Sacred Places Journal
16 October, 2001: Glastonbury: Holiest Earth in England
I begin in the abbey grounds at the large wooden cross placed by Queen Elizabeth II. "A Christian sanctuary so ancient that only legend can record its origin," the plaque says. I think of the nun at Whitby whose eyebrows disappeared into her veil when I told her Glastonbury was on my pilgrimage itinerary. "Oh, well, there you're into a very different thing, aren't you?" But she readily agreed with me when I said I thought it very important that we continue to claim such ancient holy sites as Christian and not abandon them to other elements such as those that threaten Glastonbury.
Actually, in spite of much of the occult around the fringes, the Abbey grounds, which are still the property of the Church of England, maintain their sense of sacredness. After the Dissolution the grounds went into private hands--the hands of John Horner, to be exact: He, the "Little Jack Horner" or nursery rhyme fame; Glastonbury Abbey the "plum" he pulled out of his Christmas pie.
Lady Chapel, site of original wattle church. Eucharist celebrated in the crypt in good weather.
The present retreat house was built as a private residence in Victorian times and in 1908 was offered for sale as "An elegant and distinguished mansion" with "interesting ruins" attached. It was purchased through an agent by the Bishop of Bath and Wells and reclaimed for Christian worship.
Eucharist is offered here every Tuesday morning throughout the year--in the Lady Chapel, the oldest and best preserved part of the church, in the summer, in St. Patrick's Chapel in the winter. Today it is in St. Patrick's. This was the chapel for the almshouse established in 1512. Ten poor widows lived and worshipped here and looked after the chapel dedicated to the first abbot of Glastonbury. Before the coming of St. Patrick there had been only isolated hermits living in round wattle cells here, not an organized monastery. Whether Glastonbury's Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland or another Patrick is a hotly debated issue to this day.
St. Patrick's chapel where Eucharist is celebrated in the winter.
I enjoy exploring the interpretative centre, which is new since last I was here. I recall watching the archaeology students brushing and numbering all the bits of stone and tile that are now presented as part of a meaningful story telling how Glastonbury Abbey was "Grandly constructed to entice the dullest minds to prayer."
Then I walk up Wearyall Hill, a long, steep hill to the southwest of the village. Here, legend recounts, Joseph of Arimathea first stood with his little band of refugees who came to Britain fleeing Roman persecution. Joseph, a well-to-do tin trader, had made the journey many times bringing sought-after Roman goods to this farthest outpost of the empire and returning with rich ore from Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. But now Joseph brought more precious cargo--the Gospel of Christ and the chalice from which He drank at the Last Supper. And here, on Wearyall Hill, all the weary band paused to rest. Joseph leaned on his staff which miraculously took root and grew into the famous Glastonbury Thorn which uniquely flowers twice a year. The Queen and Queen Mother always have a sprig of Glastonbury thorn on their Christmas morning breakfast trays. It was chopped down by an irate Puritan during the English Civil War in the 16th century, but has grown again from its roots. Today I find it blooming with colored ribbons tied in its branches by more modern, but equally weary, journeyers.
The Glastonbury Thorn tree on Wearyall Hill.
Then down again and across the hollow that shelters the abbey grounds to Chalice Hill and its well. The well, considered holy since ancient times, is surrounded by a very beautiful, very serene World Peace Garden. I sit in each flower-filled section of the garden designed especially for meditation and drink from the well before filling my bottle with the unusually pure, healthful water.
The water is clear, but turns the rocks red, a reminder of the blood of Christ and source of the persistent legend that Joseph of Arimathea dipped the chalice of the Last Supper in this spring when he led his little band of pilgrims here. Whether Joseph's coming is fact or fiction, the truth is that someone came here with the Christian message in the very early centuries of Christianity as there was already a long-standing Christian community here when Patrick arrived in 433. I can see no reason not to accept the Joseph story, as it is so consistent with known facts of the world at that time.
Thorn tree blooms with pilgrim offerings.
Then on to the Tor, my third hill to climb today. The Tor (West country word for hill) is 518 feet above sea level and is crowned by a square tower that is all that remains of a medieval church dedicated to St. Michael--as all hilltop churches in this area are so dedicated. This tower was built by the abbey community to replace a previous church which fell in an earthquake in the 13th century. Excavation of the summit area has revealed traces of a much earlier building, from the 5th or 6th century and of monks' cells cut into the rock.
In local legend the hill has a secret entrance to the Underworld. However that may be, it was an entrance to Heaven for Abbot Richard Whiting, the holy last abbot of Glastonbury, who was hung, drawn and quartered atop the Tor when Henry VIII dissolved the abbey in 1539.
I shelter from the wind inside the tower, looking out through the Gothic arches across the green Somerset Levels. When I was last here, some 13 years ago, bongo drummers inhabited the space. It's more peaceful now, but still hard to imagine a monastic community actually living up here.
Serene beauty of the Chalice Well's World Peace Garden.
Chalice Well and flowing water - reminds us of blood and water
St. Michael's Chape
Somerset Levels from inside St. Michael's Chapel
Now I'm relaxed, reveling in the view, in my amazement at really being here. Last time I had come as Guenivere, my character talking in my head as I imagined her terrified for her beloved Arthur, lying mortally wounded in the monastery below. Yes, that is another of this amazing place's claims to fame--that Glastonbury is in fact the fabled Isle of Avalon whece Arthur was borne by the faithful Bedivere after the fateful Battle of Camlann. And here--or rather below me in the Abbey grounds--is where the monks found, in 1191, a grave of Celtic origin. A few feet above the coffin they found a leaden cross with a Latin inscription that read: Here lies, in the Isle of Avalon, King Arthur. The coffin contained the body of a man over 6 feet tall with a grevious head wound and the body of a woman with long, golden tresses. And so began Glastonbury's fame as a place of great medieval pilgrimage.