Glastonbury has been identified with the mysterious Isle of Avalon from the twelfth century, its past has become steeped in myth and legend, and it is probably most famous for its Arthurian and early Christian traditions.
There are several sites to visit, the enchanted Glastonbury Tor, once the realm of the fairies, The Chalice Well said to be the resting place of the Holy Grail, and the Abbey, where the grave of Arthur and Guinevere is said to lie. Glastonbury itself is also worthy of note with some ancient buildings and pubs, and a plethora of alternative shops, as the site acts as a magnet to those interested in the mysteries.
A Brief History of the Area
The area around Glastonbury was once flooded marshland with dry areas of higher land. During the Iron Age there were several water-based settlements (at Meare and Godney) of what is known as the ‘La Tene’ culture, and track ways were constructed over the marshes known as Sweet Tracks, parts of which are now preserved in the British Museum. The Romans may have had a port or at least an anchorage on Wearyall, and the Romans may also have started a vineyard on the Southern side of the hill, which lasted until the Middle Ages. During the Dark Age period – after the Roman legions had deserted Britain – there may have been a Celtic Christian church at the foot of the Tor, although evidence has only come from rumour and tradition, as there is little to document this early period of the Dark Ages. We do know however, that the earliest Monastery at the site was built on the orders of King Ine in 688AD, which grew to be one of the richest in the country. One of the most famed abbots at the Abbey was St Dunstan, who was ordained in AD 943. He eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury, and is one of the people associated with Glastonbury around whom many traditions have grown up.
The abbey was burned to the ground in 1184, the Lady Chapel being re-built in the years between 1187 and 1190. The abbey grew to be one of the richest in the country, and also the largest after Westminster. The reformation saw the destruction of the abbey and the murder of the last abbot – Richard Whiting – who was hanged from the tor and then drawn and quartered. The abbey was finally closed in 1539. The church of England acquired the abbey ruins in 1908. Controversy continued during the 1920’s after the excavations by Fredrick Bligh Bond, when he revealed that he had been using psychic means to discover where the ruins lay underground.
Glastonbury became a famed Spa town during the 18th and 19th century, and was probably visited by mystics and dabblers in the occult for many centuries. Edward Kelly, the charlatan medium associated with the Elizabethan occultist John Dee, claimed to have found some of the Alchemists ‘Philosophers Stone’ in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey during the 16th century.
Legends and Traditions
According to legend Joseph of Arimathea – Jesus’s Uncle – is said to have travelled to Britain with Jesus, giving rise to Blake’s poem Jerusalem. After Christ’s death Joseph is said to have returned, reaching Glastonbury on Christmas morning in AD30. Weary from his travels he thrust his staff into the ground on Wearyall, where it at once sprouted into a blossoming thorn.
There was a tree of unusual origin on Wearyall right up until the 17th century when it was chopped down by one of the dour faced puritans suporting Oliver Cromwell. St John’s Church still has the Glastonbury thorn Craetegus Praecox, which may actually have derived form Syria. The most likely origin of the tree is that it was brought back from the holy land during the Middle Ages, either by a pilgrim or perhaps a crusading knight.
Glastonbury Tor, which is strikingly prominant on the flat Somerset landscape, has long been seen as an entrance to the otherworld, and the abode of fairies. Gwynn ap Nudd – the lord of the underworld in welsh tradition – had his abode beneath the hill, and this legend became amalgamated into tales relating to St Collen, who is said to have made a hermitage upon the tor. The story goes that St Collen heard some locals talking about Gwynn, and how he had a palace upon the tor. Collen rounded on them for speaking of such superstitions and devilish things, but the men warned him that Gwynn ap Nudd would not overlook such an insult. Later a messenger arrived from Gwynn, and asked the saint to come and meet the king in his otherworldly palace. Three times the saint refused to be summoned, but on the fourth occasion he agreed and accompanied the messenger armed only with a phial of holy water. He was shown to a secret door on the tor, and followed the messenger into the earth to a magnificent hall within a palace, where Gwyn was seated in a golden chair. Gwynn offered the saint some food but he refused, as it was well known that fairy offerings were perilous. After a short parley Collen decided that he had had enough, and sprinkled holy water about him, whereupon the palace disappeared and Collen found himself alone on the windswept tor.
One of the most controversial of Glastonbury’s myths is that of the Glastonbury Zodiac, a ground plan of each of the signs of the Zodiac said to spread out from the tor in the defining lines of roadways, rivers and man-made features.
Its discoverer was Kathleen Maltwood, who used a medieval manuscript called The High History of the Holy Grail as a key to finding the landscape giants. She thought that their existance was encoded within the work as the various creatures mentioned within it. Katherine Maltwood published her ideas about the Zodiac in 1935. The Zodiac has now become a modern legend incorporated into the beliefs of many people. In reality the Zodiac is unlikely as many of its incorporating features that define the outlines are relatively modern, rather than ancient. But this is folklore at work, such myths can enrich the perspective of the landscape if they are not taken at face value.