In 1976 when I was only 12 years old, my parents took me to the English county of Somerset. We passed through the Roman town of Bath with its ancient ruins and eighteenth century additions. Then to Wells with its impressive cathedral. But it was Glastonbury that really fired my imagination.
The Isle of Avalon was surrounded by sea at the end of the Ice Age but that gave way to reedy swamps that could be navigated with small boats or crude wooden walkways. Rising above the mists and fetid water was a hill called Glastonbury Tor. It can be taken as read that for pagan Britons this would have already had a magical or mystical significance. And not surprisingly, the sites that were venerated by pagans were appropriated by the later Christians.
In the villages of Somerset, the talk went round that Jesus – the son of God – had worked in the county as a boy together with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea. They had built a wattle and daub church (though it’s sometimes claimed that Joseph did this on his own after the death of Jesus). It was even claimed that Jesus had toiled in a specific village called Priddy, where there was open cast mining. Jesus of course went on to be crucified in the Holy Land but his uncle returned to Somerset with a cup used by his nephew at the Last Supper and containing some of the blood of Jesus after being speared by a Roman soldier. The cup is best known to us as – the Holy Grail.
Resting on Wearyall Hill, near the Tor, for the night – Joseph stuck his walking staff in the ground and dozed off. When he woke up, it had taken root and was sprouting leaves. This became the Glastonbury Thorn. A cutting from the Thorn would later be planted in the grounds of the medieval abbey that would be built nearby and this tree can still be seen. Indeed a cutting is sent to the Queen every Christmas. What she does with it – I have no idea!
The Holy Grail was buried by Joseph at the entrance to the kingdom of the dead near the Tor. From that spot gushed a spring still called Chalice Well and it was said that this was the real fountain of eternal youth. You may test the veracity of this claim should you wish – take a cup and try it. The original wattle church was held very sacred by the early Christian church in England and over time became encased in a larger structure – and over the centuries, a monastic complex sprang up around it. King Ine of Wessex in the eight century, seeing how many pilgrims were coming to worship there, promoted a new stone building to cover the ‘old church’.
Indeed, Glastonbury really became the most holy place in England during the Dark Ages. As abbot of the monastery in the tenth century, St Dunstan enlarged and enriched it still further and though the Norman invasion brought some disruption, the Domesday Book recorded it as the richest monastery in England. But disaster would eventually strike – and strike hard. In 1184, fire destroyed the Norman buildings and the wattle church.
The monks not only lost their home and place of worship but – and let’s be frank about it – they lost a wealth creating machine. But medieval monks were an industrious bunch. Possibly a little unscrupulous too. So, after a handful of years, they announced to the world that while clearing the site and digging around a bit – they’d found the bodies of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. This was in the year 1191. And why wouldn’t Arthur have been there – after all, he’d have been looking for the Holy Grail which had been buried by Joseph of Arimathea.
Arthur’s tombstone was handily available and in latin was inscribed his name and last resting place on the Isle of Avalon: “Hic iacet sepultus inclitus Rex Arturius in insula Avalonia”. The remains were put in pride of place and King Edward I built a black marble tomb over them. All this was smashed up during the Reformation of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century and only a marker in the grass shows you were the tomb was once situated.
By 1278, when Arthur’s new improved tomb was unveiled, the abbey was simply vast. St Mary’s Chapel had been built on the site of the Old Church and was relatively modest structure. It was now linked by the Galilee Porch to a cathedral which rivalled Canterbury and St Paul’s in London for size. A behemoth of a church stretching 580 feet.
One of the last additions was the crypt built by Abbot Richard Beere in 1500 which you can still lower yourself down in to. A really atmospheric space and well worth seeing. The abbot served guests sumptuous meals cooked in the octagonal pyramid shaped kitchen which is one of the few buildings still surviving. Unbelievably, the abbot’s palace was demolished as late as the eighteenth century.
In this palace, kings were entertained. One king entertained there was Henry VIII. A monarch who started out as the staunchest defender of the Pope and the Catholic church against the heresies of Luther in the early sixteenth century. But one divorced wife later, Henry turned on the monasteries and their enormous wealth. Though never a Lutheran, he established himself as head of the church and set above the dissolution of the monasteries – including and especially Glastonbury.
Even though Abbot Richard Whiting took the oath of allegiance to the king when he broke with Rome – keen to keep his head – it didn’t work. He was tried and hung, drawn and quartered before a crowd up on the Tor. In case any of the monks were thinking of returning to the abbey, his head was stuck on a pole over the gateway. Other limbs found their way to Wells and Bath to deliver a similar warning.
Over the next three hundred years, the mighty abbey became a source of stone for the local town as it expanded. These were days before a tourism industry and a society where resources were scarce. You could say, everything was recycled including the abbey. So with little sentimentality, it was stripped down until the ruins that can been today. But they are still incredible ruins that dwarf you and a visit is thoroughly recommended.
Here is a visitor’s video: