A History of Glastonbury

By Tim Lambert

The Glastonbury Myths

There are many legends about Glastonbury so let us start with these. St Dunstan was Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey between 940 and 960. He then became Archbishop of Canterbury and he was buried when he died. In 1188 the monks of Glastonbury abbey produced a body, which they claimed was that of St Dunstan. They claimed that in 1018 when the Danes were attacking Canterbury they took the saint’s body to Glastonbury for safety. The clergy of Canterbury hotly disputed this claim. Nevertheless, until the 16th century, many visitors came to Glastonbury to see the body of ‘St Dunstan’.

In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey ‘discovered’ the tombs of King Arthur and his queen Guinevere. The ‘discovery’ attracted many visitors to Glastonbury at that time and it has continued to do so ever since! Unfortunately, there is no proof that Arthur ever lived in Glastonbury. The discovery of his body was certainly a hoax. According to legend, Arthur was buried at a place called Avalon. Unfortunately, nobody knows where ‘Avalon’ was. Arthur may have had some connection with Glastonbury but there is no firm evidence. However, the name Avalon lives on as the name of a housing estate.

Some of the most charming myths about Glastonbury are about Joseph of Arimathea. He was a rich man and a follower of Jesus. After the crucifixion, he buried the body of Jesus in his own tomb. In the mid-13th century, a story began that he visited England and bought the holy grail (the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper before his crucifixion) with him. Joseph supposedly buried the holy grail under a spring. It was said that he built a church at Glastonbury.

In reality, it is very unlikely that he ever visited England. The first evidence of Christianity in Roman Britain dates from about 180 AD. Almost certainly there was no church at Glastonbury before the 7th century. In the 18th century, the myth of Joseph of Arimathea grew when it was said he planted his hawthorn staff into the ground and it bloomed.

Early Glastonbury

The first inhabitants of Glastonbury were Stone Age farmers. They built wooden trackways across boggy land some of which were preserved and have recently been discovered. In 1892 a ‘lake village’ was discovered near Glastonbury. It was a settlement of some 90 huts built on a wooden platform on wet ground. It flourished in the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD.

Another pre-Roman remains is the Tor, which is a man-made hill. To the east of it is a ditch. The Tor may have been a fortress or it may have been a shrine of some kind. However, there is no evidence of any settlement during Roman times. There may have been some farms in the area but that is all.

The origin of the name Glastonbury is not known for certain. One theory is that is a corruption of Glastan inga burh, which means the fort (burh) belonging to the people of (inga) the place with oak trees (Glastan). Or it may have been Glast’s burh, the burh or fort belonging to a man called Glast.

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury probably started as a small settlement and it grew into a town only after the abbey was founded during the 7th century (the exact date is not known). Many kings gave grants of land to the abbey and it soon grew very wealthy. Three Saxon kings Edmund I (died 946), Edgar (died 975), and Edmund Ironside (died 1016) were buried in Glastonbury Abbey. By the time of William, the Conqueror Glastonbury Abbey was the wealthiest monastery in England and owned one-eighth of the land in Somerset. The Abbey also owned land in 4 other counties.

The Normans, naturally, appointed a Norman abbot to Glastonbury Abbey. However, he quarreled with the Saxon monks, and the quarrel ended in bloodshed. About 1083 the monks barricaded themselves in the Abbey Church. Norman soldiers broke in and shot arrows from an upper story of the church. The arrows killed 3 monks and wounded 18.

In 1184 Glastonbury Abbey suffered a disastrous fire but it was rebuilt. The Lady Chapel was built at that time. It was consecrated in 1186. The great wealth of Glastonbury Abbey made the bishop of Bath envious. He attempted to make himself the abbot. So in 1199, he forced the monks to accept him as abbot. Any monks who refused were tortured until they changed their minds. (It is said that one died as a result of torture).

In the Domesday book (1086) Glastonbury was already described as a town (although it would seem more like a village to us). It probably had a population of around 400 to 500 and was surrounded by fields. There was also a vineyard.

Glastonbury Abbey attracted many pilgrims. They would spend money in the town. So the people of Glastonbury benefited enormously from pilgrims.

The centre of Medieval Glastonbury was High Street. (It was known as ‘The Great Street’ until the 14th century). The market was held at the western end of the street. South of High Street was a spring called chalk well which provided the water supply for the town. The name survives as Chilkwell Street. There was a ‘hospital’ in Glastonbury dedicated to Mary Magdalene. It was built in 1251. In it, monks would care for the poor and sick as best they could.

As well as the ‘tourist trade’ of pilgrims Medieval Glastonbury prospered because of the cloth industry. Wool was woven and dyed in Glastonbury.

As well as a weekly market in the town there were also four fairs. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but was held only once a year and it would attract visitors from all over Southwest England. A September fair was held in Glastonbury by 1243. By 1283 another fair was held in May for 4 days. Later in the Middle Ages, there were 2 other fairs in Glastonbury.

The population of Glastonbury in the Middle Ages is not known but it was probably around 800 to 1,000. To us, it would seem tiny but towns were very small in those days.

In 1539 Henry VIII closed Glastonbury Abbey. That was disastrous for the town as it meant the end of pilgrims visiting Glastonbury and spending their money there. In 1534 Henry VIII declared he was head of the church in England. The abbot refused to submit to Henry. So in 1539 the abbot and 2 other monks were hung, drawn, and quartered. The quarters of the bodies were publicly displayed in 4 Glastonbury and 3 other Somerset towns. Glastonbury Abbey was sacked then it was ‘cannibalized’ by people who took the stone from it for building. Fortunately, the Abbots Kitchen survived.

In an attempt to revive the fortunes of Glastonbury 13 Flemish cloth workers were brought to Glastonbury in 1549. In 1551 another 70 were brought but this failed to revive Glastonbury’s economy.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. Soldiers from both sides plundered Glastonbury and helped themselves to whatever they wanted.

In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth rebelled against the king. Some local people joined his cause and his followers camped in churches or in the Abbey ruins. The rebellion collapsed after the battle of Sedgemoor. Afterward, 5 prisoners were hanged from the sign, which hung outside White Hart Inn. Furthermore, 5 other prisoners were given the semblance of a trial then hung drawn, and quartered in Glastonbury as a warning to others.

In 1705 Glastonbury was incorporated, that is it was given a corporation and a mayor.

In 1750 a man named Matthew Chancellor, who suffered from asthma, had a dream in which an angel told him to drink the water from the spring in Glastonbury on 7 Sundays in a row. He claimed he was miraculously healed. As a result, visitors flooded into Glastonbury to drink the spring water. (In those days medicine was very primitive and people would clutch at straws).

However, the flood of visitors did not last long, although a pump room was built and assembly rooms where balls and activities like card games were held. In 1753 there was an outbreak of smallpox, which effectively ended the flood of visitors.

Modern Glastonbury

In 1801 Glastonbury had a population of just over 2,000. By 1851 it had exceeded 3,000 and by the end of the century was about 4,000. The Town Hall was built in 1814. In 1846 the Market Cross was erected in the center of the town.

In the 19th century, Glastonbury became famous for making gloves and stockings. Rug-making began in 1825. Leatherworking also became an important industry.

In 1833 a canal was opened to Bridgwater. Goods like coals, tiles, and timber were transported along it. A railway from Bridgwater to Glastonbury was opened in 1854.

In the 19th century, new technology meant better soil drainage and so more prosperous farming in the area.

A hall was added to the rear of the Town Hall in 1930. In 1959 the Chalice Well was laid out with gardens and fountains at the spring. Today some people still believe in the healing powers of the well. In 1966 the railway to Bridgwater was closed.

In 1978 Somerset Rural Life Museum opened. In the 1980s another museum opened in a house called the Tribunal. This building dates from the 15th century but despite its name, it was never a courtroom. In the late 20th century Glastonbury was also a centre of sheepskin clothing. There was also a livestock market. The annual Glastonbury Festival of pop music began in 1971.

In the late 20th century Glastonbury became a centre of the New Age movement and there are now many healers in the town. Its New Age connections now draw many visitors to the town. Today the population of Glastonbury is 8,000.

A view of Glastonbury