Reprinted from Newsletter 128, dated 2009 April

Earliest Glastonbury legend: roots go deeper than a need to attract money

Adrian Pearse

A talk by Paul Ashdown

Paul Ashdown examined the importance of Glastonbury in the early mediaeval period. By identifying strands in the myths which built up around it, he showed that many had roots back into the dark ages.

Certainly Glastonbury was of great importance to the West Saxon kings, he told the Antiquarian Society on January 30. Not only was it a favoured burial place to these rulers, but also through such luminaries as Dunstan it was central to royal affairs. In cultural matters too, Glastonbury was important in the production of manuscripts, metalwork, lapidary and enamelling.

Many scholars portray Glastonbury as an ordinary monastery — with the myths of Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea developed essentially to raise funds for the extensive rebuilding after the fire of 1184. Paul Ashdown argued that the myths’roots went far deeper — even the name Glaston had origins in the Celtic past and featured in Welsh mythology, and the locality was a centre of Irish influence in the southwest. Glastonbury was identified with Arthurian legends in Welsh, Anglo-Saxon and Norman sources long before the fire.

He argued that its origins as a monastery go back at least to the period before the Saxon conquest of the area in 658, which was essentially a political takeover. Charters soon after this date survive, and suggest an established institution; and Geoffrey Ashe points out a pre-Saxon reference in Gildas possibly indicating a monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It could have been an Irish rather than British house, or indeed even Frankish. Glastonbury’s connection with St Patrick is certainly of early origin, and the links between Glastonbury and the east Mediterranean, where there are sources of Glastonbury legends in Egypt, brings a link to the tales of Joseph of Arimathea and St Bridget.

Archaeological evidence is sparse, but it could very possibly be true that the wooden church preserved part of a Roman building containing a mosaic floor or painted image interpreted as Mary, and giving rise to the tradition of a church “not built by human hands”. Glastonbury’s importance in the following centuries and its role in high politics cemented the body of myth as a foundation for later developments.