Glastonbury is an ancient town in Somerset, southwest England, which, according to legend, is the place where Joseph of Arimathea and Mother Mary brought the Holy Grail and founded the first Christian church in England. This chalice then became the focus for the expansion of Christianity throughout the known world.
It is said that Glastonbury is the original home of Christianity in the British Isles. The theory that religion comes hand-in-hand with trade favors this idea, for in the early Roman period, first century A.D., this area had well-established trade links with the Bretons and through them with the Roman Empire, the center of Christianity. Glastonbury, as early as the first and second centuries A.D., was a thriving center of arts and crafts with important contacts with the Continent, as shown by the many objects of exotic pottery, dating from this period, found in the vicinity.
By Roman times Glastonbury was a well-established Celtic religious center, and it would be natural for Christian missionaries to make their way to a site revered by pagans. Early missionaries would have brought holy relics into the island, one of which might have been the Holy Grail.
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey lie near the foot of Glastonbury Tor, a conical hill which rises steeply from low-lying ground and can be seen for miles around. Until the surrounding marshes were drained in the Middle Ages, the Tor rose from what was virtually an island in a wilderness of tangled swamps. Long before the Romans came to Britain, a thriving village stood on an artificial platform in the marsh, a mile to the north of the present town. It was a prosperous community, with an unusually high standard of culture and trade links with Wales, Ireland, and Brittany.
The village was destroyed by raiders in the first century A.D., but memories of a sanctuary of civilization in the wilderness may have lingered on to influence the tradition of Glastonbury as a special place, set apart from the ordinary everyday world.
The Celts connected islands, hills, and mounds with the “otherworld”—the inner world. And Glastonbury Tor was an impressive hill on an island. The identification of Glastonbury as the mystical “Isle of Glass” or “Isle of Avalon” of Arthurian legend probably goes further back than the twelfth century, when we first hear of it. William of Malmesbury in 1125 said that the British called Glastonbury Inis Witrin, “the Glass Island.” Caradoc of Lancafarn in 1136 said that the British called it Ynis Gutrin, “the Glass Island.”
There was a folk belief, recorded in the twelfth-century biography of Saint Collen (a Welsh hermit of the seventh century) that Gwynn ap Nudd, the lord of Annwn, had a palace on top of the Tor. According to the story, Saint Collen, who had built himself a small cell at the foot of the hill, was summoned by a mysterious voice to meet Gwynn.
Taking plenty of holy water with him, he climbed the Tor and saw on the top a beautiful castle, where Gwynn sat enthroned in a golden chair, surrounded by retainers in red and blue livery, minstrels making music, handsome young men and lovely girls. On a table were the most luxurious delicacies imaginable and Gwynn hospitably offered the saint something to eat. Collen declined, sensibly, because to eat the food of the otherworld is to risk becoming a prisoner there. He sprinkled his holy water in all directions and the castle and all its people vanished. He found himself alone on the top of the hill. It is significant to note that when a chapel was built on the top of the Tor it was dedicated to Saint Michael, the vanquisher of Satan and the demons.
The coming of Christianity
Glastonbury is said to be the place where the earliest Christian missionaries to Britain settled. In the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey stood a small building of wattle and daub, which was believed to be the first church ever built in the British Isles. This was the Old Church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was said that the disciples of Christ erected the Old Church with their own hands, which would date it to the first century A.D.
There is also a legend that before he went to the Far East at the age of perhaps fourteen, his mother and Joseph of Arimathea, after the death of his father Saint Joseph, took Jesus to the British Isles for further education. And the place they would have taken him would again have been Glastonbury. So, some even say that Christ helped to build that first church to the Virgin Mary with his own hands.
According to legend, after Jesus’ resurrection the Apostle Philip in France sent twelve of his disciples to Britain, led by his friend Joseph of Arimathea. They arrived in A.D. 63. The local king turned a deaf ear to their attempts to convert him, but allowed them to settle on the Isle of Glass, isolated among the swamps. There they lived as hermits, spending their time in fasting and prayer, and there they built the Old Church in honor of the Virgin Mary.
When the last of them died, the place remained deserted until the missionaries sent by Pope Eleutherius came to Glastonbury, restored the Old Church and founded a new community of twelve hermits, from which the medieval monastic community was descended.
Leaving Joseph of Arimathea aside, there is nothing far-fetched in the idea of a small group of recluses at Glastonbury at an early date. The Celts did not lose their reverence for islands when they became Christians. On the contrary, Celtic Christian hermits established themselves on islands and in other remote places where, far from the madding crowd, they could feel close to God. Glastonbury would have been an ideal site.
It is now thought that the monastic community at Glastonbury was founded by Irish monks early in the sixth century, perhaps in Arthur’s time, but that a shrine of some kind may have existed there already.
Joseph of Arimathea
Once Joseph of Arimathea had been authoritatively linked with Glastonbury, a legend placed the Holy Grail there as well. Joseph and a small band of missionaries came to Britain thirty years or so after the Crucifixion. Mother Mary came with Joseph. With them they brought the Grail, the cup of the Last Supper. Landing somewhere in the southwest, they struck across country until they came close to the foot of Glastonbury Tor.
There they stopped to rest and pray and Joseph thrust his staff into the ground. It immediately took root and put out buds. It was the ancestor of the famous Glastonbury Thorn, which flowers every year at Christmas.
Joseph and his companions took the miracle as a sign that they had reached the end of their journey. They settled at Glastonbury and built the Old Church. To preserve the Grail from profane hands, Joseph buried it somewhere at the foot of the Tor. The spring now known as Chalice Well is sometimes identified as the place.
According to a variant of the story, when Joseph and the missionaries came to Glastonbury, they found the Old Church already standing, “built by no human hands.” It had been constructed by Jesus himself, who was brought up in the carpenter's trade and had visited Somerset years before. Hence the opening lines of Blake’s “Jerusalem”:
- And did those feet in ancient time
- Walk upon England’s mountains green?
- And was the holy Lamb of God
- On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
- And did those feet in ancient time
Glastonbury and King Arthur
In 1191, Giraldus Cambrensis recorded that King Arthur had been a patron of Glastonbury Abbey, and though fables had spread abroad fantastic stories of his end, his body in fact had been found buried in the precincts of the Abbey in 1190. It was lying between two stone pyramids which marked the sites of other graves, sixteen feet in earth and enclosed in a hollow tree-trunk. On the underside of the makeshift coffin was a stone, and under this stone, a leaden cross on which Latin words were incised, affirming: “Here lies entombed the renowned King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.”
Giraldus says two-thirds of the coffin was filled with a man’s bones of unusual size, the remainder with the bones of a woman, among which was a tress of yellow hair, fresh and beautiful. A monk seized hold of this, and it crumbled to dust in his grasp.The man’s bones, shown to Giraldus by the Abbot, Henry of Sully, included an enormous thighbone and a skull of giant capacity, with ten wounds, nine of them scars but the tenth of great depth, unhealed, assumed to have been the cause of his death.
According to Giraldus, the monks had been led to find these remains, partly by inscriptions, almost obliterated, on the stone pyramids, partly through visions received by members of the community, but chiefly by the advice of Henry II himself, who had been told by an old British singer that Arthur’s body would be found sixteen feet in earth in the bole of a hollowed oak.
Geoffrey of Monmouth had said Arthur was borne away, mortally wounded, to Avalon. When Arthur’s bones were supposedly found at Glastonbury, with the funerary cross saying that he was buried in the Isle of Avalon, Glastonbury became the mystical, magical Avalon—once and forever.
Glastonbury was far enough west to escape the horrors of the early waves of Saxon invasion that devastated much of England. 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 it 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 at Glastonbury had a high reputation. Many saints of the Celtic church are said to have come to it. It is said to have been a monastery with the distinction of a perpetual choir. It 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. In the Middle Ages Glastonbury Abbey was a center of learning and a shrine to which many made pilgrimages.
The scanty ruins of the Abbey 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 center 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,” the 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.
Glastonbury is only twelve miles from the site some archaeologists favor as Arthur’s castle—Cadbury.
What the Glastonbury legends really bear witness to is two things. The first is the very atmosphere of the place, which gave Glastonbury so long ago an air of special meaning, of being an enclave of mystery and significance beyond the normal experience of man, the otherworld Isle of Avalon.
The second is the feeling that the Grail must not be taken away from the world, which would be too impoverished without it. Somewhere on the edges of the known world, somewhere on the borders of the conscious mind, the secret of life is guarded still.
Pearls of Wisdom, vol. 32, no. 12.
Pearls of Wisdom, vol. 25, no. 58.
Lectures by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, April 20, 1973; August 28, 1982; May 22, 1983.
Heart magazine, winter 1985.
- William Blake, “And did those feet in ancient time.”