Glastonbury Abbey and the Tor - History and Legends of old
Glastonbury in Somerset, England
When it comes to learning about Glastonbury in Somerset, England, there are so many legends and mysteries shrouded in the mists of time that fiction and lore are often intermingled with historical facts. It is difficult at times to distinguish between what is real and what belongs to the mythical. Many are the legends of old about Glastonbury, the Tor, and the ancient Glastonbury Abbey.
Glastonbury Abbey Ruins
Glastonbury Abbey had its beginnings in the early 7th century as a monastery. It was founded by Britons as a community for British monks.
In 658 Cenwalh of Wessex led the Saxon army in the Battle of Peonnum and they gained control of Somerset, as well as the abbey. The British Bregored, was allowed to remain abbot of Glastonbury Abbey till his death in 669. Berhtwald, an Anglo-Saxon, was then appointed as abbot.
Under the reign of the Saxon King Ine of Wessex, the abbey gained another building in 712, a stone church, and the British monks who had stayed saw an improvement with the generous endowment Ine bestowed upon their community. Foundations of a stone church built by Ine's orders can still be seen on the west end of the nave.
In the 9th century, the Danes attacked and severely damaged Glastonbury. In the tenth century the abbot of Glastonbury, Saint Dunstan, became Archbishop of Glastonbury and instituted the Benedictine Rule in 960.
The Benedictine rule, called the Horarium, was based on the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia from the 6th century. It was a strict daily timetable established to prevent idleness in the life of the monks. Benedict believed that idleness is the enemy of the soul. Dunstan established that each day was divided into three activities: communal prayer, spiritual reading, and labor, which left no time for idleness.
Dunstan wasted no time and recreated the monastic life. He built new cloisters and focused on rebuilding the abbey.
There is a legend that Dunstan was asked by the Devil to re-shoe his horse. Instead, Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devil's hoof. It was so painful for the Devil, but Dunstan told him it would be taken off if the Devil promised to never enter a place where a horseshoe is over a door. The Devil has kept his promise to this day.
The Abbot's Kitchen
The Abbot's Kitchen is a very well preserved structure of medieval kitchens, one of the best in Europe. To the south of the Abbey, the building sits off by itself in isolation. It is the only monastic building of the Abbey to survive intact.
It is a very well planned building, square with curved buttresses on each side and gargoyles up on the cornices. Inside, in each of four corners, stands a huge fireplace with smoke outlets in the ceiling above. It is the only building within the monastic grounds that has survived intact. Some artifacts and furnishings from other buildings of the abbey have been moved to the Abbot's kitchen.
In ancient times, Glastonbury Tor was an island, the sea caressing the gentle slopes of the cluster of hills below the Tor. In time the sea pulled back and left a vast lake and marshy wetlands. When up close to the Tor, the gradual ascent to the top is rather subtle. Yet from a distance this is an amazing sight that has inspired feelings of spiritual possibilities, legends, and much speculation on its history.
Terraces on the Tor
Unusual terracing around the Tor has lead to many theories as to the purpose of it. One thought is that the terracing is actually the work of ancient people who created the maze for ritualistic reasons, for the design of the maze is that of an ancient pattern symbolic of magic rituals. The maze was formed about 5000 years ago. This would put the creation of the maze in the same time period as when Stonehenge was created.
The terracing is not typical of that done for agricultural purposes. Terracing for this reason would have been done on the south side only of the hill, to take full advantage of the most amount of sunshine. The north side is terraced as much as the south is, in fact, the terracing goes all around the Tor. For agricultural purposes, this would be of little benefit. It is interesting to note that none of the other hills around the Tor were terraced. What is unusual about the terracing is that it spirals up from bottom to top, rather than in concentric circles in equal height on the sides and width, as is usual for agriculture. The terracing is also not seen as defensive ramparts, which would be a bank and ditch formation.
During the reign of King Henry VIII, the abbey was suppressed with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Richard Whiting, the last abbot of the abbey, was hanged at the top of the tor in 1539. The King had Whiting executed for treason because Whiting remained loyal to Rome.
During the Saxon and early medieval periods, several buildings were constructed at the top of the Tor. The only remaining one is the tower of the stone Church of St. Michael, from the 14th century.
The Tor still dominates the flat marshy lowlands that surround it in Glastonbury. It was referred to as Ynis-witrin in ancient times. Ynis-witrin, an old British name, means Isle of Glass. In Celtic lore, the Tor was called Avalon, the Isle of Apples.
Morgan le Fay at Avalon
Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legends was the High Priestess of Avalon and the half sister of King Arthur. Many believe it is here where Morgan le Fay dwells in the sanctuary of the faery, hidden from those who know not the way through the mist. Beyond the mists is revealed the heart of Avalon. Tis here that King Arthur was taken to be healed and nevermore seen.
Morgan le Fay was always in love with Lancelot, Arthur's closest companion. However, Lancelot was in love with Guinevere, Arthur's wife and queen. It is noted in some legends that Lancelot sought sanctuary for penance in Glastonbury Abbey after the death of King Arthur.
Even though the Tor can be physically seen, Avalon cannot. The land of the fae is in another dimension that is accessible only when the magical mists appear and only Morgan le Fay can part those mists. Avalon is the Isle of Enchantment.
The spiraling of the terracing is very indicative of a labyrinth. But for what purpose? Since many believe that the Glastonbury Tor once stood above Avalon, it is just as easy to believe that the spiral to the top was made by the faery folk of Morgan le Fay's realm for ritualistic reasons -- maybe to carry out ceremonial rituals on the highest point of Avalon. Or was the spiral path originally made for the spiral castle of Avallach, Lord of the Underworld? This is another possibility that many believe.
What of King Arthur and his existence? Did he live on within Avalon, with Morgan le Fay and the faery? The enchanted isle disappeared from the world when Christianity became dominant over the old Pagan religion. Is Arthur still alive in another realm?
Last Sleep of Arthur
Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur
On the grounds of the old abbey there is a grave with an inscription on a plague that claims it is the tomb of King Arthur. According to one account, written by the historian Gerald of Wales, Queen Guinevere also is in the same grave.
There is a story that in the year 1191, monks of the Abbey dug up the grave just south of the Lady Chapel of the Abbey Church. Apparently, the site of the grave was told to the monks by King Henry II, who had consulted a soothsayer or an elderly Welsh bard of the location. Within the grave the monks found the remains of a man who would have been about seven feet tall in life. A petite woman was lying next to him. She had long golden hair which crumbled and vanished when it was touched by a monk.
Do you believe the grave found at the abbey is really the final resting place of King Arthur and Guinevere?
The Tomb of King Arthur was Found on the South Side of the Lady Chapel
It was an unusual grave the monks found 16 feet underground. There was a stone slab on top of a hollowed out log. Under the slab was a lead cross that had an inscription on it, identifying the remains as Arthur and Guinevere. In the year 1278, the remains in the grave were transferred to a shrine in the new monastic church, where it can be seen today.
It is difficult to believe that the grave is actually that of King Arthur, for there are several different accounts of the story. Two accounts written by Gerald of Wales, supposedly an eyewitness to the discovery and the contents of the grave, are very believable. The first account written by Gerald, from "Liber de Principis instructione" c.1193, states in the second paragraph:
"In our own lifetime Arthur's body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot. The body was hidden deep in the earth in a hollowed-out oak bole and between two stone pyramids which had been set up long ago in the churchyard there. They carried it into the church with every mark of honour and buried it decently there in— Gerald of Wales
Tomb Found by Chance
Ralph of Coggeshall, sixth abbot of Coggeshall from 1207 - 1218, stated in a later writing than Gerald's account, that the tomb was found by chance when a grave was being dug for a monk who had wished to be buried at that spot. Another account that came out that the remains of King Arthur had been found, but were lost during the Reformation - this is not substantiated by any records.
It has been believed by many, since the discovery of the tomb, that the whole story was made up to lay claim to the antiquity of the abbey foundation and also to increase the desire of tourists to visit and donate money to the financially suffering abbey.
Sometimes, history is better left in the past in order to let the more enduring legends grow. This legend of the discovery of King Arthur's final resting place is a devastating claim to the people of Wales who believe that their beloved King Arthur will one day return from behind the mists of Avalon and make right the wrongs that were done to the Welsh by the oppression from England.
Grave of King Arthur and Guinevere
The Glastonbury Thorn and Chalice Well
One of the most enduring legends is the Sacred Glastonbury Thorn and the Chalice Well. The legend tells that during the first century, Joseph of Arimathea came to Somerset with the boy Jesus. It is believed that Joseph was an uncle of the Virgin Mary's family.
Joseph and Jesus built the first church at Glastonbury, which was of wattle and daub. Many years later, after the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph brought the Holy Grail to Avalon and buried it below the Tor, at the entrance to the underworld, where sacred water began to flow from a spring. This spring is now called the Chalice Well. It offers eternal youth to those who drink from it.
Cover of the Chalice Well
A distance away, when Joseph stopped to rest for the night, he stuck his staff into the ground. In the morning, he found the staff had taken root and had become a thorn bush.
Sadly, the Glastonbury Thorn, over 2000 years old, was destroyed by an act of vandalism in December of 2010.
The Holy Thorn
Isle of Avalon
Note From Author
In regards to the inscription in the purported grave of King Arthur at Glastonbury Abbey: I have read, over many years, just about every book on Arthurian legends and I find that most scholars and authors, including me, believe that King Arthur had only one wife, Guinevere. Arthur was very young when he married Guinevere and was still married to her when Mordred and Arthur killed each other. Guinevere spent the rest of her life in a monastery for Nuns.
© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns