Magical Glastonbury Part 3
By Geoffrey Ashe
In 1191, the monks of the Abbey claimed to have found his grave in their cemetery. Guided by a hint from a Welsh bard, they had dug down and discovered a stone slab. Under it was a cross of lead with a Latin inscription saying “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.” Digging farther down, they had unearthed a coffin made from a hollowed-out log. Inside were the bones of a tall man who appeared to have been killed by a blow on the head, because the skull was damaged. Some smaller bones were taken to be Guinevere’s. Modern excavation has shown that the monks did dig at a place south of the Lady Chapel, and did find an early burial. Most historians would deny that the bones were Arthur’s, and dismiss the inscribed cross as a fake. But some have been willing to accept the identity as possible, even probable.
Throughout the Middle Ages the Abbey was growing. Its main church, nearly 600 feet long, was the largest in England after St Paul’s Cathedral in London, with space for thousands of pilgrims on the principal holy days. The Abbot was Chief Justice in central Somerset, and the people for many miles around were his tenants. The Abbey maintained a school, and one of the finest libraries in England. It flourished until 1539, when Henry VIIl’s policy of dissolution caught up with it. The last abbot, Richard Whiting, was convicted on trumped-up charges and hanged on the Tor, and his Abbey was dissolved like the rest.
Surveying this long record, we can see that Glastonbury has been a place of great beginnings. It has a strange vitality. Its Christian community, if not literally the first in Britain, was the first that survived, carrying on without a break from early times. It brought together Celts and Saxons; in a symbolic sense, the United Kingdom was born here. It was the fountainhead of cultural recovery in the aftermath of the Norse. Its legends were at the roots of the national saga of King Arthur.
The Abbey’s downfall looked like the end. The buildings passed into private hands, and a succession of owners, who had no interest in preservation, used them as a quarry for saleable stone. Yet after all, Glastonbury was not dead, or reduced to a country town like many others. According to tradition, in 1587 an old man named Austin Ringwode, who had formerly been employed by the Abbey, prophesied on his deathbed that Glastonbury would be reborn and then “peace and plenty would for a long time abound.” The rebirth began (if in ways that Austin Ringwode hardly foresaw) in the twentieth century. The extraordinary spell of the place began to work again.
Several things happened. The Abbey’s last owner put it on the market, and the Church of England acquired it and has looked after it ever since. Each summer Anglican and Catholic pilgrims gather in thousands. Other developments were due to people with interests that were more secular, or, if religious, frequently offbeat and eccentric. In the 1920’s, Glastonbury was the venue of the first major English festival of music and drama, founded by the operatic composer, Rutland Boughton, with support from celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw and Sir Thomas Beecham. Rutland Boughton’s festival was the ancestor of others at Bath, Malvern, and elsewhere. Later came the establishment of a trust to preserve what is believed to be an ancient sacred spring, mentioned in one of the Grail stories and now called Chalice Well (pictured at right). The Chalice Well garden is a famous meeting place for visitors from many countries, with a variety of interests. Later again came a surprising discovery of Glastonbury by the alternative society, the so-called hippies. The “Glastonbury Fayre” in 1971 was a sort of mystical Woodstock. After much strife and controversy, it is still repeated in most summers and attracts tens of thousands, though, of course, it has changed considerably.
Today, Glastonbury’s role as a spiritual focus outside the churches is shown in a restored community centre, in a special-interest Library of Avalon, in healing clinics, in New Age conference rooms. Numerous tourists and seekers converge here especially from America. Some of the developments may look odd, but they cannot be ignored, and they involve many people of goodwill and intelligence. For a long time, “straight” and “alternative” elements in the town were sharply divided. The summer of 1996, however, may resolve some of the divisions with a new festival commemorating Rutland Boughton and bringing together musicians, artists, authors and others from different strata of the population. Is the reborn Glastonbury taking coherent shape? It may well be.