Feeling that he was nearing the end of his earthly sojourn Gildas obtained permission from the abbot to take up the life of a hermit again. Near Glastonbury and not far from a river, he built a little chapel dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity and lived a life of prayer and penance there. (Later there was, in fact, a chapel dedicated to St Gildas himself, which was known in the romances as the 'Chapel Adventurous'.) When Gildas felt death approaching he asked the abbot to bury him at Glastonbury Abbey, the place he loved above all others. The abbot granted his request; Gildas thereupon expired and 'amid very loud wailing and with most befitting funeral rites, he was buried in the middle of the pavement of St Mary's church; and his soul rested, rests, and will rest, in heavenly repose.'
'Lantocai' is the ancient name for Leigh in Street, which was owned by Glastonbury Abbey as early as 681 when Haeddi, bishop of Winchester, gave three 'cassati' at Leigh to the abbot Haemgils. The original name 'Lantocai', that is the church of Kea, indicates a possible Glastonbury provenance for yet another Celtic holy man, St Kea, who is more generally associated with Devon, Cornwall and Brittany.
From Kea's Life we learn that he was a contemporary of Gildas. He was trained at Glastonbury and then became a hermit nearby at the location to which his name would later be attached. Before he set out on his wanderings (these almost statutory migrations in the lives of the early Celtic saints) he acquired a bell from St Gildas - famous in hagiographical tradition as a bell-maker - at the nearby 'Chapel Adventurous'. This bell would ring, so it was revealed, when Kea arrived at the place where he was meant to settle. In due course, when he got to a wood by a river just south of modern Truro, now known as Old Kea, the bell rang of its own accord, a sign that the wanderings were over. Kea and his companions thereupon cleared the land, built a little chapel and dwelling cells nearby and began their eremitic life. After a variety of adventures Kea emigrated to Brittany and set up a second monastery at Cleder (c.472) in the reign of Hoel the Great. For this new monastery he brought relics from Cornwall and a book of the gospels which he had earlier written himself.
After Kea's departure from Greater Britain to Lesser Britain (i.e., Brittany) a series of catastrophes occurred in the former location. Taking advantage of the absence of his uncle King Arthur in Gaul, the rebel Mordred usurped the throne and incestuously married Queen Guenevere. Hearing of this, King Arthur handed over his affairs in Gaul to the care of another nephew named Hoel and returned home to challenge the usurper who, for his part, had already contracted an alliance with the pagan Saxons. In panic over the Saxon deluge, the English bishops sent word to Kea, who was universally renowned for his skill in diplomacy as well as for his sanctity. He returned to Britain and appeared before Arthur with plans for a peaceful solution to the dispute. Unfortunately, however, 80,000 Saxons had already landed on the coast and so it was impossible to avoid a war. In despair over the sad fate awaiting his country, Kea decided to return to Brittany. He passed through Winchester en route and there visited the despondent Guenevere whom he persuaded to forsake the world and become a nun. Back at Cleder Kea himself fell mortally ill and died, his Life states, in October 495. He was buried quietly in the oratory of his hermitage, where his tomb was subsequently discovered and where many miracles occurred.
In the Life of Kea, which survives only in a very late and corrupt version, there are a number of striking overlaps with the legends of St Gildas and with the whole Arthurian saga. Both saints are associated with Street and the 'Chapel Adventurous'. The bell cast by Gildas - who in his capacity as bell-maker also provided bells for St Brigit and St Cadog - forms an important component in the account of Kea's early quests. The names in both Lives, moreover, have similarities. Kea, of course, immediately brings to mind King Arthur's own foster brother Sir Kay. Gildas' brother, with whom King Arthur waged mortal battle, was Hueil, a close variant on the name of Kea's second patron King Hoel. The long Arthurian episode in the Life of Kea - where Kea returns to Britain (perhaps even to Glastonbury) to meet Arthur and propose a peace-treaty with Mordred - is structurally very similar to the ambassadorial episode in the Life of Gildas, where Gildas mediates between Arthur and Melwas at Glastonbury. What these parallels between the two Lives may suggest is that Glastonbury was somehow associated with the development of some of the most important Arthurian hagiographical traditions.
The otherworldly aspect of Glastonbury - hinted at in the Melwas episode of the Life of St Gildas - is made even more explicit in another, peripherally Arthurian, saint's life, namely the Life of St Collen, which survives only in a Welsh redaction of the sixteenth century. According to Welsh tradition, Collen - whose name is commemorated in Llangollen in North Wales and in Brittany - was the grandson of Coleddog, a man described in the Welsh Triads as one of the 'Three Ineloquent Men of the Court of Arthur'. After his education in Orleans Collen undertook a heroic encounter on behalf of the pope with a pagan called Byras. He then came to Glastonbury where he eventually set up his hermitage in a quiet spot beneath a rock on the side of Glastonbury Tor. One day he heard two men discussing Gwynn ab Nudd; when they said he was King of Annwfn and of the fairies, Collen was exasperated and interrupted them, explaining that Gwynn and his company were only pagan demons. His interlocutors begged to differ and informed him that he would soon have to confront Gwynn face to face. Not long afterwards, indeed, Gwynn's messenger arrived and ordered Cohen to come to speak with Gwynn on the top of the Tor by midday at the latest. After two refusals, which led to threats by the messenger, Collen equipped himself with holy water and climbed the Tor, where he saw Gwynn's habitation: 'the fairest castle he had ever seen and around it the best appointed hosts, and many musicians with every instrumental and string music, and horses with boys on their backs, the fairest in the world, and girls of noble aspect, lively activity, light-footed, lightly dressed, in the flower of young age, and every dignity which was known to the court of a powerful king ...' When the saint entered the castle he was taken to Gwynn, sitting in a chair of gold, and was offered food and drink, both of which he wisely refused, since he knew that fairy-food is notoriously dangerous. The king then asked him if he had ever seen men better dressed than the courtiers in their red and blue. Collen retorted that these were evil colours: the red on the one side meant burning and the blue on the other intense cold. He then sprinkled holy water over them and they all vanished, leaving nothing but green mounds and the desolate hillside.'
One of the fascinating aspects of this legend is the identification which it makes between Glastonbury Tor and Annwfn, the Celtic Otherworld, the region so lyrically described in the story of 'Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed' in The Mabinogion. In Welsh myth, moreover, Gwynn had a role very similar to that of Melwas in the Life of Gildas. Indeed, the Gildas and the Collen stories independently seem to indicate that Glastonbury/Avalon had a pervasive place in medieval Celtic myth and that the very names bring together a whole range of otherworldly meanings: 'Annwfn', 'Isle of Glass', 'Isle of Apples', 'Summer Region' and so forth. The historical validity of the etymologies is considerably less important than the fact that they could all easily be made, and that through them Glastonbury could accrue to itself a wealth of Celtic legend, the same kind of legend which would be so successfully transformed elsewhere into the Arthurian matière de Bretagne.
II. CELTIC SAINTS
Why so many Irish saints figure in the Glastonbury calendars is a vexed question, one which has not been completely resolved even by the the most sophisticated techniques of modern scholarship. Certainly there was an Irish influence in the South West as early as the seventh century when St Aldhelm berated one Heahfrith for succumbing to the allurements of Irish learning. Under the year 891 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to an Irish presence in England as the result of the travels of Irish pilgrims: 'Three Gaels came to King Alfred in a boat without any oars from Ireland, which they had left secretly, because they wished for the love of God to be in foreign lands, they cared not where.' Around 1000 'B', the author of the Life of St Dunstan, refers specifically to an Irish community at Glastonbury.
Irish peregrini, as well as other flocks of the faithful, sought this aforementioned place called Glastonbury with great veneration, especially because of the renown of the younger [or older, depending on the manuscript] St Patrick, who is said to lie buried in that church.
In his late eleventh-century Life of St Dunstan, Osbern of Canterbury, who had visited Glastonbury and who was not himself particularly sympathetic to the aspirations of the monastery, takes up the same point:
Many distinguished scholars, eminent both in sacred and profane learning, who quitted Ireland to embrace a life of voluntary exile in England, chose Glastonbury for their habitation, as being a retired but convenient spot, and one famous for its cult - a point of special attraction, this, for the exiles - of Patrick, who is said to have come after a lifetime of miracleworking and preaching the gospel, and to have ended his days there in the Lord.
That there was an Irish community at Glastonbury before the Conquest, then, seems virtually certain. What is not clear, however, is whether the first Irish pilgrims came to Glastonbury because they had heard stories linking St Patrick with Glastonbury or whether their presence itself accounted for the formation of the legends.
Relatively recently, in the 1920s, a fragment from a Glastonbury manuscript of the late thirteenth century turned up at West Pennard, where it was functioning as the cover for a late sixteenth-century book of accounts. This fragment contains an Anglo-Norman verse rendering of the famous Glastonbury charter of St Patrick and gives a succinct account of the fully developed St Patrick legend at Glastonbury:
I [Patrick] was sent on a mission into a region
That is called Ireland, a very wild land,
By the Pope Celestine who caused me so to do
To preach to that folk our belief.
[Afterwards] I departed thence doing harm to none
And returned straightway into Britain
I came into an isle that had to name Ynswitrin,
So was it called of old time in the British tongue,
In the which I found a place delectable
There found I several brethren well indoctrinate
And well instructed in the Catholic faith
They came there after those saints
Whom saints Phagan and Deruvian had left there
And, because I found them humble and peaceable,
I made choice rather to be with them, though I should be feeble,
Than to dwell in a royal court in vigorous life
But, because we all had one heart
We chose to dwell together
And to eat and drink in one house
And in one place sleep under a rule.
So, though I liked it not, they chose me chief
And by fraternal force made me their guardian...
Another section of the charter tells us that St Patrick I climbed the Tor and found a ruined oratory with an anc volume containing the 'Acts of St Phagan and St Deruvian', so-called second-century missionaries. Patrick then appoii two Irish monks, Arnulf and Ogmar, to remain and admin at the chapel on the Tor. The charter also gives the name the twelve hermits whom St Patrick found living on the when he arrived at Glastonbury: Brumban, Hyregaan, Bren Wencreth, Bantommeweng, Adelwalred, Lothor, Wellias, Breden, Swelwes, Hinloernus and another Hin. The names puzzling: at first glance they seem neither Irish, Welsh, English nor Norman. In his researches into the history of Glastonbury Abbey, however, Dom Aelred Watkin made a compariso these names with William of Malmesbury's account of names engraved on the larger of the two ancient pyramids which stood so prominently in the old cemetery.
The similarities are remarkable. What probably happened was that the person who first assembled the material for St Patrick's charter looked at the pyramid with its images and weathered names and decided that he had found a memorial commemorating the names of the hermits. It is not, then, a question of blatant forgery but of over-ingenious detective work. Modern historians might not agree with the solution of the mystery, but the method cannot be dismissed out of hand.
In his chronicle John of Glastonbury supplies us with a variety of other details he 'discovered' about St Patrick's mission to Glastonbury. St Patrick, John tells us, was born in Britain in 361 and was a nephew of St Martin of Tours. At the age of 16 he was abducted by Irish pirates and spent six years as a slave to a cruel Irish chieftain called Milchu. Miraculously he was directed to a piece of gold hidden under some turf and was thus able to redeem himself from slavery. After serving as a disciple to St Germanus of Auxerre, he travelled to the Roman curia. He was then sent back to Ireland in 425 by Pope Celestine I. Having converted the Irish he returned to Britain on a floating wooden altar and landed at Padstow in Cornwall. He arrived at Glastonbury in 433 and remained there as abbot until his death in 472. He was then buried in a beautiful shrine and remained there until the fire of 1184. After this catastrophe his bones were dug up and placed in a new shrine covered in gold and silver where they continued to be venerated for the rest of the life of the monastery.
Throughout the middle ages and even after William of Malmesbury, at the time considered a thoroughly dependable authority, gave his imprimatur to some of Glastonbury's claims in his now lost Life of St Patrick, there continued to be unresolved doubts about the Glastonbury cult of St Patrick elsewhere in England and Ireland. To begin with, the Irish themselves had an early hagiographical tradition that there had been more than one Patrick. In the eighth century, for example, a hymn was composed which stated that 'When Patrick departed this life, he went first to the other Patrick: together they ascended to Jesus the Son of Mary.' The Patricius Senior, so some scholars now suggest, might have been Palladius, the Roman deacon who was sent to Ireland in 431 by Pope Celestine. If there were two Patricks, the question inevitably arises concerning the identity of the one commemorated at Glastonbury. Interestingly, when the Kalendar now found in the Leofric Missal was composed c.970, both saints appear: the feast of Patrick the bishop is found under 17 March and Patrick Senior is found with a very high rating under 24 August. This may suggest that the earlier tradition at Glastonbury concerned Palladius/Patrick, but it was later transformed when the monks realized that they might actually possess the relics of the greater and more prestigious saint.
Nor does the matter stop here. In the fourteenth century John of Glastonbury's fellow historian and arch-rival Ranulf Higden, a monk of Chester, noted in his Polychronicon that there was a third Patrick, an Irish bishop who died in 863. Here, Higden postulated, lay the solution to the conflicting traditions. The saint of the Irish was, as the Irish generally claimed, buried at Down and it was the much later bishop who ended his days at Glastonbury. Needless to say, John was not impressed by Higden's reasoning.
In the later middle ages, then, as conflicting accounts circulated more and more widely about the number of Patricks, their dates, and their final resting places, so too did doubts arise in the minds of the Glastonbury monks concerning the identity of their Patrick. The solution to these doubts came in a miraculous manner. A certain monk, who had long been pondering the matter, was vouchsafed a dream-vision in which it was confirmed that the Patrick buried at Glastonbury was, indeed, the apostle of the Irish and no lesser individual. This form of proof satisfied the community and provided the last word on the topic at the time, but it is, of course, somewhat less convincing to modern scholars. What, then, are the facts? How did Glastonbury come to appropriate Patrick so firmly into its roster of saints? H P R Finberg, who made detailed studies of early charters from south-west England, has suggested that patricius is a title as well as a name and that in the early English kingdoms it was applied to members of the royal family who served as under-kings. When the Irish peregrini came to Glastonbury, Finberg speculates, they might well have found an ancient monument with this title engraved on it. What, in this case, would be more natural than to assume that the term applied to their own national apostle, about whose burial place there was some confusion even in Ireland? Other scholars, however, feel the association is even more intimate. R P C Hanson, for example, observes that even if St Patrick was not buried at Glastonbury there is no reason why he could not have been born there and Hanson locates the place of his birth on the banks of the Brue. In The Two Patricks T F O'Rahilly goes further and suggests that St Patrick, apostle to the Irish, might have returned to Glastonbury after his missionary activities, a point which the Irish medievalist, James Carney, is also willing to consider: 'There seems to be at least a possibility that Patrick, tired and ill at the end of his arduous mission, felt released from his vow not to leave Ireland, returned to Britain, and died at the monastery from which he had come, which, if this be so, may perhaps be identified as the monastery of Glastonbury.' As tempting as these speculations may be, they ultimately seem to have no basis in recorded historical fact. St Patrick's own words, moreover, must ring in our ears and stand as a stumbling block to a convinced belief that he really did end his days as Glastonbury's abbot: 'even if I wished to go to Britain I am bound by the Spirit, who gives evidence against me if I do this, telling me that I shall be guilty; and I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun - nay, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come here and stay with them [the Irish] for the rest of my life.'
According to Irish tradition, St Patrick gave the name Benignus (Benén) to a certain man whom he baptized: at this time he also predicted that Benignus would be the heir to his kingdom. At some point in the very late tenth or early eleventh century Benignus' name entered Glastonbury house-tradition, so it seems, through the following piece of mistaken etymology. The name Beonna was relatively common in England and appears in a variety of Anglo-Saxon records. In particular, it seems that a holy man called Beonna was commemorated in a monument at Meare. When the Irish pilgrims saw the memorial, they assumed the reference was to their own St Benignus who would, it seemed quite logical, have followed St Patrick into exile.
Over the years a number of local stories about this saint developed and in 1091 his relics were translated with great pomp from Meare to the main church at Glastonbury and placed in a beautiful reliquary which had been given to the abbot Aethelweard by King Harthacnut. The translation was accompanied by a variety of miracles which took place at a location about halfway between the monastery and the river from Meare. To commemorate the event, a church was built at the site and dedicated to the saint. It was replaced by the present church, now called St Benedict's, at the turn of the sixteenth century. The relics themselves were placed in a shrine before the High Altar at St Mary's, close to those of St Benignus' fellow countrymen, St Patrick and St Indract.
By the time when William of Malmesbury visited Glastonbury in the 1120s, a fully fledged cult of St Benignus had developed which William recorded in a now lost Life; traces of this survive in John of Glastonbury's chronicle. Here we learn that after seven years as bishop in Ireland Benignus took a vow to go on a pilgrimage; he arrived at Glastonbury in 462 [sic]. St Patrick, who had preceded him by almost thirty years, told him that he must continue on his pilgrimage until his staff put out branches and flowered; then he would know that he had' arrived at the appointed place for his habitation. Accompanied by a boy, Pincius, he trudged through deep forests and boggy salt marshes until he came to a little solitary island: here, at Meare, the staff suddenly took root and soon grew into a tree, a tree which continued to thrive for many centuries as a testimony to the miracle. When Benignus settled at Meare the place lacked one major prerequisite for human settlement: there was no drinking water. Poor Pincius, therefore, had to walk almost three miles each day, often assailed by evil spirits, to fetch fresh water for himself and his master. Fortunately, Benignus soon had a divine vision and gave Pincius his staff - presumably a new one - and directed him to a bed of rushes nearby. At this place, so he ordered, Pincius was to strike a blow with the staff. The boy obeyed the instructions and a spring burst forth: ever afterwards, the water was clear and plentiful - as were fish and other delicacies, a fact which would prompt subsequent abbots to establish a fishery at Meare.
After St Patrick died, the monks insisted that Benignus become abbot, which he agreed to do only on condition that he be permitted to spend much of his time in his hermitage at Meare. On one of his evening visits to the brothers at Glastonbury he met and was tempted by the devil whom he, in turn, attacked with his trusty staff and pushed into a nearby ditch which, ever afterwards, emitted a foul-smelling slime. Slightly later, when the river overflowed and his path to Glastonbury was flooded, Benignus became ill and could no longer leave his cell. After enduring great agony and dreadful struggles he died in a state of blissful grace and was buried in the oratory at Meare, to await his later glorious translation. During the later middle ages the festival of his death was celebrated at Glastonbury on 3 November, and all his relics, including his miracle-working staff, were catalogued in the relic lists. In 1323 the church at Meare was consecrated in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints and especially St Benignus and even as late as the sixteenth century it seems to have carried a dedication to St 'Bennynge'.
When he visited Glastonbury William of Malmesbury discovered enough information about St Indract's local cult to warrant a Life of this saint. Like William's other Irish! Glastonbury Lives, this one has been lost and our information on Indract at Glastonbury comes from an anonymous Latin passio, based on a now lost Old English Life, and from the brief account given by John of Glastonbury in his chronicle, which he in turn based on William's version.
John places Indract's martyrdom in the reign of King Ine (688-726) and tells the following story. Indract, the son of an Irish king, vows to make a pilgrimage to Rome. This accomplished, he decides to return to Ireland following a route which will take him to Glastonbury where he can venerate the relics of St Patrick. After a short stay in Glastonbury he and his seven loyal companions (nine according to the passio) set out for the coast, but decide to spend the first night at Shapwick ('Hwisc' in the passio). King Ine, as it happens, is staying at South Petherton and the members of his entourage have been billeted elsewhere in the vicinity. Among Ine's retainers are certain wicked men who are overcome by greed when they see the Irish pilgrims arrive at Shapwick with stuffed purses and staves with shiny tips. (Little do the villains guess that the staves' have brass tips and that the purses are stuffed not with gold but with the seed of a local celery which the pilgrims have picked to take home for its medicinal value.) The bandits, led by one Huna, craftily invite the Irishmen to be their guests, then murder them in their sleep and snatch up the supposed plunder. When they discover their mistake they mutilate the bodies in enraged frustration and leave them strewn about in wild disarray.
Meanwhile, King Ine, who has gone out to admire the clear evening sky, sees a pillar of bright light rising in the distance. On the two following nights the same phenomenon occurs in the sky and so me decides to investigate the spot whence the light originates. There he comes upon the foul carnage and, equally horrible, the criminals have been overcome with madness and are attempting to devour each other's flesh like crazed beasts. King Ine, appalled by the spectacle, brings the bodies of Indract and his companions back to Glastonbury with great solemnity and has Indract laid in a shrine on the left side of the altar and his fellow martyrs placed under the floor of the basilica.
The anonymous Latin writer adds a variety of other details about Indract's cult which do not appear in John's version and which presumably were absent from William of Malmesbury as well. In particular, he describes a number of miracles associated with the saint. For example, he tells of a rich man and his wife who came to pray at Indract's shrine and brought their little son called Guthlac with them. While the parents, tired from their long journey, dozed in the church, the saint appeared to the boy and instructed him how to read and sing psalms. When they awoke the parents were amazed by this miracle and pledged the boy to a life of religion, leaving him to be instructed by the local clergy. As might be expected after such an auspicious start, Guthlac showed himself to be a dedicated scholar and holy individual, and ultimately became abbot of the monastery.
The early Glastonbury liturgical kalendars do not list Indract's name and he first turns up in the Glastonbury context in a text dating from the second quarter of the eleventh century. The actual name Indractus is almost certainly a latinized form of the relatively common Irish name Indrechtach. Irish texts record, moreover, that on 12 March 854 one Indrechtach, abbot of Iona, was martyred among the English while on a trip to Rome. It is quite possible that the martyrdom did occur near Glastonbury, in which case an oral tradition of the catastrophe may have persisted at Glastonbury until the tenth century when a local hagiographer must have set about trying to reconstruct a suitable Life. Having only the vaguest of stories he created his own mise en scène and chose the reign of King Ine as the historical framework simply because he knew that me was a great benefactor to Glastonbury.
St Brigit's name appears under 1 February in the two tenth-century liturgical calendars with Glastonbury associations. By the time William of Malmesbury visited the community St Brigit's cult was well established and William accepted unquestioningly the house-tradition that she had made a pilgrimage to Glastonbury in 488, that she stayed for some time on the nearby island of Beckery and that she left various objects behind when she ultimately returned to Ireland: a wallet, a collar, a bell and assorted weaving implements.
Glastonbury's own records state that there had been a church at Beckery dedicated to St Mary Magdalene previous to St Brigit's visit, and this was later rededicated to Brigit. The chapel had a small opening on the south side and it was rumoured that anyone who squeezed through this opening would be forgiven his sins. King Arthur himself, so some romances relate, had a strange adventure at this chapel. On one occasion when he was staying with a group of nuns at Wearyall, Arthur had a recurring dream admonishing him to arise and go to the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. The third night Arthur's squire also dreamt about the chapel, which he thought he entered and from which he stole a rich and ornate candlestick. As he was leaving the chapel he received a mortal blow in revenge for the theft. At this point the squire awoke, screaming in pain, and discovered amazingly that both the wound and the candlestick were real. The squire died and the candlestick was given to either St Paul's or Westminster in memory of the strange event. Arthur himself understood this as a sign that he should visit the chapel alone, which he then did, although with some trepidation. There he witnessed a literal re-enactment of the miracle of the mass, in which the Virgin herself offered up her Infant Son to the priest for the sacrifice. After the completion of the Office the Virgin presented King Arthur with a crystal cross in commemoration of the adventure. The king, in turn, changed his arms in token of the adventure and made them green with a silver cross; on the right arm of the cross he placed an image of the Mother and Child. Ultimately, the same arms were adopted by Glastonbury Abbey itself.
Excavations do, in fact, confirm that a chapel did exist at Beckery in the Middle Ages: there was an outer building dating from the fourteenth century, enclosing a similar chapel of late Saxon or early medieval date, which may even have been built by St Dunstan. Charters indicate that by the tenth century, that is by the time of St Dunstan, the accepted etymology for Beckery was Becc Eriu = Parua Hibernia (ie., Little Ireland), although modern scholars think that the real derivation is from 'beocere' = beekeeper and 'ieg' = island.3' Interestingly, Brigit's bell (made specifically for her by St Gildas, according to some accounts) resurfaced briefly in the twentieth century, when it appeared among the collections of Miss Alice Buckton, the owner of Chalice Well. Like Arthur's sword, however, it seems to have disappeared beneath the waters with the passing of its custodian. Two stone carvings illustrating Brigit in her traditional role as milkmaid survive at Glastonbury, one in the doorway of St Mary's Church and the other on the tower of St Michael's on the Tor.
One last early Irish saint completes the Irish roster in the Glastonbury kalendar: St Columba, or as the Irish call him, Colum Cille. St Columba (521-597) was born in Ireland, but left with twelve companions in 563 to establish a foundation at lona, which would become a major centre for future missionary activity. By William of Malmesbury's reckoning Columba came to Glastonbury during the course of his wanderings, attracted by its fame as the former dwelling place of his compatriots Patrick and Brigit and arrived in 504 - an impossible date since it anticipates his birth by almost 20 years.
In the Life of St David, written by the Welsh scholar Rhygyfarch around 1090, it is stated that Glastonbury was the first of twelve monasteries to be founded by St David (d.589 or 601). From the Glastonbury point of view, this account - flattering though it may have been in other respects - contained one serious flaw. St David, it is clear, could not have founded a church at Glastonbury in the sixth century when there had already been a Christian foundation there for many generations before his birth. William of Malmesbury pointed out this problem and suggested what amounted to a compromise position: St David must have originally come to Glastonbury to rededicate the Old Church, which had fallen into collapse during the dark days of the early sixth century. The night before the rededication ceremony David was vouchsafed a vision: Our Lord appeared to him and told him that He himself had long ago dedicated the Old Church and that it would be a profanity to repeat the act. As a sign Our Lord pierced the saint's hand, a wound which miraculously healed itself during the consecration of the mass on the following day. After this divine intervention St David decided to build a second smaller chapel which would function as a kind of a chancel at the eastern end of the Old Church. The point of connection of these two chapels, according to later Glastonbury tradition, had some sort of arcane significance: 'in order that it might always be known where the chapels were joined together, a pyramid on the exterior to the north, a raised step inside, and the southern end divide them along a line; on this line, according to certain of the ancients, St Joseph lies buried with a great multitude of saints.'
In Welsh hagiographical tradition it was recounted that St David had received a wonderful altar stone, commonly called 'the sapphire', from the Patriarch of Jerusalem and that he brought it back to Wales with him. The Glastonbury community, on the other hand, claimed that St David had presented this jewel to them, that it was later hidden during the unsettled early Saxon times, and that in the twelfth century the shrewd Abbot Henry of Blois discovered it during the course of renovations. In the fourteenth century Abbot Walter de Monington had the stone richly decorated and it was then hung aloft in the church where it remained until the depredations of Henry VIII's agents: 'Item, delyvered more unto his maiestie ... a Super altare, garnished with silver and gilte and parte golde, called, the greate Saphire of Glasconberye.'
In the later middle ages Glastonbury Abbey also laid claim to the majority of St David's physical remains. It could hardly be disputed, the Glastonbury writers pointed out, that the whole of the Ross Valley including the church at St Davids had been devastated by English invasions during the tenth century. At this time of chaos a noble matron, called Aelswitha, acquired the relics and brought them to Glastonbury for safekeeping, where they ever afterwards formed part of the Glastonbury collection. The Welsh, of course, were not convinced that the bones of their patron saint had deserted them. They continued to display their own collection of relics at St Davids Cathedral as the genuine remains: these were so widely venerated that Pope Calixtus 11 decreed in 1120 that two journeys to St David's shrine in Menevia should be regarded as the equivalent to one to Rome.
III. ANGLO-SAXON SAINTS
The famous story of how King Alfred burned the cakes at Athelney first occurs in the earliest Life of St Neot. Neot, according to hagiographical tradition, was born of royal stock and was related to King Alfred. Even as a young child he loved learning and was drawn to religion. As soon as he could, therefore, Neot took his vows and became a monk at Glastonbury. Soon afterwards he was ordained as a priest and quickly provided a model for the rest of the community: 'he possessed charity and was humble towards all, mild, affable, serene of countenance, peaceable in the probity of his morals, and excellent from his infancy in all chastity.' Apparently Neot was a particularly short man - 'in littleness of stature another Zacchaeus', as one of his biographers aptly puts it - and always carried with him a small iron stool, much like a modern trivet, on which to stand while saying mass. On one occasion when Neot was acting as sacristan, an important visitor arrived unexpectedly at the outer gate of the monastery and began knocking imperiously at the door. Poor Neot, who had misplaced his stool, became flustered because he was unable to reach the lock with his key. Just at this moment, as he uttered a frantic prayer, the lock suddenly began to lower itself and did not stop until it was at a level convenient for the saint to insert his key and open the door. In the later middle ages the stool was displayed at Glastonbury as a reminder of the happy outcome of this adventure.
As Neot's fame increased, so too did his desire to escape from worldly interruptions and to lead a solitary life. Ultimately he was instructed by a vision to leave Glastonbury and to retire to a deserted place, later to be named Neotestoc, near Bodmin Moor in the wilds of Cornwall. Here he lived first as an anchorite and then as the abbot of a small religious community. He acted as counsellor to his kinsman Alfred, whom he persuaded to revive the English school at Rome. Neot himself went on a pilgrimage to Rome on behalf of Alfred, a deed which helped secure the latter's victory over the Danes. He died in the 870s and his body was later transferred from Cornwall to St Neots in Cambridgeshire, where the antiquary John Leland saw his relics as late as the 1530s: noting, in particular, his comb 'made of a little bone of two fingers' width, into which were inserted small fishes' teeth, the whole having the appearance of a pike's jaw.' At Glastonbury as elsewhere, the festival of St Neot's death was celebrated on 31 July.
Glastonbury Abbey was very much at the centre of the great English tenth-century monastic reform movement, primarily through the efforts of St Dunstan, who found on the site a derelict royal villa, sadly fallen from its former glory, and left a major monastic establishment - thus fulfilling the prophetic dream of his earliest youth in which he had a vision of an old man in white leading him through numerous buildings of a beautiful reconstructed monastery.
Dunstan, the scion of a wealthy family, was born around 910 in the vicinity of Glastonbury itself, probably at Baltonsborough. From earliest youth, his first biographer (who may even have been personally acquainted with him) relates, Dunstan was slender, good-looking and refined of feature. As a boy he had thin but beautiful hair, which would recede in his early manhood, and throughout his life he was attractive to (and attracted by) numerous women. A gentle child, he exerted an almost eerie charm over animals and showed a natural aptitude for books and music, excelling in particular at harpplaying in his father's hall.
Soon it became clear to Dunstan's parents that he should be sent to study at the Glastonbury 'school' which by all accounts had a fine collection of books, many brought by visiting Irish pilgrims. Dunstan was an adoring son - as a much later dream about his parents' presence among a company of angelic spirits would indicate - but in spite of homesickness he soon adjusted to his new life of study and meditation. He over-applied himself to his books, however, and seems to have had some sort of crisis and breakdown; chased by imaginary hounds he scaled the walls of the church and sought safety in the sacred precinct. After he recovered he went to join his uncle Athelm, a former monk of Glastonbury who had become the first bishop of Wells and who would finally be archbishop of Canterbury. The latter recommended Dunstan to King Aethelstan and he appeared at court. Not surprisingly, Aethelstan was captivated by the brilliant young man and equally predictably many of the other courtiers were wildly jealous. After a short period his enemies managed to drive him from the court and as he left they attacked him and beat him. Battered and miserable he made his way to the residence of his kinsman, Aelfheah the Bald, bishop of Winchester, who tried to persuade him to forsake the world and become a monk. Dunstan, however, was not ready for this step, especially since he still felt strongly drawn towards a beautiful young woman whom he thought he might wish to marry. After a sudden attack of illness, though, followed by an escape from a falling stone and the death of his dear Glastonbury friend Wulfrid (who immediately appeared to him in a dream and provided him with prophetic signs about his future career) he at last capitulated and decided to take his vows of religion.
Aelfheah, who like many holy men of his time had the gift of foresight, was called upon to ordain Dunstan, Aethelwold and another individual all at the same time. Aelfheah was greatly moved by the ceremony and predicted that one of the three would become archbishop of Canterbury, one bishop of Winchester, but the third would come to a wretched end through the temptations of worldly pleasure. The outcome was, as might be expected, as he had anticipated. When Dunstan returned to Glastonbury after his ordination he quickly established himself as the spiritual guide to the rich and holy widow Aethelfleda who had built a residence to the west of the church. Aethelfleda spent her wealth on works of charity and in the entertainment of visiting pilgrims. One of these latter was King Aethelstan himself, who on the day before his appearance sent scouts ahead to check on 'local arrangements'. The scouts approved of Aethelfleda's plans, although they were slightly worried about a possible shortage of mead. Aethelfleda implored the Virgin that she might not be disgraced in this matter, and on the next day an almost unending succession of cup-bearers filled horn after horn at the cask without it ever drying up.
With Aethelfleda's fortune at his disposal Dunstan was able to widen his sphere of influence and he gathered a large group of pupils around him, teaching them the arts of reading, copying and illustrating manuscripts, harping and embroidery. Dunstan himself excelled at all these skills and up to the time of the Dissolution Glastonbury possessed manuscripts written in his hand as well as altar cloths, crosses, thuribles, phials, chasubles and vestments reportedly of his workmanship.
Osbern, Dunstan's twelfth-century biographer, visited the saint's habitation at Glastonbury, which had been preserved as a kind of relic, and gives an eyewitness account of its admirable simplicity:
Adjoining the church [St Dunstan] built a cell with his own hands; it is a lean-to or a sort of den ... it is more like a tomb than a human dwelling. Let me record what I myself saw, that the length of his cell is not more than five feet and its breadth two and a half feet. Moreover, the height equals the stature of a man if he were to stand in the dug-out earth; otherwise it would not reach even to his chest. .. So it is clear that he never lay down to sleep and always stood to pray. What was a door to him who entered, became a wall to him who had entered. For indeed in such a small building it was impossible for a door to be made except of the whole side. There is a small window in the middle of the little door through which light shone on the labourer.
It was in this humble workshop that Dunstan was supposed to have had his famous confrontation with the devil. One of the most admirable characteristics of this saint was that he found it difficult to renounce the world and lead a life of cloistered virtue. He was a lover of all forms of beauty and found celibacy in particular a considerable penance. The devil, knowing this, appeared one day at the little window in Dunstan's hut and showed a friendly interest in his work at the smithy. The sun was about to set and Dunstan, worn out from his labours, seemed ready to indulge in conversation as he worked. The devil quickly steered the talk to the subject of women and set about distracting the saint with ribald stories. Dunstan, who had already seen through the fiend's disguise, feigned an interest as he heated his tongs over the forge. Suddenly he seized the red-hot instrument, turned round with a swift movement and twisted the devil's nose. Having taken on human form, the latter was susceptible to human sensations and fled from the cell, shrieking 'O what has that bald-headed villain done? What has that bald-headed villain done?'
After Aethelstan's death the new king, Edmund, asked Dunstan to come to court as his counsellor, and since Aethelfleda had just died Dunstan decided to accept the invitation. Sadly, history seemed to repeat itself. Dunstan found the life at court lax, even dissolute, and was strict with the courtiers, who in turn managed to prejudice the king against him. Soon he was dismissed and prepared to leave the court, located at Cheddar at that particular time. Edmund, meantime, was taking part in a hunt at Cheddar Gorge. Separated from his group he pursued a wild stag through the hills. The terrified beast plunged over the cliff and the frenzied hounds followed him. Edmund was unable to rein his horse in and it looked as if he too was going to fall to a certain death. Examining his conscience he realized that he had sinned against Dunstan and swore to God that if he were spared he would make amends. As he took this resolution the horse suddenly pulled short, poised at the cliff edge, now as gentle as a lamb. The chastened king sought Dunstan out and without saying a word took him to Glastonbury. There he proclaimed him abbot - fortunately there was a vacancy at the time - and promised rich gifts to the monastery. Ever afterwards, too, he showered Dunstan and his monastery with privileges and lands. After his death, moreover, his body was brought to Glastonbury and buried there.
Dunstan showed himself to be a superb abbot; his biographer describes his daily routine as he walked staff in hand from cell to cell, inspected the kitchen arrangements personally, superintended new buildings, got up at dawn to correct manuscripts and engaged in the offices faithfully, his eyes often bathed in tears. In a period of harsh discipline Dunstan was famous for his gentleness as a teacher and for his sympathy to young people. Almost a century after his death, so Osbern relates, it was the custom at Canterbury to give all the boys an annual beating at Christmas, not for specific faults but for their general improvement. On one occasion the lads, remembering Dunstan's reputation for kindness, besought his aid by seeking refuge in the church and the masters were immediately overcome by a deep sleep, from which they did not awake until the holidays had begun, at which point the period allowed for beating had passed.
When Edmund died his brother Eadred became king and like Edmund showed marked favour towards Dunstan and Glastonbury. The next king, Eadwig, was crowned in 955, and according to Dunstan's earliest biographer behaved abominably on the very day of his coronation - leaving the solemn feast to amuse himself with a noblewoman and her daughter (though he subsequently married the latter). Dunstan and his kinsman, the bishop of Lichfield, went to summon the recalcitrant king and an ugly scene, for which Eadwig never forgave Dunstan, ensued. Soon afterwards Dunstan was deprived of all his ranks and property and sent into exile. A false abbot, Aelfsige, was inflicted on the Glastonbury community while Dunstan took refuge first with Arnulf, Count of Flanders, and then at the monastery of St Peter at Ghent (where he was able to observe at first hand the innovations of the new continental monasticism).
Within two years of his accession Eadwig had lost Mercia and Northumbria to his younger brother Edgar and on his death in 959 Edgar was immediately accepted as king in Wessex as well. Dunstan had been at Glastonbury when Edgar was born at the nearby hamlet subsequently to be named Edgarley and heard a voice thunder forth from heaven: 'Peace upon the church of the English in the time of the boy who is now born and of our Dunstan.' Dunstan was recalled from abroad in 957 by Edgar and became chief advisor to the king. Soon he was made bishop of Worcester, then bishop of London and finally archbishop of Canterbury.
Dunstan and Edgar often met together at their favoured monastery of Glastonbury. On one occasion the two men were sitting together in the refectory when suddenly the image of the crucifix above them shook so violently that the crown of thorns fell to the table. After they recovered from their shock Dunstan turned to the king and asked in a severe voice what he had been thinking. Thoroughly abashed, Edgar confessed that he had been planning to move the monks elsewhere and to set up a congregation of nuns on the site. He repented at once of this nefarious scheme and by way of amendment increased his already great generosity to the monastery, giving further lands, a valuable cross for the altar, huge bells and many relics. After his death he was buried at Glastonbury in the chapter at the door of the church.
Dunstan himself outlived Edgar and continued to foster and encourage the whole English church. He survived through the reign of the unfortunate Edward and into the times of Aethelred, about whom he had predicted when he baptized him: 'By God and his Mother, this one will be a knavish sort.' Dunstan's final illness struck on Ascension Sunday, 988, but he lingered on until the morning of 19 May when he died immediately after receiving Viaticum at a Mass celebrated by his bedside. His last words came from the Psalms: 'The merciful and gracious Lord hath made a remembrance of His marvellous works: He hath given food to them that fear Him.' Although he was undoubtedly buried at Christ Church, Canterbury, later Glastonbury monks asserted that they had rescued his relics from Canterbury in the early eleventh century at the time of the Danish invasions of Kent. Bones being hard to identify, the dispute was never satisfactorily resolved and flared up at periodic intervals for the next five hundred years.
The name of St Aethelwold is closely linked with that of St Dunstan. Aethelwold was born only a year or two after Dunstan, probably of royal stock as his name suggests (aethel means noble in Old English), and spent his early years in Winchester. Like Dunstan he was sent as a young man to the court of Aethelstan and the two young men - bookish and pious both - were ordained together by Dunstan's kinsman Aeltheah the Bald. Aethelwold remained with Aeltheah until Aethelstan's death, when he travelled to Glastonbury, became a monk and served as an apprentice to Dunstan. Under Dunstan's tutelage Aethelwold learned about manuscript production and became aware of the necessity of an ample collection of books in the monastic life. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in his later foundations books formed an important part of the basic materials supplied to each new monastery. Like Dunstan, Aethelwold loved music and at Glastonbury he became an authority on the chant. Aethelwold's skill at illumination became apparent while he was at Glastonbury and during his subsequent career a whole new English style of illumination associated with his school at Winchester would evolve.
In spite of his artistic sensibility, however, Aethelwold was austere in temperament and manner of living. For a time he served as cook to the other brothers - tending the garden with his own hands and even waiting on the rest of the community at meal times - but he himself was rigorous in fasting and ate meat only once every three months. Aethelwold never slept after Matins and did not tolerate sloth in others. When he was made prior he was strict with the other monks, and insisted on full observance of the Rule of St Benedict (which he would later translate into standard Old English for the benefit of those not adept in Latin).
After a few years at Glastonbury Aethelwold felt that his apprenticeship was complete; it was time for him to go out and serve in the field. His first plan was to travel across the Channel to Fleury, but the queen mother, Edith, refused to permit the loss of such a holy man to the English church. As an alternative he was offered the derelict monastery at Abingdon and - accompanied by three other monks, Osgar, Foldbricht, and Frithegar - he arrived there around 956. King Eadred pledged full support to this new enterprise and specifically provided much needed land and buildings. As a restorer of abandoned monasteries Aethelwold found his metier and after Abingdon came a variety of other sites: Milton, New Minster and Nunnaminster in Winchester, Peterborough, Ely and Thorney.
As Dunstan's loyalty seems always to have remained with Glastonbury, so too Aethelwold loved Winchester, the place of his birth. After he became bishop of Winchester in 963 he removed the slack and worldly secular clerks from the church and established the first English monastic cathedral. Soon this became a flourishing intellectual and artistic centre. And, as Dunstan and Glastonbury were pivotal to the first phase of the tenth century reform movement, so too Aethelwold and his school at Winchester seem to have been crucial to later developments.
Aethelwold's own last years were plagued by ill health, but, undaunted, he spared neither himself nor his monks. Just before his death in 984 he was visited and counselled by St Dunstan, his old mentor and the man against whom he would be judged by posterity. More rigid in character than Dunstan, Aethelwold appeals less to modern sensibilities. His energy, however, was so great that the scribe of his Benedictional calls him a 'son of thunder'. This energy was well channeled and his accomplishments, both administrative and artistic, were many. In future generations the monks at Glastonbury would be proud of him and of his work, but he was never held in the same idealized veneration as Dunstan and the Glastonbury community never seems to have been tempted, for example, to rescue his bones from their resting place at Winchester.