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.
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.
The road to Glastonbury. January rain. The high Mendip a cloud-smudge, hard and hollowed-out by rain, falling away behind me. The miraculous, choppy world of tiny conical hills, deep green with grass and old growth, that fringes the Levels. And then the flatlands themselves, a wetland of oceanic flatness, always ready to return to its liquid root, thick with eels.
Somerset should be two places: highland and flatland, but it’s three: this foothill world, steep and brief, that seperates the two is barely a mile wide, yet in its way it is the county’s most memorable place of all. Here Wells sits, with the waters spring from the very toehold of the Mendip; from here strips of tarmac run on ancient causeways, linking highlands to the archipelago of which Glastonbury is the largest island.
Somerset, ofcourse, is not two places or three, but one: a vast watershed whose boundary is the county itself, draining like a planet to an inland sea. It is defined by this combination of wetland and hill; and these island-uplands – Brent Knoll, Burrow Mump, Glastonbury Tor – are thus somehow its innermost definition.
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.