Saturday, February 14, 2015

Searching for the Grail in Glastonbury

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey
Do these idyllic abbey ruins hold a mystical power?
Best known nowadays for its annual rock music festival, Glastonbury has been a draw for pilgrims, searchers, and New Age hippies for centuries. They were attracted to three main sites: the Glastonbury Tor; Glastonbury Abbey; and the Chalice Well.

View from the base of the Glastonbury Tor
Standing at the base of Glastonbury Tor.

Glastonbury Tor

The first crowds came in prehistoric times. Early visitors likely were attracted to the Glastonbury Tor, a conical hill jutting skyward from the Somerset plain.

Modern kooks who believe in ley lines — if you believe in ley lines, you're an idiot; please stop reading this blog — assert that the Tor lies at the intersection of two such lines, creating a vortex of great spiritual power. They try to backdate their silly beliefs by claiming prehistoric peoples followed tracks and pathways along spiritual highways running from stone circles here to burial burrows there, to geologic features here and ancient forts there. Many of these nuts add in a dollop of feng shui. Some sprinkle a dash of special magnetic fields, too. Throw in a few pagan goddesses and Celtic myths, and you have a stew of mystical goofiness attracting crystal-wearing bozos. Spring and summer can get crowded on the Tor with Druids, Wiccans, and others holding Beltane and summer solstice ceremonies, as well as "goddess festivals." Neopagans, unite!

{Ed.'s note: Not especially diplomatic of you.}

As I said, these people are kooks.

Ascending the Glastonbury Tor
Jackson and I ascend Glastonbury Tor on a lovely September day.
Nonetheless, prehistoric peoples did visit the Tor. It offers commanding views for miles of terrain. When ancient peoples visited the Tor, it rose above a vast fenland, a massive peninsula towering above brackish water. In later centuries these waters have been drained to create fertile farmland, but a mist still sometimes encircles the base of the hill.

View of the Salisbury Plain from atop Glastonbury Tor
Glastonbury Tor provides a 360° view of the fertile Somerset fields.
Archeologists have found remains of Iron Age visitors atop the Tor. In later millennia, both Romans and medieval Christians built structures on the hill. After an earthquake in 1275 destroyed a wooden church, it was rebuilt in the 1300s with sandstone. The church stood until it was dismantled in 1539 as part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. One three-story tower from the church remains.

Near the summit of Glastonbury Tor
The final ascent up the Tor, which reaches a height of 518 feet.
Tower from St. Michael's Church on Glastonbury Tor
Only this roofless tower remains of St. Michael's Church at the Tor's summit.

Glastonbury Abbey

While the Tor was the primary draw for prehistoric peoples, in medieval times the main draw was Glastonbury Abbey. Christian monks were in Glastonbury as early as the 600s. A stone church, and then a larger abbey, were built over the succeeding centuries. By the time the Normans conquered England in the 11th century, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastic center in the kingdom, and getting richer.

At first, the abbey drew many visitors because of its supposed connection to Joseph of Arimathea. According to the Bible, Joseph is the man who donated his own tomb for Jesus, following Jesus' crucifixion. Many legends have attached themselves to Joseph of Arimathea, making two primary assertions: (1) Joseph founded Christianity in Britain; and (2) Joseph was the original bearer of the Holy Grail. The monks at Glastonbury helped propagate indeed, helped invent the myth that Joseph left Judea in 37 A.D. after the death of Jesus and traveled to England, creating the first Christian enclave in Britain at Glastonbury.

Glastonbury Thorn
The thorn tree at Glastonbury Abbey.
This supposed connection to Joseph of Arimathea, along with claiming holy relics and bones of numerous British saints, helped make Glastonbury Abbey the foremost pilgrimage site in Britain, drawing many medieval worshipers. Later, in the early 1500s, a further legend arose that Joseph had thrust his staff into the ground in a hill near the abbey, and the staff had grown into a thorn tree. A shoot of that tree on Wearyall Hill (or Wyrral Hill) was planted adjacent to the abbey. While the original thorn tree was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's troops during the English Civil War (1640s), various shoots from the trees have persisted to the present day. In a tradition dating from the early 1600s, a budding twig of the thorn tree is sent to the British monarch every year on Christmas day.

Though Glastonbury rode high into the 12th century, its fortunes turned at the end of the century. First, in 1171, four of king Henry II's knights slaughtered Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The pope excommunicated Henry and set about canonizing Becket. Suddenly, the English pilgrims abandoned their trips to Glastonbury in favor of the brand new St. Thomas in Canterbury. Glastonbury's fortunes tumbled.

A few years later, in 1184, a fire destroyed the abbey. It was a dark time for Glastonbury; the continuation of the abbey was in peril. And then, lo and behold, the monks declared they had miraculously discovered the bones of St. Dunstan! This saint, who led a revival of English monasticism in the 900s, had been born near Glastonbury and at one time been the abbot of Glastonbury. At the time of the fraudulent discovery of his bones, St. Dunstan was the most popular saint in England. Surely, the pilgrims would flock back to Glastonbury.

Even though Dunstan had eventually become Archbishop of Canterbury, died in Canterbury, and had a shrine with his bones erected in Canterbury, the monks at Glastonbury claimed his bones had been moved from Canterbury in 1012 for protection from a Viking attack. (This spurious claim eventually was disproven in the 1500s when Canterbury opened the shrine and found Dunstan's bones clearly marked inside.) Precisely why those precious relics were taken away from Canterbury and lost and forgotten in Glastonbury, was a question left unanswered by the wily Glastonbury monks.

Though Glastonbury's abbey was slowly rebuilding, the pilgrims did not return. Not even the lure of relics of St. Dunstan — whose popularity quickly was being eclipsed by the new St. Thomas — drew the pilgrims. What now?

Supposed site of graves of King Arthur and Guinevere
Supposed grave site of King Arthur and Guinevere.
The next miraculous discovery, of course. In 1191, the monks claimed to have exhumed the tomb of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere on the grounds of the abbey. Though the skeletons were relatively bare, the monks claimed they found the bones buried within an enormous hollowed oak trunk. Atop this wooden coffin was an inscribed cross (incongruously, in Latin): Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia ("Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon").


The crowds returned. Building of the new church and abbey at Glastonbury continued steadily. First constructed and consecrated was the Lady Chapel (a British term for a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary), built in the older Romanesque style to honor the previous church.

Lady Chapel of Glastonbury Abbey
The thick walls, rounded window arches, and relatively plain styling are stereotypical of Romanesque buildings.
Archivolt on the Lady Chapel of Glastonbury Abbey
The heavy carving on the archivolt, depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, hinted at the greater opulence within.
Interior of Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey
Preservation work continues inside the Lady Chapel. Around 1500, a crypt — clearly visible here from the rough hewn brickwork was built underneath the Lady Chapel.
1900 lithograph of Lady Chapel
The Lady Chapel around 1900 (viewed from the opposite end of the chapel from the photo above). How much more atmospheric and interesting the abbey would be if it were left in this condition! (Lithograph courtesy of Wikipedia.)
As the abbey returned to prominence, its funds grew. The abbey's church became one of England's largest; at 580 feet, it had the longest nave in Britain. Eventually, in 1278, the purported remains of Arthur and Guinevere were re-entombed, but this time at the foot of the church's high altar and under the eye of the current king, Edward I.

Site of tomb for supposed remains of King Arthur and Guinevere
Tomb site of the supposed remains of King Arthur and Guinevere.
By the late 1300s, Glastonbury had returned to preeminence amongst English abbeys, eclipsed only by Westminster Abbey in London. The seekers and the pilgrims came in droves. The abbey added lands and resources and wealth.

In the 1500s, Glastonbury Abbey was still a preeminent Catholic abbey in England. As some of the most powerful fiefdoms in the realm, the collective yearly income of the abbeys was more than four times that of King Henry VIII. Moreover, the abbeys held roughly one-sixth of all the land in England. By the late 1530s, Henry VIII was in the process of divorcing his first wife; breaking with Rome; declaring himself the head of the Church in England; and seeking to diminish the hold of Catholicism across his nation. He was also, notably, cash poor.

And so Henry set about dissolving the monasteries, abbeys, priories, nunneries, and other religious orders throughout England. His ministers started first with the smaller religious centers, sending the monks and nuns to larger abbeys while taking the wealth of the Church for the Crown. But after a year or two, they came for the larger abbeys and nunneries, eventually closing and demolishing hundreds of religious sites across England. This process, now called the Dissolution of the Monasteries, was completed by 1541.

Glastonbury Abbey was dissolved in 1539. Its abbot, Robert Whiting, had originally supported Henry VIII when the king broke with Rome and made himself the head of the church in England. But Whiting resisted when Henry sought to dissolve Glastonbury. Henry made an example of Whiting as a warning to other monasteries and their abbots. Whiting was forced to drag a plank up the steep Glastonbury Tor, from which he was subsequently hanged, drawn, and quartered. His head was placed on a spike at the gate to the abbey precinct, while other pieces of him were sent around England in a grisly reminder of Henry's seriousness of purpose.

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey viewed from the east
The view from the east of the church ruins at Glastonbury Abbey. In the center background is the Lady Chapel, the westernmost end of the church.
Glastonbury's monks were disbursed; many left for foreign soil, such as France, where monasticism was welcome. The abbey's gold and silver were taken for the Crown's treasury. Profits from its landholdings were given as a reward to royal backers, and the abbey site remained in private hands until the 20th century. The tomb of King Arthur and Guinevere was destroyed, though it's unclear what became of their purported remains. Much of the physical structure of the abbey, including its church, was pulled down. "Dressed" (i.e., carved) stones were taken away for uses in other buildings, but much of the remaining stonework remained on site until 1799 when it was sold.

Foundation stones for other buildings of Glastonbury Abbey
The abbey's lands are now part of a 36-acre park. All that remains of other buildings are the foundation stones.
Ruins of refectory undercroft at Glastonbury Abbey
The monks ate in this long refectory (i.e., dining room). The pillars here (now reduced to stubs) supported an undercroft, above which sat the refectory.
Glastonbury Abbey still draws visitors, more than 100,000 per year. Some of these folks come for the history. Others are the same neopagans and New Agers who visit Glastonbury Tor for the ley lines and mystical electromagnetism. On our visit to the abbey, we encountered a group who eventually sat down in a circle and — I am not making this up — started chanting "ooommmmmmmmm":

New Age chanting circle
Chanting circle. Get your crystals recharged here!

Chalice Well

Along with Glastonbury's abbey and tor, a third site provides a trifecta for the pilgrims, seekers, and kooks.

Entry to the Chalice Well
The entry to the Chalice Well.
The Chalice Well, located at the base of Glastonbury Tor, is an ancient natural spring which has been used by locals for several millennia. Fed by a deep aquifer, the spring produces more than 25,000 gallons of water per day, even in droughts. Heavy deposits of iron in the ground lead to oxidation, resulting in a strong reddish or rusty tinge to the water. As with the waters of Bath, people have long believed the water has healing properties. In the 1700s, thousands of people signed affidavits declaring the Chalice Well water had healed them. True assertions, or just a bid for tourism? You decide.

To reach the well, you ascend a gentle slope over a couple of lushly gardened acres. Sounds in the gardens are muted, with gurgling water and hushed seekers.

Path through the gardens to the Chalice Well
The garden path up the hill to the Chalice Well.
After a couple of minutes, at the top of the hill you come to the Chalice Well. Complete with meditating, awed kooks encircling the hole.

Meditating seekers at the Chalice Well
Are you feeling the mystical power? Me neither. Maybe if we all just concentrate on how the Chalice Well symbolizes the receptive feminine goddess and the nearby Tor the thrusting male god?
Remember our man Joseph of Arimathea, who supposedly traveled to Glastonbury in 37 A.D.? The Holy Grail carrying, Christianity bringing, thorn tree sprouting dude from the Middle East, who pops over to England? He worked his magic here, too. According to the medieval legend, he hid the Holy Chalice (i.e., Grail) here, at the bottom of the well. The water, which had been clear, instantly turned red, taking on power from the blood of Christ.

Is the Grail still at the bottom of the well? Some kooks and if you believe the Holy Grail is at the bottom of this well in Glastonbury, you are an idiot; please stop reading this blog, you're not welcome here — believe so. They take home bottles of the spring's water. Sometimes they ease into wading pools for purification. Through the year are eight "Wheel of the Year" festival events, on days like the spring and summer solstices. And full moon concerts. And workshops to learn about the "ancient stream of sacred magic." And retreats with a "sacred ceremony 'initiation to the waters of Avalon' in the sacred White spring." And so on.

Cover of the Chalice Well
Well cover: interlocking circles; foliage to represent the Glastonbury Thorn; and is that a sword piercing the middle, in reference to King Arthur's mighty Excalibur?
I'm all for diversity of belief. Although I'm an agnostic myself, I don't begrudge the world's religions. But c'mon, man. Some of this stuff is just goofy.

{Ed.'s note: Besides, we all know the Holy Grail is hidden in Rosslyn Chapel, or is really the blood of the direct descendents of Jesus as described in the Da Vinci Code, or it's a simple wooden cup buried in the rubble as at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.}


Spring flows from a lion's head fountain
Fill up your Nalgene bottle here at the Lion's Head fountain, where the spring water first flows from Mother Earth.
Waterfall and channel of the spring water
The water flows down from the Lion's Head fountain, above and below ground, down waterfalls and through channels and into pools.
We paused to fill up Jackson's sippy cup. And took a few slurps ourselves. 'Cause you never know. Amiright? Maybe now we'll live forever.

Groovy, babe!

Eventually, the water flows down to the bottom of the hill into a Seven Bowls Flow Form which drains into a vesica piscis pool. I mean, what else? It's gotta be that.

Seven bowls flow form and vesica piscis pool
Once the water reaches the Seven Bowls flow form and vesica piscis pool, is it still iron-tinged? Or just dirty?
And then a final channel trickles out a bit of the mystical water outside the garden walls, for use by passersby when the well and gardens are closed.

Just in case you need to top up your everlasting life juice.

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