Nestled in the sleepy, mystic town of Glastonbury in Somerset are the ruins of what was once one of the most powerful institutions to have existed in the UK. I am of course referring to the famous Glastonbury Abbey.
The history of the Abbey goes back to the 7th century. The king of the Kingdom of Wessex decreed that a stone church should occupy the site. Soon after evidence of a glass workshop exists. The abbey remained relatively small and somewhat neglected. The Danes even sacked it the 9th century. This changed with the appointment of Dunstan as the abbot in the 10th century.
Dunstan was a leading figure in the revival of the English monasteries and went on to become the Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury. During his time as an abbot, he enlarged the abbey, adding and expanding many of the buildings. It is the ruins of which you see today. He also added canals to the Abbey and Glastonbury Abbey became the centre of a water transport hub. The Abbey owned the surrounding lands at this point and used the canal to transport goods from its lands and from farther away using the River Brue to the Abbey. These goods included wines, grains and fish.
This network of canals expanded to include access to the River Sheppey and Bristol canal and made it quite wealthy. Because of this, it became a priority target during the Normal Conquest of 1066. By 1086, when the Domesday Book was completed of the Great Survey of England, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest abbey in the country. At this time it even rivalled Westminister in London. Over the next four hundred years, it expanded its surrounding lands and developed them. This included draining parts of the Somerset Levels (an area that lies under sea level and still did at this point).
During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Abbey built the surrounding wall due to the English Civil War. This was definitely the high point of the abbey’s history; the abbot lived in a large special apartment with a huge medieval kitchen building (more information below) that could even entertain the king during his visits.
Dissolution of the Monastery
In 1536 the unthinkable happened that would change the Abbey: King Henry VIII started dissolving the monasteries, nunneries and friaries, confiscating their valuables and selling of the buildings. As one of the most powerful, Glastonbury Abbey was able to survive until 1539. At this point, the Abbey was visited and the valuables were removed. The Abbot resisted and became a traitor. He was hanged, drawn and quartered as his punishment along with two other monks. From there, the abbey was left mostly to ruin (with some short terms of occupancy) until 1882. During that time stones were removed from the ruins to build other buildings in the surrounding areas. In 1882 the ruins were protected under the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882.
Today the ruins are still the object of pilgrimages and some services are held there, especially in the summer in the Catholics, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
Features of the Abbey
The Abbey has a few notable features that make it stand out from other abbeys. During its time it was the longest religious building in the country at the time of its dissolution at 175 metres (approx. 575 ft), making it just slightly longer than the nearby Wells Cathedral (also of a monstrous size) and other large Cathedrals that still are in use today.
Because of Glastonbury’s prestige and power during its heyday, it often received visitors of importance that it needed to entertain. For this reason, the “Bishop’s Palace” was built to house them. While the Palace no longer exists (it was torn down over time to construct other buildings) the kitchen is in almost pristine condition. It is considered to be one of the three best-preserved medieval kitchens in Europe (there is one more in the England and another in France).
The kitchen has an octagonal shape roof with four chimneys and an air conditioning system. ‘An air conditioning system?!?!?!?’ you say. ‘How can a Medieval building have air conditioning?’ Well, it wasn’t powered by electricity but by air currents. The unsupported middle of the building is much higher than the walls; the honeycomb in the centre allows cold air to lower into the room. Inside the room, individual fires in three of the four corners (the room is square) of the building allowed for the separation of food preparation into loaves of bread, meats and soups. The fourth corner allowed for access to a well.
The centre of the room was used for the initial and further preparation of food on long tables. Hot air from cooking would go up through the chimneys, which were directly above the fires (which themselves were set into recesses), creating airflow which would keep the kitchen relatively cool.
Tomb of King Arthur
For the uninitiated in Arthurian legend, King Arthur was a King of the Britons – the original people of Great Britain. He defended his people against Saxon invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries. He is commonly associated with The Knights of the Round Table and his Castle of Camelot. Whether he actually existed is debated by modern historians.
No matter if he did, he was an absolute goldmine for the monks. They dug to discover where Arthur had been buried on the ground of the Abbey; the bones they found were then interned in a large tomb of black marble in the presence of King Edward I and his wife Eleanor. This action was highly supported by the King at the time; he was putting down a revolt in Wales and Arthur was one of their mythical heroic figures. Legends say that Arthur would come back to Britain when it was at its lowest point in history. He will then lead it once more to prosperity. Edward did not want to happen during this revolt. By placing so much marble, it would make it impossible for Zombie Arthur to break out of his grave/prison.
This attraction was visited by pilgrims from far and wide until the dissolution. This brought lots of money for the Abbey.
Abbey Fish Pond
During its height, the Abbey controlled a large water transport network. The Abbey used to ship wine, grain and fish from its holdings to centres of trade. This network was another large source of income for the Abbey; they were often created by draining areas. Glastonbury sits on the Somerset levels, an area of land that was actually located mostly below sea level. The monks started draining it in the 11th century (drainage and anti-flooding measures continue to this day).
The Abbey Fish Pond is the last remaining evidence of the water transport system employed by the monks. It connected to the River Brue as well as a system of canals built over successive centuries. The monks stocked the pond with fish. They then ate the fish on feast days. This could be, for example the excuse of visitors allowed for the monks to indulge slightly. Today you can find large carp in the pond but you can no longer fish there.
The Glastonbury Thorn, or the Holy Thorn, is a Common Hawthorn tree that sits within the grounds of the Abbey. What makes this Hawthorn tree different from other Hawthorns is that it flowers twice a year. It blooms once around Easter and once at Christmas. Legend says that Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury Tor. He is responsible for bringing Christianity to Britain (allegedly). Sometime during James I’s reign of the UK, the tradition started of sending a spray of flowers to the King or Queen; this continues to today.
Abbey House was built in 1829/30; it actually has nothing to do with the Abbey with the exception of using stones from the ruins. It was expanded in both 1850 and 1860, again with stone from the ruins. This was of course before the Protection Act of 1882 made that act illegal.
The Diocese of Bath and Wells (part of the Church of England) owns Abbey House. It is rarely open to the public; certain events held there is the exception. You can see the house from the outside. Enjoy its Tudor Gothic style from the grounds of the Abbey. Should you visit it, it has a separate entrance from the Abbey itself.
Visiting the Abbey
Glastonbury Abbey is always a place that has been somewhat special to me. As my grandparents live very close to the Abbey and have had a lot to do with it, I have been going there since even before I can remember. They used to give tours there; I remember spending hours listening to them talk about the religious and mythological history of the ruins. I usually make a point to go visit the Abbey when I am visiting them. It still holds a certain fascination for me. The ruins really are breathtaking in my opinion. A new interpretation centre opened within the past few years that really goes into the history of the Abbey. It also has many artefacts on display as well as their significance.
All in all, the Abbey is definitely worth £8 for an adult ticket or £6.50 for concessions and student tickets! They can get them online and at the entrance of the Abbey. Purchasing them online makes them slightly cheaper than at the entrance, so it is worth booking in advance.
Here are some more photos from the Abbey: