Glastonbury Abbey

From Academic Kids

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 63 A.D., the legendary visit of Joseph of Arimathea, who was supposed to have brought the Holy Grail and planted the Glastonbury Thorn. Even the skeptic finds much else to admire about Glastonbury's evocative ruins and its splendid documented history.



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 9th 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 10th century by the Abbot of Glastonbury, Saint Dunstan, the central figure in the 10th-century revival of English monastery life, who instituted the Benedictine Rule; 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 "Ironsides" who had retired to the west country as "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 the census reported in Domesday Book was commissioned, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastery in the country. Abbot Henry of Blois commissioned a history of Glastonbury, ca 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.

In 1184 a great fire at Glastonbury destroyed monastic buildings. There is evidence that in the 12th 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 tombs in the cemetery in 1191 provided fresh spurs for visiting Glastonbury. According to the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis, the abbot Henry de Blois commissioned a search, discovering at the depth of 16 feet a massive oak trunk containing two skeletons. Nearby, according to Giraldus Cambrensis, 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"). King Edward I and Queen Eleanor attended the magnificent service at the reburial of King Arthur's remains at the foot of the High Altar. Services in the reconsecrated Great Church had begun on Christmas Day, 1213, most likely before it was entirely completed. In 1215, among the great bishops and magnates signing Magna Carta, was Jocelyn, Bishop of Bath and Glastonbury.

In the 14th 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 become so unsettled that a wall is 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 Britain. By 1541, there were none. More than 10,000 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 Stephen Whiting, who had been a signer of the Act of Supremacy that made Henry VIII the head of the church, resisted and was hanged as a traitor on Glastonbury Tor (see links).

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


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The Glastonbury Thorn

A specimen of Common Hawthorn found at Glastonbury, first mentioned in an early 16th 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 neighborhood 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, in an unconscious reenactment of the joyous and triumphal cutting down and burning of the sacred groves, from Dodona in Greece to England, that was enacted by Christians throughout Europe in the 4th century.

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.

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.

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.

External links

See also


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