Glastonbury AbbeyThe famous Legend of the Holy Grail is also intimately associated with Glastonbury Abbey. The story, passed through generations of Christians, relates how Joseph stayed alive for 12 years during the course of his imprisonment by the help of the Holy Grail. This was the very same chalice which was used at the Last Supper and also captured Christ’s blood from the spear wound in his side. It is said that Joseph later took both the spear and the Holy Grail to Glastonbury. Joseph founded the abbey there and began his task, the conversion of Britain.
First recorded evidence of activity at the monastery brings us to the 7th century when King Ine sent a charter to a monastery. The official version from the Abbey is that it was founded in the 4th or 5th century as a Celtic monastery. This would make it the oldest Christian foundation in the country. Later, the Abbey was enlarged by St Dunstan and under his care it became the wealthiest Benedictine abbey in the land. In its time, the abbey was famous for its library and its nave which was the longest known in any monastic church in the country right up till the Dissolution.
The beginning of the Abbey’s end came with a fire in 1184. Under Henry II, reconstruction of the church began. Mysticism returned to the church in 1191 when some monks claimed to have seen visions. These appeared to confirm old manuscripts which documented the burial of King Arthur and his wife, Guinevere in the church. Later, excavations uncovered a tomb and a lead cross to the south of the old church. The tomb was believed to be that of the legendary warrior-king and his wife. In 1278, the bodies were reinterred in an honorary position in front of the high altar of the church.
1539 brought the dissolution of the monastries and the last abbot here met Henry VIII’s wrath. He was hung, drawn and quartered for all to see on the tor. The abbey was left to go to ruin and its remains were used as building materials.
The ruins of the church you see today are predominantly those of the church built after the fire. While most of its delights have been relegated to the viewer’s imagination, you’ll still be able to see the ruins of St. Mary’s or the Lady Chapel with its sculpted figures which recall the Immaculate Conception and the birth of Christ with the Annunciation, the Magi and Herod. The chapel, was built contrary to the norm at the western end of the church. You can still see the detailed carving on the doorway, parts of the nave and crossing arches, medieval tilework and what remains of the choir.
It is in the choir that the bodies of King Arthur and Guinevere are said to have been relaid to rest after their discovery. According to Thomas Malory and William of Malmesbury, after King Arthur was mortally wounded in battle, he sailed to Avalon where he was buried next to his queen. The site of this tomb is marked in the ground.
While visiting the abbey don’t miss the Abbot’s Kitchen which dating from the 14th century is the only intact surviving monastic building. With its flagstone-covered floor, 4 massive corner fireplaces and a huge central lantern, it lends a glimpse into what the remaining Abbey complex may have looked like. If you’d like to know more about the appearance of the original Abbey, behind the main entrance is an award-winning museum with a scale model of the Abbey and historical information
There’s more myth and legend at the Glastonbury Thorn. You’ll find the plant behind the main entrance to the grounds. The thorn tree is reportedly descended from the original thorn which sprouted from Joseph of Arimatea’s staff on his arrival here to convert the land. The original thorn sprouted on Wearyall Hill which lies to the southwest of town. Locals proudly proclaim that while these descendants from the true thorn flourish and bloom twice a year, elsewhere the thorn simply fades and dies after a short while.
Address: Magdalene Street
Postcode: BA6 9EL
Town/city or near: Glastonbury