It’s barely dusk at 10.30, but the kids are asleep and out I nip. Why spend the night at Avebury or Stonehenge, when you can sleep with the landscape that birthed them?
No crowds, silence, and a remarkable and little known wilderness, here in the heart of one of the most densely populated regions of the planet. It’s called Fyfield Down; you can walk across it in twenty minutes; but its also a solid mile from the nearest road, and that twenty minutes is also a universe apart: a gently rolling upland of rough grass, in which every yard seems to wrinkle with its own age; and which more to the point into which are set countless great dense lumps: the sarsens, the Saracen-stones, slumbering amid the sheep-cropped herbs, waiting in ambush: geological terrorists.
What are they doing here? How did they get here? Even geologists disagree. The best bet is that much of the southern English chalk once formed the floor of a very broad, very shallow estuary — this is the chalk which itself, countless years before, was formed from the gradual impacting of quadzillions of tiny skeletons at the foot of a warm ocean — and that a huge qantity of silt came out of this estuary and dumped itself as a kind of dense sandy skin on the chalk. And that then, oh, several millenia more later, Africa crashed with its own tectonic stately weight into Europe, the Alps popped up, and somewhere at the north-western end of the resulting wrinkles the English downs where folded squashed uplifted into being — that ancient chalk, with its sandy crust. Which promptly began to break up. Further millenia of frost did the rest. Certainly the Sarsens are full of root-like holes; but how this could have made them so damn hard that us locals can barely put our shelves up with diamong-tipped drills, beats me.
Anyway, they have a way of attracting attention, these sarsens. People have called them after Saracens, as I implied; and after sheep – ‘the grey wethers’, which is Wiltshire for sheep; and they were one of the sights of the Great Bath Road which bisected
this landscape, following the yet-older line of the Anglo-Saxon herepath. And long, long, long before that, well, the makers of Avebury and Stonehenge were mighty impressed. All of Avebury circle; all of the local chambered long barrows, depend on the ability to manhandle these dead weights of impacted sand with their primeval rootholes; all the trilothons of Stonehenge, mighty things that tower over you with blind authority — had to be moved from here, down and up two steep scarp-slopes, and across Salisbury Plain. Everyone goes on about the bluestones at Stonehenge, and how they come from far-off Wales, and what did this mean: but floating a stone 1.5metres high along a series of rivers is nothing to what the sarsen-movers achieved. And they must have come here to get them.
Or near here. There are sarsen spreads inDorset. And the sarsens around here have been gradually rolled back by millenia of land-clearing, settlement, breaking-up for hardcore and building stone. They still crop up sometimes miles from here, in hedgerows, or blunting the tines of earthmoving vehicles. And when people started to write about them, in the C18, when they were a major ‘sight’ of the road to Bath, commentedon by Evelyn and Pepys and others, it’s clear people thought they must be artificially there; indeed it took some time to discern that Avebury was something seperate, something ‘made’, rather than a suburb of a great metropolis of slumbering saracen sheep. Avebury is the shriking of this landscape, which has itself curled back, as if in prehensile instinctive withdrawal, as man has tarmacced and pieced and ploughed away at the fringes and the valleys, leaving this last insurgent fastness.
As if. Time is collapsed on itself here: millenia flash by simultaneous, the hours crawl, the days are long and the nights are short. And one of the biggest shocks is to find that at the time of the Avebury-makers *this* was a great, organised, industrial-agrarian landscape, with a grid of fields laid out in cleared sandstone lumps across it as far as the eye could see, only to be remade on a different grid in the iron age, and hten abandoned to sheepwalk: the sheep that still prevent it returning to a scrubby chalkland forest. This wilderness is anything but natural. It is one of the first landsacapes of the anthropocene, the geological era in which Man is first visible as a landscape-shaping force. So much for sleeping my way back to nature.
The walk here always puts me off: the upland gallops, with their plastic guiding fences and lawn-cropped grass, always seem like the most industrial of modern rural landscapes, at once too perfected and too abandoned to the kind of fun that does no one but an oligarch any good. We lose our way in the dark, and the sarsens themselves, rendered down to light grey blotches in the shadowy grass, seems less impressive, less present-dense. On the ridgeway one of hte Solstice-travellers is playing techno; the an owl falls on something that screeches its own violent demise; a glowworm makes a neon glow on the dreamtime abstractions of moss.
I bed down on a sarsen: at once hard and affirming. The moon is rising, and sleep is the strange breed of open-air slumber, at once catastrophically alert and strangely deep. I am aware: of the music ceasing. Of my back on the hard uneven rock, of my legs on the firm ground, thick with sheep-droppings. Of the moonlit profiles of copse, stone, hill-edge. Of moonrise. Of sleeping out atop a steep grass slope, and being caught by an angry farmer: but that was a dream, hiding imagined time within real time. Of a sudden blast of bongos and zithers coming from somewhere to the east, as Avebury greets the post-solstice dawn. Of this great thick landscape of oblivious presences. Of the way the landscape curves and dips like a great wave, and the panicking sheep rush back and forther with the rumble of a far-off tsunami. It is only random coincidence that the sheep seem energetic, rapid and hillside fixed, ancient: they are both particles, both carbon-based forms in mid-flow, and I caught between them, in mammal solufluction.
The sarsens crawl down these narrow dry valleys, flowing themselves on subterrenean frost-currents. Pepys rode through here, and Jane Austen; Coleridge would have walked it, if by then the road wasn’t turnpiked. Stukeley thought they were a kind of archaeology of the moment god set the earth a-spinning, and all the lumps of rock buried in the planet suddenly flung their centrifugal way to the surface.
It’s an hour back across the gallops, and still I’m home before everyone’s even stirred, having experienced at least a night and a day in the meantime; a geological era, a restless sleep, a restful wakening, as if it was all a dream. A midsummer’s night’s…
It’s easy to get blase about East Anglian Romanesque: however impressive the grand clarity of Ely, Peterborough, and Norwich, they can seem (sorry) pretty alike. As one approaches the extravagant blank arcading on the west front of this little gem, it’s not hard to imagine that what we should expect is more of the same. Great, but also same-old, and on a smaller scale. Enjoy instead the frozen-in-time C12 landscape: the castle that has been gradually decaying since the Anarchy, the town that never really took off, the fields and snaking river by the cut-off monastery site, its dorter, frater, reredorter and chapter house all of lavish scale for a comparitively small house. And all battered but surviving, roofless but clear.
But look again: on the stumps of the transepts, there are great intersecting arcades at gallery level. The inside of the west front is a stuffed with loping arches as the outside. This was once a richly decorated building, its small size making its richness all the more impressive.
And look at the columns, down at the bases, where a few lines of coursing survive before the broken-tooth-nubs-of-flint appear. Alternating compound and circular, the circular with attached shafts to N and S, in turn suggesting a church that was fully vaulted within a decade or less of that possibility becoming possible, assuming this is a design of the 1090s or early 1100s. Well cut, too: the surviving spiral column at the w end suggests close inspiration from Durham’s masterful stonework planning; surviving diamonds elsewhere suggest this was Durham’s mighty riffing repeated and expanded.
There’s a whole chunk of elevation preserved, where the west front hits the former S tower, and here both the gallery and the arcade continue the inventive chevrons seen all over the w. front, where one stubby run of blank arches actually has no apparent outer arch at all, turning the chevron into a kind of starburst-arch. And the vaults look as if they were interesting, too: the aisle windows are enclosed by the scars of great parabala, like the narrow end of an eggshell, which must have given a real tense energy to an interior presumably stuffed with such forms: the aisles less a sequence of hollows than a rich Cluniac egg carton.
But most of all, in the remaining portion of the E end (the presbytery, a la Ely, was rebuilt in the C13) there starts a lavish arrangement of patterned stones, Northants limestone alternating with an ironstone, perhaps Norfolk Carrstone. Some are cautious about seeing such arrangements as decorative — wasn’t it all going to be whitewashed over? Aren’t they just spreading stones out to even out any inherent weaknesses? – but surely this is done too carefully to be merely a mason covering his back; and surely the fact it occurs in the e but not the w half of the church suggests it is a deliberate upping of the ante. Certainly the design just outlined, when added to these diapers and stripes of green/brown and cream/white, would start to really get quite intense.
And then one of my students notices the chequerboard pattern on the remaining stumps of eastern columns exactly parallels that on the Warrene arms. Now surely this is mad: presumably, we can’t even be sure such arms had beeen *coined* in the 1090s: its very early for heradlry. But this *is* a ducal family. And more to the point, the arranging of patterns in the columns of the east end at Durham, so obviously an inspiration for much of this, is convincingly said to do precisely this, to convey a message about the meaning of the church, about the identity between the offices performed in the east end and its role as a shrine-church to Cuthbert. Would a family foundation such as this not identify similiarly with prayer for Warenne souls? It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds …. yet such a crazy notion would place it a solid century or more before the next appearance of heraldry in permanent form decorating a church interior (Westminster abbey, and not in the choir or on columns), and even that doesn’t go so far as to stick it all over the columns, filling the very choir itself with lordly pride and piety. Another possibility is that the Warenne chequerboard is somehow derived from this church, but for that one would need to know more about their other foundations. This is their main east anglian seat, surely, but there’s Lewes, and possibly others too…
Whatever, this is the plan of Cluny II with the decorative intent of Durham, an East Anglian lordly Cluniac intensity of the highest order.
Update, July 2011: Just noticed that Eric Fernie goes into some details about the piers: in the nave, for example they are in fact a) all different — everry one of them – b) arranged in echoing patterns that face each other in pairs c) as a result the overall rhythm is strikingly asymetrical. How all this might have played out higher in the elevation is anyone’s guess, but it extends my sense that this is a building of extraordinary, casket-like variety and richness; for the 1090s, it pretty well outdoes anything in England that’s standing — or becomes a tantalising hint of what might have been going on at other Cluniac houses, perhaps even suggesting that places like Ely and Norwich, or even Durham, might have been playing for a self-conscious grandeur and sobriety by comparison.
Update, August 2014. I no longer believe this is a design of the late C11. It surely cannot be earlier than the 1110s and is happier a decade or two after that. I have seen nothing to indicate that much documentary evidence for the process of foundation and setting up survives; the process can be a slow one and involve temporary churches etc — Lewes being a case in point. The design is still remarkable, though, and a remarkableness that’s been overlooked. More to the point, I’ve had the opportunity this year to get to grips with the (fragmentary) evidence for Lewes, with its grand plan based on Cluny III, and it seems to me that Castle Acre, as its chief daughter house, could almost be said to provide stronger evidence than anything surviving from Lewes itself to argue that that was, like Cluny, a building of exceptional richness and sophistication.
In many ways, this place is remarkable mainly for being ordinary. A small late C13 tower, attached to a small late C13 hall, not far from a small late C13 church, surrounded by the housing of suburban Peterborough, but of course originally a seperate village in the greater holding of Peterborough abbey. There were two manors here, both occupied by lesser knights holding their lands by grace of the abbey, and this hall-and-tower would have constituted the main family/admin base of one of them: this kind of thing must have once been replicated hundreds, perhaps thousands of times across the country. What’s unique is what survives inside the tower, and was only discovered in the second half of the twentieth century: the complete painting scheme for what must have been this gentry family’s private quarters. It’s a single room, with a cross vault and lancet windows on three sides: as ever, one is reminded what a stylistic continuum existed between churches and secular buildings, even if the built forms are very different the same overall architectural language populated the landscape.
If this was ever ‘ordinary’, its reminder of the extraordinary — rich, subtle, highly personalised — visual culture in which these people lived. The first wall, that facing south, is comparitively unexceptional, if ‘spending much of one’s time surrounded by customised, colourful, live-size religious images painted on your walls’ can be described as unexceptional. The seven ages of man over the window, and a nativity below, and below that, running in and out of the sides of the windows, several disciples and an Ecclesia. Some nice birds: bitterns, for example: local, fen-edge wildfowl. The Ecclesia breaks the sequence a little; the nativity fits over the window in a rather unusual way; but the basic pattern is standard. The next wall, the east one, gets more interesting. In the window embrasure, a prince meets three deliciously gaunt skeletons, a familiar reminder of the fate that befalls even the most grand of us. Also a standard scene. If you want stark reminders of mortality and the meaninglessness of worldy status painted on your ‘living room’ wall, that is. But set into the window embasure is a little niche with a seat — nothing very grand, just a scoop out of the wall with a ledge in it — and on here is a teaching scene: a young man receiving instruction. We’ll come back to this.
On the main flat wall facing the room, the space’s piece de resistance (and, as far as one can tell, its best-painted scene): a delightful image in which a sober-looking man stands in front of an enormous wheel on the spokes of which are a series of animals. This is a diagram of the kind medieval people often used for teaching, understanding, exposition, thinking. The grand, elegant figure is Reason. The animals are a monkey (Taste), a vulture (Smell), a spider (Touch); a boar (Hearing); and a cock (Sight): not obvious choices to modern eyes, but to anyone who lives with creatures as intimately as these people did — knowing how rapidly a hunted boar will run, or how extraordinary is a spider’s reaction to the slightest intervention in its web — the choices are at once witty and spot-on.Perhaps even monkeys were more common than we realise, as pets or street attractions. The theme is: our senses are — the Buddhist language is strikingly appropriate — a wheel of suffering, making us no better than the animals. It is our reason that sets us apart. There are other scenes, too, but too battered to be identifiable. The next wall, the north one, is harder to decode, and rather a case apart: there are no sacred scenes, and the dado area contains a fictive tapestry or tile pattern, but the main area contains substantial amounts of heraldry, some of it royal, as well as a couple of Royal figures on thrones; and over the door beneath one of them is what appears to be a BX: the beast the poos on those that attack it. This whole zone addresses the worldly, the secular and the chivalric in a way that the rest of the room does not; it may be no coincidence that it lead to the great hall. It’s also been suggested that it contains implicit political criticisms, either of the benighted Edward II or his youngest son, the ‘turncoat’ Edward of Kent. Which raises the possibility that no one expected this paint scheme to last very long before it was replaced; and adds to our list of things that we might not choose to live with: giant wall-sized permanent political satires, for example; armorial displays; pooing fantastical beasts: none of these have featured much on the ‘makeover your home’ programmes that dominate the daytime TV schedule. Just as a footnote, the theme of pooing over doors may just have had wider legs (or perhaps bottom): there is a pooing king over the door to the slype (another Significant Entrance) at Norwich cathedral. One to watch.
So the ‘heraldic’/’current’ wall faces the most ‘typical’/’religious’ one; and we might expect something both religious and unusual to face the (ritually significant?) east one. The scheme does not disappoint — indeed the west wall is perhaps the most interesting of all. The seasons of the months fly over the top of the arch. In the main scene a cowled, bearded, barefoot figure stands in a wilderness, signified by the presence of rabbits, crows, and a bare tree (the rabbits look as if they might have been painted by a six-year-old). All this is code for ‘hermit’. On the right are two secular figures, one engaged in some well-observed basket making — another local craft. It’s been acutely pointed out that this must be St Anthony, who encountered a pair of angels in the wilderness; and that this means the angels are depicted having adopted ‘ordinary human’ form, a possibility known to medieval people but rarely demonstrated to have been shown in art. Though given this makes them incognito, one does wonder how many other ‘ordinary humans’ in medieval images might in fact be angels, and moreover how many ‘ordinary humans’ medieval people might have thought were angels, sacred beings undercover. Anyway, it’s very interesting, this depiction of angels as ordinary people: too unusual to be able to generalise about, but that is part of the point. They might suggest — only suggest, given that we don’t have anything to compare this with — that this scheme, never in the top rank of works or for the top flight of patrons, was nevertheless customised to some extent, rather than bought in ‘as standard’; or perhaps too that certain ideas, like ‘angels might be among us and look like us’, might appeal to this secular audience. Underneath this scene are the two largest figures in the room, and (again) one appears to be a teacher and the other a student: the teacher wears a Doctor’s cap. And there is another little ledge in the window here, featuring another teaching scene.
So what was it all for? The family would have spent most of their daily life inthe Great Hall, repairing here for quieter or more enclosed moments. There’s a clear teaching theme in the paintings, as well: one wonders if education was expected to be at least part of the function of this room (and not an unimportant one), and we know informal schools were not at all rare. More likely, we can perhaps imagine the family spending time in here away from the fray, but with an inner circle: a couple of servants and/or clerks very much part of their daily innermost lives. Perhaps the kids are sitting with men like this in the window embrasures, working at some basic grammar, while the grown ups get on with whatever lower gentry types got on with when it was time to relax.
Which suggests again that there’s a customised, one-off element to this: either because of the room’s function, or because of this particular family or lord’s interests at this particular moment in time (which is most likely to have been the 1320s: my Favourite Decade for Art in the World). In some ways this shouldn’t suprise us: in a world in which all images were handpainted, the cost difference between a one-off and something ‘off the shelf’ may not have been very great. And here, we do have a context: the approximately contemporary, and regionally relevant, Luttrell psalter, also by a small-to-middling lordly patron, also artistically distinctive, also highly personalised. It’s even possible we can draw parallels as to how such a scheme might have been created, cooked up in the case of the Luttrell psalter between the lord (or lady??) and his in-house mendicant monks. We know from the (much later) Paston letters how intimate the relationship between a family and its ‘personal religious’ might be, and how conducive mendicant culture was to thinking in ways that focused on an individual’s personal ‘story’, if the result had the right moral ending. So the patron and his advisor/s become to a large extent the artists, and the painters merely illustrators of themes that they might have cooked up over many satisfying and contemplative winters’ evenings in just such a room as this. Indeed the kinds of conversation in which such artworks were developed is a lost dimension of these people’s lives, creative, intellectual, self-analytical, and of course spiritual. Literate, too: there are words everywhere here, long inscriptions that would have informed and instructed, though few are legible. And maybe, just maybe, the spritual advisor/intimate in this case is not a mendicant but a university-educated priest, perhaps from Cambridge or even (the date makes this work, but only for a few years) Stamford, hence the presence of a large teaching doctor in one of the west wall scenes. What is the theme? South wall: the Church, the pre-ordained cyle of time, circling around the nativity. North wall: a curious combination of appropriate fuedal respect and rejection of such worldly glories, en route to the hall. East and West walls: rejection of other worldly pleasures, or rather rising above them, like the hermit, like Reason, with the suggestion that if we do we might daily commune by angels (or, if we don’t, it will be noted by angel-spies). Everywhere: education, education, education. Which presumably helps us do this. The theme is repeated three times, knocking Tony Blair into a cocked hat. And everywhere, too the religious is wrapped up in the real, the worldly, the every day: these angels-in-mufti are a world away from the gloried beings who would have been imaged in the nearby church.
One more thing. We don’t have anything on this scale from any other time in the medieval period to compare this with. So such things may have been commonplace at all times, or this may be a lucky chance survival — though I suppose statistically the former is more likely. But once again, the Luttrell psalter forms a context-of-sorts, and together they may arm us to make a specific suggestion about the first half of the C14. This Decorated era is well known for its spirit of restless experiment and customised effect in church architecture: these two works suggest that that spirit might have been much more widespread, and even more interesting and varied, seeking deeply personal and complexly imagistic inspiration from the ordinary lordly home as much as from the hallowed confines of the Great Church.
Researching for a tour, I’ve been trying to unpack the stratigraphy of Glastonbury’s hoary mythology. Given the complexities, this can’t be much more than provisional, but I’ve not seen it put down in one place quite like this before, so here goes.
Solid, attested archaeology at Glastonbury starts on the Tor, with a high status settlement of the C5 or 6 for which the best bet is a religious function: that is, a ‘Celtic monastery’. It only moves to the lower, abbey site around 700, when we have both documentary and archaeological evidence for the activities of Ine, King of Wessex: portions of his church lie underground towards the west end of the current abbey, for example. They stretched from the current ruined west wall at least as far as the north porch. Anything older? Well, the so-called hypogeum, perhaps some kind of a relic holder, beneath the altar of this church might or might not have already been there; and the well a little way west, given its location, is interesting. Ponter’s Ball, the linear earthwork isolating the Isle from the mainland, could be early medieval or iron age, but until there’s something iron age to put with it we should go for the former option. There are other possibilities, but nothing solid.
Except for one thing, and it’s the most important thing of all. Ine’s church, we are (much later) told, deliberately east of another structure, which was already there. The archaeology supports this. What was it? More anon.
Anyway, Ine’s church is enlarged twice over the ensuing centuries, the most important and ambitious coming during or after the abbacy of Dunstan, church reformer and future archbishop of Canterbury, one of the most important figures in Anglo-Saxon church history. The conventual buildings were rebuilt, too, around a quad which (though we don’t know if it had walks) may count as Britain’s first cloister, and one of the earliest anywhere.
Dunstan’s interesting for another reason: one version of his Life, written between 995 and 1005, mentions very briefly the idea that Glastonbury was founded by ‘neophytes’ — early Christian missionaries — but that they found a church on the site already, ‘built by no human skill’, and dedicated to Christ and St Mary. This is important: it is our earliest indication that the community believed itself to have uniquely early and semi-miraculous origins. It’s reasonable to assume they linked these origins to the rectangular structure that lay west of Ine’s church. Like all the Glastonbury stories, this one will now run and run, colliding with others and gathering narrative moss over the centuries.
By the Conquest the abbey was the richest in England, with vital links to the crown: three Anglo-Saxon kings were buried there, and six abbots had gone on to be archbishop’s of Canterbury. Its effectively owned the Somerset levels, running them almost as a seperate fiefdom, especially the core patrimony known as the Twelve Hides. In all these respects there are close comparisons with Ely.
The Norman Conquest is not a happy time for Glastonbury. In 1083 several monks were killed at the high altar by henchmen working for the first Norman abbot, who had attempted reform and was subsequently returned to Normandy under a cloud. He began rebuilding the church, but didn’t get beyond the east end, so it was left to the less controversial C12 abbot Herlewin and after him the mighty Henry of Blois, abbot of Glastonbury and bishop of Winchester, to knock down his predecesor’s work (and, if this had not already happened, the hoary anglo-saxon church too — but not the wooden structure to its west) and start again. The resulting church must have been one of the most ambitious and exquisite works of hte era.
At the same time — to be precise, after 1129 — William of Malmesbury was asked to produce a history focusing on the abbey’s claim to hold the relics of many saints and to establish its venerable nature. Here we have a classic Glastonbury-story-problem: his text, by far the most important document we have for its earliest history, exists only in a version produced by the monks much later (after 1184? or even after 1230?) and into which much has been inserted. However an effective precis survives in another work by him, the Deeds of the English kings, and its essentials are clear. He fleshed out the story mentioned in Dunstan’s Life, dating the coming of the ‘neophytes’ to 167 (when he had evidence for an early mission to the British), making it clear that the structure west of Ine’s church was indeed believed to be theirs, and was still there, and built of wattle and daub — but distancing himself from the claim that it was miraculously built, a claim which by now seems to include Christ’s disciples. And he asserted the presence of several other saints, perhaps most significantly Patrick of Ireland. Later the abbey would claim to hold Dunstan, too: it’s two main cults where both controversial, with very strong claimants to holding the relics elsewhere. For all its wealth and power, this lies at the heart of Glastonbury’s history: more saints than anywhere (excepting perhaps Canterbury), yet unlike anywhere else with its profile, no truly major cult, and much that was from the first contested. *Are* we the first Christian church in Britain? *Do* we hold the relics of all these people? The narrative stones roll on. One of the spin-off documents produced after Malmesbury did his work, but still in the 1130s/50s, was a life of one of these saints, Gildas. This, by another author, introduced a new thread in the Glastonbury story: Arthur.
Then came a calamity. In 1184 the entire church, which can only have been a few decades old, burnt to the ground. In some ways even more importantly, its relics, documents and treasures where destroyed. The response is rapid, and energetic: within two years the ancient wooden church, known as the Old Church or Vetusta Ecclesia, was replaced by a small and sumptuous new one, the Lady chapel. This stands, roofless, and is one of the most exhaustingly ornate and important buildings of late twelfth-century England, the figure sculpture of its two doorways (north, facing the lay cemetery: very unusual birth and nativity of Christ; south, facing the monastic cemetery, but unfinished: Genesis stories) the very best the era could produce: a kind of stone shrine. The new main church was rebuilt, too, and completed rapidly, at least as far as the crossing: this uses gothic motifs, deliberately ignored in the Lady chapel, and appears to have had a modish Great Order elevation.
Then things slow down: the nave lay incomplete, the last stages of building with a cheaper stone. The most likely explanation is that royal support, funding this gret burst of energy, was withdrawn on the death of Henry II. He certainly seems to have had a posthumous hand in the monks’ response, the discovery in 1191 of King Arthur and Guinevere, buried 16ft beneath one of several Anglo-Saxon ‘pyramids’ (presumably obelisk-like carved stones) which stood in the monks’ graveyard to the south of the Old Church/Lady chapel. This seems to have been the last in a line of relics to have been ‘found’ after the fire, and also one of the most audacious, with none other than Gerald of Wales, self-publicist, raconteur and senior churchman, on hand to write an account. This entertaining eye-witness report tells us how Arthur and his wife were translated into the main church; it also for the first time equates Glastonbury with Avalon, a land that had cropped up in Arthurian texts forthe first time (unconnected to Glastonbury) earlier in the century. Lots of context here: the dramatic effects of the cult of Thomas Becket; the need for the Welsh, currently in mid (and ultimately incomplete) subjugation, to know their hero-king really is dead. And most of all, if speculatively, the loss of Henry II is a body blow to the fabric fund.
A new crisis blows up, with major financial implications: a series of bishops of Bath try to make Glastonbury their cathedral, or at least bring it to heel within the crisis; one result is their moving of the main seat of their see to nearby Wells; another is an agreement with the pope that must have deprived our abbey of considerable resources. But Glastonbury retained much of its independence: ironically, if it had not, we might today have a Glastonbury cathedral standing in central Somerset.
This era, effectively the C12, is thus a dramatic and transformative one for the abbey, and our understanding of everything before it has to be seen through the prism of this C12 context. And the C12 is a transformative time for society in general: from town planning to intellectual activity, crusades to cults (not least Mary), the world was moving fast.
Still, by the 1190s the east end is functioning – this is new stuff, dependent on work which hass now turned into a thorough review of the archaeology which may well throw up more new insights – and the monks appear to have made do with half a nave for the next century or more. They did, however, contrsuct a west front and a structure linking the Lady chapel to the main church, the Galilee: it’s variously dated but late C13 is the best bet. Now the Lady chapel was part of the church itself; whether the Galilee has a seperate function or simply enlarges the Lady chapel space is unclear. Its rather unusual, this blocking of the west front, and reflects somehow the significance and use of the Lady chapel.
During the C13, too, our various rolling mythological stones gather more moss, in the form of new versions of old charters, a compilation of texts called the Libellus, and a new chronicle, the latter written late in the century by Adam of Damerham. Among them is the first mention of a new figure, Joseph of Arimethea, and the idea that it was he who led our neophytes to Glastonbury, now dated as early as AD 63. By the time John of Glastonbury wrote a second chronicle, dated varyingly from ‘after 1340’ to ‘c.1400′, Joseph has become the bearer of two cruets containing the blood and sweat of the crucified Christ, and a also a lineal forefather of king Arthur. The rolling stones are colliding. Indeed unsuccessful hunts for Joseph’s body on the site were made in 1345 and 1367 and a chapel of St Michael re-dedicated to him in the cemetery in 1382.
Meanwhile, other developments: in 1243 an annual fair (one of four held at Glastonbury) was licensed on the Tor, which must have also been a site of religious significance as a church (St Michael) there fell down in an earth movement in 1275, the resulting tower being part of its C14 and C15 replacement. The only sense we get that the Tor had retained any special associations before this is that one of the forged charters of the C13 reinvents the story of an ancient wooden church being discovered, but making the discoverer Patrick and the site of the church, the Tor. While the Tor’s dramatic form cannot have made it just-another-hill, and the chapel on top if it makes much of its location (making it a cousin to St Michael’s Mount, St Michael de Rupe Brentor, and etc) it’s also worth remembering there were a number of other small churches and chapels on the Isle, at least two of which, St Benignus in Glastonbury, and a chapel at Beckery, are also known to have had anglo-saxon origin; such sub-sites in an important monastic landscape are not unusual, and there may be more to uncover here. So the modern focus on the Tor chapel is to some extent an act of selection, or (perhaps this is a better way of putting it) of reaction to the underlying form of the landscape.
Edward I and Guinevere, in mid-conquering of Wales, attended a solemn translation of Arthur and Guinevere to the choir of the main church in 1278; subsequent to this they lay in a grand sepulchre before the high altar, which also had the tombs of three Anglo-Saxon kinds around it. The church itself may not have drawn to completion until 1335, when the nave vault was completeed and painted; we hear of the installation of a grand new pulpitum screen around this time, too. A remarkable north porch, perhaps with a tower, went with the nave: the tower element was an afterthought. Somewhere between 1342 and 74/5, abbot Monington ‘did a Gloucester’ and recased the choir in a modish Perpendicular style: very modish indeed if this took place early in his abbacy: if only we knew. He also built a five-chapel square ended retroquite, remarkable for its archaeological faithufulness to the building of 1184 it abuts. There were two new shrines to St Dunstan, the second of which (1508) sparked a reigniting of an ancient dispute with Canterbury over who really had the poor man’s bones.
This era, c1500, effectively the abbacy of Abbot Beere, is an interesting one. He strengthened the area under the crossing (St Andrew’s arches) and vaulted the tower; after a visit to Italy he built a chapel of Our Lady of Loretto, apparently in a location of the nortth transept that mirrors England’s own Holy House, and its other great marian cult site, Walsingham. This may be partly, it seems to me, because he hollowed out the area beneath the Lady chapel at the Galilee and created a crypt dedicated to St Joseph of Arimethea, and the chapel as a whole soon came to be known as his. So Glastonbury didn’t have a Lady chapel. This crypt was a popular place to be buried, located as it was within the earth on which was by now known by one and all to have been the site of the oldest church in the country. It also obliterated any archaeological traces that church might have left. And it included a circulation route (possibly for priests rather than laity) that provided access to the intriguing (and C12 detailed) well immediately adjacent to it. There’s nothing unusual about a church being situated next to or incorporating a built-in source of fresh water, indeed it is well-nigh essential for a great church, but nevertheless the presence of this natural feature precisely on the site that is the tap root of our story is very interesting. And Beere also built a chapel in the location of a normal Lady chapel: at the east end, and dedicated to Edgar, Dunstan’s king and a key figure in Anglo-Saxon history. This was completed under abbot Whiting, and one wonders if (like the tomb of Prince Osric at Gloucester) it wasn’t designed to not-so-gently remind the king that Glastonbury held royal tombs. For that king was Henry VIII, and radical change was in the air.
The Dissolution of Glastonbury was late and terrible. Whiting was very competent many as well a powerful one; the monks of his great disciplined commune performed their offices and lived their disciplined, ritualised life style effectively and committedly right to the end. He played a passive-aggressive game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, avoiding both complete compliance and confrontation, even after all the other monastic houses in Somerset had been dissolved. In the end the authorities snapped, found a charge to try him on, and had him hung, drawn and quartered (with a couple of other monks) on top of the Tor in 1539. His head was stuck over the Abbey gate; his quarters were displayed in the key towns of the county. Glastonbury was by then the second richest abbey in the country, after Westminster: now, its monks were pensioned off and the church left to rot. Its church in its post-1184 form was the biggest in south west England, though a strippling compared to such giants as Winchester, Canterbury or York; but the C13 building of the Galilee and the only-just-done-in-time Edgar chapel made it surely the longest church in the land, if only for a few years.
Here starts what to me is one of the most intriguing, and least investigated, parts of our story. What happens when one creates an enormous architectural and institutional vaccum in the middle of all this layered and cross-fertilising mythology, and at the heart of a spectacular landscape? And does so at a time when religious ideas (and then religion itself) are in flux in a way never seen before?
What happens is that many of our narratives: the abbey’s claim to be the oldest church in the country, and the first church anywhere dedicated to Mary, and to have apostolic and/or supernatural founders, and to be Avalon, the burial place of Arthur — keep rolling, and colliding, and splitting into new sub-plots; while some of the others, such as its claims to Dunstan and Patrick, evaporate. And the geographical and institutional centre of the story becomes a ruin, living its edge to sprout new myths. Glastonbury has a hole in its heart that the last half millenium has been trying (rather succesfully of late) to fill.
I can only trace the outlline. I cannot even find the date of one key development: the addition of Christ himself to Joseph of Arimethea’s church-founding party, and the conflation of Joseph’s cruets with the Arthurian grail and the location of both somewhere on the Isle. Is it post-Reformation, or from the Life of Joseph produced at the abbey in 1520? Certainly that text is the first to mention (though it doesn’t connect it to Joseph) the existence of a thorn at Glastonbury that flowers in winter. It’s not Joseph’s thorn, his miraculously-flowering staff, until the mid-seventeenth century, it seems; there’s a kind of floral recusancy lurking in the way this humble tree gradually becomes the focus, with cuttings of it prized around the country, even as all those mighty structures of stone and gold had vanished. And there’s a kind of healing cult in the claims in 1751 that the well beneath the tor, known to the monks but not known to have had any special significance for them (remarkable though it is as a spring, both for its colour and for its abundance), cured one man’s asthma, resulting in a brief but intense role for Glastonbury as a spa and ongoing interest in marketing its waters.
But Glastonbury’s modern rebirth starts at the end of the C19, and thus at the dawn of an incrasinly post-religious, or at least post-Christian, cultural era. The rediscovery of the well next to the Old Church/Vetusta Ecclesia/Lady chapel/St Joseph’s chapel in 1825 bought rumours of a ‘holy wells’. The beatification of abbot Whiting and his brothers in 1895 led to the first Catholic pilgrimage. In 1886 a group of Catholic missionaries occupied Chalice Well House, perhaps coining the new name for what medeival people had called the Chilcewell. Bligh Bond’s excavations from 1908 are a key stage in the process by which the abbey ruins became an ‘open’ site and the remains of the church understood; their later morphing into spirit-guided investigation a harbinger of what’s to come. Indeed Bligh Bond installed the spiritually syncrestic vesica motif to cover the Chalice Wells after the war, in 1919. Alice Buckton had tried, but failed, to make the Well the site of an English Bayreuth, focusing on Arthur rather than the Ring, from 1912: in 1958 the Chalice Well Trust was formed: what could have been a cultural site or a Catholic one was heading in the direction which today makes it a major new sacred element in the landscape, cross-faith in a generalised New Age way. I’m serious here: my visit yesterday showed it to be a beautiful place, frequented by a huge range of people, easily outgrowing its roots in post-war counterculture. Other new myths appear concurrently: Katherine Maltwood ‘identifies’ the memorable but laughably specious ‘Glastonbury Zodiac’ as a 10-mile across landscape feature in 1935; the 1971 argument that the Tor’s many terraces (lynchets or natural?) traced a specific maze pattern known to neolithic man has better ‘legs’ archaeologically (though both have worked well as new mythologies, which is a compliment), though the lack of firm prehistoric evidence of any kind on the Isle itself is a major issue here: if there is a maze, could it not be late medieval? And finally, the Glastonbury Free Festival of 1971, now Glastonbury Fayre, at Pilton (so not really part of this story at all) is a cultural event that is becoming, gradually, a physical structure as well: both perimeter wall (which now frighteningly Gaza-like from the A361) and pyramid stage have some real permanency. Somehow, just as Anglo-Catholicism and other Christianities have colonised the post-Dissolution Walsingham void, the New Age/spiritual-without-a-dogma has colonised Glastonbury, remaking old myths as creatively and with as much abandon as all its predecessors. Doubly ironic, then, that it is at blue-blood, stolid Anglican Wells, still standing just down the road, that archaeology (rather than mythology) suggests a sacred site by a spring might have become an early Christian site and the tap root of all that follows.
REVISION: July 2011. In preparing for a further tour of Glastonbury, I’ve deleted a paragraph here that related to John Dee’s visit in the C16: it seems this is the result of a confused C19 biography of Edward Kelly, and the event is almost certain never to have taken place. Dee wrote a little about Glastonbury, but it seems there is no evidence he ever visited the site.
The Ely Octagon rises like some medieval fantasy above the fens, an apparent one-off. Yet once its kin where everywhere: not only in the (much earlier) round towers that are such a feature of East Anglian churches, or the possibility recently suggested that it itself recreates a circular or polygonal predecessor — but in a direct chain of influence that is testament to its power as an idea and traces a medieval East Anglian architectural ‘sphere of influence’. King’s Lynn St Margaret had one; Peterborough abbey (now cathedral), too. Whoever did churches for the mendicants in the later C14 and into the C15 loved them: the surviving example at King’s Lynn greyfriars means there were two in that town, three if your count the Red Mount Chapel; a lost example is at Norwich blackfriars. We only know about the interior of one of these — the King’s Lynn greyfriars example — but it goes out of its way to replicate in miniature the vertiginous effect of its 1321 alma mater at the other end of the Wash/marsh/fen. Much the same could be said of the remarkable interior to the square tower at St Gregory Pottergate, Norwich, which its been suggested is partly a preservation of an anglo-saxon west-towers/upper-chapel/porticus arrangement. Indeed interior effects are part of the brief here: witness the vertiginous lantern to the Boston Stump, with its octagonal top; the rich fan vault added to the comparable, if lower, tower at the Yorkist college at Fotheringhay. From Northamptonshire to the North Sea, Octagons are everywhere! Go, Alan of Walsingham, go!