History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: The graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinivere, though historically dubious, offer a real insight into the medieval mindset.
We do not know precisely when the first monastery was established at Glastonbury, but excavations on the site and ancient written records suggest that there was a religious foundation her around 650AD. At the heart of this early monastery was a church built of wattle, known now as the Old Church. The Old Church was contained within a large enclosure defined by a ditch, along with a cemetery, within which stood at least 2 oratories and several underground chambers. Over the subsequent 300 years more buildings were erected inside the enclosure. Sometime before 726AD King Ine of Wessex built a timber church, dedicated to SS Peter and Paul, east of the Old Church. Around 760 Ine's church was extended and joined to the wattle church by an atrium.
In the late 11th century Abbot Thurstan (1077-1096) began a completely new church on a cruciform plan. His work was expanded by Abbot Herluin (1100-1118) who ambitiously rebuilt the entire abbey complex - except the Old Church, which must have held a special status among the monks, for it was retained unaltered. Herluin's plans were completed by Henry of Blois (who served as abbot for 45 years, abbot from 1126-1171). Only 13 years after Henry's death the abbey was almost completely destroyed by a devastating fire.
The first building to be rebuilt was the Lady Chapel, erected on the site of the Old Church in 1184. The ornate design was highly decorated with pointed rib-vaults and crocketted capitals. It set the style for shrines built in other medieval monasteries across England.
The Lady Chapel was ready to be dedicated in 1187, but the great abbey church took much, much longer to rebuild;the eastern end of the nave and central tower were complete by 1320, and the nave by 1334. No sooner was the church complete - or perhaps before then - Abbot Monington had the east end rebuilt, adding a retrochoir and a huge east window. He also had the Lady Chapel joined to the main body of the church by a galilee, or porch.
The devastation of the late 12th century fire might help explain why the monks of Glastonbury put so much effort into making their abbey a destination for pilgrims. They moved relics of two Saxon-era abbots, Patrick and Indracht, from the ancient cemetery into the Lady Chapel in 1186. They conveniently 'discovered' the bones of St Dunstan and housed them in a specially-built portable shrine. Then in 1191 the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were unearthed near the south side of the Lady Chapel. In 1278 these relics were reburied by the high altar in the presence of King Edward I. The royal couple lay beneath a black marble tomb, between the tombs of the Saxon kings Edmund Ironside and Edmund I. Another draw for pilgrims was the tomb of Edgar I, who was reburied in a specially built eastern chapel sometime in the late 15t century.
By the late Middle Ages Glastonbury had become the richest abbey in England, due to the heavy pilgrimage trade. It was rich enough to build an inn for well-to-do pilgrims (the George Inn, on nearby High Street, which still welcomes guests 500 years later).
The Last Abbot of Glastonbury
Throughout much of the medieval period Glastonbury was the second wealthiest monastic house in Britain, after only Westminster Abbey. But that counted for nothing when Henry VIII decided to dissolve the monasteries in the 1530s. Like most abbots across the country, Whiting signed the Act of Supremacy in 1534, naming Henry VIII as the head of the Church in England. But that acquiescence would only postpone the inevitable. By 1539 Glastonbury was the last remaining monastery in Somerset. When pressed by the king, the abbot refused to surrender the Abbey, claiming (rightly) that the Act for suppressing the lesser houses did not apply to Glastonbury.
After the abbot's death the abbey was looted for building stone, and a colony of weavers was set up on the monastic site. It was not until 1908 that the grounds were bought by the Bath and wells Diocesan Trust, and the ruined abbey buildings were restored so that visitors could once again enjoy this remarkable historic site.
The abbey is entered through the Abbey Gatehouse, an imposing arched gateway located on off Magdalene Street. Visitors pass through a fascinating museum depicting life at Glastonbury during the Middle Ages, and then enter the Abbey grounds proper. The first building you see on entering the grounds is St Mary's Chapel, a roofless structure that boasts wonderful architectural details, from the recessed arches of the door to the repetitive arcading that rings the interior. Look up, where the curious small towers at each corner of the chapel seem almost Georgian in style.
The grounds of Glastonbury Abbey emanate a sense of calm and peace; it is truly a magical place, and taken as a whole with the other attractions of this ancient town, make Glastonbury well worth an extended visit. Outside the grounds are the abbey tithe barn, which now serves as the Somerset Rural Life Museum (well worth a visit), and 4 miles away at Mere is the abbey's Fish House, were fish was salted and cured. A short stroll will bring you to the base of Glastonbury Tor, where you will find peaceful gardens surrounding the Chalice Well. Then there is the Tor itself, with the lonely tower of St Michael standing like a sentinel, looking out over the Somerset Levels. This is a magical place, a place of wonder and legend. A place not to be missed.
About Glastonbury Abbey
Address: Abbey Gatehouse, Magdalene Street, Glastonbury, Somerset, England, BA6 9EL
Attraction Type: Abbey
Website: Glastonbury Abbey
Phone: 01458 832 267
Fax: 01458 836 117
OS: ST499 389
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
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Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
Glastonbury Tribunal - 0.1 miles (Museum)
Chalice Well and Gardens - 0.5 miles (Garden)
Glastonbury Tor - 0.8 miles (Countryside)
West Pennard Court Barn - 3.2 miles (Historic Building)
Meare Fish House - 3.3 miles (Historic Building)
Burcott Mill - 4.4 miles (Historic Building)
Wells Bishop's Palace - 5.4 miles (Historic Building)
Wells Cathedral - 5.4 miles (Cathedral)
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