An archipelago in a wetland. An archipelago that holds a church. The church owns the wetland, governs it almost as a seperate statelet. Only two places fit the description: Glastonbury and Ely. England’s twin eastern and western holy archipelagic wetland cities have other comparisons, too: many saints, at Ely female, at Glastonbury ancient. A great monastery. Wealth – holding fourth and fifth place respectively as England’s richest religious corporations, which makes them arguably the fourth and richest corporations of any kind. A location near the southern coast of a wetland that reaches empty to the sea, and around which are positioned many further monastic houses: Peterborough, Bath, Crowland, Muchelney. Causeway access: Soham and Alederney, Somerton and Wells: from nearby urban settlements whose history reveals a tense relationship to the Great Beast on the Island. At Ely the defining relationship is with Cambridge, trading town on the fulcrum of central and eastern England; at Glastonbury it is with Wells.
Here the comparisons begin to include interesting contrasts. The power of bishops has had an edgy relationship with both Glastonbury and Ely. Ely sat between sees — Lincoln and East Anglia — and sought independence of each of them, only to be forced into a cathedral status in the very early twelfth century. Nearby Cambridge then gained in several ways from its proximity to this centre of power, but gained most by not having a single dominating religious corporation of its own: not leasy by becoming a centre of independent learning. Glastonbury is surely one of the reasons why the bishops of Wells, having decamped to Bath after the Conquest, camp back again 150 years later; en route they even tried to take of the great monastery itself. They failed. Wells, meanwhile, becomes a cathedral community of defining wealth and complexity; but the town around it is never of more than regional significance.
Where else is ‘like’ Glastonbury’? Walsingham, another E/W pole, another great focus of miraculous Marian cults; another place to be approached arduously across water, though Walsingham is younger and never became more than a focus for pilgrims. What’s interesting is the post-medieval dimension. With their supernatural claims reduced to a pile of rubble and a series of alluring legends, each became a void; in both cases, the void began to fill several centuries later: at Walsingham with the Anglo-Catholic/Catholic/Orthodox self-reinventions; at Glastonbury with their Theosophical, the New Age, the Druidic, the Pagan. Would either place be what they are today with a collossal functioning church at the heart of them? At Walsingham, this would imply no Reformation: modern Walsingham is in many senses in any senses an argument with the Reformation. At Glastonbury, the story is more interesting. Other places possessed cults of alluring age – St Alban, for example – but no cults where as strange or as spooky as those here, implying the direct and miraculous intervention of contemporaries of Christ himself. Nevertheless, there’s nothing in this story — nothing, nothing, nothing — that suggests the pre-Christian mattered to Patrick, or Dunstan, or whoever: this is a radical and modern reinterpretation, and one that would be impossible to imagine if the place were a great church with, like all great churches, a few towers and wayside shrines and wells in the vicinity. We have to take Glastonbury out of Glastonbury, leaving a void both spiritual and architectural, to result in the Glastonbury of today.
It’s an odd thing, it has to be said. I mean, I applaud any manifestation of spirituality, without quite being able to articulate why I know something so hard to define and easy to abuse to be such a good thing. And a spirituality which takes place and nature as it’s starting point? It should be a no-brainer. I reacted against Walsingham: something dark there, something turned inside out by history and faintly desperate and oppressive in its reinventions, that Holy House made out of chunks of Dissolved nests of monks; the Feudal feeling of entering-by-permission the abbey site itself, the recreations in the wrong places of a structure commanded in dreams which must be in the original location or not be at all; the reversed chronology, time turned backwards, of country house where abbeyt should be, and then of churches, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox each a step further from the starting point even as the faith represented is more ancient. But at least they are genuined inheritors of the traditions that made the place. The darkness, the strangeness, the uncompletion of the real Glastonbury, of medieval holy places as they were lived, is far more complex and interesting than the vapid, brainless join-the-dots spirituality of this place today: like replacing T.S.Eliot with a Hallmark card.
And yet, and yet… for Glastonbury is unique, and they are responding, reinterpeting, reinventing, rehallowing, making myths anew and untelling stories in new ways. Such is how such places are made. New holy places: temples and wells where non were before. Unique-to-medieval, too: the wealth comparisons with Ely come only by aggregating the income of the bishop with that of the convent: as a convent alone, Glastonbury is matched only by Westminster. This focus of wealth and power and holiness puts it as a case apart. Only the cathedrals of Winchester, Canterbury and Durham outstrip it: the latter two matching it in power and sanctity, the latter one matching it too for its remarkable site.
But underling them all is Place, raw in tooth and clue. and truly, Glastonbury’s combination of site, power and sanctity put it in a close alone. Durham’s site, cliff edge above a curling river, is defensive, the power over its haliwerfolk political. Ely makes a lot architecturally out of a little geomorphically: a lowish largish island, made dramatic by its collossal church. At Walsingham there is a real magic, a subtle and unexpected change to a lush Norfolk-hilly country, but it is a quite impact. At Glastonbury, the preceding Mendip is a true bleak highland; the islands steep-sided with quiet drama, Wearyall and Tor hill great arms above the flood. And the church sits there, in the palm-lap of the dryland above the eel-clogged waters, hidden from many directions, the journey there a preparation of expectations choreographed by landscape itself.
So what happens if we paste the abbey church back in to the Glastonbury landscape?
Firstly, one is still left with one of the more memorable places in which to create a great church. No hilltop location a la Ely; more than made up for by squeezing an entire extra small church onto the dramatic nipple-hill of Glastonbury Tor. As with so much here, this is at once part of a wider pattern – great monastic landscapes have no shortage of ‘extra’ churches and chapels, from St Catherine’s chapel at Milton Abbas to the Carnary college at Norwich – and distinctive, for its mythology, its well, and above all its arresting visual presence. The well, among all such sites in Glastonbury, is a true modern sacred site; I don’t have the information to hand to unpick what real significance it had in earlier centuries. Except to note again that its the Dissolution that creates the space for this voice to emerge: the comparably remarkable sites at Wells, and Bath, and Lichfield and York and… have not had likewise treatment.
This is a setting with remarkable inherent properties: the levels, the sudden island-hills, the well; and it combines the early-Christian ‘wilderness’ (Iona, Whithorn, Lindisfarne) with the high medieval ‘mighty institution’ — the British with the English — to unnerring effect.
This absent presence is, at Glastonbury, remarkable. There are few towns where the great empty space that was the settlement’s raison d’etre is more ever present, once one becomes aware of it, sitting on its lap of land on the widest part of the island.
So what of the church? The first thing to say is, it’s not enormous. That might seem an odd statement for what was by any means an impressive, cathedral-scaled building. But place it with its economic peers, the top ten religious institutions in medieval England with a total annual wealth of about £3000, and it is a strippling; Canterbury, Durham, Winchester, York, Lincoln, Ely: these all have a claim to have been among the largest roofed structures on the planet when they reached their optimum size, mostly in the late C11-C13. The reason for this is regional: Exeter and Wells join Glastonbury in the list of Very Wealthy Institutions that built churches of large, but not monstrous, size. And we can love them the more for it, for what they sacrificed in scale they made up for in intimacy, elaboration, inventivenness.
Still, if Wells and Exeter are its architectural peers, this marks Glastonbury apart even more. These are both cathedrals, staffed by worldly priests, saint-free throughout the middle ages. Glastonbury is a monastery on the nation-beating scale matched only by Royal Westminster, as stuffed to the gills with relics as Canterbury, almost (not quite) as powerful within its lands as Ely and Durham, and with unique claims — founded by friends of Christ, with miraculous help from Mary, every saint – from Patrick to Dunstan – a history-maker; and tomb of Arthur to boot that nowhere could quite match. One might think this was a reason to make a Monster Church, and its interesting that they didn’t, though their truly ancient site certainly had the space.
There are various traces here – the west country tradition, as I’ve said, chief among them, in particular meaning that at all times Glastonbury’s main concern is going to be to match or outdo Bath and Wells, and neither of them went down the gigantism route either. But there is one other factor, very important and very specific, that explains it.
The vesusta ecclesia, the wattle church beleived to have been constructed by friends of Christ, is the tap roof of evertyhing here. A complex series of great churches grew up to the west of it. This focus at the west end, by the C12, would itself have marked it out as special. Then the vestusa burnt down, and was replaced by a structure, to paraphrase a contemporary source ‘that could not have been more ornate’.
They’re not joking. Remarkably, it is this building of the 1180s that is the best-preserved thing at Glastonbury, and it is absolutelty dripping with the most cutting-edge ornament of its era. This sacred raison d etre to the west, from that point on, can never be upstaged; indeed the church does unusual things in response to it, such as building a little galilee corridor to its east that much have transformed the normal appearance of its west front, and made for intriguing visual and liturgical connections between the two.
What of the great church itself? Well, it’s no strippling. Also rebuilt from the late C12, but apparently finished rather slowly, and much academic blood has been spilt in particular comparing it to the contemporary rebuild at nearby Wells – the two churches no friends at this time – and comparing both of them to other developments in the febrile creative atmosphere that was forging the architecture we now call Gothic.
It’s higher than Wells, a good third higher, I think. And richer, or rather differently richer: more shafting (more shafting than Wells, less than in the vestusta: a hard balancing act to strike); more chevron (none at Wells). And an elevation that’s just as audaciously clever-clever as the Wells one, with its Great Order layout, and a false gallery that’s also not quite a triforium. Given Wells’s radical abandonment of even the pretence of a gallery, one would love to know what the preceding church, the one Wells is responding to, did with its middle storey. And to what extent Well’s liturgical-artistic western extravaganza is a response to the cultic-artistic one at Glastonbury. Or whether Glastonbury’s tiny but ambitiously double-aisled transepts are a response to those at Wells or vice versa: surely the decision to add a second eastern aisle of transepts here is one in the eye for the collossal transepts emerging at the foot of the Mendips; indeed, it’s in the middle of the Wells transept buildings that Glastonbury’s rebuild starts, and the monks monopolise their quarry at Doulting, leading to a change of stone at Wells circa 1186.
There was important C13 ands C14 work at Glastonbury, not least in the shape of what must have been a collossal late C13 tower-porch: one of the reasons I’ve come, as both this and the vestusta are in more ways than I could possibly have realised triangulated with my extraordinary Outer North Porch at St Mary Redcliffe. A new retrochoir, too, though I’m hard put to recognise it in the standing remains. But (unlike Wells, but like many great monastic houses) Glasto’s next day in the sun is the C15/C16. The choir recased, in what looks sadly like the most bloodlessly swaggering mid-Perp. More interestingly, the Edgar Chapel at the east, with an apse later added – a Westbury connection here? – the Loretto chapel off the transept, one of the last and most intriguing of the various images of the House of Virgin added to medieval English churches. More interestingly still, a whole suite of remarkable (and archaeology-destroying) things done to the vetusta: a crypt hollowed out beneath it, with self-consciously simple-clever vaults; a kind of circulation route built into it involving a C12 well, and a subterreanean chantry (revealed in excavations): all very redolent of my Tomb of Christ quarry.
Paste all of this back in, and our narrative of west country, indeed national, great churches is transformed. And the side of that narrative that is interested in places, and saints, and cuts and places and meanings and myths, immesurably so.
The Mendips dropped their burden of gutter-thick rain like a thousand miniature storms, hurtling down Tarmac. St Andrew’s Well must have been full to overflowing. In the library, we saw the hand of a twelfth-century monk shake with some distant palsy as he gingerly wrote his name; we saw the Kufic-like scrollings of a Papal announcement; we saw early printed books, their pages left without initials so someone could add illuminations, printed seperately so their eventual owner could add a suitable binding.
Then out and up Tor Hill – yes, Wells has one of everything that Bath and Glastonbury have (indeed the streets combine crusties and posh wives as if selecting the best of both worlds) – crumbling too beneath the rain, great molten scabs of (suprisingly reddish) stone erupting from the black roots that clung around them – and by car along the Old Bristol Road, which cuts a section of High Mendip, where suddenly, briefly things are unnervingly wild, reed-fringed ponds, rough grass and emptiness, and down into the folds of land between here and the Severn, Somerset like a great God’s eye unblinking, these carboniferous triassic hills the folds of a collossal eyelid; great churches by the tear ducts; the Tor in the middle of the all-seeing Level heart land.