The Govan Sarcophagus – Arthur’s Coffin?


Researched and compiled by
Hugh D.P. McArthur, FSA Scot
Clan Arthur Seannachie
High Commissioner for Clan Arthur in Britain
© 2020 Hugh DP McArthur

By Stuart McHardy M.A.(Hons), F.S.A.Scot.

The recent suggestion by amateur historian Hugh McArthur that the Govan sarcophagus might actually have been the last resting place of the Dark Age warrior leader generally known as "King" Arthur has raised considerable interest. The idea itself while initially startling is not nearly as daft as it sounds. McArthur along with many others is intrigued by the amount of material suggesting the original Arthur was Scottish, or at least that he flourished in what we now call Scotland, in the 6th century. He, along with others, thinks that "King" Arthur is based on the historical figure of Artur, son of Aedan mac Gabhrain, a 6th century King of Dal Riata.

Received opinion puts the sarcophagus as dating from 10th century or later but this argument is not based on any specific dateable evidence. When the sarcophagus was found in 1855 it was not in its original position, it was lacking a lid and there were no human remains in it. There was thus nothing in or around it that could have given a radio carbon date, even if this technique had been available in Victorian times.

What can be said is that this magnificent monument was obviously of great importance - there was considerable effort and skill involved in carving and decorating a coffin from a block of stone over two metres long, suggesting that whoever was put in the sarcophagus was of some importance to contemporary society.

Dark Age Struggles

There is considerable evidence for Arthur's activity in Central Scotland in the Dark Ages as most probably having to do with the battle between Christianity and paganism. Most interpretations see Arthur as Welsh and have presented him as fighting off a horde of invaders including Scots, Picts and Anglo-Saxons. This interpretation is no longer acceptable for various reasons.

The Scots are now known to have been in Dalriada for a long time before their supposed arrival around 500 AD - there are several Roman references to Picts and Scots attacking them together. The Angles and Saxons were of course separate tribes and their supposed invasion rests on the words of one monk, Gildas writing in the 6th century. Apart from his reference to two guys arriving with three ships there is no real evidence for this invasion either though we know that warriors from Continental tribes had been invited in as mercenaries after the Romans left England.

Again much has been made in subsequent centuries of the idea of dynastic struggles with Arthur as some sort of over-king suppressing rebellious subjects. In terms of Dark Age tribal society this is plain daft! Tribes do not have kings and the rise of what can safely be called kingdoms does not happen till after the 6th century when Arthur was strutting his stuff.

Welsh Speakers Outside Wales

We should remember that although the earliest literary sources referring to Arthur survived in Welsh, this was not a language restricted to what we now call Wales. In the 6th century, Welsh, or an earlier form of the same language, was spoken throughout Strathclyde, an area that stretched from north of the Clyde at least as far south as Carlisle and to roughly half way over Scotland.

Much of Central Scotland and the Lothians, at least as far as the current Border was occupied by another tribe, or set of tribes called the Gododdin, and they too spoke a similar language. It is in the one surviving battle epic of this tribe, called The Gododdin that the earliest dateable reference to Arthur comes from.

To the north and east of the Gododdin lived the Pictish tribes and they too had a related language. This is the reason why there are legends of Arthur survive in so many parts of Scotland - they were part of the common heritage of the Welsh-speaking tribes of Britain. In England there were other tribes from Cumbria to Cornwall who also spoke the same sort of language and would have had the same legendary material.

Christianity Versus Paganism?

Most histories of Scotland, and Britain, say little of exactly how Christianity became the accepted religion here and it has been suggested that the people of Britain in the 1st to 6th centuries AD saw Christianity as being parallel to their supposed Druidic based beliefs and were happy to accept the new faith.

This seems unlikely particularly when we think that St Constantine, reputed founder of Govan, was himself said to have been martyred in Kintyre in the 6th century. Much of our picture of this period comes from the Life of St Columba and who seems to have been as much a druid as he was a Christian. The story of him having a magic battle with the Druid Briochan in Inverness might easily be a cover for a more standard type of battle.

As all of the early documents we have, were written by monks it is not surprising that the changeover is presented as absolutely natural, even inevitable. Another problem we have in trying to understand those times is that on several occasions in the last millennium Scotland's historic records have been despoiled by invaders - most notably Edward 1 and Oliver Cromwell, although the destruction wreaked upon monasteries and churches at the Protestant Reformation did not improve matters. So we have to combine archaeology, external sources and indigenous traditions to build up a picture of long periods of Scotland's past.

Storytelling Traditions

In this light it is worth noting that oral traditions can be very valuable. Troy was found, against the advice of all experts, by an amateur historian who believed that Homer's Iliad described a real series of events while received opinion saw it as a fiction! In Scotland the tale of a warrior buried in a tumulus called Norrie's Law in Fife was seen as simply "folklore" till the objects known as the Norrie's Law hoard turned up in the mid-19th century. These included silver pins with Pictish symbols and what has been suggested as parts of a suit of chain mail - of silver!

In Australia until recently the tales of giant kangaroos and other marsupials were dismissed as fantasy. Until skeletons of such creatures were dug up dating from 30,000 years ago - leading to the creation of a new genus of animals, the Diprotodons. Stories passed by word of mouth can clearly hold on to interesting information.

When Was Govan Church Founded?

It is accepted amongst most historians and archaeologists that Govan's foundation cannot be dated as early as the 5th or 6th century. This is despite the fact that several Scottish medieval chronicles mention the setting up of a church at Govan by St Constantine in the 6th century.

There is also evidence from Irish sources that agree with this but there is no hard and fast historical documentation of anything in Scotland at this time. Even the existence of St Kentigern, better known as St Mungo, is difficult to establish. However stories do not come from nowhere even if, like much history itself, they can be interpreted as little more than propaganda.

The Govan sarcophagus has been suggested as being that of St Constantine himself, in which he was interred after his body was brought back from Kintyre. However if one accepts the possibility of Govan having been founded in the 6th century and thus around the time when the historical Arthur is thought to have lived, could the sarcophagus have been created then?

Dating The Sarcophagus

Received opinion says no. By comparing it with other similar objects the accepted viewpoint is that this coffin can be no older than the 10th century. However this comparison can be challenged.

It is suggested that the sarcophagus is one of a known type, dating from the 7th century and later, in which a notable person's coffin was sunk into the floor of a church with the top slab flush at or perhaps slightly above floor level. The covering slabs were carved to represent the importance or sanctity of the person thus honoured. The examples given which can be dated to the 7th century and later all have decorated top slabs. Here we have no top slab.

Another similar development had such stone coffins being set above ground, with the sides suitably decorated. These were effectively shrines and it was not necessary for these to be full length as they were basically to house relics.

The problem with comparisons is that there is not anything exactly like the Govan sarcophagus and the technique of making such stone coffins was widespread from as early as the 1st century AD. There are even pagan examples of this type of structure. The arguments for the late date of the sarcophagus are hardly definitive especially as other Scottish stone sarcophagi from Scotland all have lids. Without the Govan lid it seems impossible to guarantee that it fits in with these other types.

The decoration of the coffin itself might help to date it. Although Govan is well outside what is regarded as Pictish territory, the interlace and the animal figures on the sarcophagus are like carvings on Pictish symbol stones.

Here again the problem is that these are generally dated as being 7th century or later. Comparisons are made with Northumbrian material, forgetting the influence of Iona on Christianity throughout Europe in the Dark Ages. There also seems to be an assumption that anything new in Scotland can only be inspired from outside.

However the archaeologists Lloyd and Jennifer Laing pointed out in their book - The Picts and Scots - that there are good grounds for seeing some Pictish symbols as deriving form as early as the 3rd century. The interlink pattern on the sarcophagus is formed from a continuous line which is seen as a Christian symbol of eternity though one of the other features on the coffin are explicitly Christian.

It is all too easy to surmise that the original lid would have had a cross of some kind on it. The pattern of the interlace and the style of the linked beast on the sarcophagus are like symbols on the Class II Pictish Symbols which are considered to be Christian and Christianity seems to have existed in Scotland from at least the 5th century, if not earlier.

Is It Arthur's Coffin?

What can be said is that the capital A on the horse on the sarcophagus is very tantalising. There are strong traditions linking Arthur with Dumbarton - its name means fort of the Britons - and it is not far down the river from Govan. If Arthur was based there, and there is strong evidence to suggest this, he would doubtless have been a regular visitor to any early Christian site at Govan.

There is no argument that Govan was a major ecclesiastical site and after Arthur's death, it would be a suitable site for his burial, even though he was a war leader rather than the king of later romances. The internal dimensions of the coffin itself appear to be somewhat restricted for a full-length human corpse but it is feasible that Arthur's body, if it ever lay here, might have been mangled after his death in battle at Camlaan (Camelon near Falkirk).

While it is impossible to prove absolutely that this is the coffin of the legendary Arthur it does seem at least a possibility well worth considering.

As I have stated we underestimate the veracity and relevance of the storytelling tradition - remembering that even today in Scotland, there are storytellers who were given all their material by word of mouth, exactly as such material was passed on a thousand, or two thousand years ago. Without scientifically dating the sarcophagus we cannot be absolutely certain when it was made but as we begin to truly appreciate the extent of Arthurian material in Scotland many ideas are due to be challenged.

Arthur is said to have battled with Picts and Scots and Angles and the place where the Britons were directly up against these different tribal groupings was in Central Scotland. If he was, as the material about him suggests, a Christian warrior fighting against the pagan tribes of Dark Age Scotland, his status as a great hero is hardly surprising.

After all Christianity was triumphant and where better to honour the hero than in a major ecclesiastical site, easily accessible by water and close to the capital of the Strathclyde Britons.

All images courtesy of Govan Old Parish Church