Talk Report: 2016-06-08

And did those feet in Ancient times by Stephen McNulty

Steven McNulty, stepped in at the very last moment for our April meeting and gave members a fascinating talk on Glastonbury, its myths, facts and architecture. This is a broad subject but it was covered with a great background of knowledge and attention to detail and it left us all very much better informed.

Stephen talked firstly about the various myths and legends associated with Glastonbury. These are usually taken with a pinch of salt and recently academic research has effectively dismissed most of them out of hand. But there is a great wealth of tradition and sometimes there is evidence that things on which these legends are based may indeed have truth behind them. The first thorn tree may not have sprung from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff in 65 AD as he arrived on Wearyall Hill, but a thorn tree does indeed flower on Christmas day …actually at Epiphany which reflects the date before the Christian calendar was adjusted. Way back in the eleventh century the historian William of Malmesbury wrote in his History of the Ancient Church of Glastonbury that Glastonbury had long been a sacred spot. It may be disputed that the first wattle church was built by Christ’s disciples, but a simple place of worship was certainly there very early on, very possibly within living memory of Jesus’ crucifixion.

This British centre of faith survived the invasions of Saxon heathen before they became in turn to accept the Christian faith. The church, now an abbey, was re-built on a lavish scale by Ina the Saxon King of Wessex in about 700 AD. As the Saxon monks enlarged their church they knew that their church occupied an ancient and holy site and many precious relics were cherished in their abbey. These included the remains of both St Patrick and St David which they believed lay in their church although this was (and is!) contested by both Ireland and Wales.

St. Dunstan the 10th century Abbot of Glastonbury expanded the buildings and established a monastic rhythm for his abbey. The Normans enlarged and embellished the Saxon buildings and in the Domesday Book of 1085 Glastonbury is described as the wealthiest monastery in England. But tragedy was to come: in 1184, after a century of elaborate expansion, a devastating fire ripped through the abbey and the relics, vestments tombs and buildings were almost completely destroyed.

Legend has it that at this time the monks were anxious to raise money to rebuild their abbey. They dug deep beneath the ruins where, amazingly, they found the mortal remains of two tall bodies. These were proclaimed to be King Arthur and his queen Guinevere and the bones were ceremoniously reburied in a black marble tomb. The fifth century warrior Arthur had long been associated with Ynys Wydryn, meaning ‘Isle of Glass’ which was the Celtic name for the island of Glastonbury. Many a pilgrim and visitor would have visited the Abbey during the ensuing centuries. Its magnificent church was the longest in all England and by the 14th century Glastonbury Abbey was one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in these islands.

In 1539 after several hundred years of monastic tradition and learning, richness and power, the abbey was once again to be laid low. During the Reformation of Henry VIII a whole way of life with its buildings, shrines, sculptures, library, vestments and treasure were all lost or destroyed. Arthur’s tomb disappeared and the last bishop of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, was foully hung drawn and quartered on the Tor.All that remained were the ruins that we see today.

The rest of Stephen’s lecture consisted of relating these ruins to what would have been there in the Abbey’s glory days. A series of precise drawings were made during the first half of the last century depicting what the artist, Arthur E Henderson, understood to have been there before the Abbey’s destruction. We were able to compare his carefully drawn images of the west front, towers, nave, aisles, galilee and chapels with the stones and spaces of today. Apparently Gloucester and Wells Cathedrals have many similar characteristics in style and we saw photographs of their clerestory windows, fan vaulting, saw tooth carvings around the arches and polychrome tiles on the floors. Together with Henderson’s extraordinary drawings we were able to imagine just what the Abbey might have been like before the ravages of Henry’s men.

It was a fascinating hour’s talk, mixing myth and fact, supposition and knowledge Stephen was warmly thanked twice over, once for stepping in so kindly and effectively at the last minute and once for his excellent and informative talk.