Glastonbury Abbey in Glastonbury, Somerset, England, now presents itself as "traditionally the oldest above-ground Christian church in the world" situated "in the mystical land of Avalon" by dating the founding of the community of monks at 63 A.D., the legendary visit of Joseph of Arimathea who also brought the Grail with him. Even the skeptic finds much else to admire about Glastonbury's evocative ruins and its splendid documented history.
A community of monks were already established at Glastonbury when King Ine of Wessex enriched their endowment. He is said to have directed that a stone church be built in 712, the foundations of which now form the west end of the nave. Glastonbury was ravaged by the Danes in the 9th century. The contemporary reformed soldier St. Neot was sacristan at Glastonbury before he went to found his own establishment in Somerset. The religious way of life had nearly died out by 920, following the invasions of the Vikings who destroyed many of the monasteries and nunneries. Decades later there was a revival and the monasteries of Romsey, Abingdon and Glastonbury were rebuilt. The abbey church was enlarged in the 10th century by the Abbot of Glastonbury, St. Dunstan, the central figure in the 10th-century revival of English monastery life, who instituted the Benedictine Rule; Dunstan became Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. Dunstan built new cloisters as well. In 967, King Edmund was laid to rest at Glastonbury. In 1016, Edmund "Ironsides" who had retired to the west country as "king of Wessex" was buried there too.
At the Norman conquest in 1066, the wealth of Glastonbury made it a prime prize. The new Norman abbot Turstin added to the church, unusually building to the east of the older Saxon church and away from the ancient cemetery, thus shifting the sanctified site. Not all the new Normans were suitable heads of religious communities. In 1077 Thurstin was dismissed after his armed retainers killed monks right by the High Altar. In 1086, when the census reported in Domesday Book was commissioned, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastery in the country. Abbot Henry of Blois commissioned a history of Glastonbury, ca 1125, from the chronicler William of Malmesbury, whose De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae is our source for the early recorded history, and much awe-inspiring legend as well. Then as now, legend worked more strongly than raw history to bring the pilgrims who sustained the Abbey's reputation and contributed to its upkeep.
In 1184 a great fire at Glastonbury destroyed monastic buildings. There is evidence that in the 12th century the ruined nave was renovated enough for services while the great new church was being constructed. If pilgrim visits had fallen, the discovery of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere's tombs in the cemetery in 1191 provided fresh spurs for visiting Glastonbury. According to Giraldus Cambrensis and other chroniclers, the abbot Henry de Blois commissioned a search, discovering at the depth of 16 feet a massive oak trunk with an inscription 'Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia'. King Edward I and Queen Eleanor attended the magnificent service at the reburial of King Arthur's remains at the foot of the High Altar. Services in the reconsecrated Great Church had begun on Christmas Day, 1213, most likely before it was entirely completed. In 1215, among the great bishops and magnates signing Magna Carta, was Jocelyn, Bishop of Bath and Glastonbury.
In the 14th century only Westminster Abbey was more richly endowed and appointed than Glastonbury. The abbot of Glastonbury kept great state, now attested to simply by the ruins of the abbey kitchen, with four huge fireplaces at its corners. The kitchen was part of the magnificent Abbot's house begun under Abbot John de Breynton (1334-42). Archaeological excavations have revealed a special apartment erected at the south end of the Abbot's house for a visit from Henry VII, who visited the Abbot in a royal progress, as he visited any other great territorial magnate. The conditions of life in England during the Wars of the Roses become so unsettled that a wall is built around the Abbey's precincts.
At the start of the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, there were over 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries in Britain. By 1541, there were none. More than 10,000 monks and nuns had been dispersed and the buildings had been seized by the Crown to be sold off or leased to new lay occupiers. Glastonbury Abbey was once more a rich plum. In Sep 1539 the Abbey was stripped of its valuables and Abbot Stephen Whiting, who had been a signer of the Act of Supremacy that made Henry VIII the head of the church, resisted and was hanged as a traitor on Glastonbury Tor.
One of the Visitors sent to examine the Abbot of Glastonbury, wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell, 22 Sep 1539:
'... Please it your lordship to be advertised, that we came to Glastonbury on Friday last past, about ten o'clock in the forenoon; and [because]…the abbot was then at Sharpham, a place of his, a mile and somewhat more form the abbey, we, without any delay, went into the same place, and there…examined him upon certain articles. And [because]…his answer was not then to our purpose, we advised him to call to his remembrance that which he had as then forgotten, and so declare the truth, and then came to him the same day to the abbey; and there of new proceeded that night to search his study for letters and books; and found in his study…a written book of arguments against the divorce of his King's majesty and the lady dowager, as also divers pardons, copies of bulls, and the counterfeit life of Thomas Becket in print; but we could not find any letter that was material. And so we proceeded again to his examination concerning the articles we received from your Lordship, in the answers whereof, as we take it, shall appear his cankered and traitorous heart and mind against the King's majesty and his succession; as by the same answers, signed with his hand, and sent to your lordship by this bearer, more plainly shall appear. And so, with as fair words as we could, we have conveyed from him hence into the tower, being but a very weak man and sickly…We have in the money 300l. and above; but certainty of plate and other stuff there as we know not, for we have not had the opportunity for the same, but shortly we intend (God willing) to proceed to the same; whereof we shall ascertain your lordship so shortly as we may. This is also to advertise your lordship that we have found a fair chalice of gold, and divers other parcels of plat, which the abbot had secretly hid from all such commissioners as have been there...'
Other of the Visitors, Richard Pollard, also wrote to Cromwell, 16 Nov 1539:
'Pleaseth it your Lordship to be advertised that..[On November 15] the late abbot of Glastonbury went from Wells to Glastonbury, and there was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called the Torre, where he was put to execution; at which time he asked God for mercy and the king for his great offences towards his highness… Afore his execution [he] was examined upon divers articles and interrogatories to him ministered by me, but he could accuse no man of himself of any offence against the king's highness, nor would he confess no more gold nor silver nor any other thing more than he did before your Lordship in the Tower… I suppose it will be near Christmas before I shall have surveyed the lands at Glastonbury, and take the audit there…'
By Shakespeare's time, two generations later, Glastonbury was one of the "bare ruin'd choirs Where late the sweet birds sang".
The Abbots of Glastonbury were: Worgret, Lademund, Bregoret (601); Beorwald, Aldbeorth, Kemgisel, Guba (705); Tica, Cuma (754); Walthern, Tumberht, Beadulf, Muca (762); Guthlac (824); Ealmund (850); Herefyrth, Striwerd (860); Ealthun, Aelfric (905); Dunstan (943); Aegelward (962); Sigegar (973); Beorhtred (1000); Brichtwin (1017); Aegelward (1027); Aegelnoth (1053); Thurstin (1078); Herlewin (1101); Siegfried (1120); Henry of Blois (1126); Robert of Winchester (1171); Henry of Sully (1189); Savaric B.P. of Bath (1192); Jocelyn B.P. of Bath (1206); William Vigor (1219); Robert (1223); Michael of Ambresbury (1235); Roger Ford (1252); Robert of Petherton (1261); John of Taunton (1274); John of Kent (1291); Geoffrey Fromond (1303); Walter of Taunton (1322); Adam of Sodbury (1323); John Breynton (1334); Walter Monington (1342); John Chinnock (1375); Nicholas Frome (1420); Walter More (1456); John Selwood (1456); Richard Bere (1493) and Richard Whyting (1525).