Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset

Benedictine Monks

Glastonbury may be the site of the oldest Monastery in England. It was certainly founded by the Britons and dates to at the very least the early 7th Century. It was later claimed that the Abbey was founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the 1st Century, but there is no concrete evidence for this – it could just be part of the whole Grail legend that has built up around the town.

In 658 the Saxons arrived and took the Abbey, the British Abbot – Bregored – was allowed to stay in charge until his death in 669 and it remained one of the strongholds of ancient British (i.e. Celtic) custom in England long after the Saxon way of life had dominated everywhere else.

The King of the Saxons of Wessex, Ine, was an important figure at Glastonbury Abbey for it was under his orders that the first stone church was built. This church was greatly enlarged by St. Dunstan whilst he was Abbot in the 10th Century. St. Dunstan became Archbishop of Canterbury in 960 AD.

The fortunes of the Abbey took another upturn when the Normans arrived. By the time of the Domesday Book Glastonbury was the richest Monastery in England.

Unfortunately a great fire swept away much of this early church in 1184. Everything was destroyed and the Monks had to worship in a small antebuilding. However, in 1191, the fortune of the Abbey was restored by the – some might say too convenient – discovery of the bones of the (alleged) King Arthur and Queen Guinevere buried near the Lady Chapel.

This turned Glastonbury into a place of pilgrimage and the coffers soon began to fill again. A new huge church was built and the first service was held on Christmas Day 1213. In 1278 the bones of Arthur and Guinevere were reburied in a black marble tomb in the presence of King Edward I (himself obsessed with Arthurian legend).

Over the next 300 years Glastonbury continued to grow and became the second richest Abbey in the land (after Westminster). One of the last buildings to be constructed was a special apartment attached to the Abbot’s Lodgings constructed for Henry VII.

Unfortunately for the Abbey, this immense wealth meant that Glastonbury was too rich a prize to be ignored for very long during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In September 1539 the Abbey was stripped of all its valuables, the tomb of “Arthur and Guinevere” was destroyed and sold off and when Abbot Richard Whiting resisted these indignities he was dragged to the top of Glastonbury Tor where he was hung, drawn and quartered in particularly bloody fashion as a traitor.

The Abbey’s famed Library was dispersed and the buildings were sold to the Thynne family (who later would become Marquesses of Bath). Over the centuries the buildings at Glastonbury fell into ruin, although it remains one of the largest and best preserved Abbeys in Britain.

The Abbey used to be the venue for the famous Glastonbury Thorn – a Common Hawthorn allegedly brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea – which blooms twice a year (once in winter on Christmas Day, once in spring as do all other hawthorns). This double-blooming remains unique today and is considered miraculous; it even ignored the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 and steadfastly would bloom on January 6th.

It is said that any transplanted Glastonbury Thorn will only bloom in spring – only in Glastonbury does it bloom bi-annually.

The original tree survived until Cromwell’s troops cut it down and burnt it during the Civil War. Fortunately other specimens survived elsewhere in town and they now provide the sovereign with their traditional spray of budding branches on Christmas Day – a tradition begun by James Montague who sent a branch to James I’s consort.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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