British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Glastonbury Abbey
The Legends of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea



Part 3
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ver the first six hundred years of its existence, the abbey at Glastonbury had accumulated vast holdings of land, often from royal patronage, and was naturally concerned about having documentary support in the form of grants and charters for these lands. Some say that the abbey forged these documents, in order to prove their claims to the lands. In the abbey's defense, there may have been genuine traditions about land being given by benefactors in the past, but without the actual documents, solid proof was lacking. If paper documents were actually forged, it may have been to serve as tangible evidence of those traditions.

The modern mind rebels at the thought of ecclesiastical forgery to justify claims that may have been of questionable validity. But to understand this practice fully, we must look at the situation in the monastic community in the century following the Norman conquest.

Until 1066, the monasteries in England were populated by Anglo-Saxon monks and were under the control of Anglo-Saxon abbots. All that changed when the Normans came to power on the island. In some cases, the reigning Anglo-Saxon abbot was immediately deposed and replaced with a Norman counterpart, and in other cases, that replacement was delayed until the Anglo-Saxon abbot either resigned or died. In all cases where Anglo-Saxons were replaced by Normans, there was some degree of friction between the two groups. The Normans frequently altered the daily rituals to reflect their own preferences, and in those cases the language of liturgical use was no longer Anglo-Saxon English, but French. Even the Anglo-Saxon saints were held in contempt by the Normans. Worse, still, was the common practice of giving away of lands to William the Conqueror's vassals that had been formerly held by the monasteries, and the concomitant loss of income and prestige.

The response to these affronts ranged from passive to active resistance. An example is that of Glastonbury Abbey in the reign of its first Norman abbot, Thurstan, who tried to introduce a new chant into the liturgy. It was openly resisted by the Anglo-Saxon monks with a ferocity which resulted in the killing of at least two monks and perhaps others. Further tragedy was averted by the reassigning of many of the offended monks to other houses and the return of Abbot Thurstan to his monastic home in Caen, France (10).

A common defense the Anglo-Saxon monks employed against this growing "Normanization" was to immerse themselves in nostalgia for their lost past and to take an intense interest in the history of their beloved houses. At this time, in fact, there was a whole class of professional historians and hagiographers whose services were hired by various monastic communities to compose flattering histories of their monasteries and to write inspiring accounts of the lives of their saints. William of Malmesbury and Caradoc of Llancarfan are two of these professionals whose skills were employed by Glastonbury Abbey.

Along with this general monastic interest in history came a desire to be able to justify their claims to the lands they had held before the Conquest. If the legitimate charters or grants weren't readily available, then they had to be manufactured. The monks of Glastonbury Abbey were unusually proficient at the practice, but were by no means alone, as it was quite common during this time (11).

In 1126, a new abbot was appointed to Glastonbury. His name was Henry of Blois and in his own writings he tells of his impression that the abbey community was on the point of ruin, with its buildings reminding him of peasant huts and the monks struggling to get the basic necessities of life. This deterioration had begun, apparently, many years before, during the abbacies of Aethelweard (1024-53) and Aethelnoth (1053-77) and was exacerbated by the Conquest of 1066. Henry was determined to stop the erosion of the abbey's wealth and privileges and, perhaps related to this rehabilitation effort, William of Malmesbury was invited to visit to the abbey in 1129.

William was initially brought to Glastonbury to produce lives of several of the saints traditionally associated with the monastery. It is not known how many of these lives he was commissioned to write, but during the eleventh century, it is known that many Celtic saints were venerated at Glastonbury, including Patrick, Gildas, David and Brigit. It is also known that the monks of Glastonbury wanted William to produce a life of St. Dunstan that would support their contention that Dunstan's body was buried there.

In those days, holy relics equated with pilgrim revenues, and whatever relics a monastery had were jealously guarded and promoted. A controversy had arisen between Glastonbury and Canterbury over St. Dunstan (depicted at right). He was a major saint of that era, whose relics Canterbury had originally housed, but which Glastonbury claimed they had rescued from a Danish raid on the town of Canterbury, and now possessed. Eadmer of Canterbury had written a taunting letter to the monks of Glastonbury pointing out that they had no writings to support their claim to Dunstan's body, and it was probably this deficiency of written proof that the Glastonbury monks wanted William of Malmesbury to redress.

Apparently, William was unable to do this to the monks' satisfaction (whether out of conscience or lack of real proof, we don't know) and, in an effort to assuage their displeasure, he produced another work entitled "De Antiquitate Glastoniensis," Enquiry into the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury. This additional work, he claimed in the preface, was even better than a mere life of Dunstan could ever be, since it aggrandized not only Dunstan, but also glorified the whole long history of the abbey. In his researches, William apparently found much in the abbey's history that impressed him because he said that the place was "redolent with divine sanctity" (12).

William of Malmesbury had done his part for Glastonbury Abbey by giving the monks a long history that they could be proud of. But William's work was just the beginning. More exciting developments would come before the end of the twelfth century.

Our investigation into the great legends of the Abbey continues after the death of Abbot Robert of Winchester in 1180. The appointment of a new abbot to a monastery was a prerogative of the monarch. The Glastonbury position had been intentionally left unfilled, as Henry II wanted to absorb the considerable income of the abbey into his own treasury for the purpose of helping to finance his French wars. Peter de Marcy, a friend of the king, was placed in temporary charge of the abbey and tried to engineer his own election as abbot. The monks refused, basing their refusal on his reputation for being an "irreligious" man, on their belief that he had misused church funds and that he had once borne arms in mortal combat.

In an attempt to curry the favour and the electoral support of the monks, de Marcy 'feigned' a Christmas mass in the Old Church in 1183. From the monks' viewpoint, his act constituted a sacrilege, due to his being in a "state of mortal sin" (for the above stated reasons), and this, they believed, necessitated a reconsecration of their abbey. It so happened that on St. Urban's Day, May 25, 1184, a great fire utterly destroyed the abbey church and the Old Church of St. Mary's, which had stood adjacent to it (13).

Adam of Domerham, writing a century later, tells us:
What groans, what tears, what beatings of the breast were yielded by spectators, can be imagined only by those who have suffered similar affliction. The confusion of relics, treasures in silver and gold, silks, books and other ecclesiastical ornaments might justly provoke grief. More vehement was the woe of the monks mindful of their earlier happiness, seeing that in all adversity bygone joy is the saddest part of misfortune.(14)
Peter de Marcy died soon after the fire. The reconstruction of the abbey was begun immediately and heavily supported by Henry II, financed through the office of his Chamberlain, Radulf. A new church of St. Mary, also known as the Lady Chapel (see photo at top), went up quickly and was consecrated in 1186. Henry's death in 1189 ended the abbey's financial support and neither of his sons, John or Richard, was particularly interested in continuing it (15). This loss of funding had the effect of delaying the completion of the great abbey church for almost a century.

The Norman Conquest and the Great Fire of 1184 were major events in the life of Glastonbury Abbey, affording wonderful opportunities for the creation of monastic legends. The steps that this process normally follows are described, below: (16)

  • a period of great crisis or a cataclysmic event, requiring restructuring or rehabilitation of the monastery
  • working to reflect glory on the monastery which, as a result of the event, is perceived to have been lost
  • promoting pilgrimages to the monastery, thereby generating positive attention and bringing in much needed revenues
  • using of any available material to supplement pious belief (in the most extreme cases, this phase involves embroidering actual history or events for the purpose of making it easier to believe in something that would, otherwise, be too farfetched to even consider)

    Perhaps consistent with the pattern suggested above, in 1191 a stunning discovery was made by the monks of Glastonbury which would forever change the course their abbey's history would take.

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