The Traveller's Guide to
A guide to the history and fantasy,
poetry and romance,
tradition and fable
of King Arthur's Britain
Beside the main roads entering this little town, signboards welcome the visitor to "the ancient Avalon". Glastonbury's identity with that fabled island, the Avalon of legend, is one of several hard questions. Others arise out of its claims to the Holy Grail and the grave of Arthur. But certainly it is unlike anywhere else. It nestles in a strange cluster of hills, all differently shaped. The highest, Glastonbury Tor, is a wildly distorted cone with a tower on its summit. Wirral or Wearyall Hill is a ridge stretching out towards the Bristol Channel. Chalice Hill is a smooth natural dome. Windmill Hill, more outspread, masks the others as you approach from Wells.
Around is flat country. At the beginning of the Christian era, much of it was submerged or swampy. Glastonbury's hill-cluster was not far from being an island. In the middle distance were Celtic lake-villages at Godney and Meare, on ground artificially banked up. These were centres of the "La Tène" culture, and objects from them are on view in the town museum, which is housed in a medieval building called the Tribunal. They witness to a high degree of craftsmanship and sophistication. In Roman times, to judge from traces of a wharf by Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury was a port. The water was still there in Arthur's day – very probably more of it, and closer in. The reclamation and draining of the levels came later, and even in fairly recent years, floods have been known to surge over the whole green expanse between town and sea.
People of Celtic stock formerly spoke of Glastonbury as Ynys-witrin, the Glass Island. Whether this was its name before the Saxons gave it its present one, or whether it was a mis-rendering of the Saxon name which sounded as if it had "glass" in it, is another hard question. Glass would have evoked Celtic fairy-lore and otherworld mythology, Avalonian or not (as at Bardsey). But whatever else was happening here before the Saxons' arrival, the "island" or near-island was the home of a community of British monks living in wattle cells.
Their monastery had a high reputation. Many saints of the Celtic Church are said to have come to it, and a Welsh triad makes it one of the handful with the distinction of a perpetual choir (see Amesbury). It was far enough west to escape the horrors of the early waves of Saxon invasion. Checked by the counter-attacks of Ambrosius and Arthur, the conquerors paused a long way short of Glastonbury and did not reach it till 658. By then they had become Christians themselves. The kings of Wessex took charge of the monastery, endowed and enlarged it, with no break in continuity. It became a temple of reconciliation between the races, where they worked together instead of killing each other. Here in a sense the United Kingdom was born. The monastery grew into a vast Benedictine abbey, a national shrine, so rich in its history, traditions, and multitude of great names that Glastonbury was spoken of as a second Rome.
Something of the abbey is still there, a huge, cryptic, haunting memento of an amazing past. The entrance is through an arch beside the Town Hall and up an approach path. It can also be reached directly from the adjoining car park. A bookshop by the entrance offers illustrated guides, books and souvenirs.
Glastonbury Abbey at its height was the largest and wealthiest in the kingdom after Westminster. As a popular saying put it, "If the abbot of Glastonbury could marry the abbess of Shaftesbury they would have more land than the king of England." In 1539 the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII with exceptional ruthlessness, and its last abbot, Richard Whiting, was hanged. A few years after wards it came into private hands. Its successive owners tore most of it down to sell as material for walls and roads. In 1908 the Church of England acquired the site and took steps to preserve what little was left. The scanty ruins standing today are fragments of buildings dating from the late twelfth century onward, replacing much older ones destroyed by a fire in 1184.
The Arthurian and related stories centre on the western end of the ruins. Here is the shell of the Lady Chapel, with a crypt below. The chapel was built on the site of the "Old Church", a deeply revered structure which the fire of 1184 wiped out. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was a plain building, basically of wattle-work, though reinforced with timber and lead. According to a legend which story-tellers and poets have elaborated over the past seven or eight centuries, its builder was Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who obtained the body of Christ after the crucifixion and had it buried in his own tomb. Joseph and several companions came to Britain bringing the Holy Grail, and made Glastonbury their home.
This famous and beloved story grew round the simple fact of the Old Church. At the earliest times we can document, it had already been standing there for many years, and no one really knew who had built it. In the tenth century, some said it had been miraculously planted by God himself and dedicated to his earthly Mother. In the early twelfth century its foundation was ascribed, by some, to disciples of Christ. But the leader of those disciples was not named as Joseph, the Grail-bringer, in any known writing till 100 years or so later again. It remains a puzzle why he should have begun to figure in chronicle and romance when he did. There may have been a far older tradition of his coming, preserved orally in Wales, and rediscovered with other Celtic matter in the Arthurian upsurge of the twelfth century. Nothing can be proved. What is very likely indeed, however, is that behind the legend – behind the mystery of the Old Church itself – is a solid and remarkable fact: that Glastonbury truly was the first British Christian community, or at any rate the first that survived, with an origin possibly in Roman times and almost certainly not long after, whoever the founder may have been.
Once Joseph was established in that role, the Abbey grew to value him more and more. Towards the end of its existence the crypt under the Lady Chapel was a separate chapel for him. Here the pilgrims came with offerings. It has been re-paved and is now in use again as a place of worship, weather permitting, since it is open to the sky.
A late growth is the legend of the Holy Thorn, said to have sprung from Joseph's staff when he planted it in the ground after disembarking from a boat at Wearyall Hill. The original Glastonbury Thorn grew on that hill; a stone marks the spot where the tree is popularly supposed to have stood. Today, descendants of it are flourishing in the Abbey and in front of St John's Church in the High Street, and on Wearyall Hill beside the stone. The Thorn's peculiarity is that it blossoms at Christmas or thereabouts. A sprig of the white blossom is cut off and sent to the reigning sovereign. It is not a native English tree, and the closest parallels to it are found in Syria – which, to be fair, does adjoin the Holy Land where Joseph came from! The truth may be that the first specimen was brought back by a pilgrim in the Middle Ages.
Another late growth is the belief that Joseph was Jesus's uncle or great-uncle, and that he brought the boy with him on an earlier visit to Glastonbury. It is not known when or how this story originated, but it can hardly have been current at Glastonbury in the Middle Ages, since the Abbey's chroniclers would certainly have made much of it, and they never mention it.
About 50 feet from the south door of the Lady Chapel is the site of Arthur's grave. This can be located roughly by standing on the far side of a path that runs parallel to the chapel wall. It was found – so the report goes – because when Henry II was in Wales, a bard divulged a long-kept secret. Arthur was buried at Glastonbury in the monks' graveyard between two pillars, probably the shafts of old crosses. Henry passed this on to the abbot. Nothing was done at the time, but in 1190 or 1191, during reconstruction after the fire, the monks decided to dig. Seven feet below ground level they unearthed a stone slab and a leaden cross, with the inscription
HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS
IN INSULA AVALONIA
– Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon. Considerably farther down was a coffin hollowed out of a log like a dugout canoe. Inside were the bones of a tall man, with damage to the skull suggesting death by a blow on the head. Some smaller bones, and a scrap of yellow hair which crumbled when touched, were explained as Guinevere's.
We have an account of this exhumation by Giraldus Cambrensis, an observant Welshman who was there soon afterwards and discussed it with witnesses. Nevertheless, until a few years ago, historians were apt to argue that the monks invented the whole business for publicity because they needed money to rebuild after the fire. But then critics began to point out that this was unlikely. The description suggests an actual ancient burial, and medieval monks lacked the knowledge to get it right. In 1962 Dr Ralegh Radford excavated the site and showed that they had told the truth, at least to the extent that they did dig where they said, and did find an early grave. Its stone lining was still there, and it was in a part of the graveyard which would have been regarded as a place of honour.
So the question narrows down to this: Was it Arthur? (And, of course, Guinevere.) Most historians would still insist that it was not, that the claim was only a fund-raising stunt, though in fact no evidence exists that it was ever exploited for that purpose. The answer must depend at least partly on whether or not the inscribed cross was a fake. It has been lost, but perhaps not for ever, since it can be traced to a Mr Hughes in Wells in the eighteenth century. Meanwhile we have a drawing of one side of it, published by William Camden in 1607. This is the "Here lies Arthur" side. The other may have had writing about Guinevere. Again there are riddles. The style of lettering on the cross is crude, and curious. If the monks forged it they did a more interesting job than most medieval forgers. But scholarly opinion differs as to the date which the style does indicate. Guesses range from the twelfth century back to the sixth, the latter view implying that the cross could have been authentic and the grave genuine.
It is sometimes urged that the find was too sudden and opportune to be credible. If Arthur's grave had been there all along, the community would have known, and said so before. However, that is far from certain. Once again we must remember that because of the Anglo-Saxon conquest, many traditions handed down on the Celtic fringe were quite unknown in England till the rush of rediscovery in the twelfth century. With Arthur's grave, the story of the bard and Henry II seems to imply just such a rediscovery, rather than an invention out of nothing. And in view of the grave's prestige value, it is worth noting that Glastonbury's claim was never seriously contested. Once the secret was out, apparently, even Welshmen were aware of some reason why they could not challenge it.
Having found the bones, the monks enshrined them in their church. When this was enlarged, they made a black marble tomb in front of the high altar, and there the remains of Arthur and Guinevere were reinterred in 1278 during a state visit by Edward I. The place is marked today by a notice-board, whereas the original grave is not, a fact which can confuse visitors.
Coupled with the belief that Glastonbury was Arthur's last resting-place is a belief about the casting-away of Excalibur. Bedivere threw the sword into the mere at Pomparles Bridge – pont périlleux, the dangerous bridge – which spans the River Brue near the far end of Wearyall Hill on the way to Street, though the present structure, of course, is only a modern successor of the one intended. That area was then probably under water, and a mere would have been available. However, Pomparles has rivals (see Bosherston, Dozmary Pool, Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen, Loe Pool). Apart from this romantic motif, Arthur's death in or near Glastonbury would have a serious bearing on the problem of Camlann where he fought his last battle.
Glastonbury's other Arthurian focus is the Tor, which is the highest hill in the cluster, and National Trust property. It is reached from the town by heading out as for Shepton Mallet on the A361. Still within the built-up area, a minor road called Well House Lane turns off to the left. This leads to both the public paths up the Tor. One of them starts a few yards from the intersection, the other on higher ground some distance along, near where the lane swings right to circle the hill.
The Tor is a strange formation, with its whaleback shape and its ruined tower on top. It can be seen a long way off – the distant view from the Mendips, as you approach from Bristol or Bath, is especially striking – but in the centre of Glastonbury itself it vanishes, because the lower and rounder Chalice Hill is in the way. Ridges or terraces along the sides give an odd stepped effect. They are best seen in profile from the higher part of Well House Lane. Whatever the reason for them, the Tor itself is not (as many suppose) artificial. Of the two ways up it, the one that begins near the Shepton Mallet road is a long but mostly gradual climb; the other, at the far end, is shorter and steeper.
At the summit by the tower is a small plateau. It is 518 feet above sea-level. The impressive view includes the Mendips, and Brent Knoll near the Bristol Channel. In clear weather it extends to Wales. On the other side of the Tor Cadbury Castle is visible, whence in part the "beacon" theory, for which see Brent Knoll. But it is hard to pick out because it blends with a line of hills behind it.
The Tor is the probable locale of the oldest story connecting Arthur with Glastonbury, one that was current long before any claims were made about his grave. It is told by Caradoc, a monk of Llancarfan in his "Life" of Gildas. Melwas, king of the Summer Land (Somerset), carried off Guinevere and kept her at Glastonbury. Arthur arrived to rescue her with Cornish and Devonian levies, though his operations were hampered by the watery country round about. Before the fighting could grow too serious, Gildas and the abbot arranged a treaty. Arthur and Melwas made up their quarrel in the church of St Mary – that is, the Old Church – and Guinevere was restored.
This is the first known version of a tale which appears in several medieval romances, changing as it goes along. Melwas becomes "Meleagant" and later "Meliagaunt" or "Mellyagraunce", a sinister knight. His castle is moved to Lambeth and the rescuer becomes Lancelot. But the Glastonbury tale is the original, and the Tor would have been an obvious place for a local chief to make a strongpoint. In 1964-65 Philip Rahtz excavated the summit area and found, on the south and east sides, traces of buildings of more or less Arthurian date. The complex may have been part of Melwas's establishment. However, it may also have been monastic. The question is not settled.
The Tor's stepped appearance, though usually ascribed to agricultural work, has prompted theories about its use in pre-Christian ritual. Certainly it once had an otherworldly aura and was held to be an abode of strange beings – as indeed it still is, by some. The "Life" of the sixth-century St Collen preserves a tradition of this type. He is said to have spent some time as a hermit on the Tor's lower slope. One day Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the fairy-folk and lord of the Otherworld realm of Annwn, sent a messenger inviting Collen to visit him at the top of the hill. The saint demurred, but the invitation was repeated and at last he went. Taking some holy water, he climbed up and passed through a secret entrance into a palace. Gwyn, seated on a golden chair, offered him food, but he knew that this was a trap. After a brief conversation he tossed his holy water around him. The palace vanished and Collen found himself alone on the Tor.
Gwyn is a figure from Celtic paganism. His father Nudd is the British god Nodons, who had a temple at Lydney in Gloucestershire. Gwyn and his hidden realm of Annwn both appear in early Welsh legends of Arthur, who, in spectral form, rides with him on the Wild Hunt through the sky.
It was doubtless because the monks felt the Tor to be uncanny that they built a small church on top, and dedicated it to St Michael the Archangel, conqueror of the powers of hell. The powers of hell were perhaps incompletely conquered, because it fell down in an earthquake. The present tower is the last fragment of another church of St Michael, built to replace it. Local legend speaks of a hidden chamber under the tower. People who find their way into it go mad. The notion may be a last echo of ancient Celtic belief about the entrance to Annwn.
If the terraces around the Tor's sides were made for any ritual purpose, they must date from an earlier period than St Collen. They are much worn and weathered. However, attempts have been made to reconstruct a pattern in the shape of a spiral path winding in and out and in again, circling the hill several times, and ending near the top. The strength of the argument is that the same septenary maze-spiral occurs in other places – though, admittedly, not carved in hillsides – and was clearly strong magic thousands of years ago.
Hence, there is a case for the spiral maze theory which archaeologists are willing to entertain. More speculative is the zodiac theory. This asserts that the landscape overlooked by the Tor is covered with immense figures which represent zodiacal signs. They are marked out by streams, hills, old trackways, and other features, and form a circle ten miles across. Even believers are divided about them, disagreeing as to how they were made and what exactly the outlines are. They are only visible (if at all) from the air and it is useless to climb the Tor in the hope of seeing them. The Tor itself is said to be part of Aquarius. The Sagittarius figure is a mounted warrior, claimed as a divine or symbolic "Arthur" of great antiquity, whose mythology shaped the legends about the human one.
At the Tor's foot on the side towards Chalice Hill is a garden containing Chalice Well. This is owned and looked after by the Chalice Well Trust, a religious body, which sponsored Rahtz's excavations. The intending visitor should check in advance whether the garden will be open. Chalice Well itself, up a long slope, is enclosed by medieval stonework. The spring that feeds it, nine feet down, flows copiously even in drought. Owing to an iron impregnation the water has a slight "spa" quality, and gives a reddish-orange tinge to the stone of the channels which carry it away.
Chalice Well used to be called "Chalk" Well, or, because of its tinted water, the Blood Spring. The significantly altered name, and fancies about the "blood" being the blood of Christ in the Grail somewhere underground, are fairly recent. In the days of Arthur, however, when the spring was probably at ground level without superstructure, it does seem to be mentioned and thus described in one of the Grail romances, Perlesvaus, known in English translation as The High History of the Holy Grail. Clues here and elsewhere hint that it may have supplied water for a small early Christian community, in and around the little valley between Chalice Hill and the Tor, distinct from the one on the Abbey site. This perhaps is the retreat between hills – near Glastonbury, but not, at that time, in it – to which Lancelot and other survivors retire at the end of Malory's story.
The neighbourhood has one further Arthurian spot, Beckery on the west of the town near a defunct factory. In a chapel here, Arthur is said to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, which was the reason for his putting her image on his shield (see Guinnion). Excavation has shown that an early chapel existed, but its date is unknown. Nothing can be seen today.
When all these beliefs are taken together, they show how the name "Avalon" could have settled on Glastonbury as an expression of several of them at once. First came its eerie non-Christian aspects as an enchanted Glass Island and as a point of contact with Annwn. One Celtic Otherworld could easily be equated with another; Annwn and Avalon did tend to merge or overlap; and at some stage, no one knows when, the idea took hold that Glastonbury might be the true Avalon.
Then, in the twelfth century, the monks learned the Welsh tradition of Arthur's burial and supposedly con firmed it by digging him up. His last earthly destination was agreed to have been Avalon – Geoffrey of Monmouth said it. That clinched the identification. If the inscribed leaden cross was genuine it proved it anyway, because it said "here in the Isle of Avalon". But even if it was faked, it was faked with the identification in mind. Glastonbury was now Avalon indeed, and the low-lying area round about became the Vale, or Vales, of Avalon.
Soon afterwards Robert de Boron wrote the first romance about the bringing of the Grail to Britain. It had been brought, he declared, by the first Christians to come there, who had been disciples of Christ himself. Glastonbury Abbey already claimed a foundation as early as that, and by such disciples. Robert took the obvious step of sending his early Christians to the "Vales of Avalon". Thereby Glastonbury-as-Avalon was explicitly built into the Christian legend as well as the Arthurian. Not that the equation was accepted by all, then or afterwards, but it was there to accept if one so chose. It appears again in the Abbey's chronicles and in the Grail romance Perlesvaus, which is based, so the author truly or falsely assures us, on a document "in a holy house of religion in the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur and Queen Guinevere lie".