Today Glastonbury is best known for the music festival that has taken place over the last 50 years. However, tourists also visit Glastonbury for its ancient abbey and long history. And for the myths and legends that surround the town and its mysterious Tor.
Glastonbury And Its Tor
Even from a distance, Glastonbury looks intriguing. A steep hill, topped by a ruined tower, rises from the flat – and often misty – surroundings of the Somerset Levels. This is Glastonbury Tor: an Iron Age hillfort, entrance to the underworld, and possible guardian of the Holy Grail. And the tower is the remains of St Michael’s Church, a medieval structure built on the site of an earlier church, and of an even earlier place of pagan worship.
The town clusters around the foot of the hill. Historically it was dominated by its Abbey, and the pilgrims who came to visit it. Visitors can explore the town and its historical features, including churches, alms houses and wells, by following the circular Millennium Trail that begins at the Town Hall.
Glastonbury Abbey, The “Oldest Church In England”
Glastonbury Abbey is said to be the oldest Christian foundation in England. Its origins certainly go back at least to the early 7th century, although the current building dates from the 11th century. It became a very wealthy Benedictine monastery, and continued to flourish until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539. The buildings fell into ruin, but the Church of England re-acquired the site in 1908.
Today visitors can explore the atmospheric ruins and the extensive grounds and gardens of the monastery. And they can immerse themselves in the two great legends associated with the Abbey: those of King Arthur and of Joseph of Arimathea.
King Arthur And Glastonbury Abbey
King Arthur was a legendary 5th century Celtic king whose story later became intertwined with medieval romance, Christianity and the quest for the Holy Grail. Various places in southwest England and Wales have been associated with Arthur and his court, but in 1191 the bodies of Arthur and his queen, Guinevere, were “discovered” in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. This was seen as proof that Glastonbury was the fabled Isle of Avalon, Arthur’s last resting place.
It may or may not be coincidence that the bodies were discovered, attracting lots of wealthy visitors to Glastonbury, at a time when the monks needed money to rebuild parts of the Abbey after a fire. Certainly many people did believe the story. These included King Edward I and Queen Eleanor (themselves the subject of a romantic tale, The Eleanor Crosses), who witnessed the reburial of the bodies in a black marble tomb in 1278.
You can see the site of the tomb in the Abbey ruins. And as you walk around Glastonbury you will notice frequent references to Avalon, including the nearby Avalon marshes. This would have been a very watery area before the land was drained, which is consistent with the idea that Avalon was an island, and that Arthur’s body was taken there by boat.
Just under 30 km from Glastonbury is Cadbury Castle, one of several places that has been claimed as the site of Arthur’s court at Camelot.
Joseph Of Arimathea And The Holy Grail
Another medieval legend is that of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy merchant who was mentioned several times in the New Testament. A story arose that he visited England in the course of his work and founded the original abbey in Glastonbury in the 1st century CE. A variant on this myth is that he was actually the uncle of Jesus, and that Jesus accompanied him on his first trip to England. (It was this idea that inspired the words of William Blake’s poem Jerusalem.)
When Joseph arrived in Glastonbury he climbed up the nearby Wearyall Hill, and stuck his stick into the ground for support. It immediately grew into a thorn tree, a cutting from which still thrives in the Abbey grounds. This miraculous thorn flowers every year at Easter and on Christmas Day. (I haven’t witnessed this myself, and the Abbey is closed on Christmas Day, but others have observed that it flowers at the end of the year.)
The legends of Joseph of Arimathea and of King Arthur are linked by the Holy Grail. This was the chalice used at the Last Supper, and contained some drops of blood from the Crucifixion. The story goes that Joseph brought the Grail with him to Glastonbury but that it later disappeared. This led to a long – and fruitless – quest by King Arthur and his knights to find the Grail, which they regarded as the elixir of perfection, and a as source of healing and eternal youth.
A Place Of Pilgrimage
Pilgrims started arriving in Glastonbury in the 12th century following the discovery of the supposed graves of Arthur and Guinevere. Numbers increased over the centuries as the stories of the Grail and the Holy Thorn became more popular and widespread. Visitors were also attracted by a well in the Abbey’s Lady Chapel which was reputed to have healing powers. (This well, now known as St Joseph’s Well, was ancient even in the Middle Ages, and may be of Roman origin.)
Glastonbury is still a place of pilgrimage. There are two official group pilgrimages each year: one Anglican (in June) and one Catholic (in July). And individual pilgrims – and curious walkers – pass through the town on numerous long distance trails.
The 15th century Pilgrims’ Inn, opposite the Abbey, was built to accommodate visitors, and is still welcoming tourists today.
Paganism And Counterculture
There is also an annual Earth Mother Goddess Conference that includes a procession up the Tor with a statue of the Goddess. It may seem strange that a town so closely connected with Christianity should also be associated with paganism. However, it is likely that the Tor was once a place of pagan worship, and it is thought that the wells at the base of the hill may have had Druid connections. At the same time Glastonbury is said to be on a major ley line, and there are even stories of a Glastonbury Zodiac, a massive (and ancient) star map embedded in the surrounding landscape.
All of this has created a thriving counterculture in Glastonbury. Walk around the town and you will find shops selling crystals, sacred herbs and incense. You can even stock up on magical spells…
At the foot of the Tor is the Chalice Well. The water that springs from the well is reddish in colour. Is this because the Holy Grail, with its drops of blood, is hidden beneath? Or because it is the gift of life from a Celtic goddess? Or just because of iron deposits in the surrounding rock? Whatever the explanation, it is certainly true that the gardens of the Chalice Well are a peaceful place. They were designated a World Peace Garden in 2001, a place of contemplation for people of all religions, or none.
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