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The Mystery of the Glastonbury Cross

Just before Christmas 2011 the Heritage Lottery Fund announced a grant of £1.8m for the restoration of Forty Hall Park, Enfield, the site of a Tudor palace and later an 18th-century pleasure garden. Thirty years before, it had been the setting for a bizarre archaeological ‘discovery’, as Richard Mawrey recounts.

Forty Hall. Photo / Heritage Lottery FundIn December 1981 a man called Derek Mahoney turned up at the British Museum and produced what appeared to be the Glastonbury Cross. This artefact, a lead cross inscribed with the words ‘HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTHURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA’ was said to have been found on the lid of the coffin of King Arthur when his supposed remains were unearthed by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey in 1191. It has long been disputed whether the ‘remains’ represented a scam burial by the monks at the time to drum up pilgrimages or whether the burial (though not, of course, of any historical Arthur) was Saxon. The cross remained in existence until at least 1607, when it appeared in the antiquarian William Camden’s Britannia, so far the only known depiction of it.

Mahoney claimed to have made the find when using a metal detector in the sludge at the bottom of Forty Hall’s lake, which had recently been drained for restoration. The British Museum was interested in the cross and asked to be allowed to retain it for examination. Mahoney, however, refused to part with it. His discovery came to the notice of the London Borough of Enfield, which was the owner of Forty Hall Park and thus had legal title to the cross. As a barrister I was instructed by the council to try to get it back. Mahoney was known to be a disturbed individual and a vexatious litigant, filled with intense, though utterly misconceived, grievances, particularly against a number of local estate agents and solicitors. I therefore applied without giving notice of the application for an order for the immediate return of the cross to the council. I obtained a court injunction which was duly served on Mahoney.

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