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Medieval Glastonbury

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.

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