Our Lady of Glastonbury
and Saint Joseph of Arimathaea

History. Myth. Tradition. Legend. When we begin to delve into the ancient things of our faith, it is not always easy to differentiate. When it comes to ancient puzzles, far removed from us in time, it is rarely possible to fit the many pieces into precise categories. Often, the categories themselves resist precise definition. Nevertheless, ours is a historical religion. That is to say, our salvation has a specific history in time and space. If this were not so, we would have no salvation. We do not depend on what St. Peter calls cleverly devised  myths. Yet, in a way we do

Icon of St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, with the Holy Grail and the staff that flowered. The icon is copyright St Seraphim's Trust, http://www.iconpainter.org.uk, and is used by permission.

depend on myths of another kind. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is an epic which is related to the story of Glastonbury. In his Foreword to John Matthews' edition of the Morte (Casell & Co, 2000), Michael Moorcock has said, "Myths are the stories on which we base our lives. Legends are a colourful distraction from the grim realities the myths reveal."

The story of our salvation may rightly be defined as a myth. It is a myth which is historical, but it is a myth, all the same. It is the story on which we Christians base our lives. History is the inexact science of chronicling what happened in the past. It seeks to understand the meanings behind the people and events it chronicles, but it does not make judgments about those meanings. When it does make judgments it has made a leap–from science to myth.

Myths may be fanciful or historical, but myths assume that there is meaning in the people and events they describe, and myths expect us to discern particular meanings and to base our lives on them. Tradition might be defined as the more proper Christian term for myth. However, tradition has an added dimension, for

tradition is not confined to stories of things which happened in a distant past. Rather, tradition continues right into the present. Unlike myth, tradition allows for the possibility of new stories and even new meanings, though tradition, like true prophecy, is always based on, and faithful to, the ancient stories and their meanings.

It is with legend that we must be most careful. Legends are colorful and do distract us from reality. The problem is that they are so very attractive and so hard to distinguish from reality. There is no assurance that there are no legends embedded in the traditions of Glastonbury.  All we can be sure of is that, within the story we trace here, there are truths. In the end, it is up to you the reader to decide where the myth ends and the legend begins.

Glastonbury is one of the places on this earth in which the boundaries between history, myth, tradition, and legend are very thin. A visitor today might easily be overwhelmed by the way the town has been taken over by the hucksters of the "new age", a thinly veiled, and sometimes open revival of paganism.  There is an intensity to all of this and that intensity tells us something. New age paganism and possibly darker influences are very evident at Glastonbury, but in all likelihood that is precisely because there is another very powerful influence still very much at work in Glastonbury–the power of the Gospel. When paganism asserts itself so blatantly, it is usually because it is threatened. And, conversely, a principal reason for the importance of Glastonbury as a Christian center from ancient times has to do with the fact that it almost certainly was an ancient pagan center of considerable importance.

The whole history of Glastonbury is an immense subject, beyond the scope of this paper. But any account of the place must begin with one of the undoubted facts about it. From a very early time, there stood within the ancient Christian monastic enclosure which grew up there, a simple chapel constructed of wattle–poles and interwoven twigs, plastered with mud. This chapel was so revered that as each generation enlarged, rebuilt, and embellished the neighboring abbey church, the Ecclesia Vetusta, the "Ancient Church," was carefully preserved. Occasionally, it was repaired, and it is documented that in 633 Paulinus of York had it encased in wood and lead. Even then, this old church was quite ancient and revered, but no one ever dared even consider replacing it. At the beginning of the 8th century, King Ina of Wessex set about to rebuild Glastonbury. In 704 his new abbey church was completed east of the old church. But it was in the old church, not the new, that the king signed a charter which asserted that "the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the eternal Virgin Mary...is the first in the kingdom of Britain and the source and fountain of all religion...."

It is of particular note that this church was recognized to have been dedicated to Our Lady from a time long before King Ina. This may not seem remarkable, but the fact is that dedications of churches to Our Lady north of Italy are relatively rare until the 11th or 12th centuries. But here is a church so identified in historical documents much earlier. The other thing which is of importance is that within this little church there stood a very ancient statue of Our Lady.

Disaster struck on 25 May 1184:  fire swept through the monastery, destroying the great abbey church, and also leveling the ancient Wattle Church of Our Lady. But even then, miraculously, the statue survived. The subsequent rebuilding of the monastery included a handsome new Lady Chapel built of stone on the site of the Ancient Church. The statue was installed in the new Lady Chapel. And, as had been the case with the Ancient Church, this hallowed site was the focus of pilgrimage. It is still possible to see today an ancient pilgrim’s inscription on the wall of the Chapel, just two words which say it all: Iesus Maria. September 8th was the great day of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. Glastonbury had an annual fair on that day, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, and on that day, for another three and a half centuries after the great fire, both the high and the lowly came to honor Our Lady and make their petitions for her protection.

This, too, came to an end, in 1539 when an avaricious king decided to claim the wealth of the church and even of the holiest of places for his own ends. The last Abbot, Richard Whiting, was convicted of trumped up charges of treason and was hanged, drawn, and quartered on the nearby hill called Glastonbury Tor, an ancient high place of druidical worship. The treasures of the Abbey were then carried away and the buildings stood derelict and were used as a quarry to build the town. The statue of Our Lady disappeared, but the reverence in which her ancient church was held guaranteed that, of all of the great abbey church, the largest surviving portion is the Lady Chapel.

The ruined medieval Lady Chapel in an 18th century lithograph.  Its
 appearance is much the same today.                                                            

In his play, "Murder in the Cathedral," T.S. Eliot, the poet-laureate of twentieth century Anglicanism, wrote:

Wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood  of Christ,
There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with guide-books looking over it;
From where the western seas gnaw at the coast of Iona,
To the death in the desert, the prayer in forgotten places by the broken imperial column,
From that ground springs that which forever renews the earth....

Glastonbury is such a place and neither Puritans nor pagans have been able to drive the sanctity from it. In 1920 pilgrimages were renewed. Today, there are two pilgrimages: the number of people who participate require that the Roman Catholics have a separate day of pilgrimage. Thousands attend the Anglican pilgrimage, which is joined by a contingent of Orthodox Christians who bring a modern icon of the Glastonbury Mother of God. In 1939, 400 years from the dissolution of the abbey, the foundations were laid for a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. Mary. In 1955 a new statue of Our Lady of Glastonbury was enshrined in this church which stands just across the road from the abbey ruins. And, in 1965, the Apostolic Delegate presided at the rare ceremony of the crowning of the statue of Our Lady.

This is the clear physical evidence, the history, as it were, of Our Lady at Glastonbury. But what is the story behind it–the myth, tradition, and even the legend? Tradition has it that Joseph of Arimathaea was the uncle of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That same tradition tells us that Joseph was a merchant, dealing in tin, who traveled from time to time along the well-documented trade routes to Cornwall, in the southwestern corner of Britain, where tin was mined. It was on one of those journeys that his grandnephew, Jesus of Nazareth, traveled with him inspiring the lines of William Blake’s poem "Jerusalem":

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?

Joseph, as the Gospels tell, received the body of Jesus for burial in his own tomb, and accounts relate that he also received two vials, containing the blood and water which flowed from our Lord’s side when it was pierced. Yet another account, says that he also had in his possession the Cup, the so-called Holy Grail, used at the Last Supper. Driven out of Jerusalem by the Sanhedrin, of which he was a member, Joseph and a band of followers would eventually arrive in England, there to make their home and bring the Christian faith to the people of the land. Joseph would die in Glastonbury and was buried in a tomb with the two vials of sacred fluid.

One of the most enduring of the Glastonbury traditions relates to Joseph’s staff. Arriving on Wearyall Hill overlooking Glastonbury, Joseph thrust his staff into the ground. Thereupon, it flowered. Though a Puritan chopped the old tree down (and was blinded when a splinter flew up while he was chopping), cuttings of the tree survive and it is a most amazing tree. It is a hawthorn which flowers twice a year, once in the spring and again on Christmas Day. What is particularly interesting is that seeds from the tree do not produce a tree of the exact same type. The only way to reproduce the flowering hawthorn of Glastonbury is by cuttings. One may be found today within the old abbey enclosure, and another in the churchyard of the Anglican parish church in town. Yet another grows on Mount St. Alban, in Washington, D.C., by the National Cathedral--all propagated by cuttings from the original tree and its descendants.

One version of the story of Joseph of Arimathaea in Glastonbury goes so far as to say that his niece, Mary, went with him. As this account goes, Mary died in Glastonbury and was buried there on the site of the chapel which was erected in her name. While this account is at variance with the more universal tradition about the end of Our Lady’s earthly life, it may be regarded as an understandable embellishment of the tradition. Here is an ancient church, dedicated to Our Lady at a time when churches were often dedicated to the saint whose body rested in them. Excavations confirm that burial in or near this church was desired by many. The most likely explanation for this phenomenon is the presence of a saint. Whatever one may choose to think about this particular detail, we nevertheless have the witness of the ancient church itself and the statue which stood within it to a very early tradition of devotion to Our Lady at the very heart of the beginnings of Christianity in England.

The centrality of this holy shrine and its testimony to the historical and incarnational nature of our faith is further witnessed by the long history of pilgrimage and association with it. Some of the greatest saints of Britain were drawn to Glastonbury: St. Patrick, the Patron of Ireland was Abbot of Glastonbury at the end of his life and, contrary to modern Irish claims, was buried in the Lady Chapel. In fact, the tradition is that it was Patrick who organized the band of Celtic hermits who lived in Glastonbury into a monastic community. St. David, the Patron of Wales, had "a great passion for Glastonbury" and endowed it with a great jewel which he brought back from the Holy Land. St. Brigid also lived nearby for a time and the remains of her convent in the village of Beckery can still be discerned if one knows where to look. These saints, and others, are to be found in the margins of the icon mentioned above, and to which we will return. Under the great Abbot Dunstan, who was later Archbishop of Canterbury, Glastonbury, by then a Benedictine community, was the center of a monastic renewal which spread throughout Britain, affirming once again the central position of this great monastery in the life of the British church.

One of the most intriguing of associations with Glastonbury is that of the hero King Arthur. Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales, wrote a history in the 12th century based on older records. Gerald asserts that Arthur had a great devotion to Our Lady of Glastonbury and had her image painted on his shield. This story is corroborated by another account which says that in the eighth of his twelve great battles to establish the freedom and peace of ancient Britain, Arthur carried an image of Our Lady on his shoulder into battle. So it is not surprising that when Arthur was mortally wounded by his illegitimate son Mordred at the battle of Camlan, the King was carried off to the Isle of Avalon–an ancient name for Glastonbury–and at his death was buried near the old church. In 1190, his supposed grave was opened and in it was found the bones of a giant of a man, with the clear marks of a death wound to his head. With him was a smaller skeleton, a woman with golden hair. What is particularly notable about this burial is that the coffin was not a marble sarcophagus, as one might expect if a fraud was intended by some medieval entrepreneur. Rather, the bones lay in the hollowed out trunk of a tree, which, unknown to the monks, was the usual method of burial by the Celts. In 1278, King Edward I and his Queen kept Easter at Glastonbury, and assisted in the transferral of the ancient bones to a splendid new tomb near the high altar. The tomb is gone, but the place is still marked in the ruins.

Another hero king of the Britons also drew his courage from Our Lady of Glastonbury. In 878, Alfred, later to be called "the Great," was in desperate straits. Outnumbered by invading Danes, his cause looked hopeless. Alfred traveled to Glastonbury to make intercession at the shrine of Our Lady. Then, gathering his decimated force, he gave chase to the Danes. On the night before the critical battle, his half-brother Neot, who had been sacristan at Glastonbury, appeared to him in a dream and promised victory. G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse records:

The King looked up and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For Our Lady stood on the standards rent,
As lonely and as innocent
As when between white walls she went
And the lilies of Nazareth.
One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was queen most womanly–
But she was queen of men.
Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand.

With such an ally to support Alfred, can there be any doubt about the outcome of the battle?

A Prayer to the Mother of God
Our Lady Saint Mary of Glastonbury

Holy Theotokos, most gracious Queen, Our Lady Saint Mary of Glastonbury: We beseech thee by thy powerful intercession, together with that of Blessed Michael the Archangel, Blessed Joseph of Arimathaea, and all of the martyrs and saints of Glastonbury, that true unity of Faith may be restored among all Christians and that, by thy help and protection, we thy children may ever rejoice in health of mind and body to render fitting service to our great God and Saviour, the Holy and Undivided Trinity, whom we ever adore, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, now, and for ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


The Icon of the Glastonbury
Mother of God


Icon of the Glastonbury
Mother of God
The icon is copyright St Seraphim's Trust, http://www.iconpainter.org.uk, and is used by permission.

Icons of the Mother of God are generally of three basic types. There is the icon known as "Tenderness" where Christ is embracing his Mother. The famous Vladimir Mother of God is a familiar example of this type. Then there is the type known as "The Sign." In this icon, Our Lord is depicted in a circle or oval in front of his Mother. This icon is typically found in the center of what is known as "the prophets’ tier" on a Russian iconostas. It recalls the prophecy: "The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son...." The third type of the Mother of God is called Hodigitria, "showing the way." In this type of icon, Christ Emmanuel sits on the lap of his Mother, his hand raised in blessing. With her right hand, the Virgin gestures toward the Son of God, directing us to him.

The icon of the Glastonbury Mother of God is of the last type. In this particular icon, she also holds in her hand a branch of the Glastonbury Thorn, the flowering hawthorn, which blooms twice a year. In the margins of the icon, we find many of the saints of Glastonbury:

Saint Michael the Archangel
is at the top of the icon, as the Chapel of Saint Michael surmounts Glastonbury Tor. Michael has long been associated with high places as, for example, Mont Saint Michel in France, Skellig Michael in County Kerry, Ireland, and Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
Feast Day: 29 September

Saint Joseph of Arimathaea brought Christianity to Britain, establishing a community on the twelve hides of Glastonbury and building the wattle and daub chapel dedicated to Our Lady and known until its destruction in the Great Fire of Glastonbury in 1184 as the Ecclesia Vetusta (the Ancient Church).
Feast Day: East, 31 July; West, 17 March;
Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2003, 1 August

Saint Aristobulus was a companion of Saint Paul and first Bishop of the Britons, having been consecrated by his brother, Saint Barnabas. He was martyred at Glastonbury in the year 99 and is buried there.
Feast Day: 15 March

Saint Patrick (5th century), Apostle to the Irish, was Abbot of Glastonbury in his later years. There is a tradition, disputed by the Irish, that he is buried at Glastonbury.
Feast Day: 17 March

Saint David (6th century), Patron of Wales, had a "great passion for Glastonbury." He was a great benefactor of Glastonbury and may have founded his own monastery there.
Feast Day: 1 March

Saint Brigid (6th century), "Mary of the Gael," lived near Glastonbury for a time, founding a monastery at Beckery, just beyond Wearyall Hill.
Feast Day: 1 February

Saint Gildas (6th century) wrote of the early coming of Christianity to Britain, giving credit to Glastonbury as the fountain of Christianity in England.
Feast Day: 29 January

Saint Beon (often confused with Sts. Benignus and Benen) was Saint Patrick’s right hand man. He followed Patrick to Glastonbury and lived there for a time as a hermit. He is said to have been Patrick’s successor as Abbot of Glastonbury.
Feast Day: 9 November

Saint Collen (7th century) lived as a hermit beneath a rock on Glastonbury Tor and drove away the fairies. He is said to have been Abbot of Glastonbury.
Feast Day: 21 May

Saint Indract and Saint Dominica (Drusa) were brother and sister and were of Irish nobility. They were martyred near Glastonbury while on pilgrimage at the beginning of the 8th century.
Feast Day: 8 May

Saints Kea, Fili, and Ruman (Rumon) were missionaries from Glastonbury who traveled into Devon and Cornwall in the 6th century, founding Christian centers.
Feast Days: St. Kea, 5 November; St. Fili, unknown, but now commemorated at Glastonbury on St. Dunstan’s Day, 19 May; St. Rumon, 30 August

Text of this article copyright © 2005
Consortium of Country Churches

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