The strange, quasi-stepped hill that dominates the Salisbury plain has been a magnet for prophets and mystics since antiquity. According to local tradition, Joseph of Arimathea stumbled upon the place after his long journey from Judea, and selected it as the central location for his Christian missionary work in Briton. From the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey at the base to the ruins of St. Michael’s Church at the peak, the entire area is steeped in both Christian and Celtic tradition. According to legend, Glastonbury Tor conceals many secrets. For one thing, a secret gate to the next world supposedly lies within, and it is one of many places where Christ is supposed to reappear during the end times. More important to the popular imagination is the strong local belief that the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, is buried beneath the hill. Whatever the truth is, Glastonbury Tor is an important spiritual connection to the arrival of Christianity in the British Isles.
Glastonbury has long been a melting pot for Christianity and ancient Celtic legends, with the two frequently merging into a unique blend of Celtic-Christian mysticism. Glastonbury’s Christian history began in the mid-1st century AD, when, according to local legend, Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Britain. Joseph, who had donated the tomb in Jerusalem wherein Jesus was briefly buried, was one of Christianity’s most important early disciples. Sometime around the middle of the 1st century he left the Holy Land, partly due to the persecution of Christians, but also out of a sense of missionary and evangelical duty. He ultimately ended up in the British Isles, and is credited with founding Christianity there.
Why Joseph chose Glastonbury is not certain, but it is possible that he, like the Druids before him, were inspired by the area’s spectacular Tor. In its shadow he built his last home and England’s first church. It was not this however that made Glastonbury so important, but rather a small object that Joseph brought with him: the Holy Grail. After Jesus’ death, Joseph apparently acquired a number of the Messiah’s belongings, including the famous cup. According to tradition, it was used by Jesus at the Last Supper, and caught his blood as it dripped from the cross. It has since become one of Christianity’s most famous artifacts in absentia. Before his death, Joseph supposedly buried the fabled chalice under the Glastonbury Tor, and from it emerged a miraculous spring that flows out at the Chalice Well. The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury, a species unique to the area, is also attributed to Joseph of Arimathea.
For the next few centuries, Glastonbury remained an important center of Christianity in England, while simultaneously remaining sacred ground to the Celtic Druids. Elements of the Arthur legend involve Glastonbury, the Tor and the Holy Grail. Following the Saxon wars, the old alliance was forgotten and the Druids rapidly lost ground to the Christians. Eventually the Tor was crowned with a magnificent church, St. Michael’s, as a permanent symbol of Christian triumph over paganism. It worked for the most part, though Celtic paganism was on the wane anyway. By the 8th century, a large monastic community was flourishing at Glastonbury Abbey. Despite repeated ravages by invading Danes, Saxons and Normans, the monks maintained the sacred sites of the Tor and the Well, and Glastonbury remained the most important Christian holy site in England through the early Middle Ages.
By the 12th century, Glastonbury Abbey was one of the largest and richest monasteries in the British Isles. Interest in the site skyrocketed in 1191 CE with the questionable discovery of the tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. However, after Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 16th century, he purged the Church of England of anyone disloyal to the crown, including the monasteric orders. In 1539 Glastonbury was pillaged, laid waste and Stephen Whiting, its last Abbot, was put to death. All that is left of the once mighty abbey is a handful of fascinatingly preserved ruins. Today Glastonbury draws large numbers of diverse visitors. In addition to Christians seeking church ruins, holy bushes and sacred wells, there is an equal if not greater showing of others in search of a spiritual experience of an earthier sort. As in the days of Arthur, both groups make their pilgrimages here, not infrequently side-by-side.
Glastonbury Tor is a solitary hill jutting up over the Salisbury Plain. Because of its isolation, nearly perfect proportions and clearly delineated concentric steppes, the hill can easily be mistaken for a man-made structure. However, there is no archaeological or geological evidence that it is anything other than a natural hill. Sheathed in a thick coat of green grass, the Tor is patrolled year-round by vigilant flocks of sheep. The hill was once crowned by St. Michael’s Church, but all that is left today is the bell tower. Still in nearly-perfect condition, the bell tower still reaches up from the mound and is visible for miles in every direction.
The town of Glastonbury lies to the northwest of the Tor, and the two primary Christian sites are located in between. The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey are fascinating. Other than the pillars, walls and archways that still stand scattered around the site, there are no other bricks or rubble. All was cleared away ages ago, including most of the flooring. A small recessed chapel, partly enclosed, is still in use towards the center of the ruins. The questionable graves of Arthur and Guinevere are marked with marble slabs. The other site, the Chalice Well, is located nearby at the base of the Tor. While the tiny spigot from which the water flows is anticlimactic, the surrounding garden is serene and contemplative.
The Tor, Chalice Well and Abbey are scattered just outside of the town center of Glastonbury, just over a hundred miles west of London. The top of the Tor can be reached by a footpath which leads right to the belltower of St. Michael’s Church. There are no restrictions in terms of visiting hours to the Tor, the Chalice Well or the Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. There are no admission costs. Web: www.glastonburytor.org.uk (official website)
From the time Christianity first arrived in Briton until the establishment of the Archbishopric of Canterbury in the 6th century, the stronghold of the Church in the British Isles lay on the Romano-Celtic fringe of southwestern England. Many of the oldest churches of England lie within fifty miles of Glastonbury, including Winchester Cathedral, the longest Cathedral in Europe and home to one of the oldest Bibles in England; Salisbury Cathedral, the tallest Cathedral in Europe and home to one of the original copies of the Magna Carta; and Bath Abbey, one of the last monastic churches built in the British Isles.