross casts doubt on an Arthurian date, what of the form of the lettering of the words?

The Cs are square, the Ns have crossbars like that of the H of HIC. The T and the V are conjoined in two out of three cases. The Ss are elongated and the As all have a distinctive serif. Now, all the latter forms can be paralleled on Welsh memorials of the 5th to 7th centuries. After this period, from the 8th century up till the Conquest, Welsh stone inscriptions use lettering based on manuscript forms with a mixture of capitals and half-uncials (Nash-Williams 1950).

Most of the letter forms of the cross can also be seen on Anglo-Saxon pennies from at least the 8th century onwards, especially the Ns with nearly horizontal bars, the Rs with open bows, and the As (Dolley 1970). For example, silver pennies of Offa of Mercia bear the inscription OFFA REX, with open-bowed R and a serifed A (sometimes without a bar), comparable with capitals on contemporary manuscripts, and silver pennies of Coenwulf of Mercia, COEHVVLF REX, dating to about 800, have the square Cs and Ns with horizontal bars.

Silver pennies of Offa and Coenwulf: OFFA REX, COENVVLF REX

However, doubt has been cast on this pre-Conquest date for the cross. The early 12th century tympanum at Stoke-sub-Hamdon church in Somerset has a centaur, conical helmet on his head, shooting an arrow backwards. In case we are in doubt over his identity, he is labelled SAGITARIVS. A similar zodiacal figure appears on the [12th-century] font of Hook Norton church, Oxfordshire, also labelled SAGITTARIVS.

SAGITARIVS centaur from Stoke-sub-Hamdon 12th-century tympanum, Somerset

But it is the Stoke lettering which displays such similar letter forms to the Glastonbury cross that suspicious minds have been alerted. Here again we meet the distinctive A, sloped S and sans serif letter I. On the other hand the G does not echo the square C of the cross, the S is not elongated as the Glastonbury examples certainly are, and the R doesn’t have the characteristic open bow of the Glastonbury REX. Perhaps all that can be said is that the tradition of monumental lettering can be very conservative, and that the Stoke mason had not yet been influenced by the trend towards the uncial forms later known as Lombardic or Gothic majuscule.

Conclusions?

So, we have a putative lead cross (which may have been, as Leland asserted, made from local lead — the Mendips with their lead mines are not very far away). Its form reflects Continental crosses from the 7th to the 11th century, but not earlier Greek crosses or the expected Celtic wheel-headed crosses [generally dated 9th-12th century]. A number of incised crosses of similar shape come from Anglesey (many from one site in particular, Llangaffo) but we cannot be sure of their precise date or their relationship with Glastonbury.

As for the letter forms, they are of a very conservative type which persisted from around the sixth century on inscribed Celtic memorial stones, through later Anglo-Saxon coins. When we come to the Stoke-sub-Hamdon tympanum (of perhaps early 12th-century date) it could be argued that the letter forms represent a Norman re-introduction of capitals of neo-classical origin (which is why the Norman style is also called Romanesque), but apart from the serifed A there are too few convincing overlaps with the Glastonbury cross.

We’re now back to our 7th-11th century date. Certainly this is too late for an Arthurian relic [notionally 5th-6th century]. But it is also too early for a late 12th-century date, and a little too vague if it is really a 12th-century fake.

Further clues may be forthcoming if we consider the implications of the actual wording and examine the accounts of the 12th century excavation, but for now, with little likelihood of retrieving the object, we may have gone as far as we can. As for Derek Mahoney, he ain’t telling.


• Chris Lovegrove, ‘Arthur’s Cross?’ was first published in Pendragon XXVI No 4 17-19 (Autumn/Winter 1997); minor changes and corrections not noted, amendments and additions in square brackets; online references added 2018

Cross references (1997)
L Alcock, Arthur’s Britain (Penguin 1973)
G Ashe, King Arthur’s Avalon (Collins 1957)
M Dolley, Anglo-Saxon Pennies (British Museum 1970)
V E Nash-Williams, The Early Christian Monuments of Wales (University of Wales Press 1950)
J A Robinson, Two Glastonbury Legends: King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea (1926)

Online links (accessed 23/02/2018)
Geoffrey Gillam, The King Arthur Cross Rediscovered? http://britannia.com/history/arthur/crosshoax.html
Edward Watson, The Burial Cross of King Arthur http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/the-burial-cross-of-king-arthur.html
Keith Fitzpatrick Matthews, The archaeology of Arthur http://www.badarchaeology.com/controversies/looking-for-king-arthur/the-archaeology-of-arthur/
M C Siraut, A T Thacker and Elizabeth Williamson, ‘Glastonbury: Abbey’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 9, Glastonbury and Street, ed. R W Dunning (London, 2006), pp. 11-16. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol9/pp11-16 [accessed 24 February 2018].

Footnotes (2018)

¹ This all subsequently proved to be false reporting on Mahoney’s part.

² In Pendragon XXVII No 1 (1998) Chris Street wrote:
“Unfortunately, we are unlikely to hear any further news about Mr Mahoney or his Arthurian cross. Following a strange confrontation in which he entered Enfield Council offices brandishing a home-made gun, Derek Mahoney was reported to have committed suicide at his home in Enfield. I don’t have a record of the exact dates, but I thing it was at least seven years ago.
As far as I remember, there was a final reference to the cross, possibly in a note, to the effect that it had been moved from the original hiding place and that its whereabouts were not a matter of Nemesis. Nothing further has been heard of it since. I personally made some attempts to locate it with the help of local psychics, but none of the leads turned up anything tangible.

³ Charles W Evans-Günther, writing as Gwilym ap Iorwerth in Pendragon XXVII No 1 (1998), wrote:
“I have not been able to find any early inscribed stones in Wales that bear any strong resemblance with the Glastonbury Cross, except in Llangaffo where there are some crosses inscribed on gravestones, though without any wording. These are no earlier than the 9th century and may be as late as the 13th. It is suggested that they are copies of wooden crosses which had a spike at the base so they could be stuck in the ground.”
He goes on to argue that, far from being a genuine Arthurian relic, the cross “may have been of English or Norman origin.”
It has been suggested that St Dunstan, who was Abbot of Glastonbury in the 10th century, may have responsible for just such a cross being placed in the monks cemetery; though this can only be speculative it may be just possible to place this action within the chronology suggested by the cross’s shape and letter forms.

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Author: Calmgrove

Book review blogger and piano accompanist

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