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The Somerset Levels is an area of the British Isles that captivates visitors with its stunning natural landscape and historical sites and monuments. Glastonbury is famous for its apple orchards and music festival. It is one of the most visited small towns on the Levels, but it is also recommended for anyone interested in history and legends about England's ancient past.
Glastonbury is a town steeped in myths and legends. Theories about the founding of the great abbey and connections to the Arthurian legends and the land of Avalon are too numerous to count. The mysterious and sacred aspects of Glastonbury attract visitors and pilgrims from all over the world who seek forgotten lands and wish to drink from sacred springs. However, if you are not interested in this aspect of Glastonbury, the town also has much to offer to those interested in “real” historical sites and stories. Besides, who would not want to walk along a street that feels like entering the world of Harry Potter? There are many historical buildings on High Street - one of the main streets in the little town - including The George and the Pilgrim's Hotel, which was built in the late 15th century CE to accommodate pilgrims traveling to visit the abbey and still functions today as a restaurant and hotel.
The most visited and distinctive landmark in Glastonbury is the Glastonbury Tor. The Tor consists of a remaining church tower from the Church of St. Michael located on top of a hill visible from a long distance as it dominates the otherwise flat landscape. There are many theories and myths about what practices could have taken place on this hill in the distant past, including that it is linked to Druidry, fairy castles, and Avalon from the legends of King Arthur. Avalon is the island Arthur was taken to after the battle of Camlann, and the name Avalon is believed to translate to the island of the apple or fruit trees. Glastonbury is also known as the Island of Glass, and it is suggested that the hill would have been an island before the Somerset Levels were drained.
A large part of what makes the site so special is the walk the visitor will take in green & vibrant natural surroundings.
As the Somerset Levels are now dominated by apple orchards, it is not hard to understand why many people from the Middle Ages until today have drawn a strong connection between the veiled and mysterious land of Avalon and Glastonbury. This mythical connection is deeply rooted in Glastonbury's history, and this is the reason many pilgrims visited the town and especially the Tor for many centuries. However, the historic validation of the Arthurian legends is more problematic.
What can be historically proven is Glastonbury's function as a monastic site, which faced hardship during the Protestant Reformation of the English church in the 16th century CE.
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The tower now standing on top of the Tor, known as St. Michael's Tower, is the remains of the stone church constructed in the 14th century CE. Archaeological finds and Celtic sagas show that this stone church was built on top of a previous wooden church and that the Christian connection to the hill continued for many centuries. The discovery of a wheel-headed cross establishes a Christian presence in the 11th century CE. Evidence of monastic activity on the hill can also be found in a charter written by Henry III of England (1216-1272 CE) in 1234 CE which permitted a fair to be held “at the monastery of St Michael on the Tor.” The last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Richard Whiting (1461-1539 CE), together with two of his monks, was hanged, drawn, and quartered here in 1539 CE when the abbey was suppressed during the reign of King Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547 CE) and his Dissolution of the Monasteries.
History or legends may draw you to visit the Tor, but a large part of what makes the site so special is the walk the visitor will take in green and vibrant natural surroundings. The hike up the hill is quite steep but not too exhausting, and upon reaching the top and experiencing the magnificent view of the town and the Somerset Levels, it is not difficult to understand why so many people have felt a deep connection to this place throughout history. It is also recommended to explore the area a little more and possibly visit the apple orchards on the other side of the hill (if you take the normal route from the town) that are especially enchanting when the apple trees blossom.
St. Margaret's Chapel & Royal Magdalene Almshouses
Every visitor to Glastonbury should visit St. Margaret's Chapel and Royal Magdalene Almshouses and spend a few quiet moments in the beautiful garden. The site can be entered through a little side street behind 38 Magdalene Street. Entry is free; however, donations are encouraged. The oldest buildings date from c. 1250 CE and were constructed as a hospital for the poor, tired, and hungry pilgrims who had traveled far to visit the shrines and relics in the abbey across the street.
St. Margaret's Chapel was originally built as a hospital in the 1070s CE, but the preserved building was constructed in 1444 CE. The now crooked but magnificently charming chapel was dedicated to St. Margaret (1045-1093 CE), who was a Saxon Princess of English royal blood and later a Scottish Queen known for her Catholic piety and care for the poor.The almshouses, dedicated to Mary Magdalene, were built in the 15th century CE and replaced the previous large hall which had been a part of the hospital. Only five of the original eleven almshouses are standing today. Both the almshouses and the chapel have been renovated and are taken care of by a volunteer organization.
One of the almshouses has been decorated and furnished to look as it might have in the early 20th century CE. The site is an oasis of peace, and with such a long history of caretaking and healing, it is a great place to spend a few minutes in silence for reflection and deep breaths. The chapel is still a pilgrimage site for people from varying religious and spiritual practices, so respectable behavior on this historic ground is important.
The main site to visit in Glastonbury is the Abbey, which in its heyday was one of the most important churches in England. The founding of the church is unknown and therefore steeped in mystery connected to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph of Arimathea is believed to have been a rich merchant and disciple of Jesus who brought Christianity to Britain after becoming a missionary. On his travels, he brought a pilgrimage staff, and when he placed it on one of the hills in Glastonbury, it took root and became a blossoming thorn, which Joseph saw as a sign for where he was to build his church. This supposedly happened in 63 CE when he was visiting the area with eleven followers, and they were given land by the legendary King Arvirargus for building the first church.
The Glastonbury Thorn is still considered a sacred tree, and the original tree has been propagated many times. One tree is standing at the original spot of the “Sacred Thorn” at Wearyall Hill, though unfortunately it was deliberately damaged in 2010 CE and removed in 2019 CE. Some of its sister trees are standing at different sites in the town, including one on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. These thorns are a special variety of hawthorn that blossoms twice a year (on Christmas Day and during Easter). It is a tradition for one of the schoolchildren in town to cut a flowering branch of one of these sacred thorns every Christmas and send it to the Queen for decorating her Christmas breakfast table.
The story of Joseph of Arimathea is hard to prove. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in 658 CE, there was already a smaller church building standing where the abbey ruins stand today. Its history was already so ancient that the local community did not know who the original builders were. The abbey came under direct papal control during the reign of King Ine of Wessex (688-726 CE) but preserved its strong Celtic roots. From the 10th century CE, the abbey's importance increased after being brought under Benedictine rule. St. Dunstan (l. 909-988 CE, abbot at Glastonbury between 940-957 CE), re-established the monastery after the Viking raids which had affected much of the society in Britain and he transformed the church into an important literary center. The abbey became so wealthy, second only to Westminster, that a popular saying stated: “If the Abbot of Glastonbury could marry the Abbess of Shaftsbury, they would have more land than the king of England."
Glastonbury's connection to Avalon and the legends of King Arthur also increased the importance of the abbey as a pilgrimage site and hence its wealth. You can visit the site where the monks supposedly discovered Arthur and his wife Guinevere's burial site in 1191 CE. According to the story, Arthur and Guinevere were later reburied under the main altar by King Edward I of England (r. 1272-1307 CE) and Queen Eleanor (1246-1290 CE) in 1278 CE before the site disappeared during King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 CE. Today there is no way of proving that the remains of the legendary king ever rested here, but the myth is nonetheless an important part of the abbey's history.
Today the ruins of the abbey are remains from the Great Church, which was built after a fire destroyed the old church in 1184 CE. The first construction you will see is the Lady Chapel, which highlights the site's long connection to the celebration of the Virgin Mary. According to tradition, there used to be a wooden church where the Lady Chapel now stands, and this was the first church and shrine in England dedicated to her.
When the fire ruined the old church, supposedly only a wooden statue of Mary seated on a throne while holding the baby Jesus Christ survived. As with the remains of Arthur and Guinevere, the statue disappeared as King Henry VIII's men visited the medieval monastery and claimed its riches for the king, and its fate is not known.Today, the Lady Chapel ruin is considered to be one of the finest 12th-century CE buildings in Europe. The chapel was built immediately after the fire because of the sanctity of the site. It was constructed in a conservative Norman style to pay homage to the sanctuary's long history and included elements from the emerging Early English Gothic style.
In the 13th century CE, the chapel was linked to the Abbey Church when the Galilee Chapel was built. The carved doorway entry to the Lady Chapel is worth some minutes of appreciation. Delicately carved images on the doorway depict the life of the Virgin Mary, and the inside of the chapel would have been richly and colorfully decorated, too. Envisioning how it might have looked before its destruction, it is easy to see why so many pilgrims traveled far to visit such an ancient and splendid sanctuary.
Around 1500 CE, a crypt was also constructed under the Lady Chapel and became known as St. Joseph's Crypt. The crypt was a site for special burial and veneration of relics. There is also a sacred well located on this level, and both can be visited as the building has been conserved. The well and crypt were closely linked to the cult of Joseph of Arimathea, and miracles supposedly happened here in the early 16th century CE when people suffering from lameness, plague, and childhood disease recovered after visiting.
Next to the Lady Chapel, you can visit Arthur and Guinevere's supposed burial site, which you will see on your way to the Abbot's Kitchen. The Abbot's Kitchen is the best-preserved building on the estate, and it has been described as "one of the best-preserved medieval kitchens in Europe". This is mainly due to the fact that the roof on this building was not made of lead, which was a sought-after material. Consequently, when King Henry VIII's men came to confiscate the riches of the monastery and church, they did not demolish this building as they did with the other lead-covered buildings, which soon fell into a state of disrepair. The building was later used by Flemish weavers and as a stable.Today, the Abbot's Kitchen with its four fireplaces is decorated as it might have looked during the days of its monastery service, and the atmosphere truly makes you feel like you have traveled back in time. This is the only monastic building still standing, but you are also free to explore the monastic ruins, including the monks' toilet block, the herb garden, and fishponds surrounded by beautiful apple trees.
The rest of the Great Church is the main attraction of the site. Much of the main nave has disappeared, but the pillars in the entrance to the high altar are still standing, and one can only imagine how majestic the church might have looked before its gradual destruction. Today's ruins create the perfect romantic and mystic atmosphere, which makes you want to stand and marvel for as long as possible. There is also a perfectly situated bench that gives you a view of the ruin from the high altar and Arthur's second burial site. On your way out, do not forget to visit the Holy Thorn and St. Patrick's Chapel, built c. 1500 CE and decorated with new murals and stained-glass windows.
It is recommended to participate in one of the free guided tours of the grounds which are regularly given by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. If you want to learn more about the long and fascinating history of the abbey, spend some time in the museum near the entrance where you can study artifacts found on the estate and also learn how Glastonbury has been described in different sources from varying epochs.
The Glastonbury sanctuary and the Abbey ruins are truly a special place to visit. History, legends, and mysteries are deeply interlinked as it says on a wooden cross given to the site as a gift from Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952 CE - present): “A Christian sanctuary, so ancient that only legends can record its origins.”
You should also visit the charming Wells, known as England's smallest city. Wells is categorized as a city due to its magnificent cathedral, which is one of the main attractions in this town that can be reached from Glastonbury by a 15-minute bus ride. Visit on Wednesdays or Saturdays when there is an outdoor market held in an open square in the center of the city.
Wells is a small city, but there are lots of sights to see. The first stop should be the Vicars' Close, the oldest continuously occupied medieval street in Europe. The residences were built in the 14th century CE on the orders of Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury (d. 1363) and were meant to provide communal accommodation for the Vicars Choral. The Vicars Choral has existed since c. 1100 CE and is still connected to the cathedral where they sing at the daily services. The Vicars' Close is a very picturesque little site where the heritage of centuries is alive and thriving.
Next up is a visit to the cathedral, which brings Wells its glory. The site is believed to have been celebrated as a sacred site for millennia, even before a church was constructed. It was the pools or wells that later gave the town its name and they were considered to be holy springs. British tribes most likely had a connection to these wells, but the earliest archaeological evidence dates from Roman Britain.
The first church, known as the Minster Church of St Andrew, was constructed next to the wells in 705 CE on the orders of King Ine of Wessex (688-726 CE). In 909 CE, Wells became the seat of the diocese for Somerset, known today as the diocese of Bath and Wells.
The construction of the magnificent Early English Gothic style cathedral you can visit today started during the 12th century CE. The west front is known for being especially beautiful, and it is worth sitting down for a while on the lawn in front of the church to study the delicate masonry work before going inside.The church is free to visit, but a donation is much appreciated. On the inside of the church, the most significant structure is the scissor arches, which many believe to be a modern alteration but were constructed between 1338-48 CE. The spectacular arches were the solution of master mason William Joy (1329-1348 CE) to a growing concern of cracks appearing on the structure of the high tower that was built in 1313 CE.
Lastly, no one should leave Wells without visiting the Bishop's Palace. Built to accommodate the bishop of the cathedral around 800 years ago, this site will take any visitor's breath away with its medieval buildings and ruins, beautiful gardens, charming little chapel, and of course, the great moat with the entrance gatehouse. Much of the palace is still standing and can be visited. You can also study objects from Wells' long history and the portraits and belongings of several of the bishops who have inhabited the palace through the centuries.
The Great Hall, which was built around 1275 CE, is mostly a ruin but was turned into a picturesque, romantic garden in 1820 CE. There are many other gardens to explore on the estate, and it is easy to lose track of time wandering around in what feels like the setting of a medieval fairytale. In the Bishop's Palace gardens, you can also visit the actual wells that are the source of the city's establishment, long history, and of course its name.
Visiting Glastonbury - the Town of Myths & Legends - History
The Glastonbury Legend - An Introduction
Closeup of Wearyall Hill, as seen from Glastonbury Tor. This is where Joseph of Arimatheia on his arrival from the Holy Land supposedly planted his staff, which flowered into a hawthorn tree.
"And did these feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green? /And was the holy Lamb of God /On England's pleasant pastures seen?"begins William Blake's poem ‘Prelude To Milton,’ the basis of England's "alternate national anthem," Jerusalem. (See inset below right.) It is perhaps the most familiar source referring to what is known as the Glastonbury Legend or The Holy Legend, though the allusion is not always understood by those singing the hymn.
In summary, the legend is this: Joseph of Arimatheia was a rich man, a relative of Jesus (and one of his covert disciples), who after the Crucifixion claimed the body of Jesus from Pilate. He came to Britain with other disciples and founded the first British church at Glastonbury, where he planted his staff. This miraculously flowered into a tree, The Glastonbury Thorn, whose offshoots may still be seen today, flowering every Christmas. (A sprig or cutting is sent to Buckingham Palace every year from this tree, which analysis has shown is a Palestinian variety.) Joseph also brought and kept there certain sacred relics, perhaps the Chalice Cup or Grail. He knew Britain from his trips as a tin merchant, and in fact, on one of his trips he had brought his nephew, the boy Jesus. Joseph, and some say the Virgin Mary, is said to be buried there, along with the Grail featured in legends of Arthur – whose official tomb is still to be seen there.
Although Blake's own source of inspiration may lie in the rumour (perhaps begun by him) he was a Druid, the 'Holy legend' first surfaced in print in the Grail romances of the early Middle Ages. There was a Romance from around 1200 called Joseph Of Arimatheia, depicting him and his followers (not the Church) as Keepers of the Grail, never reaching Britain but founder of a secret Order whose members in the "vale of Avaron" knew the "secret" of the Grail -- the words which will end the "enchantment of Britain." The High History Of The Holy Grail, alias Perlesvaus, of c1225 AD, and later Romances, even imply a dynasty from Joseph and Christ to Sir Galahad.
The poem 'Prelude to Milton' by William Blake (1757-1827) is better-known as the popular "hymn" Jerusalem, set to music by Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Edward Elgar, and sung at national events since the First World War, when it was adopted as an 'anthem' by the Women's Institute. As well as being sung in church, it is now a popular alternative to the England's official God-Save-The-Queen anthem, to close national cultural events, like the last night of the Proms concerts.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.
I will not cease from Mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
This story has become a part of British folklore and legend accepted in part by some clerics, and the motif became an integral part of the Grail legend. The legend is now recorded in various versions in many guidebooks, as well as novels (eg Margaret Steedman's Refuge In Avalon), and there are various local-folklore "Holy visit" traditions throughout the West Country. The British Church itself historically did not promote the legend, parts of which were somewhat heretical, but which would have not only have promoted Glastonbury Abbey but established historical precedence for the then Church of Britain over all others. (It did make a few attempts at Ecclesiastical Councils in the Middle Ages, but these were not accepted by the Vatican.) It never became established church legend -- perhaps because such a claim of precedence over the Roman Church became dangerous. It remains regional folklore, with no definitive version - details vary and conflict. Where, then, did these ideas come from?
In the Bible, Joseph of Arimatheia (ie from that village, to distinguish him from other Josephs) was, in Matthew 27:57-8 and John 19:38-40, a rich "man of means." The Vulgate Bible gives him as nobilis decurio, a decurion being a term often used for an official in charge of mines. (It is also said to be part of Cornish tin-miners folklore that there is a saying and song that "Joseph Was A Tin-Man and the miners loved him well.") The New Testament also says he claimed the body from Pilate -- which implies legally he was a relative, usually given as an uncle.
In the 1980s, the Folklore Society tried to trace the legend back. A.W. Smith in the Folklore Society Journal 1989 outlined the details of the legends in its various manifestations. He explores the idea of tin-workers as the credited source of the folklore. He cites Henry Jenner, the old Chief Bard of Cornwall writing an account for the Benedictine Journal Pax in 1916 describing metal workers as "a very old fraternity" with a saying "Joseph was in the tin trade" which reflects their tradition Joseph made his money as a tin merchant, and also once brought "the child Christ and His Mother and landed them at St Michael's Mount." (This is now a tidal islet in Penzance Bay.) The tin-trade has long been associated with Phoenician traders coming to Britain to buy raw ore, and Bournemouth vicar and writer Stuart Jackman in a 1984 magazine article refers typically to "those Phoenician sea-gypsies who came on a tin-buying cruise to Cornwall with the teenager Jesus as a cabin boy."
Smith traced the popularisation of the legend back to the writings of three clerics: the Rev. H.A. Lewis, Vicar of Talland in Cornwall and author of Christ In Cornwall (1939) the Rev C.C. Dobson of Hastings, author of Did Our Lord Visit Britain As They Say In Cornwall And Somerset (1936), and the Rev. Lionel S. Lewis, Vicar of St John's, Glastonbury, author of St Joseph Of Arimathea At Glastonbury Or The Apostolic Church Of Britain (1922, revised through 1955 and still in print in Glastonbury). These authors cited older folk's sayings from around the turn of the century, but neither they nor Smith could trace any earlier source, e.g. among Cornish tin-miners' folklore. Smith found there were inconsistencies in the details as to time and place, so no core legend could be identified. Stymied, Smith decided the legend was simply a product of the then-active British Israelite movement, though he offered no evidence. The legend was also popularised near the turn of the century by being referred to in Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson's influential Arthurian verse cycle The Idylls Of The King.
There are few corroborative details in the West Country folklore that he brought the boy Jesus with him on one or more of his tin-trading trips. Supposedly the Thorn grew on Wearyall Hill originally where Joseph planted his staff and asked to be shown where his nephew had lived when he resided here during his 'missing' years (i.e. sometime between ages 12 to 30, years not covered by New Testament accounts). This implies Jesus was here on his own and would have been more than a boy. A variant tradition has him shipwrecked or stormbound here for a winter. It is true that Glastonbury was a port in Roman times (the sea flooded the Somerset Levels tidally - see sketch map right). However, dating the founding of the first Church in Britain has proved impossible, though the monk St Gildas, himself connected with the site, put the coming of Christianity to Britain at the height of Tiberius's reign -- which would put it spectacularly early, i.e. within five years of the Crucifixion itself, and before the Roman Conquest. Even the reliable mediaeval historian William Of Malmesbury, though he could not get any details, refers to the discovery of "documents of no small credit, which have been discovered in certain places to the following effect: "No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ created the church of Glastonbury."
The Abbey's main surviving buildings.The 1st-century wattle-n-daub church is thought to have stood on the site where the Lady Chapel [behind] stands today.
Glastonbury grew to be the largest and richest monastery in the country - a factor which led to its annihilation in Henry VIII's Dissolution of The Monasteries in 1540.
An artist's impression of the thatched 1st-Century "wattle 'n daub" church (ie with walls made of intertwined withies packed with clay mud and straw). One theory is it would have been circular, in Celtic style.
This negative-reversal image from an illustration from Camden's 1608 Britannia shows the wrap-around inscription on the foot-long lead cross reportedly found in the grave in 1191. It says 'Hic iacet sepultus inclitus Rex Arturius in Insula Avalonia' - 'Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.'
The Abbey grounds, looking towards The Tor. The town's most distinctive landmark - a 500' conical hill shaped like an upturned boat, is barely visible from the Abbey. Just visible is the 15th-C. tower of St Michael's Chapel, built where once stood a Dark Ages monastery. Henry VIII had the last Abbot hanged from the tower in 1539.
Glastonbury's Old Church was built up after 700 AD with funds from King Ine, first English king of the area. It became the seat of Christianity in Britain, with many Saints buried there: Gildas, Columba, Bridget, Patrick, David. The Grail was also thought to be hidden there, perhaps down the Chalice Well, alias the Blood Spring. The site also features other mysteries like the giant zodiac supposedly existing in the surrounding landscape pattern, and the Celtic Maze pattern around the Tor. Both the site and the Holy legend also became connected with later Arthurian legend. According to the Life Of St Gildas, written before the Romances, Guenevere was abducted and kept there at 'Glastonia' by the local king, and Arthur could not capture it "owing to the asylum offered by the invulnerable position due to the fortifications of thickets of reed, river and marsh." Glastonbury was then a natural retreat like the nearby Isle of Athelney (where Alfred, in hiding, later burnt the cakes).
The Somerset Levels being still largely a tidal swamp, Glastonbury was reached from inland by a causeway from Street. It was referred to as Ynys-Witrin in a 601 AD charter as the "Isle of Glass (or Glaze)", a name which may refer to the way its shape was reflected in the water. "Isle Of Glass" became a place-name used in several Romances, and the site may be an inspiration for the Grail Castle as well as the Isle of Avalon, both of which can be reached by water at certain times. Just before Henry II died, he told the Abbot that a Welsh bard had informed him that Arthur was buried there. During reconstruction in 1191 after the great fire, the monks dug up a body there, identified by a foot-high lead cross. According to 13th-century writer Gerald of Wales, it was inscribed with the Mediaeval Latin for"Here Lies The Renowned King Arthur And His Second Wife Guenevere In The Isle Of Avalon." (The rather startling reference to Guenevere as a second wife was edited out in later reproductions.)
Along with the cross, the bones recovered in 1191 were later lost, the modern 'grave-site' being the site of a tomb where the bones were relocated in 1278. Some historians think the inscription was merely a fake to help pay for rebuilding the burnt Abbey by promoting Glastonbury as an early heritage-tourism destination. (The Mediaeval Latin in which it is inscribed is anachronistic, and the added phrase "in the Isle of Avalon" seems an unnecessary addition to secure place-name identification with the Romances.) Henry's son, Richard I, who had precipitated the Abbey's financial crisis by cutting off their funding when he became king, claimed on his only visit that he also found Excalibur there, giving it away on Crusade -- which would seem an unlikely act if he thought it genuine.)
Since the 1191 discovery of "King Arthur's Grave," the Glastonbury legend has become a key part of the Arthurian legends, with Joseph portrayed as first of a line of guardians of the Holy Grail. Thus, the Isle of Glastonbury became both the mysterious "Grail Castle" and the Isle or Vale of Avalon, where Arthur rests. Today, as well as a centre of the British "New Age" movement, it remains a Christian annual-pilgrimage site (Catholic and Anglican, both in June), and a year-round international tourism destination.
Alcock, Leslie, Arthur's Britain (Penguin Press, 1971)
Ashe, Geoffrey, King Arthur's Avalon: The Story Of Glastonbury (Dutton 1958)
Barber & Pykett, Journey To Avalon (1993 Blorenge Books)
Benham, Patrick, The Avalonians (1993 rev. 2006 Gothic Image,Glastonbury)
Fortune, Dion, Glastonbury: Avalon Of The Heart (1934 repr 2000) Red Wheel/ Weiser Books
Treharne, R. F. The Glastonbury Legends: Joseph Of Arimathea, The Holy Grail And King Arthur (Cresset 1967, Abacus 1975)
Glastonbury has not only become the historical centre of English Christianity, but with its symbolic identity as "Avalon," a New Age pilgrimage destination as well.
Glastonbury Tor, as seen in a BBC documentary-and-book series on historical mysteries presented by the historian Michael Wood. ("Arthur: The Once And Future King" from the BBC series In Search of Myths & Heroes.)
Dominating the skyline in this part of the beautiful county of Somerset you will find dramatic Glastonbury Tor.
In Glastonbury, history, myth and legend combine in such a way that most visitors cannot fail to feel the “vibes” and powerful atmosphere of the town. For not only is Glastonbury the cradle of Christianity in England but is also reputed to be the burial place of King Arthur.
Glastonbury Tor in the distance
Glastonbury is thought to have been a site for pre-Christian worship, perhaps because of its location by the Tor, the highest of the hills surrounding Glastonbury and a superb natural viewpoint. As can be seen from the photograph, there is a form of terracing around the Tor which has been interpreted as a maze based on an ancient mystical pattern. If so, it would have been created four or five thousand years ago, around the same as time as Stonehenge. There is a ruined medieval church at the top of the Tor, the tower of which remains.
Two thousand years ago, at the foot of the Tor was a vast lake called “Ynys-witrin”, the Island of Glass. It is partly from this that the association of Glastonbury with legendary Avalon comes about, as in Celtic folklore Avalon was an isle of enchantment, the meeting place of the dead.
Legend has it that King Arthur, along with his wife Guinevere, are buried in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, south of the Lady Chapel, between two pillars. The monks of the Abbey, having heard the rumours, decided to excavate the site and unearthed a stone slab, under which was found a lead cross inscribed in Latin, “Hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex arturius in insula avalonia”, “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon”. Also found were a few small bones and a scrap of hair.
The bones were put in caskets and during a visit to the Abbey by King Edward I, were entombed in a special black marble tomb in the main Abbey Church. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries when the Abbey was sacked and largely destroyed, the caskets were lost and have never been found. Today a notice board marks the spot of Arthur’s final resting place.
The legend of the Holy Grail brings together the myths and legends of King Arthur and the story of Joseph of Arimathea building the first church at Glastonbury.The Glastonbury legend has the boy Jesus and his uncle Joseph of Arimathea building the first wattle and daub church on the site of Glastonbury Cathedral.
After the crucifixion, lore has it that Joseph travelled to Britain with the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and later by Joseph to catch His blood at the crucifixion. Upon arriving on the isle of Avalon, Joseph thrust his staff into the ground. In the morning, his staff had taken root and grown into a strange thorn bush, the sacred Glastonbury Thorn.
Joseph is said to have buried the Holy Grail just below the Tor, where a spring, now known as Chalice Well, began to flow and the water was supposed to bring eternal youth to whoever would drink it.
The Chalice Well, Glastonbury
It is said that many years later, one of the quests of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table was the search for the Holy Grail.
The spectacular, extensive and majestic ruins of the Abbey are situated just off the town’s main High Street, where many of the shops are involved in the sale of mystical objects and artifacts. Glastonbury with its myths, legends and ley lines has become a centre for New Age culture and spiritual healing.
The town is rich with historic buildings. The Tourist Information Centre and Lake Village Museum are located in the Tribunal, a 15th century building thought to be an Abbey Court House. The Somerset Rural Life Museum is centered around a 14th century barn.
Glastonbury Abbey, Abbey Gatehouse, Magdalene Street, Glastonbury, BA6 9EL.
Telephone 01458 832267
E-mail: [email protected]
Opening hours: Winter 9.00 pm to 4.00 pm. Spring and Autumn 9.00 pm to 6.00 pm. Summer 9.00 pm to 8.00 pm.
Somerset Rural Life Museum, Abbey Farm, Chilkwell Street, Glastonbury, BA6 8DB.
Telephone 01458 831197
Opening hours: 1st April to 31st October Tuesday to Friday, Bank Holiday Mondays. Weekends 2.00 pm to 6.00 pm. Closed Good Friday. 1st November to 31st March Tuesday to Saturday 10.00am to 3.00pm. Museum shop and tea room open 22nd March to 28th September. Facilities for the disabled, baby-changing area. Free car park and coach lay-by.
The Museum of Pagan Heritage 11 -12 St Johns Square, Glastonbury, BA6 9LJ.
Telephone 01458 831 666
Easily accessible by road, from Bristol there is a local bus to Glastonbury, please try our UK Travel Guide for further information.
What makes Glastonbury so mystical?
THIS week in the UK hundreds of thousands of people are gathering on 1.4 square miles of farmland in Somerset to attend one of the biggest and most famous music festivals in the world. For many it’s a chance to simply cut loose and party – but The Glastonbury Festival has, in its 49-year history, always had a different undercurrent to your typical event, and one that runs far deeper than the earthy vibe of its revellers. One that inhabits the ground on which it sits, and goes way back.
These days, the festival of performing arts that descends on Glastonbury is more of a place than the place itself: the 2019 attendance is expected to exceed 200,000, increasing the population of its namesake town by a factor of 20.
That town is a classically English place of jostled rooftops, old buildings of vibrantly decorated golden stone, and ruinously ancient religious structures. The whole extends apron-like from a steep sided 158-metre hill – bearing the terraced scars of excavation and the name Glastonbury Tor, ‘tor’ a word used to denote other such promontories in the south west of England. And atop this natural tower stands one that was built by people: the lone turret of St Michael’s, built in the 14 th century, and all that remains of a church.
All of this is positioned in a pretty ruffle in the Somerset Levels, a largely flat place where water from the marshy ground shifts eagerly into mist at dawn and dusk. Combined with the sense of antiquity – the remains of an Iron Age ‘village’ were found on a crannog, or man-made island nearby – this gives Glastonbury a concentrated atmosphere. It’s not just skin deep, either: its history is linked strongly to numerous historical characters with ties to legendary royalty, mystical energies and even Jesus Christ. So how did all this fall together around one photogenic but otherwise unremarkable Somerset town?
Lines of the Land
When it comes to the cultural seam that runs through it, the physical landscape around Glastonbury has perhaps more to answer for than mere aesthetics. “Right up until the later middle ages Glastonbury was a very watery place, essentially an island,” says Roberta Gilchrist, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading. “There was Glastonbury Tor, this outcrop that emerged out of the water, [then] further emphasised by a church on the top. it created an evocative landscape that attracted myths and legends from its earliest history. But because of the presence of monasteries and churches from as early as the 6 th century, it became a sacred landscape, too.”
To some, this is literal. Glastonbury is said to lie on a ‘ley line’ – part of an implied network of impressionistic significance said to run across the land in straight, intersecting lengths not unlike a cobweb. These are said by believers to link or align ancient monuments, notable landscape features and settlements across the world on a series of invisible energy pathways. Ley lines have been likened to the Chinese feng shui concept of beneficial alignment, as well as the energy associations of the Aboriginal ‘songlines’. They were first popularised by amateur British archaeologist Alfred Watkins in the 1924 book The Old Straight Track, when he noticed that notable sacred or prehistoric sites could be linked by straight lines on a map. The most famous joins St Michael’s Mount and the stone circles known as The Hurlers in Cornwall, continues through Avebury in Wiltshire and over a series of stone prehistoric mounds, churches, castles and monuments in a line right across the base of Southern England to Hopton on the Norfolk coast.
The line – named the St Michael alignment, due to the number of landmarks referencing to the saint along its length – bisects Glastonbury Tor and St Michael’s Tower. There is no scientific evidence for ley lines, and it has been suggested – often via amusing case studies – that the density of British settlements and layered sites of historical significance makes it possible to link locations fairly easily. But there is certainly enough cultural basis to suggest that at one point these alignments could have been significant, and the belief was strong enough to be propagated throughout the centuries. Much in the manner of another similarly enduring local belief.
The lake from which Glastonbury Tor once rose as an island would, as early as the 12 th century, become entwined with the legend of Britain’s most famous (and famously intangible) British king. A clue is in the adopted romantic name for the region: the Vale of Avalon.
The alleged existence of a real King Arthur has always been confusingly conversant with the many legends the monarch is associated with throughout Celtic mythology. A chronology of Arthur’s life was assembled by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia regum Britanniae around 1140, which pinned down sites such as Tintagel in Cornwall and Caerleon in South Wales as being pivotal locations in his life. Another was the Isle of Avalon, a magical backwater where Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged – and one of many speculated locations where the mortally-wounded king was later buried.
“As an archaeologist, to me Glastonbury is a great example of intangible heritage meeting tangible heritage. ”
One of the more potent reasons modern Glastonbury remains one of the strongholds of Arthurian legend is that Glastonbury Abbey not only claimed to be the home of Arthur’s final resting place: it claimed to have the bones to prove it.
Recounted in detail by Gerald of Wales in his De instructione principis (1193), a grave containing King Arthur’s sword-chipped, giant-like skeleton and that of his queen, Guinevere, was discovered by monks in 1191 buried between two stone pyramids. These were re-interred in a marble tomb in the church, which according to a sign today marking the spot, ‘survived until the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539.’ The abbey was destroyed, and the bones lost.
Most modern historians believe the entire affair was staged by the monks desperate for interest and funds following a devastating fire ten years earlier. The evidence for this centres largely on a lead plaque found in the grave in 1191, which specifically records that the remains belonged to King Arthur and Guinevere. This seemingly suitably grizzled artefact was consistent with the burial custom of a century before – but as Arthur was said to have died around the 6 th century, had the plaque truly been interred with the king and his queen at the time of the funeral, it still would have been some 600 years ahead of its time.
The plaque also references Arthur’s burial at ‘Avalon’, recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth only 50 years earlier. This sadly makes the grave and its contents in all likelihood a creative fraud orchestrated by the monks to authenticate their origins story – a not unusual practice at the time, particularly when it came to founding charters, which were often fabricated to underline a genuine belief in a church’s prestige and antiquity. As Roberta Gilchrist puts it: “They forged material culture in order to create material evidence. They just got the century wrong.”
Despite this, the Arthurian ties to Glastonbury persist. Rather unusually, this could be thanks to the strong religious atmosphere of the town. “The Anglican aspect of Glastonbury has a very strong Celtic connection,” continues Roberta Gilchrist. “Arthur is regarded as Celtic rather than Anglo- Saxon. And in Glastonbury, you have a Christian church that was founded before the Roman mission to Christianise the English.” And this church is key to another of Glastonbury's impressively prestigious ancient claims.
The Holy Connection
Famously central to Arthurian legend was the search for the Holy Grail: the cup Jesus Christ used at the Last Supper, and was said to catch his blood at the crucifixion. In this link between Arthurian legend and Christianity there are further links to Glastonbury – with a story that develops whisper-like through the ages.
Entrusted with Christ’s burial, Joseph of Arimathea is variously said to have either sent the Holy Grail back to Britain with his followers, or brought it personally in his role as a missionary. In the latter case, he is found resting on the summit of Wearyall Hill, where he planted his staff – later sprouting into a miraculously flowering hawthorn. This tree suffered considerable persecution over the centuries: the alleged original was cut down during the civil war, and the ceremonial tree that stood on the site was repeatedly vandalised until being removed altogether just last month. The ‘Glastonbury thorn’ is today regarded as a descendent of the original, and refers to the genus Crataegus monogyna biflora – a variant of the common hawthorn that flowers twice a year.
The Grail, meanwhile, is said to have either been washed or buried by Joseph at the site of Chalice Well – which sits at the foot of Glastonbury Tor and is the exponent of vivid red-flowing water said to issue at a rate that never varies in flow or temperature. Today a wellness garden occupies the site. The arresting hue of the water is due to the source being chalybeate, or fortified with mineral salts: legend says it is fortified the blood of Christ.
Another story suggests that Jesus himself may have come here as a boy, again in the company of Joseph of Arimathea – who was a travelling merchant and is said to have also visited Somerset and Cornwall in earlier life. The poet William Blake wrote of this in Jerusalem (1804):
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
…and fittingly, Glastonbury Festival veteran Van Morrison wrote of the same in his song Summertime in England:
Did you ever hear about Jesus walkin'
Jesus walkin' down by Avalon?
There is also the local lore that on his visit after the crucifixion, Joseph founded Glastonbury’s first church – probably a basic wooden structure – on the site of the ruinous abbey.
“In the town to this day there is the strong belief in Joseph of Arimathea’s association with Glastonbury – and therefore that direct association with the life of Christ.” Says Roberta Gilchrist. “And it’s one that resonates not just with Anglican Christians, but with New Age Christians too.”
The Modern Melting Pot
Today, Glastonbury is in a kind of ever-renewing cycle. A surge in interest in the town’s legends in the early 20 th century and a series of alternative orchestral recitals – by the composer Rutland Boughton – led to the first 'Glastonbury Festivals' between 1914 and 1925 and established the town as a centre for arts. This received a much-needed post-war boost when the 1960s happened, the New Age movement swung into being – and Glastonbury was once again on the pilgrim trail.
“I was born here, I grew up in the 60s when the hippies first arrived. There was deep shock – it was still a little market town,” says Ruth Morland, owner of Glastonbury Galleries. “Glastonbury is always madness, but we get some amazing people. An awful lot of artists and people with, shall we say, artistic intentions. Musicians, storytellers, performers – art with a broad brush. It’s unique, and it does fuel creativity.”
“Glastonbury is always madness. But we get some amazing people.”
Glastonbury’s apparently complementary fusion of faiths give it a vibe in which the spiritual blends with the historical, and legend with archaeology almost seamlessly. “Glastonbury is a great example of intangible heritage meeting tangible heritage. What fascinates me is that this has built up over 1000 years or more,” says Roberta Gilchrist. “The myths, landscape and archaeology are central to that. Archaeologists study prehistoric monuments in their ancient ‘sacred landscapes’ – Avebury, Stonehenge and the like – but Glastonbury is a living sacred landscape.
“The town has a strong Wiccan population, and you have the Christians and the Avalonians and they all interact,” she continues. "It’s a great example of a vernacular religion – one that continues to evolve.”
"Glastonbury might be a small market town, but it has a great big heart and a strong community spirit," says Morgana West, Director of the Glaston Centre, a cultural hub designed to offer a 'pilgrim reception' for those visiting the town. "Those who spend time in its atmosphere, learning about themselves and the world around them, find they become more open, kinder and understanding, and more conscious of their connection and responsibility to bigger world. The diversity here teaches us how to work together. To me, that’s the real Grail of Glastonbury."
So when Worthy Farm erupts into festivities this week it’s upon ground that's no stranger to slightly left-field happenings. This is despite the fact that it is slightly right of where its name suggests. “I remember when the festival first started in the 1970s we used to get a lot of people coming to the town and getting upset when they realised the Glastonbury festival is actually not in Glastonbury,” remembers Ruth Morland. “We used to call it the Pilton Pop Festival, as Pilton is where it is. They call it Glastonbury, but it’s actually nearer Shepton Mallet.”
Glastonbury Tor history
Sightsee within 2 hours of London
Tours from London visiting
Somerset Levels - the Tor as an island
In ancient times, the Somerset levels were a shallow, marshy sea. Then, Glastonbury Tor was an island. Neolithic people in the region built platform villages linked by wooden causeways, arguably the first man-made roads.
At some point, no one knows exactly when, the Tor became a sacred site. Viewed close up, its slopes are subtly terraced, and some scholars speculate that it forms a remnant of a Neolithic labyrinth.
The Isle of Glass
The Celts called it Ynys Witrin, or the Isle of Glass, and believed it was a gateway to the underworld. Later legend has it that the Tor is the Island of Avalon, burial site of King Arthur.
Saint Michael's chapel
The tower on the Tor is all that remains of a fourteenth-century chapel dedicated to Saint Michael, a replacement for an earlier church destroyed by an earthquake in 1275.
The chapel is in itself evidence of the site's pre-Christian roots. It was a common practice to build churches on pagan worship sites both to cement the ascendancy of the new faith and to give the people a Christian gathering place at a familiar spot.
Such churches were often dedicated to Michael in his role as spiritual guardian.
Glastonbury Tor: National Trust signs for your information
In the 1960s excavations suggested that a sixth-century fortress or at least a stronghold stood on the site of the Tor, which for some supports another legend connected with the Tor, that it was the location of the stronghold belonging to 'Melwas', who is credited in one of the many Arthurian legends as the man who abducted 'Guinevere'.
There have over the centuries been offered many theories that the hill itself is/was hollow and that this in turn has led to the legends that it was the entrance to the underworld or the place of the 'Sleeping Lord'.
Ley lines at Glastonbury Tor
Dowsing methods have now traced many ley (power) lines in the earth that for centuries were known to folklore. These are natural geomagnetic lines in the earth.
One such ley line called 'The Michael line' is called that because most of the churches on it are dedicated to St Michael, protector of the faith.
'The Michael line' flows down from the Tor and then passes through the other major Glastonbury sites - Chalice Well, the Abbey and Wearyall Hill - spooky eh?
Is Avalon in the Otherworld?
Although it is possible that the legend of Avalon was based on a real island, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to connect it to a real place. It is possible, based on this lack of evidence, that Avalon was never a real island, but rather was a Christianization and “Britonization” of the pre-Christian Irish legend of Emain Ablach. This is reasonable considering the association of Avalon with apple trees, healing, and rejuvenation. Among the ancient Celts, apples were believed to have magical healing properties and the property of rejuvenation. The idyllic nature of Avalon also might reflect the ancient pre-Christian British and Irish view of the afterlife. The Irish and British believed that islands could be portals to the otherworld where souls of the dead dwelled in eternal youth and eternal bliss.
Oisín and Niamh travelling to Tír na nÓg ("Land of the Young" – an otherworld inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Dannan), illustration by Stephen Reid in T. W. Rolleston's The High Deeds of Finn (1910). ( Public Domain ) Was Avalon based on a similar idea?
In light of this belief in the otherworldly nature of some islands, it is conceivable that trying to find the actual location of Avalon might be pursuing the wrong question. Perhaps Avalon was never supposed to be perceived as an island existing in this world in the first place. The ancient Celts believed that these mythical islands existed in a different realm. It is possible that this was also the nature of the island to which King Arthur was taken, if the story of Avalon is indeed derived from earlier Celtic stories. As such, it cannot be found in the real world because it is in a different world entirely.
Top Image: Glastonbury tor, a location that has often been associated with Avalon. Source: The Significance of R
Glastonbury’s Association with King Arthur
It is said that their bones were reinterred in the church there about a century later, right before the altar and in the presence of King Edward I . It is from that time that Glastonbury’s long association with the Arthurian legends was cemented in history, despite the opposing arguments claiming that the inscribed leaden cross must have been placed there much later than the original grave, as it was buried nine feet above the actual coffin.
Site of what was supposed to be the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere on the grounds of former Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, UK. (Thor NL / CC BY-SA 3.0 )SML
Many believed that the cross must be a fraud, possibly left there by the monks at the nearby Benedictine Abbey, in an attempt to reap fame upon the abbey and the area by encouraging the nobility to offer donations supporting such a hallowed spot where the body of one of England’s greatest ever legends was laid to rest.
St. Michael's Tower, Glastonbury Tor, England ( Enlarge)
My first visit to Glastonbury was in the late summer of 1986. I had been bicycling for a year throughout western and Mediterranean Europe in search of stone circles, holy wells of the Earth goddess, and Gothic cathedrals. All the while I had felt a powerful yearning to visit the region and village of Glastonbury. It felt as if the place was mysteriously exerting a magnetic attraction upon both my mind and heart. The closer I came, the more my dreams and imaginations were filled with images of dragons, fairy kingdoms, and Arthurian legends. Upon reaching England, I hastened southwest toward the region of Somerset. Nearing Glastonbury, cycling through emerald green valleys shrouded in fog, it seemed I was entering a magical kingdom. Miles ahead in the distance the great hill known as the Tor loomed high above the ethereal mists and all the world below. It appeared, as it had been long ago, an island jutting skyward from an inland sea.
The earliest knowledge we have of the Tor come to us from legends. In prehistoric times the island peak was believed to be the home of Gwyn ap Nudd, the Lord of the spirit world of Annwn. Immortalized in folklore, Gwyn ap Nudd became a Fairy King and his realm of Annwn the mystic isle and sacred mount of Avalon. Long a holy place of pagan spirituality, the 170 meter tall hill shows extensive signs of being contoured by human hands in Neolithic times. These contours, indistinct after the passage of thousands of years, mark the course of a spiraling labyrinth, which encircles the hill from base to peak. Ancient myths and folk legends suggest that pilgrims to the sacred island would moor their boats upon the shore and, entering the great landscape labyrinth, begin their long ascent to the hilltop shrine. By following the intricate and winding route of the labyrinth, rather than ascending by a more direct line, a deep attunement with the Tor's concentrated terrestrial and celestial energies was achieved.
Archaeologists are prone to dismiss such legends as nothing but fanciful myths of preliterate people. A wealth of studies, however, by folklorists, dowsers and other earth mystery researchers suggest that these mythic images may in fact be the dim memories of long forgotten realities. In the mid 1960's, for example, the brilliant scholar of English antiquities, John Michell, found evidence of an alignment of Neolithic sacred sites in the Glastonbury region. The Tor was linked with such venerable ancient holy places as Avebury stone rings and St.Michael's Mount. More recent research by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst, featured in their book The Sun and the Serpent, has revealed this enigmatic alignment runs all across southern England linking hundreds of Neolithic, Celtic and early Christian sacred places.
Miller and Broadhurst have brought to light other matters of great importance. Laboriously dowsing the entire alignment over a period of years, they discovered there are actually two distinct lines of energy - roughly parallel to one another - flowing for nearly 300 miles. Because of the large number of St.Michael and St.Mary churches situated upon the lines, these energy pathways have been dubbed the St.Michael and St.Mary lines. While the lines are of far greater antiquity than Christianity, it is not entirely inappropriate to have given them such Christian names. St.Michael, or more properly the Archangel Michael, is traditionally regarded as an angel of light, the revealer of mysteries and the guide to the other world. Each of these qualities are in fact attributes of other earlier divinities that Michael supplanted. Frequently shown spearing dragons, St.Michael is widely recognized by scholars of mythology to be the Christian successor to pagan gods such as the Egyptian Thoth, the Greek Hermes, the Roman Mercury and the Celtic Bel. Mercury and Hermes were considered guardians of the elemental powers of the earth spirit, whose mysterious forces were sometimes represented by serpents and linear currents of dragon energy. Along these dragon lines were highly charged power places - the serpent's dens and dragon's lairs of prehistoric myths - whose locations archaic geomancers had marked with spear-like standing stones, cave temples, and hilltop sanctuaries. Thousands of years later, as Christianity began its relentless spread through pagan Europe, St.Michael shrines were placed at these sites and the dragon-slaying Archangel became a symbol of the Christian suppression of the old religions.
As Miller and Broadhurst continued their dowsing research, following the Michael and Mary energy lines to and up the sides of the Tor, they made a remarkable discovery. The two lines appeared to mirror the ancient landscape labyrinth as it winds its serpentine way to the summit. Even more astonishing, the two lines move in a sort of harmony with one another and, at the very peak, interpenetrate as if they are ritually mating. The female, yin or Mary energy line encloses the masculine, yang or Michael energy in the form of a double-lipped cup. It is a most evocative image. The configuration of the Mary energy line, containing the phallus-like mediaeval tower of St.Michael, seems to portray a chalice or grail and is thus a potent symbol of the alchemical fusion of universal opposites.
Descending the Tor, the Michael and Mary lines pass precisely through other key sites in Glastonbury's sacred geography. Primary among these are the Chalice Well, Glastonbury Abbey, and Wearyall Hill. A study of the myths and legends of these places will reveal more associations with that mystical vessel, the Holy Grail. The story is fascinating. According to old Cornish legends, Christ's uncle, Joseph of Arimathaea, was a tin merchant who traded with miners on Britain's western coasts. On one of his trading journeys he brought along his nephew, the boy Jesus, and together they made a pilgrimage to the Holy Isle of Avalon. Years later, following the Crucifixion, Joseph returned to Avalon and moored his boat on Wearyall Hill. There he planted his staff in the ground, where it took root and blossomed into the Holy Thorn whose descendant is still growing on the hill today. On the site below this hill Joseph built a small church, believed to be first Christian foundation in Britain. From the Holy Land Joseph had brought the cup used at the Last Supper, which held the blood of Christ that dripped from the Cross. This most sacred of objects, the Holy Grail, is said to have been buried with the body of Joseph on Chalice Hill, which lies between the Tor and the site of Abbey.
Near the center of Glastonbury town stand the ruins of the old Abbey, once the greatest monastery of medieval Europe. In the heart of the Abbey, a St.Mary Chapel marks the exact site where Joseph set his original church. Analysis of the ground plan of the St.Mary chapel reveals proportions of sacred geometry equal to those found at nearby Stonehenge, and a ley line running through the axis of the Abbey runs straight to that famous stone ring, indicating a connection between the two holy places in deep antiquity. During the Christian era large numbers of pilgrims flocked to the Abbey to venerate the relics of saints and sages, some of the most valued relics being those of St.Patrick who ended his days at Glastonbury in 461 AD (Patrick, the much loved ‘saint’ of Ireland is not actually Irish but was born in England and later captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery there). In 1539 the Abbey was closed by order of King Henry VIII and the great monastery fell into ruins. Before the closure of the Abbey, monks hid the vast wealth of relics, manuscripts, and other treasures within tunnels and caverns beneath Glastonbury Tor. Legends say these hidden treasures will one day be revealed, ushering an age of peace and enlightenment into the world.
The Glastonbury region and its Abbey also have strong associations with Arthurian legends and the quest for the Holy Grail. In 1190 AD, following a fire which destroyed much of the Abbey, the dramatic discovery was made of two ancient oak coffins buried sixteen feet beneath the ground. Contained within the coffins were the bones of a large man and a woman, and an inscribed cross identifying the bodies as those of King Arthur, whose traditional burial place was Avalon, and Queen Guinevere. Centuries old texts in the Abbey library describe the adventures of King Arthur and his knights between Avalon and nearby Cadbury Castle, where stood Arthur's court of Camelot. More recent research has lent further credibility to the ancient association of Glastonbury with Arthurian legend. In 1929 an artist, Kathryn Maltwood, discovered evidence of a group of enormous earth figures molded on the landscape across ten miles of Somerset. These figures, delineated by natural features of the earth and further contoured by human design, have been interpreted as scenes from Arthurian legends based on astrological patterns. While it is now known that the figures long predate the historical period of King Arthur (500 AD), their presence hints at archaic wisdom teachings encoded in the very hills and valleys of mother earth.
One of the most intriguing of Glastonbury's mysteries are the strange balls of colored lights occasionally seen spiraling around the Tor. In 1970, a local police officer reported seeing eight egg-shaped objects "dark maroon in color, hovering in formation over the hill" and in 1980 a witness saw "several green and mauve lights hovering around the tower, some smaller than others, about the size of beach balls and footballs. One hovered outside the east facing window". This author spent one summer night sleeping within the tower and, waking from a dream of castles and magical beings, found the interior of the tower radiantly aglow with a luminous white light. Glastonbury, the mystic isle of Avalon is truly an enchanted place. A sacred site since time immemorial, it is often forgotten but always rediscovered. Today a major haven for pilgrims and spiritual seekers, Glastonbury is a power place of potent transformational energies.
For those readers desiring more detailed studies of Glastonbury and its environs, consult New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury, by John Michell, and The Isle of Avalon: Sacred Mysteries of Arthur and Glastonbury, by Nicholas Mann.
Cover of the Chalice Well, with Vesica Pisces, Glastonbury, England ( Enlarge)
St. Michael's Tower, Glastonbury Tor, England
Photo by Mike Kempsey
Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study and documentation of pilgrimage places around the world. During a 38 year period he has visited more than 1500 sacred sites in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide web site is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.
A 'supermoon' rises behind Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, in 2015.
Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
King Arthur and Glastonbury
Legends of King Arthur swirl about Glastonbury like a tantalizing fog from the nearby Somerset marshes. The nearby hill fort at South Cadbury has long been suggested as the location for Camelot. Indeed, excavations of South Cadbury suggest that it was in use during the early 6th century, which is the likeliest era for the real Arthur to have lived.
The association of Arthur and Glastonbury goes back at least to the early Middle Ages. In the late 12th century the monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had found the grave of Arthur and Guinivere, his queen. According to the monks, an excavation found a stone inscribed "Here lies Arthur, king." Below the stone, they found the bones of a large man and the smaller skeleton of a woman. The monks reburied the bones in the grounds of the abbey, where they were a very handy draw for pilgrims. The site of the grave can be seen today in the abbey grounds.
Glastonbury Tor, the enigmatic conical hill that rises above Glastonbury, has been linked with the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was buried after his death. This isn't so farfetched as it may sound, for a millennium ago the water level was much higher, and the tor would indeed have been an island. Avalon was also called "the isle of glass" which does suggest similarities to the name "Glastonbury".
The Holy Grail, the object of Arthur's questing, is said to be buried beneath Glastonbury Tor, and has also been linked to Chalice Well at the base of the Tor.
One final myth of Arthur at Glastonbury: the landscape around Glastonbury is said to have been moulded and shaped so that the features (such as roads, churches, and burial mounds) create a zodiac calendar replete with Arthurian symbology. Like so many of the Arthurian myths, so much is open to interpretation and your own predisposition to believe or disbelieve.
A New Era
1539 - present
Immediately following the Dissolution, the abbey was stripped of its valuables and the land was awarded to the Duke of Somerset. Ornate stone and hardcore alike were taken for use in new buildings and roads in the town. The Abbot&rsquos Kitchen escaped the dismantling &ndash perhaps because it proved useful intermittently over the centuries. The ruins drew the attention of antiquarians of the 17th and 18th centuries, and William Stukeley&rsquos sketches, although drawing on earlier sources not just his eye, prove to be amongst the most famous of the post-Dissolution abbey.
The site changed hands over the years, and in 1825 was acquired by new owner John Fry Reeves who had Abbey House constructed with a view over the ruins. The last family to live in the house were the locally well-known and prosperous Austin family at the turn of the 20th century. When the house and grounds went to auction in 1907 there was considerable speculation about who would acquire it. The abbey was purchased by Ernest Jardine who then passed it to the Church of England when the necessary funds were raised.
The abbey was opened to the public and extensive restoration work began, as well as the beginnings of archaeological digs that would continue sporadically throughout the century.
The abbey is now operated by a registered charity, and continues to welcome visitors from the world over.
1547 - 1553
The abbey site is granted to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. A colony of refugee Flemish weavers is settled on the site
1825 &ndash 1830
Site acquired by John Fry Reeves. Abbey House built
1896 &ndash 1906
Site inhabited by the Austin family
Glastonbury Abbey purchased on behalf of the Church of England
Abbey site opened to the public. Conservation begins under W. D. Caroe. Excavations by Frederick Bligh Bond
1951 &ndash 1979
Excavations of Ralegh Radford and Wedlake
The Glastonbury Abbey Estate charity is formed
The charity in its current form is registered
Management of Abbey House returns to the abbey charity