Last week we talked about Geoffrey’s Ashe’s thoughts on Glastonbury as it relates to King Arthur. This week we’ll continue with Glastonbury Abbey, as described by him and his wife, Pat, who was our tour guide around the grounds.
I have to say that I wasn’t expecting much from the Abbey, but it is truly a magnificent place. It’s hard to try to describe the sheer size of the walls. Even standing there, it was a stretch to imagine the size the Abbey must have been its heyday. Photos and even the model in the museum can’t do it justice.
There has been some kind of settlement on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey since the early Christian era. The foundations of an early Roman building have recently been discovered under a local supermarket (the area used to be part of the Abbey grounds). There was once a church, known only as The Old Church, on the grounds that was so old, no one knew who put it there. Tradition places it early in the Christian era. It was made from wattle and was said to be built by Christ’s disciples (Joseph of Arimathea group) in the first century. It may have existed where the Lady Chapel is now, and was considered the holiest place in England.
So is the tradition of Joseph (and possibly the young Jesus) coming to the area possible? Mr. Ashe admits this theory is what first drew him to the area. While he believes the part about Jesus coming along to be “modern fantasy,” he believes it’s possible Joseph came because there were very strong trade routes between the two areas, especially in tin.
During the Middle Ages, the Abbey was at the height of its power. It was the largest cathedral in England other than old St. Paul’s in London. This means nearby Wells Cathedral was smaller, and that is of mind-boggling proportions. It had a grand scriptorium which purportedly housed the largest collection of books in Europe. (Today, only about 40 of these books remain.)
The Abbot was more than the religious leader; he was also chief justice for the area. He had his own kitchen, a separate building on the grounds which survives in tact today. It contains four ovens, one in each corner of the room, each with their own chimney that vented into one hole in the roof. These air vents served to bring in cool air, while pushing hot air and smoke out. They were so effective, they became models for others in buildings all over Europe. It would have had a huge hall next to it, in which the Abbot would have entertained kings and other nobility when they visited.
And the monks did more than pray. They carried out important medical works for the sick, helped the poor (including at an almshouse on the grounds that was dedicated to poor widows) as well as public works, such as draining the water that still made the surrounding area marshy.
Have you ever heard the nursery rhyme of Little Jack Horner? (“Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said ‘oh, what a good boy am I.’”) It turns out that Jack (John) Horner was a real person, but he was far from the little boy portrayed by artists. He lived in the area of Glastonbury during the time of the dissolution and was extremely helpful to King Henry VIII. He had a book of titles to the divisions of land that made up Glastonbury. As the story goes, he took one out of the book for himself before presenting the book to the king (hence, the title was the plum in the rhyme).
The Abbey was one of the last to be dissolved by King Henry VIII. It lasted until 1539. It is said that Henry stayed at what was then called the Pilgrim’s Inn (today the George and Pilgrim’s Hotel) across the street from the Abbey to personally watch it burn. When that happened, it wasn’t just the monks who were turned out. The Abbey was also a center of learning, so teachers, librarians and musicians lost their livelihoods and homes as well. After the dissolution, the property passed into private hands as the king gave favors and paid debts. In the 1970s, the Church of England bought it and it is now an international tourist destination, in addition to an important piece of history.
What do you think about Glastonbury Abbey? What questions do you have about it?