If you are in the Mendips region of Somerset you really shouldn’t miss visiting the wonderful Wells Cathedral nor the historic town of Glastonbury, possibly the quirkiest town in England. Steeped in history, myth and the smell of incense, it may not be for everybody.
However, do not let that put you off visiting the beautiful site of Glastonbury Abbey. Since Medieval times, the abbey has held legendary status as the earliest Christian foundation in Britain linked to Joseph of Arimathea and the burial place of King Arthur.
It’s a peaceful place – 36 acres of grounds to explore. Plenty of benches to sit and relax and take in the atmosphere. The remains of the abbey to walk around, which must have been enormous in its day. A medieval herb garden. Views of the Glastonbury Tor.
The abbey was built on the myth that followers of Christ settled here within the 1st century CE and built ‘The Old Church’. Abbot Dunstan remodelled and expanded the abbey and by the time of the coming of the Normans, the abbey was the wealthiest in England.
Disaster struck in 1184 when a great fire destroyed most of the abbey including the Old Church. Rebuilding began immediately, with the support of King Henry II, beginning with the Lady Chapel which commemorated and preserved the position of the Old Church. Chevron detail, floral and figural work, and both Romanesque and Gothic architecture adorn the chapel.
A few years later, the monks of Glastonbury announced the discovery of the body of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere, a claim that helped draw much needed funding, which had ceased with Henry II’s death two years before.
In 1534, the passing of the Act of Supremacy made Henry VIII the head of the Church of England and suppression of the monasteries began. Glastonbury held out as long as possible, but eventually Abbot Richard Whiting was arrested on a fabricated charge of treason and executed in 1539, marking the end for the monastery.
According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill, which then grew into the original thorn tree. The “original” Glastonbury thorn was cut down and burned as a relic of superstition during the English Civil War, and one planted on Wearyall Hill in 1951 to replace it had its branches cut off in 2010. The original tree has been propagated several times with one tree growing in the Abbey grounds.
As you enter the grounds of the Abbey the first thing you notice is a bronze casting of a figurative sculpture, showing the monk Sigeric riding a mule while on pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. A small girl offers him an orange from a bag hanging on her back.
The statue was originally made in plaster for a travelling exhibition held in the millennium year, to celebrate the Via Francigena and inspired by the story of Sigeric who was educated at Glastonbury Abbey, where he took holy orders. He was elected Abbot of St Augustine’s in about 975 to 990, and consecrated by Archbishop Dunstan as Bishop of Ramsbury in 985 or 986. He was transferred to the see of Canterbury in 990.
Within the grounds there is a herb garden which hosts a variety of traditional herbs that may have been used in cooking at the abbey during the monastic period and a kitchen garden which once served the Abbot’s Kitchen. The abbey orchard has been in use since at least 1799 and possibly during the monastic period and contains an array of historically significant cider apple varieties.
I don’t know why abbey ruins appeal to me so much. Maybe it is the sense of history, trying to visualise what the buildings might have looked like? A strong perception of lives gone by? Monks drifting in and out, sandals slapping on the stone floors as they made their way from the refectory along the cloisters to the chapel for meditation and chanting. I always find such places very tranquil to be in although together with a certain feeling of poignancy.
Source of historical information from Glastonbury Abbey website.