Archaeology magazine’s Jason Urbanus reports on new findings from University of Reading archaeologist Roberta Gilchrist, who heads up the Glastonbury Archaeological Archive Project, an intensive reexamination of 75 years’ worth of excavations and discoveries from Glastonbury Abbey, many of which have been stored for decades without any scientific analysis. Gilchrist and her colleagues have found evidence that occupation of the Glastonbury site may indeed date back to the purported year of Arthur’s reign in the fifth century, but not due to any mystical connection with the king.
We know for certain that Glastonbury was a thriving community in the seventh century, where Saxon villagers created large furnaces to melt down and recycle Roman glass. Gilchrist’s project has confirmed that the glassworks predated the abbey, possibly by centuries, and was one of the largest glass production facilities in England at the time.
In the early eighth century, King Ine of Wessex offered an endowment to a burgeoning abbey on the site. Thus began the rise of what ultimately became the wealthiest monastery in England. Towering atop a picturesque hill, the abbey grew famous for its beauty and its lucrative glassworks, drawing pilgrims and visitors from all over England and beyond.
Indeed, the abbey was already famous abroad when the Norman Conquest brought England under French control in 1066. The Norman invaders happily claimed the abbey as their own, adding sumptuous new buildings and enriching it further. The monastery continued to grow and thrive for over a century when tragedy struck. A massive fire in 1184 destroyed nearly all the buildings and treasures that the monks had amassed, converting a famous attraction into a smoking ruin overnight.
As they struggled to get funds to rebuild, the monks needed something to make the abbey seem significant again. It was now competing with Westminster Abbey, which had been established in 1065 and whose soaring architecture was already a marvel. But there was one thing Glastonbury could have that Westminster didn’t. In the 1190s, Glastonbury monks let it be known that they had discovered the skeletons of King Arthur and Guinevere in a tree trunk, buried deep underground; they relocated the grave onto the grounds of the Abbey’s new church.
With the help of archaeologists like Gilchrist, however, we are coming to understand that Glastonbury’s significance is far more complicated than we ever imagined. It was a community that thrived on its craft production of glass and then later on its reinvention as part of the Arthurian legend. You might say that Glastonbury’s twelfth-century monks were very modern indeed. They cashed in on the abbey’s long history, using it to turn myth into money.
King Edward I (1277-1307) presided over a translation of these relics, probably as a way of publicizing the idea that Arthur was well and truly dead, and was not hanging out on the island of Avalon, ready to return to aid the British (i.e. Welsh) against the invading Anglo-Saxons (i.e. Plantagenets). But I think the best myth of Glastonbury is that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in the Chalice Wall at Glastonbury.