Explorations in Arthurian History
The Importance of Geography
Part 5: Glastonbury
The notion that Glastonbury was and is and will be Avalon has been around for so long that popular perception accepts it as fact.
We could start with Geoffrey of Monmouth, who names Glastonbury the "isle of apples." It is Geoffrey who gives us the mystical Isle of Avalon (Insula Avallonis), ruled by Morgan, head of the nine maidens. Welsh tradition speaks of Avallach, a mystical island; and the Spoils of Annwn features Annwn, a mystical place across the water referred to at one point as the "fort of glass." One opportunistic translator took this to mean Glastonbury, and the legend was off and running. Indeed, some researchers think that Glastonbury Tor was once an island, possibly in the 5th and 6th centuries. However, William of Malmesbury, who wrote just before Geoffrey, stayed in Glastonbury in 1129 but did not mention the Avalon story in his History of the British Kings.
We could mention the case of the Grave: In 1191, monks at Glastonbury Abbey unearthed the bones of two people and a sign, which claimed that Arthur and Guinevere (his second wife) were buried therein. The inscription on a sign found in the grave read:
"Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon."
Now, doubtless the good monks needed some money to keep their abbey going, since a fire had destroyed the building in 1184. Tests on the bones proved that they were not from the 5th or 6th centuries. The Abbey itself was built in 166 by missionaries from Rome, who came at the request of King Lucius, perhaps the first Christian king in Britain. Alternately, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that a Wessex king named Ine founded the abbey in the early 8th century. It amassed great fame and wealth, both in monies and land. Domesday Book says the Abbey's land holdings stretched for five counties.
Perhaps the most enduring legend concerning Glastonbury is that of the Holy Grail. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Glastonbury in the early 1st century. Joseph is also said to have planted the Holy Thorn, a tree that blossoms at Christmas. Nearby Wearyall Hill does in fact have a tree that blossoms at Christmas. From such facts are legends made.
Geoffrey Ashe, in one of his fine books, says that Glastonbury "just feels weird."
As with so many things Arthurian, we don't know for sure whether Glastonbury was Avalon or whether Joseph was ever there or whether even if he was there whether he brought the Holy Grail with him. As has been demonstrated already, many legends have basis in fact and many facts have basis in legends. Perhaps Glastonbury is such a place that possesses both.
Other relevant links
Explorations in Arthurian History and Legends
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