What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey?

2013-Light-Darkness (1)Happy Winter Solstice! 

I’m participating in a special blog hop, Casting Light Upon the Darkness, organized by author Helen Hollick. The theme is throwing light upon something – a mystery or something little known. Thirty authors are participating, so check out the whole lineup

Without further ado, here’s my mystery for you:

Many people are familiar with the mystery of King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury Abbey. (Was it really him or was it all a hoax?) But when I was there in June, I learned that’s not the only one. In fact, there’s one lurking right under your feet as you traverse the grounds.

The abbey has a series of tunnels leading from various points inside to places in the village or surrounding area. No one knows for sure what they were used for. The respectable answer is that they were a way for the monks to travel from place to place in inclement weather or a passageway for noble guests who didn’t want to deal with the crowds at the abbey gates. But knowing human nature, there’s a good possibility they had nefarious purposes as well.

A few of the tunnels have been verified as real and some people even still get to see them today. (Sadly, I did not.) Others are merely rumor kept alive by tradition. Here’s a list of where they are and what I and others believe they may have been used for:

  1. From the south side of the Lady Chapel to the Great Hall within the Abbey (verified) – Makes sense that this was probably a passage for the monks.
  2. Leading from the Abbey to the River Brue (some say verified, some say rumored) – Could have been used to ferry supplies, but also could have been part of a black market. This one is also thought to have been a place where monks could have met their lovers or others they wished kept out of the public eye.
  3. Leading from the Abbey to the George and Pilgrim Inn (verified) – This tunnel can still be seen the cellar of the inn. The two buildings are just across the road from one another, so it’s possible that it was used by the monks who worked in the inn to for easy access back and forth to facilitate work and prayer schedules or for easy access by pilgrims. It’s also possible that there were some clandestine dealings involved.
  4. Leading from the Abbot’s chambers to a room in the George and Pilgrim Inn (rumored) – This passage way, according to one source, led to a room that was always on reserve for the abbot, who used it for “the purging of his loins.” I’ll let you decide what that means.
  5. Leading from the Abbey to Glastonbury Tor (rumored) – This one is hotly debated. As there was a cathedral on top of the Tor during the abbey’s heyday, it’s not out of the realm of reason that the abbot could need an easy way to pass between the two. However, there is a good amount of distance separating the locations, so the reality of being able to travel that far underground is questionable at best.

Even if we never know their true purpose, they add to the mystery of an already enchanting location. There are even ghost stories associated with some of them, but that’s a topic for another day.

Sources:
Personal conversations with Jamie George and Geoffrey Ashe at Glastonbury Abbey, June 2013
King Arthur’s Avalon by Geoffrey Ash
Glastonbury: Maker of Myths by Frances Howard-Gordon
British History Online: A History of the County Seat of Somerset, Vol 9: Glastonbury and Street
The Tunnels of Glastonbury

Have you heard of these mysterious tunnels? Have you seen them yourself? What do you think of them: fact or fiction? What do you think they may have been used for?

Please visit the pages of my fellow blog hop participants. You never know what surprises (or free prizes!) you might find. And, if you want to share on Twitter, please use #21DecBlogHop.

  1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  2. Prue Batten : Casting Light….
  3. Alison Morton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  4. Anna Belfrage  Let there be light!
  5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
  6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
  7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
  8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness – how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize
  9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  10. Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
  11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
  12. David Pilling  :  Greek Fire! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  13. Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
  14. Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
  15. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
  16. Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
  17. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
  18. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
  19. Suzanne McLeod  :  The Dark of the Moon
  20. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
  21. Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
  22. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
  23. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light – A Short Story
  24. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships – Plus a Giveaway Present
  25. Manda Scott : Dark into Light – Mithras, and the older gods
  26. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
  27. Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire – 18th Century protests against enclosure
  28. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
  29. Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
  30. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression
Advertisements

Countdown to #NaNoWriMo

2013-Participant-Facebook-CoverLess than two weeks to go before NaNoWriNo (or National Novel Writing Month for those who don’t speak writer). That means that all across the world throughout the month of November, thousands of writers will be attempting to write 50,000 words in a month. Insane, you say? Yes. But it is possible. I speak from experience.

Last year was my first NaNoWriMo and I won (meaning, I wrote 50,000+ words in November). It was a crazy, sometimes stressful experience, but one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It got me into the habit of writing nearly every day, which I didn’t think I could do before that. I also met so many wonderful people, both in person locally and online, many of whom I’ve kept in contact with online.

Out of all of Camelot’s Queen (also known as book 2), the part I wrote during NaNo is the part I ended up changing the least. Maybe I was just lucky that I had a really good idea of what was going to happen in that section, but I think a lot of the quality was due to the need to get out of my own way and just write. During NaNo, there isn’t time for a lot of second guessing. And most of the time, your first instinct is right. But I also had the advantage of having a chunk of the book already written (that didn’t count toward the 50,000 words), so I wasn’t starting from scratch.

This Year’s Book
025
This year is a whole different story (literally). I’ll be writing a Tudor-era historical fiction (code name: Glastonbury – it doesn’t have a real title yet) that came to me in June while I was in England researching book 3 of the Guinevere trilogy. It’s the story of two people, Isabella and Stephen, whose lives are intertwined with one another and the dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey. It’s part local legend (I don’t want to give that part away yet..let’s just say it has to do with the George and Pilgrim Inn), part love story, part recounting of the Abbey’s final months. I have always been fascinated with the dissolution of the monasteries (even before Nancy Bilyeau’s books) and when I stood in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, I knew I wanted to try to imagine what it would have been like in its heyday and what brought about its tragic end. The fact that local legend ties in with a bit of romance just sweetens the plot.

If you want to get an idea of what’s going on in my head and what I’ll be writing about for the next two months (hoping to have a draft done by year-end), take a look at the book’s Pinterest board. If music is more your thing, here’s the beginning of the playlist:

  • Lana Del Ray, “Born to Die” (Isabella and Stephen’s theme)
  • Lana Del Ray, “Off to the Races”
  • Brunuhville, The Eternal Forest (I’ll be using this whole album and all of his music as my main writing music.) 

Want to keep score at home? There’s a handy little word count tracker in the menu at the right that will update automatically as I log my words. And if you’re following my ROW80 posts on Wednesdays and Sundays, you’ll find out more there.

(And don’t worry about Guinevere. I’ll be getting back to book 3 as soon as I can. She and I just need a little distance. 14 years is a long time to put up with someone and that’s how long she and I have been telling her story.)

NaNoWriMo Resources
In case you want to join in on the insanity, here are some resources that helped me in planning my book. (And no, it’s not to late to join. I know people who have started in mid-November and still managed to win.) 

Good luck to all my fellow NaNo-ers out there! Come find me on the NaNo site and mark me as your writing buddy.

Do you have questions about NaNo? Are you participating? Let me know your user name and I’ll add you as a writing buddy. What do you think about NaNo? I was a huge skeptic before I did it.

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.)

023

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?