Architectural History of Glastonbury Abbey

Chapter I

Documentary History from A.D. 63 to the Great Fire in 1184

THE singular position and proportion of St. Joseph's Chapel, projecting from the west end of the great church, makes it the great characteristic feature which distinguishes Glastonbury Abbey. It can only be understood by taking a cursory view of the legendary history of the monastery, not because implicit credence can be accorded to these tales, but that they were taught by the monks to the devotees who flocked to their shrines, and the peculiar arrangement of the church was adjusted in accordance with them.

It is true that these legends have been recited in every essay upon this subject, in some form or other, and may be found even in the guide-books, yet I must be permitted to state briefly those parts of them only which relate especially to the history of the structures I am about to consider.

This I shall do in the form of a continued narrative, which might be termed the Pretensions of Glastonbury, written; with the original book of Malmsbury, lying before me 1 and preserving as far as possible, his phraseology in the legendary portions

A.D. 63


In the year of our Lord 63, St. Philip, then preaching the word in France, sent twelve of his disciples into Britain for the same purpose. Their chief being, as it is reported, his dearest friend Joseph of Arimathea. The king and his barbarian people rejected the mission, but permitted the missionaries to retire to the present site of Glastonbury, at that time an island, called Yniswitrin, on the confines of his dominions, covered with trees and brambles, and surrounded by marshes. Afterwards, two other pagan kings, hearing of their holy life, granted to each of them a portion of land.

These saints, thus dwelling, in the same desert, were after a short time admonished in a vision, by the Archangel Gabriel, to construct a church in honour of the Virgin Mary, in a certain place indicated.

They, not slow in obedience to the divine precepts, did there construct in accordance with that which had been shewn to them, a chapel (capellam), whose walls below were formed round about with twisted or wattled rods, misshapen in. form but endowed abundantly with heavenly virtues. And this chapel, because it was the first in that region, was by divine command, dedicated to the Virgin. The twelve dwelt in this spot, dying off one after the other, until the place became a solitude and a resort of wild beasts. The oratory of the Virgin (oratorium B. Virgs.) remained concealed and unknown for many years2. At length, in the year 166, Pope Eleutherius, at the request of Lucius, king of the Britons, sent two missionaries named Phaganus and Deruvianus, who baptized the king and his people in that year, and in the course of their subsequent progress through Britain, preaching and baptizing, they arrived at the island Avallonia (or Yniswitrin) i.e. Apple land, which they entered.

There they discovered the church (ecclesia), the work of the disciples of St. Philip, and were miraculously informed of its divine dedication to the Virgin Mary. One hundred and three years had elapsed between the advent of the first missionaries and the coming of the second. These two saints protracted their dwelling in this place for nine years, and elected out of their converts twelve persons, who with the consent of King Lucius, took up their residence in the island in separate places as anchorites, and in the same spots where the primitive twelve had dwelt. In the old church (vetustam ecclesiam) they frequently met for the daily performance of divine service. They obtained from the king the confirmation of the old grants of twelve pieces of land for their sustenance.

Their number was now maintained by the election of others as death removed these second occupants, and this system continued until the Irish apostle St. Patrick visited this spot about 300 years afterwards. Certain devout converts added to the church thus discovered another oratory in stone work, which they dedicated to Christ and the holy apostles Peter and Paul. And by their labors the vetusta ecclesia of St. Mary at Glaston was repaired and restored.

The island was now becoming inhabited by settlers from the northern parts of Britain, and the church, which from its antiquity was, by the English especially, denominated the Old Church, or Vetusta Ecclesia, became a most attractive place of pilgrimage for all ranks, and was frequently visited by holy and learned men.

Thus Gildas, the historian, ended his life here in 512, and was buried in the vetusta ecclesia before the altar. St. Patrick, returning from his successful mission to Ireland in 433, visited Glastonbury, and found the twelve anchorites living as above in separate dwellings. He taught them the regular coenobial life, assuming the office of abbot, and so remained for 39 years, until his death in 472, at the age of 111. He rested in the vetusta ecclesia, at the right (or south) side of the altar for 710 years, until the church was consumed by fire 3. His body was placed in a stone pyramid close to the altar on the South.4

St. David, the archbishop of Menevia, who died in 546, is related to have prepared a solemn dedication for this vetusta ecclesia, but was warned in a dream that it had been at the beginning dedicated to the Virgin by the Lord himself The archbishop therefore built another church near the first, and dedicated that to the Virgin5.

Thus far our narrative has been wholly or partially of a legendary character, but one fact can be certainly derived from it, namely, that there existed on the spot which is the scene of the tale, a structure of twisted rods or hurdles, which was believed to have been built as a Christian oratory, and reported to be the earliest church erected in Britain. Also, that it especially bore the name of Vetusta Ecclesia, the "Old Church" and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. To shew the veneration in which the structure itself was held, the chronicler records, that "according to the traditions of the fathers, St. Paulinus, archbishop of York, and subsequently bishop of Rochester, clothed the Old Church, which before was made of intertwined rods, with boards, and covered it with lead from the top to the bottom" 6; and he continues, "assuredly this praiseworthy man exerted all his skill to do this, in such a manner that the church should lose none of its sanctity, but acquire great increase of embellishment. For it is certain that the adornment of churches renders them more impressively influential in alluring uncultivated minds to prayer, and in bending the stiff-necked to submission."

We have now arrived, however, at a period of authentic history, and may pursue the narrative of the successive changes in the buildings with more confidence.

 AD 620 to 725

William of Malmsbury, in his Deeds of the Bishops,7 speaks of Glastonia as a town nestled in a morass, which can only be reached on foot or on horseback, and with no advantage either in respect of site or pleasantness. Here King Ina, by the advice of the blessed Aldhelm 8, built a monastery and endowed it largely. In the Antiquities of Glastonbury, Malmsbury says, that Ina founded the major ecclesia, the great church of the Apostles Peter and Paul. He then takes occasion to say that as several separate basilicas stood on this spot, it may be well to enumerate them with their founders.

The first and oldest was that built by the twelve disciples of the Apostles Philip and James. This stood to the west of all the others.

The second was made by St. David, at the east part of the oldest church, in honour of the blessed Mary.

The third was made by the twelve converts who came from the north part of Britain, and this stood similarly to the east of the vetusta eaclesia.

The fourth and greatest was built by King Ina in honour of the Savior and the Apostles St. Peter and Paul, to the east part of all the others, for the soul of his brother Mules.

We gather from this, that at the beginning of the eighth century, these basilicas, chapels or churches, constituted a group of separate buildings, after the manner of the Greek convents. The old wicker church, or vetusta ecclesia, stood to the west of all the others, and the major ecclesia of King Ina to the east of all the others.

The two first were dedicated to the Virgin, and the fourth (as well as the third, as appears above) to Christ and the Apostles Peter and Paul.

It may be remarked here that the history of Canterbury Cathedral resembles that of Glastonbury Abbey, in that St. Augustine at his coming in 602, found there an early church. This however had been constructed by Roman believers and he consecrated it, as is well known. Also that in 740 another church was constructed by Archbishop Cuthbert to the east of it and almost touching it, after the same manner as the basilicas above mentioned. Many other similar cases might be adduced.

AD 871 to 900

The monastery of King Ina brilliantly maintained a succession of monks up to the coming of the Danes in the time of King Alfred. But then, like others, it remained for years in a state of desolation. At length the illustrious Dunstan, a monk of the house, repaired all that the wars had ruined, by the liberal help of the Kings Edmund and Edgar.9 King Edmund had appointed Dunstan abbot for the purpose of introducing the Benedictine rule into England, and he   immediately, according to his biographer Osbern, set about to lay the foundation of a large church and a complete set of monastic offices according to a plan which had been shewn to him. When these were finished he assembled a numerous and worthy body of monks, and thus became the first abbot of the first Benedictine monastery in England 10  But this monastery remained complete with its books  ornaments, and estates, until the time of the Normans, whose first abbot, Turstinus, was installed in 1082.

How far the wicker church or its representative, and the other basilicas, were affected by these changes we are not informed 11 , but it is certain that at the time of the Conquest the churches were considered as consisting of two only, namely, the vetusta ecelesia, dedicated to the Virgin and representing the primitive wicker church, and the major ecclesia, the great church. This distinction is expressed in Malmsbury's mention of Abbot Tica, who died in the eighth century12. "He was buried in the right corner of the great church, near the entry or passage to the old church;" and we shall find it laid down
with equal clearness in the account of the rebuilding of the churches after the great fire of  1183.

After Norman abbots were established in this place they soon began their usual course of reconstructing the great church and monastic buildings in their own manner.

"A new church commenced by the first Norman abbot was pulled down to the ground by his successor Herlewin because it did not correspond in magnitude to the revenues; and he began a new one upon which lie spent 480 pounds13."

Herlewin was abbot during nineteen years, from 1101 to 1120. This period was amply sufficient to complete at least all the portions of a Norman church that were required for the services, and even more, if the works were carried on continuously and energetically. No farther particulars of it are recorded. His successor Sigfrid occupied the abbacy for six years, and the next abbot, Henry de Blois, succeeded in 1126. He was made bishop of Winchester eight years after, but retained the care of Glastonbury to the end of his life, and presided over it altogether during forty-five years. He was a great builder and his works are thus recorded by Adam de Domerham (p. 316). "In this monastery he built from the foundations a Belltower, Chapter house, Cloister, Lavatory, Refectory, Dormitory and Infirmary, with its chapel; a beautiful and ample palace; a handsome exterior gateway of squared stones; a large brew house; many stables for horses, and other works; besides giving various ornaments to the church."

From this enumeration it is plain that the abbot occupied himself wholly with the construction of a complete Norman monastery, and as the church is not alluded to, we may suppose that it was finished before he came into power in 1126. It would thus have been in use for more than sixty years, when the fire of 1184 dismantled it.

This abbot also assigned to the sacrist's fund a pension for the maintenance of a wax candle to burn perpetually before the image of the Virgin Mary in the vetusta ecelesia, a phrase which at that period, when a new Norman great church had just been completed could only apply to the smaller one which occupied the site of the wicker church of the Virgin.

It is also related that at this time, " a precious portable altar of sapphire which Saint David had presented to Glastonbury, but which in the time of the wars had been concealed in a place long forgotten, was discovered in a certain recess in the church of St. Mary. Abbot Henry decorated it with silver and gold and precious stones, as it now appears.14"

These passages seem to shew that the old church had not been rebuilt by the Normans, but remained as they received it from the Saxons at the Conquest.

This opinion is strengthened by comparing the passages in Malmsbury, from which we learn that in this vetusta ecclesia, or wicker church, St. Gildas, St. Patrick, St. Indractus and others were buried, with the passage of Domerham's chronicle which informs us that after the fire these very saints were dug up in the vetusta ecelesia, and placed in shrines.

In 1171 Henry de Blois died and Abbot Robert succeeded, and ruled the abbey seven years. After his death "it remained in the hands of King Henry the second for many years, and was committed to the charge of Peter de Marci, a Cluniac monk, who was his camerarius or chamberlain."

During this time, on the 25th May, the day of St. Urban,15 "a fire consumed the whole monastery, except a chamber with a chapel built by Abbot Robert, in which the monks afterward took refuge, and except a campanarium built by Bishop Henry. The beautiful group of edifices so lately erected by this bishop, with the church venerable to all, and sheltering so many saints, were reduced to a heap of ashes. Soon after this Peter de Marci died suddenly in the year 1184".16In a passage apparently interpolated into Malmsbury's Chronicle, it is said of this fire that "it consumed not only the church and the rest of the buildings, but its ornaments, its treasures, and, what was more valuable, the greater part of the relies." The writer declines to dwell upon the affliction thereby occasioned, but adds, that the monks sought consolation by employing themselves in gathering together the few fragments, principally of relics, which had escaped the flames.

The abbey was at this time, as already stated, in the hands of the king; and in his charter, issued soon after the fire, we read his declaration that, " Because that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap, I, in the act of laying the foundation of the church of Glastonbury (which, being in my hands, has been reduced to ashes by a fire), do decree, by the persuasion of Heraclius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, Baldwin, archbishop of Canterbury, and many others, that, God willing, it shall be magnificently completed by myself or by my heirs". 17

The direction of the works was committed to his camerarius, Radulphus, the son of King Stephen. " He completed the church of St. Mary in the place where from the beginning the vetusta, ecelesia had stood; building it of squared stones of the most beautiful workmanship, omitting no possible ornament. It was dedicated by Reginald, bishop of Bath, on St. Barnabas' day (June I I), A. D. 1186, (circiter) 18. He repaired all the offices of the monastery, and, lastly, laid the foundations of the ecclesia major, 400 feet in length, and 80 feet in breadth."