There is no assurance that there are no legends embedded in the traditions of Glastonbury. All we can be sure of is that, within the story we trace here, there are truths. In the end, it is up to you the reader to decide where the myth ends and the legend begins. Glastonbury is one of the places on this earth in which the boundaries between history, myth, tradition, and legend are very thin. A visitor today might easily be overwhelmed by the way the town has been taken over by the hucksters of the "new age", a thinly veiled, and sometimes open revival of paganism.
There is an intensity to all of this and that intensity tells us something. New age paganism and possibly darker influences are very evident at Glastonbury, but in all likelihood that is precisely because there is another very powerful influence still very much at work in Glastonbury—the power of the Gospel. When paganism asserts itself so blatantly, it is usually because it is threatened.
And, conversely, a principal reason for the importance of Glastonbury as a Christian center from ancient times has to do with the fact that it almost certainly was an ancient pagan center of considerable importance. The whole history of Glastonbury is an immense subject, beyond the scope of this paper.
But any account of the place must begin with one of the undoubted facts about it. From a very early time, there stood within the ancient Christian monastic enclosure which grew up there, a simple chapel constructed of wattle—poles and interwoven twigs, plastered with mud. This chapel was so revered that as each generation enlarged, rebuilt, and embellished the neighboring abbey church, the Ecclesia Vetusta , the "Ancient Church," was carefully preserved. Occasionally, it was repaired, and it is documented that in Paulinus of York had it encased in wood and lead.
Even then, this old church was quite ancient and revered, but no one ever dared even consider replacing it. At the beginning of the 8 th century, King Ina of Wessex set about to rebuild Glastonbury. In his new abbey church was completed east of the old church.
But it was in the old church, not the new, that the king signed a charter which asserted that "the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the eternal Virgin Mary It is of particular note that this church was recognized to have been dedicated to Our Lady from a time long before King Ina. This may not seem remarkable, but the fact is that dedications of churches to Our Lady north of Italy are relatively rare until the 11 th or 12 th centuries.
But here is a church so identified in historical documents much earlier. The other thing which is of importance is that within this little church there stood a very ancient statue of Our Lady. But even then, miraculously, the statue survived.
Joseph of Arimathea
The subsequent rebuilding of the monastery included a handsome new Lady Chapel built of stone on the site of the Ancient Church. The statue was installed in the new Lady Chapel. And, as had been the case with the Ancient Church, this hallowed site was the focus of pilgrimage. September 8 th was the great day of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. Glastonbury had an annual fair on that day, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, and on that day, for another three and a half centuries after the great fire, both the high and the lowly came to honor Our Lady and make their petitions for her protection.
This, too, came to an end, in when an avaricious king decided to claim the wealth of the church and even of the holiest of places for his own ends. The last Abbot, Richard Whiting, was convicted of trumped up charges of treason and was hanged, drawn, and quartered on the nearby hill called Glastonbury Tor, an ancient high place of druidical worship. The treasures of the Abbey were then carried away and the buildings stood derelict and were used as a quarry to build the town.
The statue of Our Lady disappeared, but the reverence in which her ancient church was held guaranteed that, of all of the great abbey church, the largest surviving portion is the Lady Chapel. The ruined medieval Lady Chapel in an 18th century lithograph. In his play, "Murder in the Cathedral," T. Eliot, the poet-laureate of twentieth century Anglicanism, wrote:. Glastonbury is such a place and neither Puritans nor pagans have been able to drive the sanctity from it.
In pilgrimages were renewed. Today, there are two pilgrimages: the number of people who participate require that the Roman Catholics have a separate day of pilgrimage. Thousands attend the Anglican pilgrimage, which is joined by a contingent of Orthodox Christians who bring a modern icon of the Glastonbury Mother of God.
In , years from the dissolution of the abbey, the foundations were laid for a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. In a new statue of Our Lady of Glastonbury was enshrined in this church which stands just across the road from the abbey ruins. And, in , the Apostolic Delegate presided at the rare ceremony of the crowning of the statue of Our Lady. This is the clear physical evidence, the history , as it were, of Our Lady at Glastonbury. But what is the story behind it—the myth, tradition, and even the legend?
That same tradition tells us that Joseph was a merchant, dealing in tin, who traveled from time to time along the well-documented trade routes to Cornwall, in the southwestern corner of Britain, where tin was mined. Yet another account, says that he also had in his possession the Cup, the so-called Holy Grail, used at the Last Supper. Driven out of Jerusalem by the Sanhedrin, of which he was a member, Joseph and a band of followers would eventually arrive in England, there to make their home and bring the Christian faith to the people of the land.
Joseph would die in Glastonbury and was buried in a tomb with the two vials of sacred fluid. Arriving on Wearyall Hill overlooking Glastonbury, Joseph thrust his staff into the ground. Thereupon, it flowered.
St. Joseph of Arimathea
Though a Puritan chopped the old tree down and was blinded when a splinter flew up while he was chopping , cuttings of the tree survive and it is a most amazing tree. It is a hawthorn which flowers twice a year, once in the spring and again on Christmas Day. What is particularly interesting is that seeds from the tree do not produce a tree of the exact same type.
The only way to reproduce the flowering hawthorn of Glastonbury is by cuttings. One may be found today within the old abbey enclosure, and another in the churchyard of the Anglican parish church in town. Yet another grows on Mount St. Alban, in Washington, D.
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One version of the story of Joseph of Arimathaea in Glastonbury goes so far as to say that his niece, Mary, went with him. As this account goes, Mary died in Glastonbury and was buried there on the site of the chapel which was erected in her name. Here is an ancient church, dedicated to Our Lady at a time when churches were often dedicated to the saint whose body rested in them.
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Excavations confirm that burial in or near this church was desired by many. The most likely explanation for this phenomenon is the presence of a saint. Whatever one may choose to think about this particular detail, we nevertheless have the witness of the ancient church itself and the statue which stood within it to a very early tradition of devotion to Our Lady at the very heart of the beginnings of Christianity in England. The centrality of this holy shrine and its testimony to the historical and incarnational nature of our faith is further witnessed by the long history of pilgrimage and association with it.
Some of the greatest saints of Britain were drawn to Glastonbury: St. Patrick, the Patron of Ireland was Abbot of Glastonbury at the end of his life and, contrary to modern Irish claims, was buried in the Lady Chapel. In fact, the tradition is that it was Patrick who organized the band of Celtic hermits who lived in Glastonbury into a monastic community.
David, the Patron of Wales, had "a great passion for Glastonbury" and endowed it with a great jewel which he brought back from the Holy Land. Brigid also lived nearby for a time and the remains of her convent in the village of Beckery can still be discerned if one knows where to look. These saints, and others, are to be found in the margins of the icon mentioned above, and to which we will return. Under the great Abbot Dunstan, who was later Archbishop of Canterbury, Glastonbury, by then a Benedictine community, was the center of a monastic renewal which spread throughout Britain, affirming once again the central position of this great monastery in the life of the British church.
One of the most intriguing of associations with Glastonbury is that of the hero King Arthur. Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales, wrote a history in the 12 th century based on older records.
Gerald asserts that Arthur had a great devotion to Our Lady of Glastonbury and had her image painted on his shield. This story is corroborated by another account which says that in the eighth of his twelve great battles to establish the freedom and peace of ancient Britain, Arthur carried an image of Our Lady on his shoulder into battle. So it is not surprising that when Arthur was mortally wounded by his illegitimate son Mordred at the battle of Camlan, the King was carried off to the Isle of Avalon—an ancient name for Glastonbury—and at his death was buried near the old church.
In , his supposed grave was opened and in it was found the bones of a giant of a man, with the clear marks of a death wound to his head.
With him was a smaller skeleton, a woman with golden hair. What is particularly notable about this burial is that the coffin was not a marble sarcophagus, as one might expect if a fraud was intended by some medieval entrepreneur. Tradition says the weary pilgrims were welcomed to Glastonbury by King Arviragus, a first-century king of the Silurian dynasty in Britain.
They began building huts for themselves on the island to which Arviragus gave them title. Partial confirmation of this royal charter was found in the official Domesday Book , the record of a massive economic survey made for tax purposes by order of William the Conqueror in It says:. In about A.
Another story is that King Arthur was related to Joseph of Arimathea. Reverend Lewis in his book St. According to Lewis:. A second-century document places Joseph of Arimathea in Caesarea, legendary point of departure for his journey to Britain.