Shrouded in mystery and legend, Glastonbury Abbey is a highly atmospheric ruin in Somerset, southern England. The surviving buildings, dating from around 1200, stand on one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain and are fine examples of Norman architecture.
History of Glastonbury Abbey
According to legend, the first church at Glastonbury was built by Joseph of Arimathea and the boy Jesus in the 1st century. Joseph was a tin merchant, the legend explains, and he came to Somerset because of its rich tin mines. He was a family friend of the Virgin Mary's so he brought the young Jesus along with him. This legend was particularly popular in the Romantic period and was the inspiration for William Blake's mystical hymn Jerusalem.
Historical sources do not support a connection with Joseph of Arimathea, but nevertheless indicate a very early date for the foundation of Christian Glastonbury. It seems the first church was built by missionaries who accompanied King Lucius to Glastonbury from Rome in the 2nd century. The missionaries built a simple church of wattle and daub (interwoven branches packed with clay) on the site of the present Lady Chapel.
Somerset was conquered by the Saxons in the 7th century, but they had converted to Christianity by then. They re-established the monastery at Glastonbury and in 712 King Ine of Wessex built a stone church at the west end of the present nave.
This church was enlarged in the 8th century and again by Abbot St. Dunstan (940-56), who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. St. Dunstan also built a complex of monastic buildings to the south of the church, which is earliest example of a cloistered monastery in England. The result was a monastery and church of grand proportions, resembling the great Abbey of Cluny in France. The abbey's wealth also increased during this period, receiving gifts of land and treasure from King Edgar and others.
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Glastonbury Abbey was the wealthiest in England. But the Norman conquest brought conflict to Glastonbury and its Saxon monks. The first Norman abbot, Turstin, did not get along with his charges and eventually brought arches into the church to shoot anyone who argued with his edicts. It is said that two monks suffered this fate and Turstin was accordingly dismissed in 1077.
In the early 1100s, Abbot Herlewin began construction on a great Norman monastic church, modeled on that at St. Albans. It was completed by his successor, Henry of Blois (brother of King Stephen), who also rebuilt all the monastic buildings around the cloister. Unusually, the Norman church was built to the east of the existing church (the Lady Chapel). This was to preserve the ancient cemetery, which was still the sacred center of the abbey.
In about 1125, Abbot Henry of Blois commissioned a history of Glastonbury from the chronicler William of Malmesbury. William did careful research using the records of the abbey, but as an employee of the abbey he could not discredit its greatest legends. Notably, however, he did express some skepticism regarding the Joseph of Arimathea connection. The resulting De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae remains our the primary source for the history and legends of Glastonbury Abbey, for the records he used were destroyed in the fire of 1184.
On May 25, 1184, a devastating fire swept through the monastery, destroying all buildings and treasures except one room and the bell tower. Reconstruction began immediately, funded by the abbey's significant income supplemented by generous donations from King Henry II. Excavations indicate the ruined nave was patched up enough to host services for nearly 30 years while the new church was built.
But within only a five years of the fire, in 1189, the Lady Chapel was completed and consecrated. It still stands at the west end of the site, its unusual position due to the fact it replaced the old Church of St. Mary, the most ancient and sacred site on the abbey grounds.
In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have made a very important discovery during the reconstruction work: the grave of King Arthur. They described a Celtic grave and a lead cross with a Latin inscription identifying the body as Rex Arthurus. The full inscription on the cross, which does not survive, was recorded as:
Relics were of great importance both spiritually and financially in the Middle Ages, and the authenticity of the claim was not investigated. The tomb of King Arthur began to attract pilgrims, who, like today's tourists, brought money to Glastonbury.
In the meantime, the Great Church was being completed. The first services were held on Christmas Day in 1213, although only the east end would have been finished by then. The main structure was completed by about 1250, while decoration and furnishings continued until the 1320s.
In 1278, the remains from the grave of King Arthur were translated to a shrine in the choir of the new monastic church. The ceremony was attended by King Edward I, who had a great interest in Arthurian legend.
Glastonbury Abbey was shut down in 1539 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. The abbey was sold by the king to the Duke of Somerset, who sold off the stone for local building works. The shrine of King Arthur was deliberately despoiled and his grave in the monastic church was soon lost among the rubble. Less than a century later, Shakespeare described Glastonbury as one of the "bare ruin'd choirs / Where late the sweet birds sang" (Sonnet 73).
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey were purchased by the Bath and Wells Diocesan Trust in 1908, making the site the property of the Church of England. The Church appointed Frederick Bligh Bond to direct archaeological excavations, during which the abbey foundations, various artifacts, and the grave of King Arthur were uncovered.
What to See at Glastonbury Abbey
Most visits to Glastonbury Abbey begin with a browse around the site museum, next to the entrance. It provides a good overview of the abbey's history, along with a model of the Great Church and a variety of artifacts that were found during excavations.
Outside, one of the first prominent sights is a black modern cross, donated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965. The dedicatory inscription reads:
The abbey ruins stretch over a peaceful, open expanse of grass and trees. The building that survives most intact is also the most important: the Romanesque Lady Chapel, consecrated in 1189. It is finished in a fine ashlar of stone from the nearby Mendip Hills, accented with the local blue lias stone.
The magnificent main portal of the Lady Chapel is richly decorated with four orders of carved figures and designs, now badly worn. Inside, illustrated signs provide a sense of how the grand chapel appeared in its heyday.
The cryptof the Lady Chapel was inserted around 1500 by Abbot Beere, for which the floor level had to be raised. The crypt was dedicated to Joseph of Arimathea, who cult was developed by the abbot.
At the east end the crypt extends under the Galilee porch of the Great Church, providing a link between the two churches. This undercroft area contains a modern altar and is the site of services in the summer. A niche in the south side of the crypt, decorated to match the chapel's windows, covers a sacred well that is clearly of great importance; it probably dates from the early days of the abbey.
Little has survived of the Great Church, yet it remains majestic in ruins. The transept crossing still stands, giving an idea of the grand scale of Glastonbury Abbey in the Middle Ages. Despite its ruined state, the crossing has a beauty and mysticism of its own, recalling the split gates of Balinese temples.
From its completion in 1250 until its destruction in 1539, the Great Church was one of the largest and most important in Britain, with a greater total area than Canterbury Cathedral. Construction began in the late Romanesque era and this is reflected in the dogtooth decoration in the surviving arches, but most of the church was completed in a pure Gothic style. It had a long nave and long choir with side aisles, a square central tower, and twin towers at the west end.
Only the foundations remain of the monastic buildings, which stretch away from the churches to the south. Signs identify the locations of such structures as the cloister, chapter house, refectory, dormitory and latrine.
Directly south of the Lady Chapel and west of the other monastic buildings are the ruins of the Abbot's Hall and the very impressive Abbot's Kitchen (built 1334-42), a square building with its great chimney still intact. Inside, eight curved ribs of the vault rise to a small opening in the center. Visitors can admire the large fireplace and get a sense of the abbot's lavish lifestyle from the recreations of herbs and supplies laid out on the tables.
In the Middle Ages, Glastonbury drew pilgrims from across Europe. They came to see the site of great legend and venerate the many relics enshrined in the abbey. Important visitors were housed in the abbey, but most pilgrims found food and lodging in the small town that began to grew around the abbey over the centuries. The George and Pilgrims Hotel in the High Street, dating from the 1400s, was one such pilgrim's lodging.
Medieval pilgrims would enter the abbey by the 14th-century gate that still stands, dodging the booths of traders and souvenir hawkers. They would then follow a set route of stations around the abbey, praying and making offerings at the shrines of a variety of saints. Many would also climb Glastonbury Tor to St. Michael's Chapel as part of their pilgrimage.
A small pilgrimage to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey was held by a few local churches in 1924 and has only increased in popularity since then. Today, the Glastonbury pilgrimage is held on the second weekend of July and attracts pilgrims from all over Western Europe. Services are celebrated in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
Quick Facts on Glastonbury Abbey
|Categories:||shrines; monasteries; ruins|
|Dates:||late 12th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.146389° N, 2.715189° W|
|Hours:||Open every day of the year except Christmas Day.|
Apr, May, Sept, Oct: 9:30am-6pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near Glastonbury Abbey|
- Personal visit (November 11, 2006).
- Glastonbury Abbey: The Isle of Avalon (Pitkin Guide, 2006).
- Glastonbury Abbey - official website
- Joseph of Arimathea - Wikipedia
- Glastonbury Abbey Floor Plan - Planetware (Baedecker)
Map of Glastonbury Abbey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Glastonbury Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.