Last Photographed: Tuesday 7th July 2020
It's difficult to approach the history of Glastonbury Abbey without becoming entangled in the myth. The line between the two is often quite vague, and different writers draw that line in different places. Fact and legend are hopelessly interwoven, with different sources reporting different stories with varying degrees of veracity. Some myths carry more weight than others, while some are clear fabrications. Charting a purely factual history is almost impossible.
This frustrating lack of verifiable information pertaining to large parts of the abbey's history seems to persuade many writers to repeat poorly-sourced information as though it were fact. This in turn means that no unsubstantiated account of the abbey's history can be taken at face value. I'm not an academic and have no access to academic materials, but I've nevertheless attempted to tread an honest path through the history of the abbey and present the available information with a reasonable assessment of its integrity. Even this much is subjective, but I've endeavoured to maintain a clear separation between my opinions and the facts.
The myth of Glastonbury begins with the notion that it was once a place of pagan importance - possibly a druid sanctuary or even home to one of their rumoured 'perpetual choirs'. Although not much concrete evidence exists to support this theory, it would be surprising if there weren't some degree of truth to it. The striking visual nature of the Tor and the unusual and evocative surrounding landscape would strongly suggest that it would have been considered a place of spiritual significance from early times. The waters of the surrounding levels would once have encircled the hills of Glastonbury with marshland - often covered in mist - with the mysterious shape of the Tor rising up as an island out of the bog. It's hard to imagine such a unique place failing to become a focus for early religions.
The terraces of the Tor are often cited as an example to support this theory, with its proponents asserting that these terraces represent a spiral maze of antique origin. This can be neither proven nor disproven, but it's a theory that holds some merit. The only other explanation postulated suggests that the "maze" is in fact farming terraces - or "strip lynchets". This seems unlikely, since one would expect such terraces to be south-facing, whereas the terraces here cover all sides of the Tor. Also, such land would have been very difficult to farm, and although Glastonbury was a virtual island, there was no shortage of more accessible land to support the small population of those times.
Another possible survivor of a pre-Christian Glastonbury is Ponter's Ball. When surrounded by marshland, one narrow strip of land connected Glastonbury to the outside world. Ponter's Ball is an earthwork that cuts across this strip of land, effectively acting as a barrier to incursion from the mainland. Many believe it to be of Neolithic origin, but no significant archaeology has been conducted at the site. What archaeology has been conducted suggests a Dark Ages date, but the evidence is circumstantial. A later date also remains a possibility. It has been suggested as a monastic boundary, but I'm not aware of any other comparable example.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence for pre-Christian worship is St Joseph's well in the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey. This is accessed from a small flight of stairs leading down from the crypt to a small chamber outside the southern border of the chapel where the well sits in an arched recess. The well is an early feature, and it has been suggested that it may even date back to Roman times. At the latest, it's considered to be of pre-Norman origin. There is a strong possibility that it pre-dates the Old Church and may even have been the determining factor in that church's location. The role of wells as ritual centres is well documented, and a tradition of veneration at this site would support its spiritual antiquity.
The last two pieces of evidence for pre-Christian occupancy at Glastonbury are flimsy to say the least. Oral tradition tells of standing stones that were once to be seen along the lane now known as "Stone Down". Older Ordnance Survey maps allegedly show standing stones in this area as well as on Windmill Hill, although I've not been able to personally verify this. Writing in his book "Glastonbury: A Study in Patterns" (RILKO, 1969), Professor Thom states:
"On the higher ground in and around Glastonbury the earlier Ordnance Survey showed about 30 'stones' but there is not much at present to show that these were Megalithic. A line of 5 stones is shown passing through the point 51003900 on the National Grid at an azimuth of about 298 degrees. If it can be shown that this line is clear (or rather was clear) locally to the west then with the far horizon altitude of -0, 2, it shows a declination of +16'4. We find this declination at many Megalithic sites. It is that of the Sun at May Day and Lammas, two important days in the Megalithic calendar.
Evidence that the orientational line giving a declination of +16'4 was clear about 2000 BC has recently been forthcoming. Climatologists and botanists studying the ecological conditions of the Bronze Age are now generally agreed that there was less afforestation than was once presumed and the atmosphere was free of all pollution, allowing sharper definition for the human eye."
No sign of these stones remains today. The only stones of any note are the two boulders that mark the alleged entrance to the Tor maze. These can be seen behind a bench when following the approach of the lower footpath. Local tradition states that this was once one large megalith, the top half of which broke away leaving the two stones we see today. They are referred to locally as "The Druid Stones" or "The Living Rock". No evidence exists to support their Neolithic origin, but it remains a possibility. Indeed, when considering the surrounding landscape, it's difficult to imagine the megalith-builders passing it by. Many theories have been suggested, including a ring around the base of the Tor, an arrangement of stones at its top, alignments of megaliths on nearby hills, a stone row on the path along Stonedown and stone circles at various locations around the Tor. My instinct is that there were once stones at Glastonbury - but how many, where and in what form is only ever likely to be a matter of speculation at this late stage.
Finally, the two great oaks that survive near the end of Stone Down are reputedly the remnants of an ancient druid grove. We know that more oaks existed before they were hacked down for timber in the early part of the 20th Century, but any religious significance attributed to them is once more speculative at best.
Moving forwards to the arrival of the Christian church, historical documents of varying accuracy tell how one of the earliest Christian kings - King Lucius - sent an emissary to Rome in 167AD requesting missionaries be sent to Britain. It should be noted that King Lucius himself is a figure of questionable authenticity. Various accounts report how the British emissary (or emissaries) returned with missionaries of varying numbers and names. William of Malmesbury refers to them as Phagan and Deruvian. This represents the earliest credible foundation date, but it's stretched back still further by William, who reports how Phagan and Deruvian discovered at Glastonbury an "old Church built by the hands of the disciples of Christ" - namely Joseph of Arimathea and his twelve followers. This likely embellishment dates the foundation at around 63AD. It's this colourful claim that gives rise to Glastonbury's reputation as the "holiest earth of England", for it would surely make it the earliest Christian church in Britain - a point that probably wasn't lost on the monks when documenting the story. Some traditions have reached even further, suggesting that the wattle hut was constructed by Christ himself when travelling with Joseph of Arimathea during the lost years of his youth. This tradition follows on from similar myths in Cornwall that suggest Joseph visited pursuing trading interests with the local tin miners. Again, no evidence exists to support this.
Tradition tells how Phagan and Deruvian restored the old wattle church of Joseph and established a hermitage nearby. According to Willis, summarising Malmesbury in 1866AD:
"[they] took up their residence in the island in separate places as anchorites, and in the same spots where the primitive twelve had dwelt. In the old church (vetustam ecclesiam) they frequently met for the daily performance of divine service. They obtained from the king the confirmation of the old grants of twelve pieces of land for their sustenance.
Their number was now maintained by the election of others as death removed these second occupants, and this system continued until the Irish apostle St. Patrick visited this spot about 300 years afterwards. Certain devout converts added to the church thus discovered another oratory in stone work, which they dedicated to Christ and the holy apostles Peter and Paul. And by their labours the vetusta ecclesia of St. Mary at Glaston was repaired and restored."
From then, history and myth remain quiet until the reputed arrival of Saint Patrick in 433AD. This serves as an excellent illustration of the problems facing anyone attempting to chronicle the history of Glastonbury. This particular tradition arises from the "Charter of Saint Patrick", which provides a first-hand account of Patrick's visit:
"The brothers showed me writing of Saint Phagan and Saint Deruvian, wherein it was contained that twelve disciples of Saint Philip and Saint James had built that old church in honor of our Patroness aforesaid, instructed thereto by the blessed archangel Gabriel."
This document is widely believed to have been forged by the monks in the 13th Century, but it provides an important clue to later myth-making: no mention is made regarding Joseph of Arimathea, suggesting that that story was a later embellishment. One would otherwise expect such an important foundation myth to feature in Saint Patrick's account - whether real or fabricated. As with so much of Glastonbury's history, the truth is concealed in a tangled knot of outright lies, varying exaggerations and possible facts. Recounting this period, Willis writes:
"St. Patrick, returning from his successful mission to Ireland in 433, visited Glastonbury, and found the twelve anchorites living as above in separate dwellings. He taught them the regular coenobial life, assuming the office of abbot, and so remained for 39 years, until his death in 472, at the age of 111."
Whatever the truth, tradition holds that Saint Patrick established the first proper monastic community at Glastonbury. After this date, accounts start to become slightly more reliable, but the likely embellishment of the later monks still weigh heavily upon the authenticity of any given event. Less credible events include the arrival of a number of saints: Saint Beningus in 462AD, St Bridget in 488AD, St David in 563AD and St Augustine in 597AD.
Around this time, we have the first concrete evidence for the existence of a Christian community at the site of the abbey. Abbeys were often surrounded by a "Vallum Monasterii" - an earthwork or wall that denoted the symbolic boundary of the religious precinct. The "Vallum Monasterii" at Glastonbury has provided carbon dating evidence that suggests it may have been built in the seventh century.
In 625AD, St Paulinus is reputed to have visited Glastonbury, and in 633AD he allegedly arranged for the Old Church to be preserved by encasement in wood and lead:
"To shew the veneration in which the structure itself was held, the chronicler [Malmesbury] records, that "according to the traditions of the fathers, St. Paulinus, archbishop of York, and subsequently bishop of Rochester, clothed the Old Church, which before was made of intertwined rods, with boards, and covered it with lead from the top to the bottom" and he continues, "assuredly this praiseworthy man exerted all his skill to do this, in such a manner that the church should lose none of its sanctity, but acquire great increase of embellishment. For it is certain that the adornment of churches renders them more impressively influential in alluring uncultivated minds to prayer, and in bending the stiff-necked to submission."
However, Malmesbury's words are very open to interpretation, and it is even possible that he is referring to a roof when he talks of covering the building with lead "from the top to the bottom".
We can be reasonably certain that some form of Christian community existed at Glastonbury before the arrival of the Saxons, although the age of any such community remains uncertain. William of Malmesbury recalls seeing a charter listing all the abbots of Glastonbury, including three who held the post in pre-Saxon times - abbots Worgret, Lodemund and Bregoret. There's no way of establishing the authenticity of this document, but the inclusion of British names may lend some credibility to an older Christian tradition at the site. To speculate still further, if the wattle church was indeed a genuine religious structure, that would seem to further validate the notion of pre-Saxon Christian occupancy at Glastonbury.
Even setting aside the more colourful myths, there would still seem to be a strong case for Glastonbury being one of the earliest Christian sites in Britain. While hard evidence is lacking, anecdotal evidence is strong and the supposition not unreasonable. The turbulent nature of the times means that the lack of hard evidence isn't sufficient in itself to allow the theory to be dismissed, and the site lends itself well to the possibility of an early Christian community.
Consideration must also be given to the nature of the early church and how that might have related to surviving native spiritual traditions. If we assume that Glastonbury had flourished as a spiritual centre since before the arrival of the Romans, it would surely have been a natural site at which early Christian missionaries might have sought to establish themselves. The Celtic form of Christianity was still strong at this time, having much more in common with pagan traditions than later incarnations of the faith. It's quite easy to imagine that missionaries representing the Celtic path would easily have been accepted as the natural inheritors of an earlier pagan tradition, restoring Glastonbury to its status as a sacred community.
Since I originally wrote this piece, research conducted by the University of Reading and published in 2016 has confirmed the existence of a high-profile occupation of the site of Glastonbury Abbey dating back to the 5th or 6th Century. Evidence has also been found that suggests one or more timber halls may have existed around this time, continuing in use into the 8th or 9th Century. Although it can't be confirmed that these buildings served a religious function, it does tantalisingly suggest a Celtic monastery pre-dating the foundation of the Saxon church.
Interestingly, recent archaeology at the Beckery site on the outskirts of Glastonbury (where a previous dig had uncovered a mediaeval chapel) has identified the site as Britain's earliest known monastic settlement. Adult male graves were discovered indicating a religious community, and the dates of their deaths were placed between the 5th and 6th Centuries up until the 7th to 9th Centuries. This would align perfectly with the dates now attributed to a pre-Saxon settlement on the site of the abbey. The only remaining question would seem to be whether the Beckery site was a secondary or primary religious site.
What really transpired in these days is unknown. Was there an earlier spiritual tradition at Glastonbury? Was it in use by the druids - possibly as one of their sacred colleges? Did its history stretch back even further, to a time when its landscape was shaped by the Neolithic people? Did the early Christians inherit the teachings of their predecessors? All such questions are currently unanswerable, but they do give rise to one interesting consideration: when Glastonbury passed into hands of the Saxons, it did so without conflict or bloodshed if the occupation dates of the wooden halls on the site are correct. This makes it highly unusual as a site where the transition from British to Saxon Christian use was smooth and untroubled. If the Christian church was established here at an even earlier period, the possibility exists that Glastonbury represents an unbroken sequence of worship right back to the time of the Celts. Such possibilities can never be proven... but neither can they be disproven. It's this heady mix of history, myth and plausible speculation that provides Glastonbury with its unique attraction to the mystic and historian alike.
In many ways, the Wattle Hut - or Old Church - represents the dividing point between fact and myth. We know that King Ine of Wessex established the first stone church in 712AD, but we can't say anything for certain regarding any structure from before that date. Something earlier certainly existed however, since the monks made a shrine of it and established it as a place of pilgrimage.
At some stage, the remains of the hut seem to have been enclosed within a slightly larger, rectangular, wooden church (the assumption being that the original hut was a circular structure - although this is largely based upon Bligh Bond's imaginings). We know this since the later Lady Chapel was built to the exact dimensions of the Old Church. We also know that the Saxons built their stone church to the east of the Old Church, so if the Old Church was a substantial enough structure to warrant preservation, it's likely that its enclosure in a larger timber frame may pre-date the Saxon building.
The only reliable description we have of the Old Church comes from Malmesbury. By the time he visited Glastonbury in the 1120s, the Saxon church to the East had been replaced by a Norman church. The Old Church was still standing however, and the two buildings had been linked by an extension running between them. This is confirmed by archaeology carried out at the site, and appears to have taken place at a relatively early point in the abbey's development:
By this time, we can also assume that the Old Church had been enclosed within a stone structure. It's difficult to imagine a grand Norman cathedral being linked to a wooden shack. It also seems unlikely that a wooden structure could have survived if exposed to the elements for hundreds of years. Again, clear evidence is sadly lacking. Accordingly, Malmesbury's evocative description of the Old Church is tantalisingly short of detail, yet still powerful and vivid:
The church of which we are speaking, from its antiquity called by the Angles, by way of distinction, "Ealde Chirche," that is, the "Old Church," of wattle-work, at first, savoured somewhat of heavenly sanctity even from its very foundation, and exhaled it over the whole country; claiming superior reverence, though the structure was mean.
Hence, here arrived whole tribes of lower orders, thronging every path; here assembled the opulent divested of their pomp; and it became the crowded residence of the religious and the literary. For, as we have heard from men of old time, here Gildas, an historian neither unlearned nor inelegant, to obtain among other nations, captivated by the sanctity of the place, took up his abode for a series of years.
This church, then, is certainly the oldest I am acquainted with in England, and from this circumstance derives its name. In it are preserved the mortal remains of many saints, some of whome we shall notice in our progress, nor is any corner of the church destitute of the ashes of the holy. The very floor, inlaid with polished stone, and the sides of the altar, and even the altar itself above and beneath are laden with the multitude of relics.
Moreover in the pavement may be remarked on every side stones designedly inter-laid in triangles and squares, and figured with lead, under which if I believe some sacred enigma to be contained, I do no injustice to religion. The antiquity, and multitude of its saints, have endued the place with so much sanctity that at night scarcely anyone presumes to keep vigil there, or during the day to spit upon its floor: he who is conscious of pollution shudders throughout the whole frame: no one ever brought hawk or horses within the confines of the neighbouring cemetery, who did not depart injured either in them or in himself.
Within the memory of man, all persons who, before undergoing the ordeal of fire or water, there put up their petitions, exulted in their escape, one only excepted: if any person erected a building in its vicinity, which by its shade obstructed the light of the church, it forthwith became a ruin. And it is sufficiently evident that the men of that province had no oath more frequent, or more sacred, than to swear by the Old Church, fearing the swiftest vengeance on their perjury in this respect.
The truth of what I have asserted, if it be dubious, will be supported by testimony in the book which I have written, on the antiquity of the said church, according to the series of years."
Writing in our own time, John Michell provides a vivid evocation ("New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury", Gothic Image Publications, 1990):
"Not much of it was left after a thousand years. It's original timbers, if they still existed at all, had been reduced to a few sticks above the ring of stones at its foundations, but the site was lovingly preserved within a reliquary consisting of a small, rectangular church dedicated to the Virgin Mary."
"In the sanctuary at the East end of the church were the foundations of the old wattle hut. Pilgrims to Glastonbury, it's supposed, filed through the chapel by doors in its north and south walls, and were allowed to peep into the sanctuary through a gap in the screen which covered the narrow archway.
They glimpsed into a mystic cavern, richly adorned with veils and tapestries, jewelled relics, images and gold crosses, which were made dimly visible through incense fumes by the flames of candles and oil lamps. Many great and holy people were entombed there, including St Patrick of Ireland and St David, patron saint of the Welsh, whose miraculous altar in the form of a great sapphire was one of Glastonbury's treasures. Yet the greatest attraction to Pilgrims was the ancient wooden church, for it bore witness to the truth of Glastonbury's marvellous legend. From that legend had grown the enormous abbey church to the East of St Mary's. It was the oldest, richest and most famous religious house in England, and the source of its power and holiness lay within the wooden rectangle, the 'vetusta ecclesia' of the old chroniclers, which the Saxons called simply Ealde Chirche, The Old Church."
The Old Church survived in this form until it was destroyed by fire in 1184AD. What little we know of it is sullied by the dubious nature of many surviving documents. The Glastonbury foundation myths all lent considerable status to the abbey, and it's unclear to what extent the monks had a hand in forging related texts. The charter granted by King Ine in 704AD, for example, makes reference to the Old Church, but doubt has been cast on its authenticity. Muddying the waters still further is the possibility that such texts were not entirely fictional, but rather embellished. Nothing can be said on this subject with certainty beyond the fact that a shrine existed as described by Malmesbury, and it appears to have incorporated an earlier and much venerated structure within its boundaries. The exact nature of the earlier structure remains unclear.
From this point, we start to emerge from the mists of poorly-documented history into a period of more certain fact. King Ine is known to have granted a charter to the Glastonbury community in 704AD, and copies of that charter survive to the present day. Tradition tells that the charter was signed within the wattle church, but I've been unable to discover the source of this particular legend. What also remains unclear is the fate of the pre-Saxon monks. We have no way of knowing whether the existing community was butchered, or whether they were allowed to continue their occupancy under the new Saxon abbot. If the latter were to be true, this would be entirely unique for the period. No other example exists of a smooth transition from British to Saxon worship, but the alleged preservation of the Old Church does suggest that this may have been the case.
King Ine's charter granted special privileges to the abbey, including exemption from taxation and virtual autonomy of rule within the 'Twelve Hides' (a "hide" being the amount of land traditionally required to support one man and his extended family). However, it's authenticity is disputed, and the possibility must be considered that the document was fabricated or embellished in later years for the obvious benefit of the monks.
The significance of the 'Twelve Hides' was their reputed origin. The assertion of the church was that these lands had been granted to Joseph and his followers in the 1st Century AD by King Arviragus. Tradition holds that the generous exemptions offered by King Ine were made as a sign of respect for the ancient claim of the church to these lands.
Once again though, the stories become intertwined and unclear. Were the Twelve Hides really granted to the early church by Arviragus? Did King Ine believe this, whether true or not, and show his respect accordingly? Or was King Ine's charter simply a later fabrication or embellishment? It's impossible to say for certain. If King Ine did grant special privileges though, this would represent further evidence of a continuity of tradition from earlier times.
The patronage of King Ine enabled the construction of the first stone church at Glastonbury, dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. This was raised slightly to the east of the Old Church and along a more precise east/west axis. As has been mentioned, by 760AD the two were joined by a linking building - the Galilee Chapel - and it seems reasonable to assume that the Old Church was enclosed within a stone structure at this time. Other minor additions followed, but no further major building work took place until the 10th Century.
History is quiet on the subject of the abbey during the 9th century, but we know the surrounding area suffered heavily from incursions by the Danes and was central to King Alfred's struggle against them. Following a major defeat at Cheltenham, Alfred was driven back into the Somerset marshes and sheltered at the village of Athelney. From here he waged a guerrilla war against the Vikings until his eventual victory at the Battle of Edington in 878AD. It's during this period at Athelney that the famous "burning of the cakes" is meant to have taken place.
The fortunes of the abbey in the following years are unclear, although it's widely assumed that the ravages of the Danes had taken their toll on the wealth and status of the church. All this was to change with the arrival of St Dunstan.
St Dunstan was the son of Heorstan, a minor Wessex noble. He was born in the village of Baltonsborough, a mere two miles from the abbey precinct, and spent his early years being educated by the monks. As an adult, he spent time with his uncle at the royal court before returning to the abbey to take orders. He feared he had leprosy, and built himself a small cell in which he lived and studied beside the church.
When King Edmund came to the throne, St Dunstan's family connections were to serve him well, and he was called back to court to serve as the royal priest. He clearly gained favour with Edmund, for it was only a short time before he was appointed as abbot of Glastonbury in 943AD.
St Dunstan's tenure as abbot marked a profound upturn in the abbey's fortunes. He undertook a great program of expansion and reform, instituting the Rule of St Benedict, rebuilding the Eastern church, strengthening the boundary wall, commissioning the construction of a new cloister and arranging the drainage of the surrounding marshes.
Following his appointment by King Edgar as Archbishop of Canterbury in 960AD, Dunstan continued to make frequent visits to Glastonbury to oversee and direct the progress of his reform - apparently setting aside his robes of office and living amongst them as an equal. He enjoyed a special relationship with Edgar, with whom he shared a genuine religious zeal. It's even rumoured that he convinced the king to build a palace at nearby Edgarley, which still carries his name. This relationship paid dividends for the abbey when in 965AD, Edgar issued a charter granting it special privileges - echoing the charter of King Ire, which may or may not have pre-dated it:
"In consequence, it seems proper that the church of the most blessed mother of God, the eternal virgin Mary, of Glastonbury, inasmuch as it has always possessed the chief dignity in my kingdom, should be honoured by us with some especial and unusual privilege. Dunstan, therefore, and Oswald, archbishops of Canterbury and York, exhorting thereto, and Brithelm, bishop of Wells, and other bishops, abbots, and chiefs assenting and approving, I, Edgar, by the grace of God, King of the English, and ruler and governor of the adjacent nations, in the name of the blessed Trinity, for the soul of my father who reposes there, and of my predecessors, do by this present privilege decree, appoint, and establish, that the aforesaid monastery and all its possessions shall remain free and exonerated from all payments to the Exchequer now and forever"
"let the same liberty and power also as I have in my own court, as well in forgiving as in punishing, and in every other matter, be possessed by the abbot, and monks of the aforesaid monastery within their court"
By the time of St Dunstan's death in 988AD, Glastonbury was already established as Britain's richest and most splendid abbey and favoured by the kings of England. Edgar was buried there, as were two subsequent Saxon kings. Records from the time show a huge increase in endowments made to the abbey. No less that four of its monks went on to head the English church. More importantly, Edgar's charter had now established Glastonbury as a virtual kingdom in its own right. Its lands and holdings were free from taxation and law was administered by the abbots who ruled as virtual monarchs free from royal constraint. Even the king himself was required to seek permission before entering the abbey's precinct. Glastonbury had risen to a status unparalleled and unique amongst English abbeys.
History is relatively quiet in the days following Saint Dunstan's death. Malmesbury reports that the last Saxon abbots had squandered the wealth of the church, and although there is evidence to support this, it's also possible that this was to some extent Norman propaganda. Certainly the wealth of the abbey doesn't appear to have suffered all that greatly. By the time the survey of the Domesday book was completed in 1088AD, Glastonbury was the wealthiest monastic institution in the country. It's estates accounted for an eighth of all the land in Somerset - 442 hides. It also possessed holdings in four other counties, including 258 hides in Wiltshire. The grand total of the abbey's land-holdings amounted to 818 hides. In an interesting footnote, The Domesday Book confirms the existence of the Twelve Hides making up the immediate vicinity around the abbey precinct and their special status:
"The Domus Dei, in the great monestary of Glastonbury, called the Secret of our Lord. This Glastonbury Church possesses, in its own villa XII hides of land which have never paid tax."
King William laid a heavy hand upon the abbey's wealth, confiscating many of its lands and estates. The extent of this is hinted at by a later change of heart in which he relented and returned some of the abbey's properties: Podimore, Milton, Fullbrook, Berrow, Burrington, Lympsham, Blackford and Wootton.
Although the last Saxon abbot, Aethelnoth, nominally remained in office until 11 years after the conquest, Glastonbury was clearly perceived as a Saxon power base that posed a threat to its new Norman lords. When William returned to Normandy in 1067AD, he took Aethelnoth with him. Aethelnoth remained there in exile until he was eventually stripped of office in 1077AD.
The first Norman abbot, Abbot Thurstan, was the most controversial in Glastonbury's history. He began his tenure by cutting the monks' rations and altering many of their ancient customs. The flash-point arrived when he attempted to reform their use of Gregorian chant, introducing chants favoured by William, Abbot of Fécamp. The Saxon monks rebelled at this, refusing to follow Thurstan's will. The abbot responded by calling in Norman soldiers from the command of the local sheriff in an attempt to coerce obedience from them. The abbot arrived at the chapter house with this armed force, and the monks fled in terror to the church where they barricaded the doors. Some of the soldiers forced their way in, hurling weapons at the monks as they cowered behind the altar. Others ascended to the gallery and opened fire with bows. At least two monks died and fourteen were injured.
The matter quickly came to the attention of William the Conqueror, and the monks involved were spread out amongst other communities to quell any further rebellion, but Thurstan was also removed from office and exiled to France in 1084AD.
Thurstan's successor, Herlewin pulled down the new church begun by his predecessor and set about creating a still grander edifice. This work is believed to have been largely completed during his 19 years in office from 1101-1120AD.
Henry de Blois was the next notable abbot, taking office in 1126AD. He was appointed bishop of Winchester after 6 years, but retained custodianship of Glastonbury until his death - a total tenure of 45 years. Upon his arrival, he discovered the abbey in a ruinous state. He described the abbey's buildings as on the verge of collapse and reminiscent of the dwellings of peasants. The monks were apparently struggling to obtain the basic necessities of life - a state of affairs that had allegedly begun during the last Saxon abbacies and then been exacerbated by the Norman conquest. How this picture fits in with the vast estates held by the abbey at the time of the Domesday records is unclear, but it would certainly seem that the money spent by the first Norman abbots was confined to the aggrandisement of the main church, whilst the rest of the monastic enclosure was neglected. It appears that the buildings serving the wider needs of the Saxon monks were considered a low priority by their Norman masters.
Whatever the case, Henry's position as grandson of William the Conqueror and brother of King Stephen ideally placed him to perform his historic role of restoring the the abbey's finances and status. Henry was the holder of a papal commission that ranked him higher than the archbishop of Canterbury. When his brother was out of the country, this made him the most powerful man in England. It's therefore not surprising that Glastonbury flourished under his tenure. With wealth posing no obstacle, he undertook a tremendous building program, as recorded by the chronicler Adam de Domerham:
"In this monastery he built from the foundations a Belltower, Chapter house, Cloister, Lavatory, Refectory, Dormitory and Infirmary, with its chapel; a beautiful and ample palace; a handsome exterior gateway of squared stones; a large brew house; many stables for horses, and other works; besides giving various ornaments to the church."
Furthermore, Glastonbury had been deprived of a number of estates that belonged to the abbey. Through his diligence, Henry was able to do much to ensure that many of these estates were recovered. Henry's high position in the church enabled him to obtain papal bulls protecting the abbey's claim to its estates and securing the return of estates that had been lost.
It was also Henry that brought William of Malmesbury to Glastonbury in 1129AD to write an account of the lives of the saints associated with the abbey. One of the abbot's primary concerns was to establish that St Dunstan was buried at Glastonbury as opposed to Canterbury, his other possible resting place. St Dunstan was a major saint, and Glastonbury could gain much in the way of status by 'proving' he was buried there. Another consideration was undoubtedly the wealth that could be attracted in the shape of endowments and the fat purses of pilgrims.
William was unable to find sufficient evidence to substantiate the abbey's claim to St Dunstan's remains - or he was unable to find sufficient material to support a fraudulent claim, depending on one's interpretation. However, he was able to mollify the monks by producing his famous "De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiæ" ("The Antiquity of the Church at Glastonbury"). This book did much to secure the status of the Glastonbury, glorifying as it did the abbey's entire history.
Henry's tenure as abbot lasted until his death in 1171AD and had undoubtedly been a huge success for the abbey. Its lands, buildings, wealth and status had all been vastly increased. This can only have heightened the sense of despair that must have afflicted the community when disaster struck in 1184AD.
Robert of Winchester succeeded Henry de Blois, governing the abbey briefly until his death sometime before 1184AD. At this point, King Henry II placed the abbey in the interim care of his chamberlain, Peter de Marcy, a Cluniac monk with great influence in Rome. Peter attempted to curry the favour of the monks, desiring ultimately to be elected to the office of abbot. However, the reformist nature of the Cluniac order probably did little to endear him, and accounts of the period suggest that Peter was extremely unpopular. His time at the abbey was to end abruptly when on the 25th May, 1184AD, disaster struck and the vast majority of the abbey buildings - including the Old Church - were destroyed by a great fire. The cause of the fire is not recorded, but in a building opulent with candles and rich fabric, one gust of wind could be fatal.
Adam of Domerham, writing in his "Historia de Rebus Glastoniensibus", records the sorrow of the monks in words that hauntingly remind us that however much culture and society change over the ages, there are still common threads that bind us:
"What groans, what tears, what beatings of the breast were yielded by spectators, can be imagined only by those who have suffered similar affliction. The confusion of relics, treasures in silver and gold, silks, books and other ecclesiastical ornaments might justly provoke grief. More vehement was the woe of the monks mindful of their earlier happiness, seeing that in all adversity bygone joy is the saddest part of misfortune."
Shortly after the calamity of the fire, Peter de Marcy died of unrecorded causes. King Henry appointed his Chancellor, Ralph FitzStephen, to oversee rebuilding of the abbey, funded largely out of the royal purse. Henry considered himself responsible for the fate of the abbey since the fire took place while it was directly under his care. Work proceeded at a pace, and the new Lady Chapel - constructed to the exact dimensions of the Old Church and occupying the space where it had once stood - was consecrated in 1186AD.
With work on the new abbey just beginning, it's hard to imagine how the monks must have felt when King Henry died in 1190AD, thus ending the flow of money from the royal coffers. Against this backdrop, it's not only the hardened cynics who might raise an eyebrow at the next major event in the abbey's history.
In 1191AD, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey discovered the remains of Arthur and Guinevere buried a short distance to the south of the Lady Chapel. Early reports suggested that Mordred's remains had also been discovered, but this claim was quietly dropped at a later date. Gerald of Wales recounts the circumstances leading to this propitious turn of events:
"In our own lifetime, when Henry II was reigning in England (Henry died on 6 July 1189), strenuous efforts were made in Glastonbury Abbey to locate what must have once been the splendid tomb of Arthur. It was the King himself who put them on to this, and Abbot Henry (Henry de Sully, appointed abbot on 14 September 1189), who was later elected Bishop of Worcester, gave them every encouragement."
A lead cross of unusual shape was located atop the coffin. Modern scholars now belive this to have been a replica or forgery of an earlier artefact.
The Latin inscription varies according to the source, but its rough translation was:
"Here in the isle of Avalon lies buried the renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere, his second wife"
The site of the burial lay between two stone "pyramids" - believed by modern scholars to be the bases of Saxon cross shafts, which often tapered up from the bottom. These were first described in 1130AD by Malmesbury, which he records as being very old and carved with figures and names, only some of which remained legible.
This fortunate discovery would certainly have resulted in an increase in the abbey's status, which would in turn have generated much extra wealth. Religion was big business in the middle ages, and the bigger the brand name, the greater the custom and the fees attracted. Prayers had a price. Those looking to secure their souls and the souls of their loved ones were expected to pay for the privilege. But then after all, what was the point of wealth if it couldn't buy your way into heaven?
There was also a more subtle dimension to this affair, reflecting the complex world of medieval politics. King Arthur was a powerful symbol as the first monarch of a united England and a popular hero of the ruling classes. It would have reflected poorly on Richard to neglect the place of his burial - especially when his predecessor had been instrumental in locating it.
Another factor that the monks undoubtedly considered was the status of the Arthur myth amongst the rulers of the Celtic fringes. The Welsh and Cornish clung to the myth that Arthur had never died, and hoped for his return to liberate them from their Norman overlords. With his corpse discovered, the rebellious danger of this myth was diminished.
And finally, as if all this wasn't enough, Richard's younger brother had fathered a son. A childless and unmarried Richard, due depart on the crusades, had been forced to name this nephew as his heir. The child's name was Arthur.
To modern eyes, the discovery of King Arthur's grave may appear to be little more than a clumsy hoax, but in the context of the times it was a an audacious and cunning move. The monks had effectively restored their fortunes overnight. The monarch was obliged to support the abbey, thereby increasing its rank and status. The royal purse-strings were forced open. The support of the ruling class was guaranteed. Extra revenue streams were opened as a result of the abbey's enhanced standing. An elaborate shrine developed around the recently discovered bones, now relocated to within the church infront of the high altar. There was no doubt now that the new church would eventually be completed, and completed on a grand scale.
The road to rebuilding the abbey wasn't without its obstacles. 1192AD saw the beginning of a chain of events that would delay work on the church and plague the abbey for many years to come. Savaric FitzGeldewin was appointed to the bishopric of Bath and began his campaign to take control of Glastonbury Abbey.
The grand scale of the new church, its increased wealth and its renewed royal patronage must have made Glastonbury appear to Savaric as a plum ripe for the picking. In 1197AD, he succeeded in convincing the pope to approve his claim, and Glastonbury was placed under the authority of the diocese of Bath. The monks were hostile to this and elected their own abbot in 1197AD. Savaric, not to be deterred, turned up in 1198AD with enough muscle to back his claim. The historian John of Glastonbury recounts the sorry tale:
"[Bishop Savaric] came on Pentecost with a strong and hostile troop, not as a shepherd entering through the door of the sheepfold, but climbing up through the wall when the doors had been shattered. When he was not received and admitted by the monks of their own will, he brought a workman and had the door-bolts of the church and treasury broken by force, dishonourably seized the church's vestments, [and] had the canons of Wells and other seculars vested in them.
When [the monks] who had not wished to be present at his enthronement assembled to perform the divine office, he turned them out of the church in flight, and all that day and the following night he laid siege to the cloister with a band armed with swords and cudgels. Those confined to the infirmary he publicly denounced as excommunicates, afflicted them with hunger and fasting, and denied them their supply of ordinary fluid, even water. The next day, they were irreverently beaten in the presence of many, both of clerics and laity. And so, when some of them had been broken by fear of punishment and others by blandishments, they submitted to his lordship."
In 1200AD, Pica and a group of Glastonbury monks journeyed to Rome to contest Savaric's claim. The pope responded by issuing a bull dissolving Pica's earlier election to the post of abbot and re-affirming the unification of Bath and Glastonbury. Worse, Pica and his companions died under mysterious circumstances, with poisoning being suspected.
Although Savaric's victory was complete, it was also short lived. He died in 1205AD and was succeeded by Jocelin of Wells. The monks once again complained to Rome. Just as some progress was being made, a heated political conflict between King John and the pope led to Rome issuing an interdict against Britain - meaning that the English church was effectively cut off from Rome until such a time as the interdict was lifted. That story is beyond the remit of this article, but suffice to say the monks were unable to pursue their case until 1213AD.
After much legal manoeuvring, a commission was finally established to judge the case. The monks' position was eventually upheld, and the independence of Glastonbury was restored in 1219AD. It had cost the abbey dear though - fighting the legal battle had been expensive and many valuable estates were gifted to Bath as part of the final settlement.
Much of the 13th Century remained turbulent for the abbey. Unpopular abbots, regular disputes and poor financial management continued to take their toll. The turning point appears to have come around 1278AD when King Edward and Queen Eleanor held Easter court at Glastonbury and attended an elaborate service to mark the re-interment of Arthur's bones within a shrine in the great church. In an interesting side note, Edward acquiesced to the request that he hold court outside the boundaries of the twelve hides, thus respecting the primacy of the abbot within the abbey's estates.
The Great Church was finally dedicated in the time of Abbot Galfridus Fromond, who ruled from 1303-1322AD. We can assume that work on the church would have been in the large part complete before the dedication. It had therefore taken 126 years to restore the abbey following the great fire of 1184AD. One can only imagine the community, industry and infrastructure that must have sprung up to support 126 years of major building work on this grand structure.
From this time until its destruction, life settled down and the abbey entered what most consider to be its golden age. Work continued apace to enhance and expand its buildings, adding to the prestige and magnificence of the holy precinct. In 1342 the choir of the Great Church was extended by Abbot Walter of Monington. In 1375, Abbot John Chinnock built the cloisters. In 1420, work was started by Abbot Nicholas Frome on the abbot's kitchen.
In 1493, Richard Bere became the penultimate abbot of Glastonbury and began his work as the last of the abbey's 'great builders'. He built St Patrick's Almshouses, St Joseph's Chapel (in the crypt of the Lady Chapel), the Edgar Chapel and the Loretto Chapel. He also built chambers to accommodate Henry VII on his visit to the abbey and partially rebuilt St Benedict's church. He also built the 'George and Pilgrim' inn for the benefit of the town's many pilgrims.
By the 16th Century, the wealth of Glastonbury was second only to Westminster. When the abbey was audited for Henry VIII, its annual wealth was in excess of £3,000 - an immense figure for the day - and it was home to 54 monks.
Abbot Bere died in 1525 and was succeeded by Richard Whiting - the last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey. He ruled in peace for ten years, and was described by Cardinal Wolsey as "an upright and religious monk, a provident and discreet man, and a priest commendable for his life, virtues and learning". History remembers his as a fine abbot, ruling with piety and wisdom.
By 1534, the writing was already on the wall for the great Catholic houses. Parliament passed the 'Act of Supremacy', declaring Henry VIII the head on earth of the Church in England:
Albeit the Kings Majesty justly and rightfully is & oweth to be supreme head of the Church of England and so is recognised by the Clergy of the Realm in their convocations; yet nevertheless for corroboration & confirmation thereof, and for increase of virtue in Cristis Religion within the Realm of England, and to repress & extirpate all errors heresies and other enormities & abuses heretofore used in the same
Be it enacted by authority of this present Parliament that the King our Sovereign Lord his heirs and successors Kings of the Realm shall be taken accepted & reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the Imperial Crown of this Realm as well the title and style thereof, as all Honours, Dignities pre-eminence's jurisdictions privileges authorities immunities profits and commodities to the said dignities of supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining.
And that from time to time to visit repress redress reform order correct restrain and amend all such errors heresies abuses offences contempts and enormities what so ever they be, which by any manner spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed repressed ordered redressed corrected restrained or amended, most to the pleasure of Almighty God the increase of virtue in Chrystis Religion and for the conservation of the peace unity and tranquillity of this Realm any usage custom foreign laws foreign authority prescription or any other thing or things to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.
The 'Treason Act' criminalised any declaration of allegiance to the pope. Contesting the 'Act of Supremacy' became an offence punishable by death. The vast majority of English abbots - including Richard Whiting - became signatories of the act, recognising the King's authority over the temporal church.
Unfortunately, their acquiescence was not enough. Henry was already plotting the biggest land-grab in history. The church was the largest land-owner in England, and it's abbeys represented vast riches that must have offered a tempting prize to a king short of money for fighting his foreign wars.
Later that year, the visitation of the monasteries began, under the authority of Thomas Cromwell. This was ostensibly to instruct the communities regarding their new position as subordinates to the throne, but in reality, the king's men were auditing the institutions and seeking evidence of wrong-doing as a pretext for their dissolution. Meanwhile, an early propaganda war was underway, with royal 'preachers' dispensing sermons from church pulpits disparaging the piety and behaviour of the monastic institutions.
In 1535, the royal visitation arrived at Glastonbury, headed by Dr. Richard Layton. They found no evidence of impropriety. Layton records: "there is nothing notable: the brethren be so straight kept that they cannot offend". Abbot Whiting must by now have been aware of what was to come. Dr Layton placed punitive restrictions on his movements, doing all in his power to separate the abbot from his monks.
In 1536, Parliament passed a law seizing the assets the smaller monastic houses. Those 383 institutions with an income of less than £200 were closed down and their wealth and lands passed to the crown. This failed to raise the anticipated revenue for the crown, and it wasn't long before the king was turning his eye to the grander abbeys. Contemporary correspondence suggests that Glastonbury's estates were already being stolen piecemeal before the abbey was finally dissolved:
"On 28 March 1537 the abbot wrote to Cromwell regretting he could not give Mr. Maurice Berkeley the mastership of the game on his parks at Northwood and Sharpham, for already at Cromwell's request he had given the reversion of it to Mr. John Wadham.
On 28 October however he wrote again to Cromwell and offered him the park at Northwood for Maurice Berkeley, and on 26 January 1538 he offered Cromwell the game in his park at Sturminster Newton, and the advowson of Nettleton in Wiltshire, regretting at the same time that he could not give him Batcombe since Dr.Tregonwell had already got it for a friend. "
In 1539, Henry finally moved against the remaining abbeys, clearly judging popular resistance to be an inconsequential obstacle. Having tested the waters with the seizure of the smaller houses, he was now confident he could act with impunity. Parliament passed a new law dissolving the remaining abbeys -645 in number - and transferring their assets to the crown.
One by one, the abbeys of Somerset fell to the king's commissioners, until finally, Glastonbury was the only remaining survivor. Then in September 1539AD, Layton returned without warning, arresting the abbot at his grange in Sharpham. They carried him back to the abbey and spent the night searching his papers for evidence of treason. Failing to find anything of note, they sent him to the Tower of London for interrogation by Cromwell.
During the following six weeks, the commissioners at Glastonbury proceeded to strip the abbey of its wealth. The booty included:
"The plate of Glaston, beside golden, 11,000 ounces
The furniture from the house of Glaston
In ready money from Glaston, £1,100 and over
The rich copes from Glaston.
The debts (i.e., owing to the Abbey) £2,000 and above."
They were clearly impressed by its wealth. They wrote to Cromwell:
"We assure your lordship it is the goodliest house of that sort that we have ever see. We would that your lordship did know it as we do; then we doubt your lordship would judge it a house meet for the king's majesty, and for no man else: which is to our great comfort; and we trust verily that there shall never come any double hood within that house again."
No trial appears to have taken place in London, and no evidence is offered to support any claim of treason. It would appear from his notes that Cromwell had decided Whiting's fate independent of the process of law:
"Item. The Abbot of Glaston to be tryed at Glaston and also executed there with his complycys."
In November, at the age of 80, Richard Whiting was returned to Somerset. He was held briefly at Wells where some form of mock trial appears to have taken place. On the next day, Saturday the 15th November, 1539AD, he was taken to Glastonbury, where the abbey now lay empty and ransacked. His fate is described in a letter written by one of Cromwell's commissioners:
"Since my last letter to your lordship the late Abbot of Glastonbury went from Wells to Glastonbury, and there was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called the Torre, where he was put to execution; at which time he asked God for mercy and the king for his great offences towards his highness... Afore his execution [he] was examined upon divers articles and interrogatories to him ministered by me, but he could accuse no man of himself of any offence against the king's highness, nor would he confess no more gold nor silver nor any other thing more than he did before your Lordship in the Tower... I suppose it will be near Christmas before I shall have surveyed the lands at Glastonbury, and take the audit there."
Abbot Richard Whiting was hanged, disembowelled, beheaded, and his body cut into four quarters. These quarters were boiled in pitch and displayed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. His elderly head was placed on a spike above the gatehouse of a derelict and abandoned abbey - a building already lying in ruin from where the king's men had stripped its roofs and windows for their precious lead.
The fate of Abbot Whiting is even more tragic when considered against the wider backdrop of the dissolution, during which it was more usual for monks and abbots to be generously pensioned off. His cruel fate may have been intended to serve an example to others - for if the king could strike low such an honoured and important figure as Whiting without fear of temporal or religious retribution, then his authority was indeed unchallenged. Other theories suggest that the abbot had hidden treasures from the commissioners, but these probably arise from the flimsy charges laid against him in the hope of legitimising what was essentially a barbarous and brutal act.
With winter closing in, Abbot Whiting's head sat rotting in front of the empty cadaver of England's greatest and most ancient abbey. Its wealth was already pillaged, and it wasn't long before its buildings became an open quarry for those in need of local stone. Before many years had passed, only a skeleton remained to pay testament to the former glory of the "holiest earth of England".
Much was lost in the centuries that followed. We know that a chain gate existed spanning the southern end of Magdalene Street, probably extending from the furthest point of the boundary wall. This was still standing in 1723AD and was described as compromising a main gate along with a smaller portal - probably similar to the example extending from the Chapter House at Wells Cathedral.
Another loss was the "Ivysgate" or "Yve Gate" - the northern gatehouse to the abbey precinct, opening onto the High Street, possibly near the location of the small modern gateway through the boundary wall on Silver Street. This survived in ruinous form until 1800AD, at which time it was sketched.
When Stukeley sketched the abbey in 1724AD, the Abbot's House can be seen, with its formal avenue of trees joining it to the High Street passing directly through the ruins of the church. Although some architectural features can not be considered contemporary with the abbey, it's likely that this building was repurposed from the original abbot's residence. It was later demolished.
The remains of the abbey were purchased by the Church of England in 1908AD and management of the site transferred to the Glastonbury Abbey Trust.
Considering its rich and illustrious history, and the draw that it still holds for pilgrims - Christian and otherwise - surprisingly little remains of Glastonbury abbey today. The most substantial ruins are of the Lady Chapel, along with its undercroft (now exposed to the sky). Fragments of the church survive - most notably the two pillars of the transept crossing. The height to which these pillars rise, along with the length of the ruins from the lady chapel to the high altar, give the visitor a good impression of the origin scale of this impressive structure.
One of the abbey gatehouses survives (pictured in the entry for Glastonbury Town). Prior to the Church of England purchasing the abbey, this was in use as The Red Lion Inn, with the larger entranceway bricked up and incorporated into the interior of the hostelry (the windows to the right of the below image).
The Abbott's Kitchen is perhaps the most impressive abbey building and retains its complete and original form. It is widely regarded as one of the best surviving examples of a mediaeval monastic kitchen in Europe, and is (to the best of my knowledge) the only surviving example in Britain. It has a vaulted octagonal roof with chimney structures to funnel out heat and smoke as well as a lantern arrangement to allow the admission of natural light.
Other buildings not falling directly within the abbey precinct are detailed in Glastonbury and Environs.
Although a major tourist attraction, the fact that the abbey ruins sit in thirty-plus acres of grounds means that it's possible to enjoy the site without it feeling overly crowded. The setting is beautiful and tranquil, and the tor is visible from the south-east quadrant. Recent policy has lent towards more sympathetic management of the natural surroundings, and one corner of the estate is now maintained as a wildlife sanctuary. The orchard is now left mostly to grass, and the original site of the kitchen garden has been re-stocked with period culinary herbs.
It's true to say that all such sites are best visited with some pre-knowledge of their history, but this is especially true of Glastonbury Abbey. The story of the church is intricately interwoven with the history of the town, and also with the myths and legends that make Glastonbury such a fascinating place to visit. The names of its abbots are attached to roads and churches around the town, and visitors can still walk the path up which the last of Glastonbury's abbots was dragged to be executed. The pilgrims' inn survives, as do a number of the abbey tithe barns and other associated buildings.
Glastonbury Abbey is a wonderful ruin to visit in its own right, but to truly appreciate the history of the place and to soak up the ambience, the visitor would be best served by spending at least a day exploring both the town and the landscape that surrounds it. Take the time to truly connect with this exceptionally unique and anceint corner of Britain's heritage.