The history of Glastonbury goes back at least 1700 years. A Christian religious center was established in Glastonbury by the 5th century, probably building over older pagan structures. What is now Somerset County became part of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the middle of the 7th century and Saxons controlled the abbey for about 400 years. Normans from France invaded England in the 11th century and the abbey flourished under them for another 500 years. The walls then crumbled for the next 400 years but things have been looking up for the last hundred years.
The Abbey in Saxon times
The Saxons began their conquest of southeast England in the 6th century and moved westward. By the time they reached Glastonbury in the 7th century they were already converted to Christianity and Glastonbury Abbey was taken over somewhat peacefully. In fact, the last Briton abbot was allowed to remain in office until he died and only then was the leadership turned over to a Saxon. In 712 King Ine of Wessex built a stone church which was heavily damaged by various Dane invasions in the 9th century. In the 10th century an abbot named Dunstan rebuilt the abbey and brought in the monastic rules of St Benedict and the abbey began to flourish. Dunstan went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, as did Sigeric, formerly a Glastonbury monk under Dunstan. The Danes attacked Canterbury during Sigeric’s time and he is remembered for begging them to spare the cathedral. The great rivalry between Glastonbury and Canterbury goes back to these times, too. The monks of Glastonbury claim that during one of the Dane invasions they retrieved the body of St Dunstan and brought it back to Glastonbury. The people of Canterbury, though, say that he is still buried in their cathedral.
The Abbey in Norman times
In 1066 the Normans conquered England and began replacing Saxon abbots with French-speaking Normans. Turstin (also spelled Thurstin or Thurston), the first Norman abbot at Glastonbury, rebuilt the stone church and instituted some new rules including new prayers in a new language. Some of the monks complained and were murdered. The remaining monks complained some more and King William sent Turstin back to France in 1084. The Domesday Book came out in 1086 and in it is recorded that Godwin, the tenant in charge, was in control of 133 places, making Glastonbury the richest abbey in England. In 1125 another abbot, Henry of Blois, began another rebuilding project and invited a well-known historian, William of Malmesbury, to visit Glastonbury and write the history of the abbey. By the 12th century the bishops of Bath and Wells were envious of Glastonbury and connived to take over. In 1184 the abbey church burned to the ground. Henry II supported the monks rebuilding and the Lady Chapel, built over the old church, was completed in 4 years. Henry also supported the building of a great church east of the Lady Chapel and work was begun in 1186. Henry died in 1189, though, and neither of his sons (John and Richard) was too interested in Glastonbury. John even allowed Savaric, the Bishop of Bath, to take over. Richard gave the abbey back to the monks but then his brother John returned Glastonbury to Savaric after Richard died and John became king. The monks gained control of their own abbey again by the middle of the 12th century but they needed a miracle to obtain support to finish the great church. One day in 1191 a miracle appeared: one of the monks discovered the tomb of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere just south of the new church walls. Another famous chronicler, Gerald of Wales, came by in 1192 and spread the word about the discovery. Gerald also claimed that he saw a cross buried under Arthur’s body that was inscribed “HERE IN THE ISLE OF AVALON LIES BURIED THE RENOWNED KING ARTHUR, WITH GUINEVERE, HIS SECOND WIFE” — almost the exact words published 50 years earlier by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. (Geoffrey’s work was held in high esteem for 600 years but nowadays most experts believe that Geoffrey’s major source was his own imagination.) The monks went on building and the great church, not yet completed, was dedicated in 1213. In 1278 Arthur and Guinevere were reburied near the new church’s high altar in an elaborate ceremony that was attended by King Edward (Henry II’s great grandson) and his wife Queen Eleanor.
The Legend Grows
Over the years the monks transcribed and enhanced William of Malmesbury’s history. William had Saints Phagan and Deruvian building the first Christian church in Glastonbury by the end of the second century AD but that claim had to be shared with all of the other churches across England that were established by these two missionaries. It was imperative to the monks that the abbey be known as the first Christian establishment in England. So they went farther back to the first century AD, claiming that Glastonbury was founded by Joseph of Arimathea, a clever way of connecting the legend of the Holy Grail with the tomb of King Arthur. They also wrote that they found evidence that pre-Saxon Glastonbury was visited by such Celtic luminaries as St Patrick and St Brigid. More and more pilgrims came to worship at the Great Church and the monks built complex waterways to manage their land that stretched all the way to the Bristol Channel. In the 1300s Glastonbury Abbey was recognized as the second-wealthiest abbey in England. Only Westminster was wealthier.
The End of the Abbey
In the 14th century abbot John de Breynton built a magnificent kitchen for himself. It’s one of the few abbey buildings still standing. It was closed for renovation when we visited in September 2013 but I understand it will re-open soon. De Breynton also rebuilt the abbot residence which was further renovated in the 15th century with a special addition to house Henry VII when he visited the Abbot. The abbey came to a crashing end, however, in the 16th century when Henry VIII decided to close all of the monasteries in his kingdom. In September 1539 the abbey was looted and the last abbot, Richard Whiting, was arrested and brought to the Tower of London. Then in November he was returned to Glastonbury and hanged on Glastonbury Tor. His body was then taken down and drawn and quartered and his head placed on the main Glastonbury Abbey gate for all to see. The abbey grounds changed hands many times over the next 400 years and some of the owners used the old buildings as quarries.
For many centuries the monks of Glastonbury were successful in getting pilgrims to come to Glastonbury Abbey but after Henry VIII dissolved the abbeys there were no more pilgrimages for 400 years. They started coming again, however, about 50 years ago with the dawning of the New Agers and they still are coming. The Church of England bought the property in 1908 and has initiated several archeological and construction projects since then. Every year since 1924 the Anglicans have a pilgrimage (June 21st this year), and every July the Catholics have their pilgrimage (July 13th this year), with a mass within the ruins of the great church. There is also a separate Orthodox celebration that is held at the same time as the Anglican Pilgrimage. About a hundred thousand people visit the abbey grounds every year. And on one weekend toward the end of June about 135,000 people descend on Pilton (just east of Glastonbury Tor) for the Glastonbury Music Festival. It rains a lot around Glastonbury and Worthy Farm gets pretty muddy. So if you plan to see Dolly Parton this summer, remember to bring your wellies!