Whatever the facts may have been, the basic Joseph legend grew around something that was real and solid, an ancient church constructed of wattles – interlaced twigs or rods – with reinforcements of timber and lead. Bound with clay, wattle-work can be a stalwart material. It was used by early settlers in Wisconsin, and the remains of a wattle structure can be seen at New Harmony, Indiana, among the buildings in a community founded by the philanthropist Robert Gwen.
In the centuries after Britain broke from the Roman Empire, a group of Celtic British monks lived beside Glastonbury’s small wattle church. It may already have been so old that no one knew who the builder was. Chroniclers decided eventually that it was Joseph of Arimathea, and that idea was the nucleus of the tale of his coming to Glastonbury. There were other stories connecting him with Britain, but no one knows which came first, or why such an unlikely person was ever thought of. The belief may reflect a lost tradition. At any rate, the site of the “Old Church” came to be known as “the holiest earth of England,” where the Christian Faith was first planted. Today, the Lady Chapel among the ruins marks the place.
Hard evidence is lacking. Archaeologists have found traces of Christian settlement at least as early as the sixth century, on the Abbey site and on the upper part of the Tor. Gildas, a British author, seems to mention the Old Church about the year 530. Hermits may have lived hereabouts farther back, and there was some kind of Roman presence. But the more distant past is lost in obscurity. Those who wish to believe in Joseph are free to do so. Certainly, after the Gospel incident, history says nothing about his later life anywhere else.
When Christian Glastonbury began, most of the people of what is now England were British Celts, ancestors of the Welsh. But the pagan Anglo-Saxons, ancestors of the English, moved in from across the North Sea and gradually overran the country. At first they wiped out whatever Christian institutions they found. However, their advance slowed down. The West Saxon kingdom of Wessex did not expand far enough to absorb Glastonbury until the middle of the seventh century. By then its kings were Christians, themselves, and they took over the British community peaceably. At Glastonbury, as nowhere else in England, we have a major instance of Christian continuity right through from Celtic times, As one historian has put it, the Saxon kings made the place a temple of reconciliation between previously hostile peoples.
Its monastery grew into an abbey of the Benedictine Order. The greatest abbot, St. Dunstan, in the tenth century, started the drainage of the still-waterlogged country round about, embanking the river to prevent flooding. He launched the restoration of learning and religion in England after the Norse destruction of monasteries and monastic schools. His successors continued the reclamation of most of the territory down to the Bristol Channel, and protected it with sea-walls, so that it is now farming land.
Medieval Glastonbury played a part in the making of the legends of Arthur. Joseph of Arimathea, or a companion of his, was said to have brought the Holy Grail, the wonder-working vessel of the Last Supper, to Britain., From a first Avalonian resting-place, it had been removed to a mysterious castle, and, four hundred years later, many of Arthur’s knights rode out in quest of it. The King himself had at least one personal connection with Glastonbury: he had besieged it to rescue Guinevere from an abductor, and visited the Old Church when the matter was settled.