Glastonbury Abbey

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View from the former location of the North transept in East direction to the choir.

Glastonbury Abbey in Glastonbury, Somerset, England, now presents itself as "traditionally the oldest above-ground Christian church in the World" situated "in the mystical land of Avalon" by dating the founding of the community of monks at AD 63, the legendary visit of Joseph of Arimathea, who was supposed to have brought the Holy Grail and planted the Glastonbury Thorn.



A community of monks were already established at Glastonbury when King Ine of Wessex enriched their endowment. He is said to have directed that a stone church be built in 712, the foundations of which now form the west end of the nave. Glastonbury was ravaged by the Danes in the ninth century. The contemporary reformed soldier Saint Neot was sacristan at Glastonbury before he went to found his own establishment in Somerset. The abbey church was enlarged in the tenth century by the Abbot of Glastonbury, Saint Dunstan, the central figure in the tenth-century revival of English monastic life, who instituted the Benedictine Rule at Glastonbury. Dunstan became Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. Dunstan built new cloisters as well. In 967, King Edmund was laid to rest at Glastonbury. In 1016 Edmund Ironside, who had lost England to Canute but held onto the title of King of Wessex, was buried there too.

At the Norman Conquest in 1066, the wealth of Glastonbury made it a prime prize. The new Norman abbot, Turstin, added to the church, unusually building to the east of the older Saxon church and away from the ancient cemetery, thus shifting the sanctified site. Not all the new Normans were suitable heads of religious communities. In 1077, Thurstin was dismissed after his armed retainers killed monks right by the High Altar. In 1086, when Domesday Book was commissioned, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastery in the country. Abbot Henry of Blois commissioned a history of Glastonbury, about 1125, from the chronicler William of Malmesbury, whose De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae is our source for the early recorded history, and much awe-inspiring legend as well. Then as now, legend worked more strongly than raw history to bring the pilgrims who sustained the Abbey's reputation and contributed to its upkeep.

Site of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere's grave, Glastonbury Abbey.

In 1184, a great fire at Glastonbury destroyed the monastic buildings. There is evidence that, in the twelfth century, the ruined nave was renovated enough for services while the great new church was being constructed. If pilgrim visits had fallen, the discovery of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere's grave in the cemetery in 1191 provided fresh impetus for visiting Glastonbury. According to two accounts by the chronicler, Giraldus Cambrensis,[1] the abbot, Henry de Sully, commissioned a search, discovering at the depth of 16 feet a massive hollowed oak trunk containing two skeletons. Above it, under the covering stone, according to Giraldus, was a leaden cross with the unmistakably specific inscription Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia ("Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon").

Five years later, in 1197, Savaric FitzGeldewin, bishop of Bath and Wells, persuaded Pope Celestine III to allow the annexation of Glastonbury Abbey to his diocese. He officially moved his Episcopal seat there, but the monks would not accept their new Bishop of Glastonbury and he was kept away from the abbey. The bishops continued to use the title Bishop of Bath and Glastonbury until finally renouncing their claim to Glastonbury in 1219. Services in the reconsecrated Great Church had begun on Christmas Day, 1213, most likely before it was entirely completed. King Edward I and Queen Eleanor attended the magnificent service at the reburial of King Arthur's remains to the foot of the High Altar in 1278.

In the fourteenth century, only Westminster Abbey was more richly endowed and appointed than Glastonbury. The abbot of Glastonbury kept great state, now attested to simply by the ruins of the abbey kitchen, with four huge fireplaces at its corners. The kitchen was part of the magnificent Abbot's house begun under Abbot John de Breynton (1334-42). Archaeological excavations have revealed a special apartment erected at the south end of the Abbot's house for a visit from Henry VII, who visited the Abbot in a royal progress, as he visited any other great territorial magnate. The conditions of life in England during the Wars of the Roses became so unsettled that a wall was built around the Abbey's precincts.

At the start of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, there were over 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries in England. By 1541, there were none. More than 15,000 monks and nuns had been dispersed and the buildings had been seized by the Crown to be sold off or leased to new lay occupiers. Glastonbury Abbey was once more a rich plum. In September 1539, the Abbey was stripped of its valuables and Abbot Richard Whyting, who had been a signatory to the Act of Supremacy that made Henry VIII the head of the church, resisted and was hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor on Glastonbury Tor on November 15, 1539.

By Shakespeare's time, two generations later, Glastonbury was one of the "bare ruin'd choirs Where late the sweet birds sang."[2]


One of the earliest surviving manuscripts, now at the Bodleian Library, telling that Dunstan the abbot gave orders for the writing of this book.

The Abbey library was described by John Leland, King Henry VIII's librarian who visited it, as containing unique copies of ancient histories of England and unique early Christian documents. It seems to have been affected by the fire of 1184, but still housed a remarkable collection until 1539 when it was dispersed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Historian James Carley has traced some of the manuscripts from Glastonbury.

Glastonbury Thorn

A specimen of Common Hawthorn found at Glastonbury, first mentioned in an early sixteenth century anonymous metrical Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea, was unusual in that it flowered twice in a year, once as normal on "old wood" in spring, and once on "new wood" (the current season's matured new growth) in the winter. This flowering of the Glastonbury Thorn in mild weather just past midwinter was accounted miraculous.

At the time of the adoption of the revised Gregorian calendar in Britain in 1752, the Gentleman's Magazine reported that curious visitors went to see whether the Glastonbury Thorn kept to the Julian calendar or the new one:

"Glastonbury.—A vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn on Christmas-day, new style; but, to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, old style, when it blowed as usual."
Gentleman's Magazine January 1753

This tree has been widely propagated by grafting or cuttings, with the cultivar name 'Biflora' or 'Praecox'. An early antiquarian account by Mr Eyston was given in Hearse's History and Antiquities of Glastonbury, 1722 : "There is a person about Glastonbury who has a nursery of them, who, Mr. Paschal tells us he is informed, sells them for a crown a piece, or as he can get." [1] The present "sacred thorn tree" at the Church of St John, Glastonbury was grown from a local cutting, like many others in the neighbourhood of Glastonbury.

The original Glastonbury Thorn itself was cut down and burned as a relic of superstition by Cromwellian troops during the English Civil War.

The custom of sending a budded branch of the Glastonbury thorn to the Queen at Christmas was initiated by James Montague, Bishop of Bath and Wells during James I's reign, who sent a branch to Queen Anne, King James I's consort.

Glastonbury Thorn in the summer of 1984. Died in 1991, destroyed in 1992.

A spray of Holy Thorn from the Glastonbury Thorn tree was sent to the Sovereign each Christmas by the Vicar and Mayor of Glastonbury. But it was pronounced dead in June 1991, and cut down the following February. However, many cuttings were taken from it before its destruction. The pre-1991 thorn in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey is said to be a cutting from the original plant which was planted in secret after the original was destroyed. Now only trees budded or grafted from the original exist, and these blossom twice a year, in May and at Christmas. The blossoms of the Christmas shoots are usually much smaller than the May ones and do not produce any haws. It is noteworthy also that plants grown from the haws do not retain the characteristics of the parent stem.

Many have tried to grow the Glastonbury Holy Thorn, Crataegus monogyna var, biflora, (or Crataegus oxyacantha praecox) from seed and direct cuttings, but in recent years all attempts have reverted to the normal hawthorn type, flowering only in spring.

The large tree had been in the churchyard for eighty years. It was planted by Mr George Chislett, then head gardener of Glastonbury Abbey. He also learned how to graft Holy Thorn cuttings onto the root of blackthorn stock, and so preserve the “miraculous” Christmas blossoming characteristic. His son, Wilf, sent Holy Thorns all over the world, including to Washington, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Luckily, trees survive from earlier grafs to perpetuate the Glastonbury legend, among them two other Holy Thorns in the grounds of St John’s. In recent years, the blossom sent to the Queen has come from one of these. At the end of term, the pupils of St John’s Infants School gather round the tree in St John’s parish churchyard on the High Street. They sing carols, including one specially written for the occasion, and the oldest pupil has the privilege of cutting the branch of the Glastonbury Thorn that is then taken to London and presented to Her Majesty The Queen.

In 1965 The Queen erected a wooden cross at Glastonbury with the following inscription: “The cross. The symbol of our faith. The gift of Queen Elizabeth II marks a Christian sanctuary so ancient that only legend can record its origin.”

The Abbey today

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey were purchased by the Bath and Wells Diocesan Trust in 1908. The ruins are therefore now the property of the Church of England. On acquiring the site the Church appointed Frederick Bligh Bond to direct an archaeological investigation.

A pilgrimage to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey was held by a few local churches in 1924. This pilgrimage continues to be held on the second Saturday and Sunday of July, and now attracts visitors from all over Western Europe. Services are celebrated in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

It is a grade I listed building.[3]


  1. In his Liber de Principis instructione ("Book of the instruction of princes"), of ca.1193, and his Speculum Ecclesiae ("Mirror of the Church"), of ca.1216. He identified the abbot in charge as "Abbot Henry, who was later elected Bishop of Worcester".
  2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73
  3. "Glastonbury Abbey". Images of England. Retrieved on 2006-11-11.

See also

Further reading

  • James P. Carley, Glastonbury Abbey : The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Perilous ISBN 0-906362-23-7
  • ---, The Chronicle of Glastonbury (1985)
  • ---, Glastonbury Abbey: History and Legends (1988)
  • --- (editor), The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey (l99l)
  • ---, Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition (2001) Essays.
  • Robert Rouse and Cory Rushton, The Medieval Quest for Arthur, Tempus, Stroud, 2005 ISBN 0-7524-3343-1
  • Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts, Glastonbury: Myth and archaeology, Tempus, 2003 ISBN 0-7524-2548-X

External links


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