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Unpacking Glastonbury

Glastonbury from the Somerset mainland

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.

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  1. June 3, 2011 at 6:26 am

    This is fascinating, Jon. Thank you so much for such a lucid ‘unpacking’. I’ve been on the misty trail of St Aristobulus, whose memory as first bishop of Britain has been kept by the Orthodox. Mention of St Benignus sent me back to him, because I remembered that name, and I found a note saying that Aristobulus was buried at Glastonbury. It’s so interesting why some sites are ‘special’ but Glastonbury certainly is one of them. Will you be telling us about Wells soon?

  2. June 3, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Thanks, Linda. It was a 1am splurge and I’ve just edited, tightened and improved it and added a picture! Could do Wells standing on my head but time as ever is the enemy… chuffed to have got a picture in for a change.

  3. June 17, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Wonderful, Jon. I am going to put in on the MA CAA Facebook page if you don’t mind. – Darrelyn Gunzburg

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