Glastonbury! What a wealth of – mostly strange – associations that name conjures up! The little town in the West of England has a cultural significance out of all proportion to its size or political weight. Had it not been for the onset of the coronavirus, the 50th Glastonbury Festival would have been held this coming June. The Golden Jubilee of an event that usually transforms the Somerset countryside into an English Woodstock would no doubt have highlighted what a lot of orthodox folk dislike about the place – its hippy-dippy, New Age atmosphere. But there is a good deal more to Glastonbury than there is to such American New Age centres as California’s Mount Shasta, with its tales of Lemurians and Ascended Masters, or Arizona’s fabled vortices at Sedona.
For one thing, the creators of the current Glastonbury/Avalon mythos – with its Tor, Chalice Well, White Spring, gnarled oaks, ley lines and all – owes its current inception to an educated if peculiar band, numbering such folk as Wellesley Tudor Pole, Dion Fortune, Frederick Bligh Bond, the Anglican clerics HA Lewis, CC Dobson, Lionel S Lewis, and the still-living historian Geoffrey Ashe. Eccentric they may have been, but not intellectual lightweights. In further contrast to American mythmakers, they were not working with entirely made-up material.
As with the coming of Ss Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus, Maximin, Sara and others to Provence, a story which has had a huge effect on Provençal and French history, so with the tale of St Joseph of Arimathaea’s arrival in Britain (some sources numbering him, too, among that company of westerly-bound saints).
Whether or not the donor of the Holy Sepulchre did indeed make his way to Glastonbury, plant his staff on Wearyall Hill, and found the first Catholic church in Britain (dedicated to the Blessed Virgin), it has certainly been believed for a long time. If literary sources for this belief only go as far back as the 12th century, such an elaborate tale had to have some sort of roots – and could not have been simply invented and devoutly believed overnight.
Indeed, the Glastonbury Thorn, said to have been that planted staff sprung to life, bloomed at Christmas and Easter, unlike normal thorns; its descendants do to this day. The annual picking of some of the blossoms and their dispatch to the Queen is still an important ceremony in Glastonbury. From this legendary beginning, Glastonbury gathered around itself claims of longer or shorter visits by a wealth of holy folk – Ss Patrick, Bridget, Dunstan, Collen and others were maintained to have spent time in this sacred spot. But perhaps the most exciting was none other than arguably the greatest hero Britain has produced, either in folklore or history: King Arthur.
The Arthurian legends, encompassing the Isle of Avalon to which the “once and future king” was taken after his last battle at Glastonbury, have been endlessly debated by scholars, and no doubt shall be until Doomsday. The monks of Glastonbury claimed to have discovered the graves of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191, while rebuilding the Abbey after a terrible fire. Arthur’s association with the spot was soon followed by the claim that St Joseph of Arimathea had taken the Holy Grail there.
Whatever the truth of the matter, St Joseph’s legend was at the basis of Glastonbury Abbey’s ongoing struggle with that of St Alban, as to which of the houses was the oldest and so most senior in England. It was a quarrel Henry VIII solved with his suppression of both monasteries and the judicial murder of the Abbot, Bl Richard Whiting, and his companions, Bl Roger James and Bl John Thorne on Glastonbury Tor in 1539.
Although the memory of Glastonbury’s greatness and sanctity survived, the town went, as it were, to sleep, even as the great abbey’s buildings were destroyed. The Puritans cut down the Glastonbury Thorn – although, as mentioned, cuttings survived and bloomed, and from time to time were sent to the monarch at Christmas. The lingering legends of St Joseph of Arimathaea – and the idea that he might have brought a young Jesus to Britain – inspired Blake’s famed poem-turned English national hymn, Jerusalem.
In 1886, Catholic religious returned to Glastonbury when the French Missionaries of the Sacred Heart bought the Anchor Inn and adjoining Chalice Well to found a missionary college. Once again, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered at one of England’s most sacred places.
However, as the years went by, since most of the young recruits to the order came from Ireland, it was decided to sell the college and open a new one in the Emerald Isle. So it was that the site was sold in 1908 to Alice Buckton, one of the enthusiasts earlier mentioned. Tor House, as the Anchor Inn was renamed, would be inhabited by Dion Fortune, and the Chalice Well was set on its way to becoming the sort of shrine it is now. Indeed, this was the golden age of Glastonbury’s legendary revival, spearheaded by Frederick Bligh Bond’s psychic archaeology at the Abbey, and Rev Lewis’s rediscovery and repackaging of local lore.
But in 1926 a small Catholic church was built, and replaced by the much larger and grander structure we see today, 13 years later. In 1955, a statue of the Blessed Virgin was designed, after the seal of one of the 14th-century Abbots. Given the old title, Our Lady St Mary of Glastonbury, she holds the Infant Jesus on her left forearm and a flowering bush on her right – today it is often identified with the Glastonbury Thorn.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury was thus restored; a decade later the image was officially crowned by the Apostolic Delegate. The same year the tapestry displayed on either side of the statue was woven, depicting the three Glastonbury Martyrs, St Dunstan, St Joseph of Arimathea, St David, St Patrick, St Brigid and Bl Richard Bere. Amid the more peculiar religiosity to be found in Glastonbury, both Catholic and Anglican pilgrimages have been conducted for decades.
One thing however was lacking; the return of a Benedictine community to the site. But in August 2019, Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton canonically erected the Community of Our Lady of Glastonbury. This small nascent community of two monks is based at the shrine, where it offers the Divine Office and a Conventual Mass in the Extraordinary Form; the monks offer the Ordinary Form at the parishes they serve in four adjoining parishes.
On December 7 last year, together with the former Abbot of Buckfast Abbey, Dom David Charlesworth, and Br Hugh, representative of the abbot and monks of Prinknash Abbey, the Glastonbury monks chanted the Mass of the Benedictine Martyrs of England. Br Hugh brought a gift from his abbey, a relic of Bl Richard Whiting – his arm bone.
For the Catholic pilgrim, then, the town once more offers a number of sacred sites. At the shrine he may venerate both statue and relic. The abbey ruins are a holy place, and the Tor is the site of the Benedictines’ martyrdom.
And the Holy Grail? Well, the chalice is more likely to be in Valencia, Spain; but Glastonbury remains an enchanting spot.
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