Glastonbury Tor is a conical hill in Glastonbury, England, which is topped by a 14th-century church tower. Rich in legend and mythological associations, Glastonbury Tor may have been a place of ancient ritual and it was certainly a place of pilgrimage for Catholics in medieval times. Today, it is a popular destination for visiting tourists, Grail theorists, ley-line enthusiasts, and those who make the climb to enjoy its sweeping view of Somerset countryside.
History of Glastonbury Tor
Until two thousand years ago, the sea washed right to the foot of Glastonbury Tor, nearly encircling the cluster of hills. The sea was gradually succeeded by a vast lake. Although a peninsula, the Tor would have looked like an island from most angles of approach: an old Celtic name for Glastonbury is Ynys-witrin, the Island of Glass.
Excavations on the Tor have revealed some Neolithic flint tools and Roman artifacts, indicating some use of the Tor since very ancient times. The terracing on the side of the hill, if man-made, may also date from Neolithic times.
The first significant occupation of the Tor dates from the Early Middle Ages (c.500-1000 AD). Remains discovered from this period include: a metalworker's forge; postholes; two 6th-century burials of teenagers oriented north-to-south; fragments of 6th-century Mediterranean amphorae (for wine or oil); many animals bones; and a worn hollow bronze head which may have topped a Saxon staff.
A second phase of occupation of the Tor between 900 and 1100 AD is known from the discovery of the head of a cross and what were probably monastic cells cut into the rock on the summit. The existence of a monastic community on the Tor is confirmed by a charter of 1243 granting permission for a fair to be held at the Monastery of St. Michael on the hill. Sites on high places are often dedicated to St. Michael the the Archangel; just one examples is Mont St-Michel in Normandy.
The monastery and church on Glastonbury Tor were closely associated with the great Glastonbury Abbey in town below. Medieval pilgrims made the steep climb up Glastonbury Tor with hard peas in their shoes as penance.
The first monastic Church of St. Michael that stood on Glastonbury Tor was probably destroyed in the major earthquake of 1275. The church was rebuilt in the 14th century, and only the tower still stands today.
St. Michael's Monastery on Glastonbury Tor fell into ruin after King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries (c.1535) during the English Reformation. The last abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, was hanged on Glastonbury Tor on November 15, 1539.
Myth and Mystery
As with Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury Tor is shrouded in intriguing mystery. Legends concerning its history and sacred significance have circulated since the Middle Ages, many of which center around King Arthur. In modern times, it is said to be a major center of energy and ley-lines and the home of a goddess.
The Isle of Avalon, often identified with Glastonbury, derives its name from a Celtic legend of the demi-god Avalloc or Avallach, ruler of the underworld. In Celtic lore, Avalon was an isle of enchantment. It was considered the meeting place of the dead and the point where they passed to another level of existence. The Tor was believed to be the home of Gwyn ap Nudd, the Lord of the Underworld, and a place where the fairy folk lived.
One major mysterious aspect of Glastonbury Tor are the seven levels of terraces that encircle the hill. It is not certain that they were man-made or purposeful, but they have been dated by Philip Rahtz to Neolithic times. Many believe they are an ancient ritual labyrinth or maze that correspond to a magical diagram.
The earliest writtend legend of Glastonbury Tor is in a mid-13th-century story about St. Patrick (387-460). According to this account, Patrick became a leader of a group of hermits at Glastonbury after he returned from Ireland, and discovered an ancient ruined oratory after climbing through a dense wood. Some believe this oratory to be a chapel built by Joseph of Arimathea when he arrived at Glastonbury after the crucifixion of Christ.
In Caradog of Llancarfan's Life of St. Gildas (c.1130), St. Gildas intervenes between King Arthur and King Melwas of the "Summer Country" (Somerset). Melwas had abducted Guinevere to his stronghold at Glastonbury (presumably on the Tor) and Arthur soon arrived to besiege him. Gildas manages to persuade Melwas to release Guinevere and the two kings reconcile their differences. The story can also be found in a Welsh poem known as The Dialogue of Melwas and Gwenhwyfar, the surviving manuscripts of which date from the 16th century.
Glastonbury Tor is also associated with the Holy Grail, the finding of which was the legendary quest of King Arthur and his knights. After the crucifixion of Jesus, local lore has it that Joseph of Arimathea (who according to the Bible donated his own tomb to Jesus) came to Britain, bearing the Holy Grail. This sacred chalice was the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and later by Joseph to catch Christ's blood at the crucifixion.
When Joseph arrived at the Isle of Avalon (i.e. Glastonbury), he landed on Wearyall Hill, just below the Tor. He thrust his staff into the ground and rested. By morning, his staff had become a strange oriental thorn bush - the Glastonbury Thorn. For safe keeping, Joseph buried the Holy Grail just below the Tor at the entrance to the Underworld. Soon after, a spring, now known as Chalice Well, flowed forth and the water that emerged brought eternal youth to anyone who drank it.
In recent years, there have been reports of mysterious light phenomena at Glastonbury Tor. In 1981, people climbing the hill saw a strange writhing light arc from St. Michael's Tower to the ground near Chalice Well. The earth-mysteries researcher Paul Devereux also reported witnessing strange lights in 1991.
Glastonbury is said to be a major intersection of ley lines. See for example this map. Ley lines are hypothetical alignments that run through ancient sacred sites believed to have special energy and cosmic power.
What to See at Glastonbury Tor
At a height of 521 feet, Glastonbury Tor is is a landmark for miles around. From the top of the conical hill, the view encompasses nearby Wells, the Quantocks, the Mendips, peat moors rolling out to sea, and (on clear days) the Welsh mountains.
At the top of the Tor is the 14th-century St. Michael's Tower. Visitors can enter the tower through wide archways on either side; and inside are stone benches and an informational plaque about Glastonbury Tor and St. Michael's Tower.
In the summer, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage begins on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, where the Bishop of Clifton and a visiting dignitary lead singing pilgrims down to the ancient ruins at Glastonbury Abbey, where Mass is celebrated.
Glastonbury Tor can be ascended via a steep path from the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury town (about a mile), or via an easier path from Wellhouse Lane, the road that leads to the Tor Park from the center of town.
The Glastonbury Tor Bus runs from the Glastonbury Abbey car park in town to the base of Glastonbury Tor every 30 minutes. It is a summer service only (May to mid-September) and costs £1 for all day.
Quick Facts on Glastonbury Tor
|Categories:||monasteries; sacred mountains; ruins|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.144598° N, 2.699139° W|
|Phone:||01985/843600 (regional National Trust office)|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Glastonbury Tor|
- Personal visit (November 11, 2006).
- Plaque inside St Michael's Tower at Glastonbury Tor.
- The Rough Guide to England, 7th ed. (May 2006), 410-11.
- Glastonbury Tor - National Trust official website
- Glastonbury - Mysterious Britain
- Glastonbury Abbey Official Website
- Blessed Richard Whiting - Catholic Encyclopedia (1912)
- Glastonbury Tor: Queen Guinevere's Prison? - David Nash Ford, Early British Kingdoms (includes site diagram)
Map of Glastonbury Tor
Below is a location map and aerial view of Glastonbury Tor. 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.