Harrington on Glastonbury (1591)

The following material is an excerpt from the transcription available from the Early English Books Online website, from a note of John Harrington to his translation into English of the 4th book of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The quotation comes from a 1607 edition, but Harrington’s note probably dates from a 1591 version of this work. Harrington implies that part of Arthur’s body (perhaps that large leg-bone shown to Gerald of Wales soon after its disinterment, in the 1190s)  was still  visible “in a door” of a church at Glastonbury. Also it appears that a coffin containing the body of Guinevere was “taken up” (i.e. dug up or disinterred) at some point in the 1500s, and her face appeared mummified or preserved, whereas a report of Edward I’s visit to the tomb in 1278 (as per Adam of Domersham) refers to her and Arthur’s skulls (removed from their skeletons). Thanks to Karen Han, of the Facebook group King Arthur, and her citation of Charles T. Wood’s article, “Guenevere at Glastonbury: A problem in Translation(s),”  in Arthurian Literature XVI (ed. Carley & Riddy, 1998).

For the Historie of this booke, little is to be said of the time of Charles the great, because the booke digresseth to other matters: but whereas mention is made of Calledon forrest in Scotland, and of King Arthur his knights, I thought it not amisse, as in the former booke I told you, what I thought of Merlin that was Arthurs great counseller, so now somewhat to touch, as the space will permit, the reports that are true and probable of king Arthur. It is generally written and beleeued that this Arthur was a notable valiant and religious Prince, and that he governed this Iland in that rude age with great love of his people, and honour of forraine nations, he instituted an order of the knights of the round table onely (as it seemes) of some meriment of hunting, or some pleasant exercises. He was himself of stature very tall, as appeares by the proportion of him left (as they say here in our countrey of Somerset) in a doore of a Church by the famous Abbey of Glassenbury, in which Abbey his wife Queene Gueneuer was buried, and within our memory taken vp in a coffin, with her body and face in shew plainly to be discerned, saue the very tip of her nose, as diuers dwelling there about haue reported. But what manner of death king Arthur himselfe died, it is doubtfull, and that which they report seemes meerly fabulous, namely that he was caried away in a barge from a bridge called Pomperles, neare the said Glassenbury, and so conueyed by unknowne persons, (or by the Ladie of the Lake) with promise to bring him backe againe one day: vpon which it seems the foolish people grounded their vaine saying (King Arthur comes againe.)

For my part I confesse my selfe to haue bin more inquisitiue of such trifles then a wiser man would, and viewing that bridge and all that countrey about Glassenbury, I see good reason to guesse, that all that countrie which now we call our moores (and is reduced to profitable and fertill ground) was sometime recouered from the sea, and might be nauigable vp to Glassenbury in those times: and so I suppose the said King being drowned there by some mishap, and being well be|loued of the people, some fained (to content their minds) that he was but gone a little way, and would come again: as the Senate of Rome, hauing killed Romulus for his tyrannie, deuised a tale of I know not what to make the people beleeue he was turned to a god. M. Camden the best antiquarie of our time, writeth that king Arthurs body was taken vp at the foresaid Glassenbury in the time of king Henrie the second, which indeed is most credible, as he there proueth. But this I conclude, that this Prince was so worthy a man in his time, as not onely true histories haue greatly recommended to the posteritie, but almost all Poeticall writers that haue bin since, haue mentioned this famous Prince Arthur of England, as a person of whom no notable exploit was incredible. And thus much for king Arthur.