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Glastonbury, place of myth and legend

To Somerset, the ancient ‘Summer Land’ in the West Country and a county of endless fascination to historians. This was where Alfred the Great hid out in the marshes in early 878 after the Vikings had taken him by surprise and raided his stronghold at Chipenham; he took refuge in an old woman’s hut and, so legend has it, forgot to keep his eye on the cakes while thinking about how he could overcome his enemies (which he did, triumphing over them at Ethandun – modern-day Edington in Wiltshire – later that same year). This was also where the Duke of Monmouth’s ill-fated rebellion against James II came to an end in 1685 at the battle of Sedgemoor (an illegitimate son of Charles II and an experienced military leader, Monmouth knew that his peasant rabble was no match for the regular army and so went for a night attack, which failed). In the far north-east of the county, there’s the old Roman spa of Aquae Sulis (modern-day Bath).

And then there is Glastonbury.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the landmark that can be seen for miles around. Glastonbury Tor, the hill just outside the modern town, is topped by a distinctive tower that is all that’s left of a fourteenth-century church (itself built on the site of an earlier church). It’s dedicated to St Michael and it can be reached after a half-hour walk from the town. The Tor appears to have been called Ynys Afalon by the Ancient Britons, a name which translates as the Isle of Avalon which has led many to associate it with the mythical island of that name; certainly there was a time when the Tor was indeed an island, or at least high ground surrounded by marshland. “At the beginning of the Christian era”, writes Geoffrey Ashe in Mythology of the British Isles, “the Glastonbury hill-cluster was almost an island in times of high tide and flooding. Vessels could reach it from the Bristol Channel.” The views from the top are quite spectacular.

Down in the town, there’s the ruins of the monastery. Glastonbury Abbey dates back to at least the early eighth century, although in Medieval times it claimed to be much, much older. What can be in no doubt is that it produced one of the great English statesmen of the Dark Ages, St Dunstan, who was the Abbot of Glastonbury before becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which capacity he served under King Edgar whom he crowned at Bath Abbey in 973. Glastonbury, then, was clearly an important place and it was a major destination for pilgrims before the Reformation; even now it retains a reputation as a place of great spirituality steeped in myth and legend (appropriately, Glastonbury is twinned with Lalibela in Ethiopia, a fascinating place which I will write about one day). The abbey ruins themselves are quite majestic, giving visitors a very good idea of just how imposing the abbey would have been in its Medieval heyday.

Glastonbury Abbey grew rich on the wool trade, that staple of the Medieval English economy, after the monks drained the surrounding marshland in order to create grazing-land for sheep. The earliest actual date for which we have documentary evidence about Glastonbury Abbey is 712, when King Ine of Wessex endowed a community of monks there, although some would have it that the abbey had been established prior to this royal endowment. The stories about Glastonbury Abbey’s origins certainly go back further than the conversion of the English in the late sixth and early seventh centuries; there were places on the island of Britain, especially in the West Country, where Christianity existed before St Augustine landed in Kent in 597. Christianity had originally come to these isles in Roman times, and when they left some traces of it stayed here (Bede, for example, refers to the post-Roman British leader Ambrosius beating the Anglo-Saxons at Badon Hill “with God’s help”, as well as noting that the “Pelagian heresy” had “seriously infected the faith of the British church”). St Patrick, who lived in the fifth century, is said to have become the leader of a group of hermits in Glastonbury after returning from Ireland. According to the plaque at the ruined St Michael’s Tower atop the Tor, he “discovered an ancient ruined oratory on the summit after climbing through a dense wood”.

The monks of Glastonbury, though, claimed a much older foundation for their monastery. They propagated a quite extraordinary legend, involving a person from the Bible. Christianity at Glastonbury, so the story goes, went right back to the origins of Christianity itself. Joseph of Arimathea is the man in the Gospels who convinces Pontius Pilate to let him take care of Jesus’s body after the Crucifixion; it was in the sepulchre (rock-cut tomb) that was presumably meant for Joseph that Jesus’s body was placed, and from which it had vanished by the time Mary Magdalen went there on the third day.

After the Resurrection, so the Glastonbury legend goes, Joseph travelled to Britain, to the Isle of Avalon to be exact, bringing with him the cup used at the Last Supper and his staff which had been cut from the same thorn bush which had provided the Crown of Thorns. At Avalon he founded and built a Christian church; if true, this would make Glastonbury the location of not just the first Christian church in Britain but the location of one of the first anywhere. It’s said that when he planted his staff in the ground, it flowered, and there are to this day various thorn bushes in the vicinity that are off-shoots of the original Glastonbury Thorn (which is said to have been destroyed by the Puritans in the seventeenth century). 

The cup – the Holy Grail – he buried, and in time the place where he apparently buried it would come to be called the Chalice Well (so maybe Indiana Jones was looking in the wrong place for the Holy Grail as well as the Ark of the Covenant).

The full story goes even further back, for as an addendum to this we have the notion, not mentioned in the Bible, that Joseph of Arimathea was related to Jesus – specifically, he was the Virgin Mary’s uncle and thus Jesus’s great-uncle (the notion of his being related to Jesus is not inconceivable, offering at the very least an explanation as to how he was able to persuade Pilate to give him the body after the Crucifixion). He was a merchant – evidently a successful one, since he was rich – who travelled to Britain on business. This too is not inconceivable, for it is a matter of historical record that, even though Britain didn’t become a Roman colony until 43 AD (a decade or so after the Crucifixion), merchants and traders from the Eastern Mediterranean had for some time been coming to Britain to buy local products, most notably the tin which has been mined in the West Country for millennia (it is under the name of the ‘Tin Isles’ that the British Isles crop up in Herodotus’s The Histories). And on one of his trips to pre-Roman Britain, he took his great-nephew with him.

This would have been at some point during the big gap in Jesus’s life between when he went to the Temple at the age of 12 and when he started his ministry at around 30, a period of some eighteen years in the life of the Son of God about which the Bible tells us nothing. As well as Glastonbury, which would have been an island (Avalon) back then, there are also a couple of places in Cornwall that claim to have been visited by a young Jesus. They’re not alone, for there are quite a few other places in the world that have been suggested as places which Jesus travelled to during this time (evidently there is an urge for him to have been doing something a bit more interesting than the obvious explanation, that he was working as a carpenter in the Nazareth area). The Glastonbury legend has even inspired a famous song – the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.

But is this true? There are many, drawn to the myths of Glastonbury, who would happily believe it. It’s telling, though, that Bede, who is happy to mention the battle of Badon Hill (an event so shrouded in myth and mystery that no-one can say with absolute certainty where it was fought, with that British victory usually being attributed to King Arthur – of whom more shortly), doesn’t mention anything in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People about Joseph of Arimathea bringing a young Jesus to Britain, or of the former coming back after the latter’s death and resurrection. In fact, he doesn’t even mention Glastonbury (which, if we accept the 712 date, was founded in his lifetime) at all. “As to the actual date of Glastonbury's first Christian presence,” writes Ashe, “it remains a mystery. There may have been individual residents, or scattered hermits, before there was anything like a monastery. The monastic legends, however, grew around a material fact. While Joseph himself could hardly have built a church as such – buildings for Christian worship were unknown till much later – the church which he was alleged to have built did exist. Fire destroyed it in 1184; the Lady Chapel today marks the site. Before that it had stood within the precinct from time immemorial, so long that there was no written record of its foundation. It was a simple structure of wattle-work, twigs bound with clay, plus reinforcements of timber and lead. Understandably it was known as the Old Church ... Its dedication, unparalleled in Britain till long after, was to the Virgin Mary, a fact that may hint at pre-Christian Glastonbury having been a goddess sanctuary.”

Finally, no account of Glastonbury can be complete without mentioning the once and future King of the Britons, for the Isle of Avalon is indelibly associated with the legends of King Arthur. And, since his knights were involved in various quests to find the Holy Grail, it make senses (sort of) for Glastonbury to have a legend about that too (see above). One of the places you can see from the top of the Tor is Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill-fort which some reckon to have been the location of Arthur’s court, Camelot. Avalon’s main Arthurian association, though, comes with the final part of Arthur’s story. When Arthur was wounded at the battle of Camlann (the one in which he defeated the treacherous Sir Mordred), he was taken to Avalon, an island that was said to have healing properties.  

The association of Avalon with Glastonbury was cemented in the year 1191. In that year, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey were digging in an old cemetery during the rebuilding of their monastery (following the afore-mentioned fire of 1184) when they unearthed a lead cross. The Latin inscription on it read Hie Jacet Sepultus Inclytus Rex Arthurus In Insula Avalonia, which is translated into English as ‘here lies interred in the Isle of Avalon the renowned King Arthur’. The monks, so the story goes, dug deeper and found two human skeletons, one male and one female, which they assumed to be those of Arthur and Guinevere. This may have a dubious ring to it, especially when one takes into consideration that this was the same monastery that claimed to have been founded by someone from the Bible, but what’s evidently important here is not necessarily what the remains were but what they were believed to be. The historical record shows that in 1278 these remains were reburied amid much pomp and circumstance (and in the presence of King Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile) close to the high alter of the abbey church; Glastonbury Abbey’s status as a major pilgrimage venue was assured. The tomb survived until the abbey’s dissolution in 1539, and to this day the site of it can still be seen amid the majestic ruins of this once-great monastic establishment.

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