Visit Glastonbury: History, Myths And Legends


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Today Glastonbury is famous for the music festival that has taken place here over the last 50 years. However visitors also flock to this quirky Somerset town for its history and its ancient abbey. 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.

Many visitors choose to climb the steep path to the top of the Tor and St Michael’s Tower. It is quite a strenuous walk but you will be rewarded by superb views of the surrounding countryside. The town clusters around the foot of Glastonbury Tor. In medieval times it was dominated by its Abbey, and by the pilgrims who came to visit it.

Tower on top of a tall hill. There are winter trees in the foreground.
The mysterious Glastonbury Tor

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 the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539. The buildings fell into ruin, but the Church of England re-acquired the site in 1908.

Gardens of Glastonbury Abbey
Part of the old monastery gardens

Today visitors can explore the atmospheric ruins and the extensive grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. 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, the burial place of King Arthur.

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.

Plaque showing site of King Arthur's tomb
A plaque marks the site of King Arthur’s tomb

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.

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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.)

Thorn tree
The tree of the Holy Glastonbury Thorn

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 as a 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.

Glastonbury Abbey

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 along the High Street and you will find shops selling crystals, sacred herbs and incense. You can even stock up on magical spells…

Red water in a spring at the Chalice Well
The red water of the Chalice Well

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 oxide 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.

What Else Can You See And Do In Glastonbury?

Visitors can explore the town centre and its medieval buildings, including churches, alms houses and wells, by following the circular Millennium Trail that begins at the Town Hall. You could also follow the mural trail to discover the numerous colourful paintings on the sides of houses and shops.

The Somerset Rural Life Museum, based around an old farm and the 14th century Abbey Barn, is an exploration of the local countryside and farming from the 1800s to the present day. And the Glastonbury Tribunal, in a 15th century merchant’s house, has exhibitions relating to Iron Age settlement in the Somerset Levels. (As at March 2024, the Tribunal is closed, but it is hoped that it will re-open soon.)

How To Visit Glastonbury

  • Glastonbury is an easy day trip from Bath, or from nearby Wells. The nearest train station is at Castle Cary, 22 km away (buses and taxis are available). If you choose to drive there is a large car park in the centre of the town.
  • If you’re coming from London you could visit as part of a day tour to Glastonbury and Cheddar Gorge.
  • The 15th century George & Pilgrims Inn, opposite the Abbey, is a great place for a drink. Unfortunately I can’t really recommend it as a hotel – if you want to stay overnight have a look at the recommendations on Alternatively you will have a wider choice in Wells, just 11 km away.
  • Glastonbury is just one of many places you can visit in Somerset. Have a look at this post for more inspiration – The Best Things To Do In Somerset.

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.


4 thoughts on “Visit Glastonbury: History, Myths And Legends”

  1. What a fascinating tour of a historical place with so much intrigue and hidden secrets, I love all the strange and counter culture along with the other medieval references. Would love to explore some day.

  2. This is truly the Holy Grail of destinations. Thanks for sharing it. I spent a lot of time imagining what it must have been like in King Arthur’s day. Now I will need to visit Glastonbury once they remove some restrictions.

  3. I love visiting English villages and am adding Glastonbury to my to-do list.
    Would love to visit its ancient abbey and learn more about its history and legends, including King Arthur and the Holy Grail.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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