My Morning in Glastonbury with Geoffrey Ashe – Part 2

A model of what Glastonbury Abbey looked like in the Middle Ages

A model of what Glastonbury Abbey looked like in the Middle Ages

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.

The remains of the Lady Chapel today.

The remains of the Lady Chapel today.

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.)

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The Abbot’s Kitchen

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).

This photo gives you some idea of just how huge the Abbey would have been.

This photo gives you some idea of just how huge the Abbey would have been.

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?

My Morning in Glastonbury with Geoffrey Ashe – Part 1

Me fangirling over Geoffrey Ashe autographing my copy of one of his books.

Me fangirling over Geoffrey Ashe autographing my copy of one of his books.

Geoffrey Ashe is something of a rock star in the Arthurian community. Now 90 years old, this historian has written some of the most influential non-fiction books about King Arthur, seeking to uncover Arthur’s true identity and the locations of the legendary Camelot and the Isle of Avalon. Whether or not you agree with his theories (I do on some), he’s considered an expert.

He has advised Arthurian fiction writers from Persia Woolley (who also wrote a series on Guinevere) to Marion Zimmer Bradley (she thanks him in the acknowledgements of The Mists of Avalon) and more recently, Tony Hays (who writes Arthurian mysteries). I am honored to be in such prestigious company. Mr. Ashe told me that anyone who seeks to write Arthurian legend should, “Leave the Grail out of it and resist the temptation to rationalize Mallory. That’s what everyone seems to be doing lately. Use your imagination and tell your own story. Don’t try to tell someone else’s.”

We were lucky enough to have him and his wife, Pat, as guests at Glastonbury Abbey. Before exploring the Abbey grounds with Pat, we sat down for what turned into a two-hour lesson on the area from Mr. Ashe. He was very kind to answer questions as we went along, even multiple ones from me pertaining to aspects of my plot. Because he and his wife gave us so much information, I’ve split it into two posts, this one focusing on the Arthurian ties, and the next on Glastonbury Abbey itself. What follows is a summary of the notes I took. I hope you enjoy learning from him as much as I did.

From left (Pat Ashe, Geoffrey's wife; Linda, a member of our tour group; and Arthurian historian Geoffrey Ashe.

From left (Pat Ashe, Geoffrey’s wife; Linda, a member of our tour group; and Arthurian historian Geoffrey Ashe.

The Arthurian Period
Mr. Ashe believes the historical Arthurian period to be the mid fifth century, with 458 a likely date for Arthur’s coronation. During that time, the area around Glastonbury would have been under water, with Glastonbury Tor, Chalice Hill and Wearyall Hill being islands due to their height. Because of this, you would have accessed them by water, but it may have been possible to get to the Tor from a small strip of land that joined the Mendip Hills. There was so much water in the area that in the Middle Ages, they were still pumping it out of the area. The surrounding Lake Villages date from the beginning of the Christian era. Fishing and trade would have been very important to them. They lasted until the Saxon Conquest, when they were destroyed. 

We All Have A Theory
There are many theories that point to Avalon being sacred before Christianity. Mr. Ashe jokes that “the wisest thing ever said about Glastonbury was uttered by a Benedictine monk: ‘you have only to tell some crazy story in Glastonbury and in 10 years it will be ancient Somerset legend.'” Here are a few he spoke about in-depth:

  1. Zodiac – The idea that the signs of the zodiac can be found in the surrounding landscape, once quite popular, has fallen out of favor lately. This is mainly because you can only trace the shapes on modern maps. It doesn’t work on maps of the landscape from the Arthurian period.
  2. Ley Lines – Ley lines – lines of energy – connect a series of seemingly scattered ancient sites and hill forts across Britain. They run in straight lines across the landscape. For the most part, Mr. Ashe believes this is over-hyped, but he does concede that the St. Michael Line, which starts at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, goes through Devonshire and the Tor, continuing northeast into the country, does have an unusually large number of sites dedicated to the saint on it.
  3. Labyrinth – Many people, Mr. Ashe included (and me, too) believe that paths carved into the hillside around the Tor, which can still be seen today, are actually a Cretan-style labyrinth that was used for ceremonial purposes. This would have been created during the pre-Christian era. Some people propose that these paths were actually terraces for farming, but Mr. Ashe counters that if that was the case they would have been carved on only one side of the hill, the one with the best exposure to sunlight.
  4. The Holy Thorn058 The Holy Thorn at Glastonbury Abbey is from a cutting of the original, one of three in the area (the original was cut down in the 1600s by a zealous Puritan. The others are on Wearyall Hill, site of the original, which we couldn’t go to because it was closed to the public, and the other is at the church of St. John, which was just up the street from our hotel). The tree is a Syrian variety, so it well could have come from St. Joseph, if he really did live in Glastonbury. The other possibility is that it was brought back by soldiers from the Crusades. (And yes, it really does bloom at Christmas time. It blooms in spring, too, and was in flower when we were there.)
Arthur and Guinevere's grave was found here at Glastonbury Abbey.

Arthur and Guinevere’s grave was found here at Glastonbury Abbey.

Arthur and Guinevere’s Grave
As the tradition goes, in 1191 a group of monks were digging at the Abbey and uncovered a leaden cross marker that bore a Latin inscription which translates, “Here lies the famous King Arthur on the isle of Avalon.” (Some versions also add “with his second wife, Guinevere” to the text.) They dug down a little more and found a hallowed out tree that was a kind of coffin containing two bodies: a large man who had suffered from head trauma and a small woman, whose golden hair was still in tact.

The usual position of scholars is that this was faked by the monks in order to attract pilgrims (and with them, funds) to the Abbey, which was still recovering from a devastating fire in 1184. But Mr. Ashe is not among these. He believes that the discovery could be real. He won’t say for certain that it was Arthur and Guinevere the monks found, but it had to be someone important. To defend this position he notes:

  1. The Welsh, who have always claimed Arthur as their own, accepted the Glastonbury grave without complaint.
  2. There is no evidence that the Abbey tried to raise money or attract pilgrims at that time, something that would have been reflected in their own record keeping.
  3. It was traditional for monks from the 10th century on dig a second grave on top of the first layer in order to make more room. This would explain both why the cross was found lying down (rather than standing as grave markers usually do) and also why the monks had to dig down more to find the bodies.
  4. The leaden cross dates from the seventh century or earlier and appears to be written in a French translation of Latin, one that would have been unknown to the monks who found the grave, so they couldn’t have forged it.

  5. He also refutes the claims of those who say no one ever connected Arthur and Glastonbury before the graves. He notes that in the life of St. Gildas (c. 1130-1150), it is mentioned that Melwas kidnaps Guinevere and holds her at his stronghold in Glastonbury.
Close up of the grave marker today.

Close up of the grave marker today.

Both Ashe’s are believers that King Arthur died in France. They identify him with the historical Riothamus, who was killed in the Lorre Valley by a blow to the head. They say he was buried in the city of Avallon in France (which also is a city on a hill with abundant apple orchards) and that is where the cross was made. They believe that both the bodies and the cross were brought back to Glastonbury later and interred at the Abbey.

As for me, I think it could be possible they were really buried there, but I doubt it. I guess I would need more proof, which we’re not likely to get.

What about you? What do you think about Mr. Ashe’s theories about Avalon, Glastonbury and the graves of Arthur and Guinevere? What you do believe?

Arthurian England Trip Part 1: Intro, Glastonbury & Wells

Our tour group: (from left): Maureene, me, Linda, Jamie, Tres

Our tour group: (from left): Maureene, me, Linda, Jamie, Tres

First off, thanks to everyone who entered our two year blogiversary giveaway contest! The winners are:

  • King Arthur magnet: Mary Beth Lewis
  • Location magnets and Cernunnos plaque: Wisher
  • Figurines: Heather

I will contact you by email to make arrangements to get your gifts to you. Now, on to the matter at hand. For those who haven’t yet seen photos from my trip, you can view them on Flickr. I also have some very amateur video on YouTube from the trip. In case you were wondering, the tour I went on was called From Avalon to Camelot, and was conducted through Gothic Image Tours. I waited until now to publicize it because I wanted to make sure it was something I could endorse. I would recommend it to anyone. The accommodations are top notch and the nature of the tour allows for personalized interaction and visiting out of the way sites that a larger group wouldn’t be able to manage. Tour guide Jamie George has been doing this for over 20 years and certainly knows his stuff. He also has the contacts to be able to arrange for guests such as Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe and divination expert Sig Lonegren. My group had some last minute cancellations and was therefore only five people, including Jamie. Besides me, there were three women from Australia – Tres, Maureene and Linda – none of us knew each other before the trip. Now, we’re all good friends and are keeping in touch.

The George and Pilgrim Hotel, built in 1473, where we stayed.

The George and Pilgrim Hotel, built in 1475, where we stayed.

We started the tour in Glastonbury. We stayed at the George and Pilgrim’s Inn on High Street. This hotel has been around since 1475, and has played host to a number of famous guests over the years, most notably King Henry VIII, who stood in one of its rooms to watch Glastonbury Abbey (which is across the street) burn during the dissolution of the monasteries. The hotel is also host to a number of ghosts, including a merry, fat friar. None of us saw him, but Tres did have her TV come on unexpectedly one morning and Maureene was taking a picture of the town when she captured what appears to be a ribbon of energy, which she didn’t see at the time. By the way, some of the hotel’s rooms are named. I stayed in “The Nun’s Cell,” which is really funny since I used to want to be one and was voted Most Likely to Become a Nun in high school.

High Street in Glastonbury. Jamie's shop, Gothic Image, is on the right.

High Street in Glastonbury. Jamie’s shop, Gothic Image, is on the right.

Glastonbury itself is a nice, eclectic town. Somehow I was imagining a place full of frenetic energy, but it’s really not. There are plenty of New Age shops specializing in esoteric subjects, crystals, jewelry, etc. but you can also tell people live there. I guess what I’m saying is it isn’t a pure tourist trap. The Tor and Chalice Well are actually a bit away from the town center, so you either need to drive take the trolley/bus to get to it. Glastonbury Abbey is within walking distance. (More on Glastonbury Abbey in the next post.)

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

If you get the chance to take a little side trip, I highly recommend the town of Wells, which is about a 15 minute bus ride from the top of High Street. We went there on the recommendation of one of Maureene’s friends, and I will never, ever forget it. The town itself is cute, but the main feature is its breathtaking cathedral. No photo could ever do it justice, no matter how professional. It gave me a whole new respect for the generations of people who spent their lives building these monuments to God. To think that they accomplished such feats in an age without our modern technology is very humbling. The main attraction is a clock that has mechanical figures that come out every hour and do I little routine. There are many such clocks throughout Europe, and this is the second one I’ve seen, but they never fail to inspire.

The Bishop's palace grounds in Wells.

The Bishop’s palace grounds in Wells.

And if the cathedral wasn’t enough, we also toured the Bishop’s palace and grounds, which adjoin the cathedral. I haven’t uploaded most of those photos yet. The best I can do to capture their beauty is to say the grounds are better than any botanical garden I’ve ever been to. Seriously, if it was possible to die of beauty, this place would do it to you. And, you can even see the Tor from its walls!

Gardens in the grounds of the Bishop's palace in Wells.

Gardens in the grounds of the Bishop’s palace in Wells.

So that’s a bit of the first part of the trip. Next time I’ll talk about Glastonbury Abbey and let you in on what Geoffrey Ashe had to say about it and Arthurian legend. Then we’ll talk about Cadbury, a likely spot for Camelot. There will be a few posts on Tintagel and Merlin’s cave. I’ll probably put St. Clether’s Chapel, St. Madron’s Well, St. Crede and St. Nectan’s faerie pool into one. Then we’ll talk about the stone circles of Boscawen-Un (which is very special to me) and the Merry Maidens, as well as the dolmen of Lanyon Quoit. And of course, Avebury and Stonehenge. So stay tuned for the next several weeks!

What do you want to know about Glastonbury or Wells? Do you have any questions about the tour? What do you want to know more about?