Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Glastonbury Abbey and Church

Glestingaburh, Y Niswitrin

Glastonbury Abbey was a medieval monastery and religious institution located in Glastonbury, Somerset, England. The abbey’s history is closely linked to both Christian tradition and Arthurian legends.

The origin of Glastonbury Abbey is a topical of historical debate and is connected to various legends and accounts. According to tradition, Glastonbury Abbey was founded by Joseph of Arimathea, a biblical figure who was said to have brought Christianity to Britain. Historical records from the seventh century mentions the existence of a church or monastery at Glastonbury, suggesting its early Christian presence.

There is a claim that the abbey was founded by missionaries named Deruvian and Phagan about 166 AD, sent by the Pope to the British King Lucius, and by Saint Patrick before his mission to Ireland. According to some historical sources, Glastonbury Abbey was founded as a Christian religious site during the early medieval period, around the fifth or sixth century.

Joseph of Arimathea, is according to one legend said to have landed by boat on Wearyall Hill which is located on the outskirts of Glastonbury town and again underlines the fact that in past times the area around Glastonbury flooded making certain areas accessible only by small boat at certain times of the year. This also supports the belief that this area of the country was what some legends referred to as the Isle of Avalon.

In AD 1184, the Abbey was in the care of Peter de Marcy when fire destroyed the abbey’s Great Church and the Old Church, which had stood adjacent to it. The rebuilding of the abbey was heavily supported by King Henry II, who politically had a keen interest in Glastonbury. His death in AD 1189 meant that the abbey lost its financial support and neither of his sons, John or Richard (King Richard I, Coeur-de-Lion, The Lionheart), were interested in continuing it.

In AD 1409, Bishop Robert Hallum of Salisbury claimed England to be a Christian nation with equal status to ItalyFrance and Germany, on the basis of apostolic conversion by Joseph. Although the date of the conversion was moved backwards to just after Christ’s Passion, rather than AD 63, this was to offset France’s claim to conversion by Mary Magdalene and St. Denis (a disciple of Paul). A similar claim was later made and successful at the Council of Constance in AD 1417. The manipulation of historical fact for the benefit of prestige and/or political power, appears throughout history.

In the Middle Ages, bones, which were identified by their discoverers as those of Arthur and Guenevere, were found there. Although most authorities regard the find as a hoax, this is not necessarily the case. According to a story found in the Life of GildasMelwas (Meleagaunce) abducted Guenevere and took her to Glastonbury, but Gildas mediated between him and Arthur.

It could be argued that like other ritualistic sites the location may have been a site on which an act of God may have taken place i.e. struck by a bolt of lighting or a comet and so flattening the area. A building or monument being then built to mark the spot. Glastonbury Abbey became an important pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages due to its associations with Christian legends and Arthurian myths. The abbey was not only a place of religious worship but also a center of learning and cultural activity. Manuscripts and documents were produced and stored at the abbey, contributing to its intellectual influence.

Glastonbury Abbey Timeline

2nd century AD
Early Christian missionaries, including possibly Deruvian and Phagan, establish a Christian presence in Glastonbury.

5th – 6th centuries
A church or religious community is believed to have been founded during this period.

7th century
Historical records, including those of the chronicler Bede, mention the existence of a church or monastery at Glastonbury.

8th – 9th centuries
Glastonbury Abbey experiences challenges and potential damage during the Viking raids that affected much of Britain.

10th century
The abbey continues to grow in importance as a religious and cultural center.

A fire destroyed the Great Church and the Old Church.

During renovations at Glastonbury Abbey, the monks reportedly uncovered a stone slab with an inscribed cross marking two graves. According to a chronicle written by the monk Adam of Damerham, the inscriptions indicated that the graves contained the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere, along with a leaden cross bearing Arthur’s name.

12th century
The abbey’s reputation and influence increase, and it becomes a significant pilgrimage site. King Henry II grants the abbey the privilege of holding an annual fair.

1278, 19 April
The remains of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere were reburied in front of the Abbey’s high altar. The ceremony was attended by King Edward I and Queen Eleanor.

13th century
The Lady Chapel is built, adding to the architectural complexity of the abbey.

14th century
The Black Death and subsequent economic challenges impact the abbey’s fortunes.

Glastonbury Abbey is dissolved as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. The valuable materials of the abbey are seized by the Crown.

16th – 19th centuries
The abbey falls into ruin, and its buildings deteriorate over time. The ruins become a subject of interest for antiquarians and tourists.

1900s – Present
Efforts are made to preserve and protect the abbey ruins. The site becomes a popular tourist attraction, attracting visitors interested in its historical and cultural significance. Glastonbury Abbey remains a place of spiritual interest, drawing people seeking its historical and legendary connections.

During an excavation, the black marble tomb of Arthur and Guenevere were rediscovered, thought to have been lost during the Dissolution in 1539.

Modern Times
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey continue to stand as a testament to its historical and cultural significance. The site hosts events, exhibitions, and educational programs that provide insights into its history. Glastonbury’s spiritual and cultural legacy, as well as its associations with Arthurian legends, continue to attract visitors from around the world.

See also
King Arthur and Guenevere’s Grave | The Legend of King Arthur