The legends live on

Glastonbury Abbey Medieval myths and facts


A few weeks ago there was a lot in the news about medieval myth busting at Glastonbury Abbey. Unfortunately our press are as adept at creating myths as the abbey was in medieval times! Glastonbury Abbey recently explained the myth and the fact, drawing on the exciting work they have been doing:

“Professor Roberta Gilchrist, a Trustee of Glastonbury Abbey, who led the study of the abbey’s archaeological records, today explains why the legends surrounding this Somerset icon and national treasure live on.

The myths

Glastonbury Abbey has been a site of spiritual pilgrimage for 1000 years and tens of thousands flock there every year from around the world.

Its links to the Arthurian legend are renowned across the globe – the possible resting place of the mythical king himself. It is also purported to be the site of the earliest Church in Britain, believed to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, the biblical figure who gave up his tomb so that Christ could be buried.

The myths are well known – but the Abbey’s archaeological story has remained more of a mystery… until now.

As you may have read, the University of Reading and Glastonbury Abbey have just completed a ground-breaking project that has rewritten the Abbey’s history. All known archaeological records from excavations at the Abbey between 1904 and 1979 were reassessed and reinterpreted, with some surprising results.

Some of the Abbey’s best known archaeological ‘facts’ have turned out to be myths – discoveries that were misunderstood or exaggerated by excavators influenced by the fabled Abbey’s legends. Ralegh Radford, who excavated there in the 1950s and ‘60s claimed to have discovered the site of King Arthur’s grave, allegedly located by monks in 1191. However, our analysis disputes Radford’s findings – Arthur’s ‘grave’ was revealed to be a simple pit in the cemetery containing material dating from the 11th to 15th centuries.

Antiquarian excavators weren’t the only ones that went, shall we say, a little over the top. The monks crafted the legends to restore the Abbey to its former glory after a devastating fire in 1184: we found that they laid out the buildings in a very distinctive way to emphasise the ‘earliest church’ story. They also designed the rebuilt church – the Lady Chapel – to look older in order to demonstrate its ancient heritage and pre-eminent place in monastic history. This swelled pilgrim numbers, the Abbey’s reputation – and its coffers.

The amazing facts!

Our most amazing discoveries relied on radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis. We identified three phases of Saxon churches, beginning c. AD 700, and an associated craft-working complex of five glass furnaces radiocarbon dated to c. AD 700. This represents the earliest and most substantial evidence for glass-working in Saxon England.

Previous excavators couldn’t find any evidence that the site was occupied earlier than 700 AD, which is the earliest date of occupation confirmed by historical records. However, fragments of ceramic wine jars imported from the eastern Mediterranean were evidence of a ‘Dark Age’ settlement from c. 500AD. These fragments of Late Roman Amphora were associated with a floor surface, connected with one or more timber halls.

The future

The next stage in our project is going to transform the visitor experience. Working with Glastonbury Abbey and other project partners, these findings will come to life. Digital animations and an interactive map will take visitors on a journey through the Abbey in the Middle Ages, and we will develop a new guidebook and education packs for schools.

So what do these findings mean for Glastonbury Abbey?

The monument remains a place of deep spiritual meaning, a cherished place of tranquillity, steeped in history, heritage, myth and legend. This project has added to its aura and sense of mystery. It is a place well worth visiting and contemplating.

While we have challenged the account of Arthur’s grave being found by Radford, the legends of Arthur and Arimathea live on. Legends so deeply engrained in the landscape and memory of Glastonbury that they have influenced people for 1000 years… and still do to this very day.

One of the project’s most significant findings is evidence that the site of the Abbey was indeed occupied during the time of King Arthur, evidenced by the Late Roman Amphora and the timber halls.

Did King Arthur exist? The jury is still out – we’ll leave that for you to decide.”

To find out more go to the Glastonbury Abbey website

Photo and news article with thanks to Glastonbury Abbey

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