Glastonbury, Somerset

St. Michael's Church (Glastonbury Tor), Glastonbury, Somerset

As with almost everything else in or around Glastonbury the true history of St. Michael’s Church and the Tor upon which it stands is a confusing mix of history, myth and guess work.

Without a doubt this is the most symbolic landmark in Somerset and one of the most famous sights in England.

Dealing historically first, the Tor was certainly occupied in the Bronze Age and the Celtic period was one of great importance in the west of England. The Celts called the Tor “Ynys Wydryn” or the Isle of Glass which tends to imply that it was a centre of glass manufacture at that time.

A 5th Century fort was constructed at the top of the Tor, although it is hard to trace its remains today. In the late Saxon or early Norman period this was supplanted by St. Michael’s Church which may even predate the Abbey.

On 11 September 1275 a massive earthquake tore through Southern England. It is thought to have had its epicentre around Portsmouth and was felt in London, Canterbury and Wales. St. Michael’s Church was destroyed entirely.

In the 1360s the church tried again and it is to this rebuild that the tower which remains today dates. The church survived intact until 1539 when the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Richard Whiting, was dragged here from the Abbey and hanged, drawn and quartered.

The town and the church never recovered and it slowly fell into ruin before being restored in modern times. The National Trust now own the Tor and the church tower.

Moving on to legend, Glastonbury Tor, with its distinctive shape and silhouette is at the heart of so many tales that only a few can be recounted here.

It is best known as the site of Avalon, the land of the fairies and the ancient capital of England. In 1191 two coffins labelled Arthur and Guinevere were alleged discovered in Glastonbury Abbey. Modern scholars consider they may have been fakes put their by the Monks to increase the number of pilgrims, however, there’s nothing like legend for keeping a place in the public eye!

Another favoured theory is the Glastonbury Zodiac, which dates to 1927 and was proposed by Katherine Maltwood who believed the Zodiac to have been constructed around 5,000 years ago – although unfortunately for her theories at that time the whole area would have been under some feet of water.

The other legend most closely associated with Glastonbury and most particularly with the Tor is that of the Holy Grail which is said to be buried at the base of the Tor. It is believed that the Holy Grail – or possibly even Jesus himself – was brought to England and Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea. He also brought the fabled Glastonbury Thorn – ostensibly just a normal hawthorn bush – but one which uniquely flowers twice a year, once on 6th January – the original date for Christmas.

The original tree was destroyed by Cromwell’s troops as idolatorous, but a cutting survived in situ at the Abbey until 1992. Oddly, wherever else the cutting is planted it blooms once a year, in the normal manner, when planted in Glastonbury it blooms twice.

Whatever way you look at it Glastonbury is a truly remarkable place. Yes, it has been turned into something of a tourist trap and a ‘theme park for hippies’, but the Abbey and the Tor are still places which have that “special something”, a feel and atmosphere all of their own. If you travel to them slightly off season, when they are less busy, then you can really feel the magic of Glastonbury.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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