Glastonbury


Glastonbury
   The prestige of Glastonbury Abbey is based on medieval legends. The earliest, in the late 10th century, is a claim that the first church on the site (which actually is no older than the 7th century) predated the arrival of the earliest missionaries. By the 13th century, it was being said that this had been built in ad 63 by twelve disciples of Jesus, led by *Joseph of Arimathea. Simultaneously, a secular legend developed, namely that Glas-tonbury was the mysterious *Avalon to which *Arthur was taken. In 1191, at the request of Henry II, the monks dug between two tall stone shafts in their graveyard, and found a hollow oak deep in the earth, containing the bones of a gigantic and much wounded man, and of a woman whose golden hair crumbled to dust as soon as someone touched it. Fixed to a stone in the grave was a lead cross saying (in Latin) 'Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of Avalon'.
   The discovery was useful to the Abbey, hard pressed for funds after a fire in 1184 had destroyed many of its buildings and all its relics; it may also have had a political aspect, discrediting the Welsh and Breton tradition that Arthur had never died. The bones were laid in a black marble mausoleum before the high altar, where they remained till the Abbey was destroyed at the Reformation. The lead cross survived the destruction; Camden's Britannia (1590) includes a sketch of it, with a shorter inscription omitting Guinevere, but the object itself is thought to have been lost in the late 17th century. A cross found in 1982 at Forty Hall, Enfield (Essex) was probably a replica; the finder refused to reveal where he had rehidden it (The Times (15 Jan. and 22 Mar. 1983)).
   Glastonbury Tor was said in a 16th-century Welsh life of St Collen to be a fairy hill, inside which lived a sinister lord of the Otherworld called Gwyn ap Nudd, who also figures in Welsh Arthurian tales. The Tor is topped by a ruined church, and the terracing along its slopes might possibly be a *maze. On the slopes is a *Holy Thorn, descendant of the original one which stood near the Abbey in 1500.
   In modern times the reputation of Glaston-bury has grown greatly. Both Roman Catholics and Anglicans hold services and pilgrimages at the Abbey; the spring near the Tor associated with the *Grail legend and used as a spa in the 18th century is now a centre for pilgrimage and healing, tended by the Chalice Well Trust; in the 1930s, the artist Katherine Maltwood claimed that the landscape of a ten-mile area south-east of Glastonbury formed patterns representing the Zodiac. The whole New Age movement of 'alternative' mysticism sees Glastonbury as a major spiritual centre.
   ■ Rahtz, 1993; A. Gransden, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 27: 4 (1976), 337-58.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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