The stories of my life on a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea ... and my occasional adventures beyond these shores.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Glastonbury Abbey: the legend and the history

Glastonbury Abbey has always been high on my bucket list - not only because of its association with King Arthur but because its destruction was wrought at the hands of King Henry VIII, whose notoriety lives on, centuries after his death. At Glastonbury Abbey I was able to learn more about the Arthurian legend and the tempestuous reign on the Tudors - folklore and history, two of my favourite subjects.

07072016 - Glastonbury & Wells (32)

"… among all the greater churches of England, Glastonbury is the only one where we may be content to lay aside the name of England and fall back on the older name of Britain." Professor Freeman (archeologist)


The Legend

Glastonbury Abbey is purported to be the earliest Christian church in Britain and it is linked to Joseph of Arimathea and also to the burial place of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. Joseph, who buried Christ's body in his own tomb after the crucifixion, is said to have travelled to Britain with the Holy Grail (the cup used by Jesus during the Last Supper) and burying it in a secret place in what is now Glastonbury. It is claimed that he also established the first monastery in Glastonbury and built the first wattle church on the site. It was also believed that Joseph was buried somewhere at the abbey.

In Arthurian legend, on of the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table was the quest for the Holy Grail. In the 12th century, the Abbey was destroyed by fire and, in an effort to raise more money from the pilgrims, the monks spread the tale that they  had found the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. To this day, a site in the Abbey grounds is marked as their tomb.

Glastonbury Abbey

Other legends associate the whole area around the Tor, a hill located a few miles from the town of Glastonbury, with the legendary island of Avalon, the place where King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was forged and where he was taken to recover from his wounds after his last  battle at Camlann.

"Now I do not ask you to believe these legends; I do ask you to believe that there was some special cause why legends of this kind should grow, at all events why they should grow in such a shape and in such abundance, round Glastonbury alone of all the great monastic churches of Britain." Professor Freeman (archeologist)

The  History

The history of Glastonbury Abbey is as long as it is eventful. In an effort to keep it simple I will just mention the most important milestones. The first church on this site was probably built in the 7th century by King Ine (or Ina) of Wessex. The church was enlarged in the 10th century by St Dunstan who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Following the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, skilled Norman craftsmen added magnificent buildings to the existing church. By 1086, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastery in the country. The Norman church and monastery were destroyed by fire in 1184 and in 1191 the story about the tomb of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere was circulated. The first structure to be built, in 1184, was the Lady Chapel which was later annexed to Glastonbury Abbey, also known as the Great Church. The Great Church was re-consecrated in 1213 but work on it continued until 1348. Both the Abbey and the Lady Chapel were destroyed in 1539 during Henry VIII's quarrel with the church and the subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was the last of all the religious houses in Somerset to be destroyed and despoiled of its riches, which passed to the Crown.

 Glastonbury Abbey

Artist's impression of what Glastonbury Abbey may have looked like

The Architecture and the  Ruins

Both the Abbey and the Lady Chapel are in ruins, albeit the Lady Chapel is in a better state. Most of its walls are still standing and one can get a good idea of what the original building must have looked like. The chapel is Romanesque in design and highly decorated. The crypt beneath the chapel, which was dug out in around 1500, is largely intact.

The  Lady Chapel - Glastonbury

The  Lady Chapel - GlastonburyThe  Lady Chapel Crypt - GlastonburyThe  Lady Chapel - GlastonburyThe  Lady Chapel - Glastonbury

The  Lady Chapel - Glastonbury

Glastonbury Abbey has both late Romanesque and Gothic styles incorporated in its structure and, despite the fact that not much of the original building is left, the surviving ruins are a legacy to its original grandeur and majesty. The Abbey had a long nave and choir, with a square central tower and twin towers at the west end. There is no doubt that this used to be a magnificent edifice which must have looked pretty awe-inspiring to the pilgrims that travelled here from around the country.

Glastonbury AbbeyGlastonbury AbbeyGlastonbury Abbey

"bare ruin'd choirs / Where late the sweet birds sang" (from Sonnet 73). William Shakespeare

The Abbey Grounds

Entrance to the abbey grounds and museum is through Magdalene Gate, a large stone arch dating to the 14th century with some 16th century alterations. Close to the entrance is a small chapel dedicated to St Patrick that is from the 16th century and has survived to this day.

St Patrick's Chapel - GlastonburySt Patrick's Chapel - Glastonbury

Unfortunately, we had to rush through the museum as we did not have as much time on our hands as we would have liked but, from the little that we saw, I can confirm  that there is a wealth of information about Glastonbury Abbey and its environs to pass an interesting hour or two. The abbey ruins are situated on 36 acres of parkland that has areas dedicated to public recreation. Also located on the grounds are the ruins of the Abbott's Hall, the cloisters and the still largely-intact Abbott's Kitchen. The latter is an octagonal-shaped building from the 14th century that served as the kitchen at  Glastonbury Abbey. The Abbott's Kitchen is one of the few surviving medieval kitchens in the world. It  used to be connected to the Abbott's Hall, of which only one small section of wall remains.

The Abbott's KitchenRemnant of the Abbott's HallRemnant of the Abbott's HallThe Abbott's Kitchen interiorThe Abbott's Kitchen

My Impressions

Needless to say, I loved exploring the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and the Lady Chapel. Even though the connection to King Arthur is tenuous at best, the rich and varied history of the abbey made the visit extremely interesting. While I would have loved to see the abbey as it would have looked like before its dissolution, the scale of the ruins only reinforced the feeling of awe and mystery that washed over me as soon as I laid eyes on them. A visit to Glastonbury Abbey may not be everyone's idea of a fun-filled afternoon but there is a lot to learn and explore as none of the ruins are off-limits. The stately ruins, looking almost skeletal against the darkening sky, were absolutely fascinating to this amateur photographer. I would have been content to photograph the beautiful bones of this once-stately structure till the last sliver of light disappeared. There is an almost mystical sense of peace here that completely shuts out the world outside. Some people believe that natural energy lines run through Glastonbury. I saw others in deep meditation on the place that used to be the High Altar. It seems as if an aura of sanctity prevails and perhaps a little bit of magic too. Or maybe my imagination is up to its tricks again.

 Glastonbury Abbey

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