Glastonbury Legend was “Fabricated by 12th Century Monks*
By Victoria Ward
Archaeologists find that Glastonbury’s links to Jesus and King Arthur were concocted to attract pilgrims
It is a revelation that will strike a blow to the heart of the generations of pilgrims drawn to Glastonbury for its Christian legend and new age myths.
But a four-year academic study has unceremoniously debunked the series of oft-repeated myths that have cemented Glastonbury Abbey’s reputation as one of the most romantic religious sites in the UK.
The feet immortalised in William Blake’s poem Jerusalem never did walk on its green and pleasant land, King Arthur’s grave is little more than a pile of a rubble and the oldest church in England was not built by Jesus’s disciples but by monks desperate to raise some cold, hard cash.
The groundbreaking study, by 31 archaeology experts, discovered that the creative monks, faced with a financial crisis when their abbey burnt down in 1184, also dreamt up the legend that Jesus had visited the site as a boy with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, whose walking stick transformed into a tree that flowers every year at Christmas and Easter.
The evidence that the myths were created as no more than a money-spinner to draw pilgrims to the site will be deemed the antithesis of everything Glastonbury is said to stand for.
But the researchers insisted that they did not want to take anything away from the “remarkable” Somerset abbey and acknowledged that a thousand years of beliefs and legend were at the heart of its history.
Roberta Gilchrist, professor of archaeology at Reading University, and her team, examined the unpublished records of archaeological excavations that took place between 1904 and 1979. They conducted a chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal and pottery and undertook a comprehensive new geophysical survey of the Abbey grounds.
They found that in the wake of the devastating fire, the monks decided to lay claim to the popular myth of King Arthur.
They carefully rebuilt the church in a wooden, archaic style to make it appear far older than it was and forged a lead cross bearing the name of the king to suggest that he and his queen, Guinevere, had been buried there.
Prof Gilchrist said: “The monks needed to raise money by increasing the numbers of visiting pilgrims, and that meant keeping the myths and legends alive.
“We found evidence that the monks laid out the buildings in a very distinctive way to emphasise the “earliest church” story. This occupied the site of the legendary early church allegedly founded by Joseph of Arimathea.
“The monks deliberately designed the rebuilt church to look older to demonstrate its ancient heritage. This swelled pilgrim numbers, and the abbey’s coffers. It was a strategy that paid off: Glastonbury abbey became the second richest monastery in England by the end of the Middle Ages.”
She said that while there was a possibility of genuine misunderstanding with other legends, with King Arthur and Guinevere there was “no question” that “the monks just made them up.”
Prof Gilchrist is said to have found no evidence of a special tree in the abbey dating back to this time and that the common hawthorn in its grounds naturally flowers in midsummer and midwinter.
It casts doubt on a legend so entrenched in history that a sprig from the Holy Thorn has been sent to the Queen every December since the 1920s for her Christmas morning breakfast table.
The project, conducted alongside Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, suggests that many experts had been taken in by the myths over the decades, among them Ralegh Radford, the archaeologist who excavated Glastonbury Abbey in the 1950s and 1960s.
He believed he had found the location of Arthur’s grave allegedly discovered by the Glastonbury monks and the oldest Saxon cloister in England.
But Prof Gilchrist said it was in fact a pit containing builders’ rubble from the 11th to 15th century and that according to the foundations, the walls of the cloister do not line up and so are almost certainly not a cloister at all.
On the plus side for pilgrims, the study did discover evidence that Glastonbury was occupied 200 years earlier than previously thoughts and was the site of an 8th century glassworks.
The discoveries will be incorporated into a new guidebook.
Myths versus new evidence
Myth: Glastonbury Abbey is the site of the earliest Church in Britain, thought to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, who visited the site with a young Jesus
Fact: 12th Century monks keen to attract pilgrims to the site to raise money after a fire, deliberately designed the rebuilt church to look older in order to demonstrate its ancient heritage and pre-eminent place in monastic history
Myth: Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury from the Holy Land, and planted his walking stick which still miraculously flowers at Christmas and Easter
Fact: No evidence was found of the thorn’s existence before the 17th century. The current Glastonbury Thorn is a common hawthorn that naturally flowers twice a year
Myth: King Arthur, creator of the Knights of the Round Table, and Queen Guinevere were buried there
Fact: The site of Arthur’s ‘grave’ was revealed to be a pit in the cemetery containing material dating from the 11th to 15th centuries, with no evidence linking to the era of the legendary age of Camelot
Myth: The abbey is the site of Britain’s most ancient cemetery, a Saxon cloister found by Ralegh Radford
Fact: The graves that the pioneering archaeologist judged to be “Dark Age” were later shown to be newer than the Saxon church and cemetery. Prof Gilchrist believes Radford may have been influenced by Glastonbury legends
Myth: 12th-Century historian, William of Malmesbury, left a description of an ancient wooden church he had seen
Fact: His original account had extra material inserted into it in later versions, probably by monks seeking to boost their claims of ancient historical status