Archive for June, 2021

History of Glastonbury, Part 4

Monday, June 28th, 2021

This posting will complete my discussion of the medieval Abbey of Saint Mary in Glastonbury, Somerset, setting of Joseph of Arimathea’s Treasure, fifth book in the Lady Apollonia West Country Mystery Series.

The abbey church had to be rebuilt after a great fire of AD 1184.  This was funded at first by royalty and then by making the abbey a shrine for King Arthur and Queen Guinevere as discussed in my last posting.  Progress on the new church, though incomplete, was sufficient by Christmas day of 1213 for the monks to take possession.  Construction had started at the eastern end and progressed westward past the crossing and the transepts with at least a temporary roof.  Vaulting was still to be added.  Subsequently, by the middle of the thirteenth century, the new nave and western towers were in place.

Meanwhile, a few years had passed when Glastonbury replaced Wells as one of the seats of the bishop of the local diocese.  The diocese was known then as Bath and Glastonbury, not the more familiar title of Bath and Wells, until about AD 1219.

Further construction of the church continued into the 14th century by adding the Galilee Porch connecting the west front to the Lady Chapel.  Vaulting was also finished in all parts of the building, and the interior was brilliantly painted and gilded, unlike the bare stone which we now see in surviving medieval churches.  A model of the abbey is shown above.  The completed church, including chapels on each end, was 600 feet long and built using Doulting limestone from the nearby Mendip Hills.  In the model, the cloister and dormitory of the abbey appear to the right of the church.

The abbey became a major economic force with its many manors and other possessions. Only Westminster Abbey could claim more wealth.  The monastic buildings of the abbey included a sumptuous home for the abbot which appears on the lower right of the picture of the model.  A century after Joseph of Arimathea’s Treasure, the abbot hosted King Henry VII in the abbot’s quarters.

The Abbot’s Kitchen, shown on the right, is the only significant monastic building on the abbey grounds to have survived to the present day.  The kitchen for the rest of the monks could hardly have been more impressive than the Abbot’s Kitchen which includes four large fireplaces like the one shown in the picture that appears at the end of my post.

Besides all its property bringing income to the abbey, pilgrims’ regular visits also brought significant wealth.  Pilgrims wished to visit the tombs of saints such as St. Dunstan, an early abbot, as well as those of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere mentioned in an earlier posting.  It was also at the time of Joseph of Arimathea’s Treasure that the abbots encouraged various legends of Joseph to promote more pilgrimage.

The abbey continued to prosper throughout the 15th century, well beyond Lady Apollonia’s time.  It was then that the Pilgrim’s Inn was constructed as mentioned in a recent blog posting, but all of this became meaningless when the Tudor King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of his kingdom.  Glastonbury Abbey was the last to be dissolved, and its destruction was brutal.  The abbot was killed, and his body displayed atop Glastonbury Tor.  The buildings were destroyed and much of the stone on the abbey grounds was quarried, leaving the ruins we see today.  It was a tragic ending for one of the greatest English monasteries.

Please join us next time when my topic will be Glastonbury Tor.

History of Glastonbury, Part 3

Monday, June 14th, 2021

This posting continues my discussion of the medieval history of Glastonbury, Somerset, the English setting of Joseph of Arimathea’s Treasure, fifth book in my Lady of Apollonia West Country Mysteries.  I will begin to focus this time on the Benedictine Abbey of St. Mary, known as Glastonbury Abbey, around which, in my last posting, we noted the town was developing.

Although legends claimed that Joseph of Arimathea founded Glastonbury Abbey in the first century, AD, there is little evidence that the abbey’s history began before the Saxon period.  The Saxons conquered much of Somerset by the late seventh century, and the King of Wessex authorized the building of a stone church on the Glastonbury site in AD 712.  Remains of that church are to be found in the foundations of the west end of the medieval abbey church nave.

The church was enlarged in the eighth and tenth centuries.  St. Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury from AD 940 to 956 was responsible for the latter enlargement.  The monastic buildings he erected to the south of the church were the earliest example of a cloistered layout in England.  The abbey had grown and prospered to the point that it was the wealthiest monastery in England by the time of the Norman conquest in AD 1066.

Water is an important resource to all monasteries, and this was especially true for Glastonbury Abbey in the early centuries of the Second Millennium.  Much work was done on water channels to facilitate access to the abbey’s supply of fish from the nearby village of Meare, as well as access to the Bristol Channel and the sea.  The Somerset Levels are flat areas of the shire to the west of Glastonbury which are just above sea level.  The abbey was responsible for reclaiming much of this land from the sea, similar to such efforts in the Netherlands and in the East Anglia region of England.

By the time of my story, the abbey had built a fish house shown above, at Meare, the only medieval fish house still existent in England.  It was the residence of the chief abbey fisherman and was used for salting or smoking fish caught in nearby Meare Pool, a body of water about five miles in circumference.  From this source, the abbey acquired pike, tench, roach, and eels for use on Fridays, fast days, and throughout Lent.  As many as 5,000 eels were consumed by the monks each year.

A great fire consumed much of the monastery in 1184.  Recovery from this traumatic event, which was partially funded by King Henry II and others, led to many changes in the abbey.  A Lady Chapel was built on the ruins of the Saxon Church.  The ruins of that building are shown just above.  When new, it was consecrated in 1186 in a ceremony attended by King Edward I.  The abbey cemetery was to the south of the Lady Chapel, just outside the larger portal shown in the picture above.

Two bodies were exhumed by the monks from this cemetery in 1191 and identified as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.  After the rebuilding of the abbey church, the remains of Arthur and Guinevere were entombed prominently in its choir.  Many modern scholars presume the discovery and reburial of these remains was a medieval publicity stunt to entice pilgrims to come and fund the massive rebuilding of the monastery after the great fire.

All these events were well before 1397, the time of Joseph of Arimathea’s Treasure.  Join us next time when I will continue my history of Glastonbury Abbey.