Cotton Cleopatra F VIII: The Abbess’s Tale

A Short Gothic Novella


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In World War Two, Oxford academic Dr Iana Jenkins discovers an unknown medieval chronicle by the nun Mary of Shaftesbury.

Mary confides that she was at Glastonbury Abbey in 1191 when its monks exhumed the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. However, the great abbey’s celebrations turn to terror when the mortal remains of Arthur and Guinevere turn out to be not what they seem, and horror reigns.

When all else fails, can Wulfrun ­— a priestess of the Old Religion from the forest — save the abbey from what has been unleashed.

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Extract from Mary’s Chronicle that appears a third into the story  …

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. Amen.

The Evangelist reminds us that he who walks in darkness knows not where he goes, therefore we should all walk while the light is here, lest darkness overtake us.

In the year of the holy Incarnation eleven hundred and ninety-one, in the second year of the reign of our lord King Richard, and the first of our lord Pope Celestine, monstrous and unspeakable things took place in the blessed Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Glastonbury.

An account of these events has already been given by Gerald of Barry — that same cleric some call Gerald of Wales — who was, at the time, chaplain to the lord king. Yet his record of that hideous affair, like the false gospels of the Egyptians, is full of untruths, and makes no mention of the ghastly happenings I saw with my own eyes. I shall therefore put away lying and cleave to the commandment. Let each one speak truth with his neighbour, as we are members of one another.

It is true that the hideousness of what transpired defies comprehension. But that does not mean it should not be related for, as the Apostle explains, Now we see only as a puzzle in a mirror, and so it is not ignorance to acknowledge that there are mysteries beyond our understanding.

This, then, is an account of the unutterable things that took place in that ancient, holy abbey, near to where Saint Joseph of Arimathea planted the Holy Thorn after Our Lord’s triumph over the grave, bringing the light of the Resurrection to these mist-swathed islands. I pray God to keep me true to what I saw and heard for lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.

Long before these events came to pass, an elderly bard of the Brittonic tongue vouchsafed a great secret to the lord King Henry FitzEmpress, my brother. He confided that the poets of old, who sang of the great Arthur and his feats of arms, revealed that the fabled king’s final resting place in Avalon was at the site that is now Glastonbury Abbey, and that the storied warrior found eternal peace there between two stone pyramids sunken into the earth of those soft, western hills.

The lord king immediately informed the lord abbot of Glastonbury of this celebrated burial, but that indolent abbot was not a man given to action nor interest in the deeds of former times. Yet when my nephew the lord King Richard appointed a new abbot — our beloved in Christ, Henry of Sully — all changed, for Abbot Henry was filled with the zeal and energy of the Spirit, and vowed to honour the mortal remains of so great a hero as Arthur.

Abbot Henry therefore made earnest preparations, and appointed the holiest time of year for this endeavour, selecting the morning that fell two days following the sacred triduum of Easter. In solemn anticipation of the momentous discovery, the good abbot invited Gerald of Barry to be a witness on behalf of the lord king, and invited me, as a personal friend in religion he knew to be much engaged with the past deeds of this corner of the realm.

After all these years, I shudder still to recall the horrors of that Passiontide. But I know that I must leave a faithful account of them for those that follow, and may it not be as the Evangelist says, that because I speak the truth, you do not believe me. Instead let it be as the Apostle says, that speaking the truth is love.

I passed the solemnity of Holy Week at our beloved home in Shaftesbury witnessing the sacred Pascal mysteries with my good sisters in the Lord. Then, once the Light had returned for another year and the Sunday liturgies were concluded, the following day I made straight for ancient Glastonbury.

Together with my travelling companions, I passed through the western regions of the great willow forest, then on to the levels. It was a journey I always enjoyed, bringing to mind how, long ago, the great King Ælfred hid out in those woods, before mustering an army of loyal men of the west and defeating the heathen Danes, thereby preserving the light of the one, true faith for these islands.

Our company then journeyed into the land of apples, where the old name in those parts for the ubiquitous fruit, aval, had caused the region to be named Avalon. I remained lost in my reveries until eventually I spied the unmistakable rise of Glastonbury’s great, ancient tor, crowned with the noble church of St Michael. It was said by the ancient Britons that deep in the earth beneath its mass lay the entrance to the otherworld they called Annwn, which was guarded by fierce Gwynn ap Nudd with his mighty cauldron of rebirth. As my eyes settled on it, the tor seemed almost to reach heaven, so it therefore did not astonish me that, to the ancient mind, it also reached down into the other immortal realm, connecting the two. I gazed on in silent contemplation until eventually we arrived at the abbey’s tall gates, where I was met by the brother cellarer, given our Order’s kiss of peace, and settled into the guesthouse by nightfall.

After such a journey filled with the wonders of nature and the past, it pained me to behold again the pitiful husk of that once great abbey. I had known Glastonbury in the years of its manifest glory, when there was no collection of sacred buildings in England to rival its splendour. But now its pre-eminence lived on only in the minds of those who could recall its radiance for, seven years earlier, a great fire had ravaged each of its buildings, and what remained of the exalted abbey was horribly mutilated by the flames. The cloisters were blackened, with parts crumbled away, and many were its structures whose roofs were now mere boards and scaffolding. But by far the most heart-rending loss was the once unparalleled church, that jewel of the abbey. Its glittering magnificence had been gutted by the flames, and much of it now lay unused, fallen into rubble and left to nature like a fallow field. The choir and high altar had been temporarily reconstructed after a fashion, but the temple’s great walls were jagged and charred, and all but a few of its once dazzling windows were patched over with planking.

The indomitable monks of that great abbey were by now all accustomed to living among the rebuilding works, and ever joyful in their daily efforts to reconstruct the sacred precincts on an even grander scale. And they had already made great strides, for truly I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down from Heaven from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. A new chapel to Our Lady had already risen like a phoenix from the flames, and truly it was a miracle of serenity and majesty. The monks had adorned it with the most daring vaulting, in the new pointed style, and it seemed almost alive with intricate and vibrant patterns of traceried stone. Among its soaring arches I saw here a carved flower, there a human head, and all burnished in a rainbow of painted hues. The new glass, too, was uncommonly exquisite, which seemed appropriate, as the area and its abbey had long ago taken its name from “glass”, owing to the bright reflectiveness of the river that flowed around its surrounding marches. The new chapel was a marvel, and the imagination and dexterity of the craftsmen was a miracle. All who saw it wondered that such things were possible by the labour of human hands. Truly the chapel shone as a beacon of salvation, testifying to the ineffable wonder of Heaven and the indestructibility and permanence of the Grace of God.

On arrival at the great gatehouse that Monday after Easter, I found the venerable abbey in a state of feverish excitement, with everyone from stable-boys to the abbot greatly focused on what might be uncovered during the excavations to be launched the following day. Few, if any, slept an undisturbed night, and faces looked excited and animated at the usually tranquil and languid office of Vigils in the small hours of the watch. From the opening invocation, “Lord open thou my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise”, there was a mood of expectancy, and I caught it, although was troubled that some of my sleeplessness came not from excitement, but also from an unexpected sense of foreboding that I could not as yet identify.

On arrival at the great gatehouse that Monday after Easter, I found the venerable abbey in a state of feverish excitement, with everyone from stable-boys to the abbot greatly focused on what might be uncovered during the excavations to be launched the following day. Few, if any, slept an undisturbed night, and faces looked excited and animated at the usually tranquil and languid office of Vigils in the small hours of the watch. From the opening invocation, “Lord open thou my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise”, there was a mood of expectancy, and I caught it, although was troubled that some of my sleeplessness came not from excitement, but also from an unexpected sense of foreboding that I could not as yet identify.

When the abbey bell rang again shortly before dawn, I once more made my way through the cold darkness to the scarred church, where I was joined by those several sisters who had accompanied me from Shaftesbury and, together with the good brothers, we celebrated Lauds, Prime, and Mass. When we had finished giving praise and the servers had cleared the altar, Abbot Henry directed all to assemble in the gardens.

The abbey’s precincts were expansive and Brother Gervase, the prior, deployed all able monks to positions around the grounds, each with a shovel, spade, pick, mattock, adze, or other implement for digging. We all sang the Te deum laudamus, then the heavy work of excavation began.

When the abbey’s great bells tolled for Terce, Sext, and None, all those directly involved in the physical endeavours were excused attendance in church, while the less able monks and guests repaired to the choir stalls and sang the offices of the opus dei for the salvation of everyone’s souls, as the Psalmist commanded seven times a day I shall praise you because of your righteous judgments.

The digging was arduous in the still-hard earth and, after Sext, the kitchens produced bread, cheese, and a broth of leeks and herbs for all, but without disturbing the work, which continued apace. Despite the passing hours, the mood of all did not pall but, if anything, grew ever more feverish. Two cries went up during the day but, to everyone’s intense disappointment, the first turned out merely to herald the discovery of a large dressed stone, almost certainly left over from the extensive building work at the abbey after the conquest. The second also turned out to be a disappointment, when it was discovered to be the remains of an ancient well, now dry.

Despite the general mood of excitement, my sense of disquiet had hardened into an inexplicable dread that would not leave me. I have at times in my life found I have a preternatural sense of things, which I have put down to the potent mixture of a voluble nature and the Spirit occasionally granting me some glimpses of what is and what is to be, but for what purpose I know not. On this occasion, however, my sense of ill-portent was a mystery to me, and not improved by the appearance of two outsized, night-black ravens settling on the roof of the abbey church and remaining there for hours, their heads flicking back and forth as they took in the scene. I was familiar with the sagas, and knew of dread Odin, the All-Father, worshipped for centuries in this land as the overlord of all and of the dead at Valhalla. He was a fearsome being, who had plucked out one of his eyes to cast into Mimir’s Well for the gift of knowledge, impaled himself on the dwarves’ great spear Gungnir, then sacrificed himself to himself for nine days on Yggdrasil, the world tree. He was also the master of two formidable ravens, Huginn and Munnin, whom he sent out across the earth as his spies. The sight of the two brooding corvids on the church therefore caused me to shudder and, each time I caught sight of them, I turned away with a chill.

Finally, just before the hour to offer Vespers’ praises in celebration of lighting the lamps, there was a tumult a few yards from the cloister. The entire abbey quickly became apprised of it, and all diggers hurried with their tools to join the onlookers at the source of the cries.

As soon as I got to the area, it was immediately clear what was generating the commotion. There, exposed by the perspiring and exhausted excavators, was the unmistakable form of a pyramid buried about a forearm’s length beneath the grass.

Without delay Prior Gervase deployed the other diggers to assist in uncovering the pyramid and, within the space of half an hour, the stone had been exposed down to its base, and could be reckoned fully the height of a man and a half.

The hunt was now on for the second pyramid the old bard had described to the lord king Henry, and it was soon discovered some distance to the south of the first. As the excavation continued, accompanied by the uncontrolled excitement of all present, the diggers soon uncovered a weighty stone slab lying between the two pyramids. When the soil was carefully removed from its surface, there was revealed a lead panel in the shape of a cross affixed to it, and on it an inscription. Water was poured on to cleanse it, and the words then appeared as clearly as the day they had been hammered in. I could make them out without assistance, and this is what they said: “Here in the Isle of Avalon lies buried the renowned King Arthur with Winneveria his second wife”.

When the panel and stone slab were both lifted, underneath was revealed a large section of old tree trunk, neatly cut and shaped, at least four feet in width and seven in length. Being in such proximity to the cloister, it was immediately apparent that the trunk lay in a north-south orientation, and I drew this to Abbot Henry’s attention, informing him that this was common among the ancient pagan burials of the region, but unheard of as a Christian practice. The good abbot was a learned man, and he understood my anxiety immediately. His broad, dark blond brows wrinkled, and his ever-perceptive, green eyes moved quickly as he admitted he could not explain what lay before us. I confess that the sight of it did nothing to quell my deepening feelings of anxiety.

At the request of Prior Gervase, Brother Walter, the abbey’s carpenter, climbed down into the excavation trench and began examining the tree trunk. After inspecting it from every angle he declared it to be hollow, constructed of a base and a lid, with the two joined together by wooden plugs and a seal of tar. He promptly ordered his novices to fetch certain tools from his workshop and, before long, they returned bearing the requested implements. After working with the tools for some while on the join between the two halves, Brother Walter called for a number of brothers to attach stout ropes, and we all then heard the tomb’s ancient seal cracking open as they pulled off the uppermost half of the arboreal sarcophagus.

 For you are dust, and to dust you shall return, the Scriptures promise, and I had come to know graveyards, not least as abbess of my house of sisters at Shaftesbury. My responsibilities had brought me the knowledge that after a body has been several decades in the ground awaiting the Resurrection, only the bones remain. And thereafter Providence turns some bones to dust in several years, while others may take centuries to crumble to nothingness. In cold, damp climes like the west of England, bones do not remain in the earth for long, but are soon pulverized. I was therefore expecting the hollow within the tree tomb to contain mounds of royal dust, with perhaps some small remnant of one or two of the more substantial limbs like a hip or thigh bone. Beyond the excitement of the mortal remains, I was, however, principally hoping that maybe the regal couple had been laid to rest with some ancient jewels, coins, weapons, instruments, or other objects of interest.

Instead, when the upper portion of the sarcophagus was moved away, the vision that greeted us was more hellish than anything I have perceived when afflicted by fever in the blackness of the night. I closed my eyes in revulsion at the sight, and instinctively crossed myself three times, shuddering to the depths of my being.

The royal couple were supine, laid out side-by-side. He was physically imposing: broad, and easily a head taller than most men. She also was tall, with a noticeably slender frame. But the cause of the audible gasps of horror among the onlookers — some of whom had recoiled at the abomination — was that where the intervening centuries should have taken away all clothes and flesh, they had done so only in part.

The annals are filled with the holiest of saints, like Cuthbert, Æthelthryth, and Ælfheah, whose bodies were integrally preserved by the Spirit uncorrupted after death. But what I beheld in the cold earth at Glastonbury was not the repose of the blessed. Rather, it was an unutterable blasphemy and a sin against the Spirit.

The royal couple’s mortal remains appeared hideously half-dead. Clumps of rancid flesh, partial organs, and flaps of skin hung onto sections of their skeletons, while in other areas slimy, browned bones were fully exposed. Their mouths still held several teeth, and both scalps sprouted tufts and hanks of rotted hair. The king’s was a dirty acorn colour, as were the patchy remnants of beard protruding off his jaw, while on the queen the mangy tresses clinging to sections of scalp were of an anaemic red. Their clothes, too, which the grave should have swallowed, clung in decomposing tatters about them. He also bore sections of corroded chainmail, in areas stuck to bone where there was no muscle or sinew to support it. Similarly, rags of dull, mouldy blue lapped around her, with occasional hints of dulled gold thread just visible in the gathering twilight.

The pair of putrid cadavers was an abomination not of this world, or the next. It was neither life nor death, purgatory nor hell, but some other hideous state of which the Scriptures do not speak. Some of the onlookers averted their eyes and groaned in revulsion. I heard a voice intoning the words of the Psalmist, “For though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me”.

Barely had this horror registered with the crowd than another, even greater, manifested itself. I still shudder as I recollect it, and struggle to find the words to capture the sheer terror that seized all present. Never had the depredations of the Danish heathens on our holy places or the assaults of the Saracens on the land where His feet trod caused blood to turn cold so instantly, for the feculent remnants of one of the eye orbs in the hideous half-thing that once had been Guinevere slowly rolled towards the onlookers. My heart stopped beating for what seemed an age. Some screamed and fled, but I found myself unable to tear my gaze from that hideous jelly. However, the paralysis passed when I eventually appreciated that the foul eye was again still, and I reasoned that it must merely have been resettling after being disturbed by the removal of the tree-tomb’s lid.

The ungodly horror of the rotting cadavers still froze the air, and Abbot Henry swiftly approached the graveside to recite a prayer of blessing over the foul remains. Ashen-faced, and with his leonine features set in grim solemnity, he commanded that the planned ceremony be commenced, and so a two-person litter that had been dressed with sumptuous cushions and regal blue damask was brought forward. The bodies were carefully lifted and laid onto it, and a solemn procession to the abbey church began. This cortège was led by a crucifer holding aloft a large ceremonial crucifix, four lucifers with tall, white candles at each corner of the litter, and thurifers at the front and back, wreathing the bier in fumes of sweet frankincense and spices. All followed, singing the Confitebor in solemn unison, “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with all my heart . . . all the kings of the earth will give you thanks”.

The procession passed the cloisters, then moved down the south side of the great abbey church towards the grand west entrance. As the litter was on the verge of entering into the cool shade of the temple, I found myself unexpectedly praying that some divine force would prevent the progress of that hellish procession, but no heavenly intervention came. The monks were now singing the forty-third psalm, “I will enter unto the altar of the Lord”, and the litter passed through the tall, arched doorway into the pristine, new Lady Chapel, and then on into the holy temple’s long nave.

When it was my turn to enter the great doorway, I could see that up ahead the litter had already reached a point under the ravaged stone rood screen, with its large effigies of Christ flanked by Saints Peter and Paul looking down on the calm scene below. The procession moved on, and the royal couple were soon at the high altar, where they were laid onto an ornamental catafalque set out in readiness to receive their earthly remains.

The lucifers stationed themselves at the four sides of the royal display, pointing outwards to the cardinal points of the compass, and we all filed solemnly around the bodies, praying for the repose of their eternal souls. As I gazed upon the hideous countenances, the feeling of dread that had been with me since the previous evening now crystallized into a certainty that, in unearthing these monstrosities, we had brought something beyond God’s law into the abbey.