Note: for tedius technical reasons, I have had to renumber the footnotes. They are otherwise unchanged.
JV 12/99

THE position and date of the church of St. Mary being fixed, we may proceed with the history of the new ecelesia major, or great church, of which, as we have seen, the foundations were laid by the king's camerarius, Radulphus, son of King Stephen, 400 feet in length and 80 feet in breadth. The chronicler Domerham. goes on to relate that, "Persevering in the work continually he spared no expense, for the king supplied the means when the resources of Glastonbury failed.

"In the foundations of the church were placed the stones, not only of the great palace, built by Bishop Henry, but of the entire wall which surrounded the court of the monastery.

"Great part of the ecclesia major having been built, the rest would have been beautifully completed had the Lord prolonged the king's life. But alas, covetous death snatched him away too hastily, and the monks, just recovering breath from their last misfortune, were smitten with a heavier wound, for he died on the 6th of July 1189, after reigning for 35 years.

"He was succeeded by his son Richard, whose warlike tastes diverted his attention from the building of Glastonbury church. Wherefore the work stopped, because no funds were forthcoming to pay the wages of the workmen."

AD 1189 to 1193


As the fire happened in  1184, the work had only proceeded for five years. The abbot at this period was. Henry de Soliaco, nephew of Henry II.; "but he lent not his hand to the work of rebuilding, and quarreled with the convent." The monks therefore set about to raise money by the usual expedient of  "sending preachers selected from their brethren through various provinces with relics" and pontifical indulgences, to solicit alms for the carrying on of the work." Thus says the historian.

It may be remarked in this place that the old church of St. Mary had preserved up to the time of the fire the arrangements of the Saxon church. The body of St. Patrick (who died in 472) rested in a stone pyramid at the south or right side of the altar, which pyramid the historian tells us had been subsequently plated handsomely with gold and silver.

St. Gildas remained in front of the altar, as he was buried beneath the pavement in 512. The martyr St. Indractus and his companions had been translated hither by King Ina. The former was placed in a stone pyramid at the left of the altar, the others buried under the pavement. Beside these, a quantity of relics of innumerable saints are mentioned which were placed above the altar  or elsewhere. When the fire happened, Malmsbury expressly declares that it consumed the greater part of the relics, a phrase which may be supposed to include the latter class; for those which were enclosed in tombs or buried under the pavement must have escaped. There were also many shrines and relics in the great Norman church which must have suffered.

It was in perfect accordance with the practice of the period at which this fire took place, that the monks should remove the remains of these saints from their tombs and from under the pavement, and place them in coffers or shrines as they were called. Domerbam expressly states that "at this time," that is to say, during the reconstruction of the church, "the bodies of the saints, Patrick, Indractus and Gildas, were dug up in the vetusta ecelesia, and placed in shrines;" which manifestly admitted of being removed to make way for the work of rebuilding and also of being displayed at the proper time for the attraction of offerings.

But sudden difficulties require extraordinary remedies, and I have often had occasion to point out that in the middle ages the raising of funds for the rebuilding of churches, after great conflagrations or the sudden ruin of a tower, has been promoted by the opportune production of a new and attractive saint, or of some monkish marvel, that served to direct popular attention to the church and bring offerings to the treasury.

Accordingly it happens that at the very period we are considering the monks produced the relics of St Dunstan, and the abbot disinterred King Arthur and his queen. These afterwards ranked amongst the greatest attraction and ornaments of the Abbey church.

I will relate the leading particulars concerning the relics of St. Dustin on the authority of
Malmsbury or his interpolator 1.

The monks of Glastonbury asserted that, after the Danish sack of Canterbury in 1011, while that church remained desolate for many years, a party was dispatched from their monastery to steal the body of Dunstan. They broke open his tomb, carried off his bones, his ring, and other relics, and were received with great joy on their return to Glastonbury. This translation, as they termed it, took place in 1012. But when they began to consider the case coolly, they perceived that possibly, after the country had recovered its prosperity and the church of Canterbury its authority, the Archbishop might insist upon the restoration of the abstracted relics. They therefore commissioned two of the older brethren to undertake the deposit of the holy bones in some secure place known only to themselves. This secret to be handed over to another only when the last possessor was on the point of death, so that one person only should possess it until the time came when it could be safely revealed. These trustees enclosed the bones in a box with proper inscriptions, and hid it in a hole which they dug under the pavement of the great church, near the holy water at the right hand of the entrance, and there it remained undisturbed for one hundred and seventy-two years, as Malmsbury or his interpolator declares.

But although the hiding place was concealed, the possession of these relics was not forgotten, for about a century after these transactions the monks began to boast that Dunstan was in their possession, and immediately a strong letter was written from Canterbury by Edmer, reproaching them for their dishonesty, and ridiculing their pretensions, on the ground that fifty years before, he himself had witnessed the translation of Dunstan's coffin inviolate, upon the occasion of the building of Lanfranc's cathedral. This letter seems, to have produced no result.

When the fire happened in 1184, and the monks were dolefully collecting their scorched relics, and trying to make the most of them, they became anxious to find Dunstan. It soon appeared that the secret of the hiding place was known to most of the monks. Two, bolder than the rest, raised the stone near the holy water stoup and found the box beneath, strongly bound with iron.

The prior and convent assembled, the relics and the ring were found, as well as the inscriptions, painted by those who concealed the box., which declared the remains to be those of St. Dunstan.

The monks now took courage to produce the relics for the first time to the world, and accordingly they were placed in a shrine handsomely clothed with silver and gold. The arm and forearm of St. Oswald, king and martyr, were enclosed in the shrine, which was removed to the great church, and as Malmsbury's interpolator states, great miracles and cures were wrought upon the worshippers.2

That it was, up to the Reformation, one of the principal shrines of the great church, is proved by the second correspondence which took place between the authorities of Canterbury and Glastonbury upon the subject, in the 16th century.3 This throws so much light upon the nature and intensity of relic worship in the middle ages, that I will extract some particulars from it.

A formal scrutiny of the shrine of St. Dunstan was made at Canterbury in 1508 in presence of Archbishop Warham and Prior Goldston. They report to the Abbot of Glastonbury that their shrine contained all the principal bones, and as much of the body as could possibly have remained entire after so many centuries, besides a leaden plate bearing the name of the saint and other matters. Also that it exhibited no appearance of having been ever opened. The archbishop therefore requires the abbot and rest of the convent to abandon their pretensions to the possession of St Dunstan, and no longer to offer the relies for the adoration of the people. The Abbot of Glastonbury (Bere) replies, amongst other things, that if any bones remain in the shrine of Canterbury, they must have been left behind by those who removed the relics to Glastonbury; and declares that for more than two hundred years the shrine of their patron St. Dunstan has been set up in the church under the sanction and authority of the Bishop of the Diocese, with power to remove it from place to place. That yearly, on the feast of their patron, all the parishioners, laying aside domestic work, keep holiday, and come to the abbey church, both men and women, with the greatest veneration. And should any one refuse to do so, and continue to attend to his work or affairs, nothing prospers with him in that year, and grave injury results to his property and his family. And this, he declares, perpetually happens. Whoever, he adds, saw the earnest concourse of people daily supplicating at this shrine with bare feet, and garments cast aside, would say, "Let them alone, lest haply we be found even to fight against God"....5 The reply of the Archbishop, after enlarging in strong terms upon the indecent phenomenon of two churches claiming respectively the possession of the body of the same saint, declares that unless the Abbot transmits to him before All Saints' Day, evidences to satisfy him of the genuineness of these relics, the strongest legal measures shall be put in action to terminate this scandal.

I will now, without stopping to discuss doubtful points, simply relate the leading parts of the history of the disinterment of King Arthur's remains, as I gather them from the best authorities.6

It happened that King Henry the Second, on occasion of his expedition for the conquest of Ireland, 7 embarked with his army from Milford Haven. But while waiting at Menevia (St. David's) for that purpose, he was entertained at his feasts, after the manner of the country, by the songs of the Bards with their harps.

One, the most learned of these, sang the praises and history of the renowned King Arthur, comparing him with the future conqueror before whom he stood, who lost not a word, but listened with the most intense gratification and pleasure, and dismissed the Bard with a munificent reward.

From him he learnt the traditional particulars of Arthur's mortal wound at the battle of Kamlen in Cornwall,8 and how he was conveyed by water to the monastery of Avalonia, and buried near the old church there, in a wooden coffin, deep in the ground. Also, that the spot was marked by two pyramids richly sculptured, and set up to his memory.

The king earnestly pressed upon his nephew Henry de Soliaco, then, or soon after, abbot of Glastonbury, the importance of removing the remains of King Arthur to a more honourable position, within the church, in accordance with the ideas and practice of that time. But it was at the beginning of the reign of Richard I9 that the abbot, on a certain day, commanded the place indicated between the pyramids, to be surrounded with curtains and excavated. Everything happened in accordance with the legends of the British Bard. They dug sixteen feet downwards, and then came to a wooden sarcophagus of enormous size, made out of a hollowed oak.

When raised to the surface and opened, its cavity was found to be divided into two parts. The one which occupied two thirds of the length from the head, contained the bones of a man of immense stature, so great, that the legbone, or tibia, set upright on the ground, reached to the middle of the thigh of a tall living man.

In the shorter cavity were deposited the bones of a female, supposed to be those of his queen Ginevra; and there was seen a tress of flaxen hair, preserving its form and colour. But a certain monk snatching at this too hastily, in the attempt to raise it from its recess, it immediately fell to dust.

They also found a leaden cross with a Latin inscription, declaring that "Here lies buried, in the island AVALONIA, the renowned King Arthur."

The relics were removed to the great church, built by Henry II., and placed in a chapel in the south aisle, 'through which is a passage to the almery.10  Afterwards they were transferred to a black marble mausoleum, divided within into two parts, as in the original receptacle. The king's relics at the head of the tomb, the queen's at the foot, towards the east. This was placed in the middle of the presbytery; and finally, in 1276, Edward I. and his queen visited Glastonbury, and the sarcophagus was opened for their inspection. The separated bones of the king, of marvelous magnitude, were seen. The sepulcher was ordered to be placed before the high altar. The skulls of the king and queen to remain outside for the devotion of the people. Leland saw the tomb at the latter end of the 15th century.

Malmsbury (p. 306) mentions the burial of Arthur and his queen between two pyramids in the monks, cemetery, which Worcester saw on the south side of the chapel.11 But Malmsbury describes two other pyramids12, which, he says, stand several feet distant from the vetusta ecelesia, and in front of the monks' cemetery. The nearest to the church is 26 feet, the other 18 feet, high; and he describes their ornaments and unintelligible inscriptions. He professes entire ignorance of the origin of these pyramids and their meaning, but suggests that they contain bones deposited in cavities within the stones; and that the words inscribed upon them, are the names of the persons.

AD 1303 to 1322


We may now return to the large church, great part of which was built, as we have seen, when King Henry died in 1189, and the monks were driven to their wits' end to raise money for completing it. This was dedicated in the time of Abbot Galfridus Fromond, and must therefore have been roofed in and completed in all essential parts.

Walter de Tantonia, his successor, died eleven days after he was consecrated abbot. He was previously prior. "He made the pulpitum (or choir screen) of the church, with ten images, and set up the great rood with the crucifix, Mary and John13"' This must have been done when he was prior, and probably before the dedication, as necessary for the completion of the fittings of the church. Leland notes that he was buried in the transept "before the crucifix, that is to say, in front of his work, as was very usual.

AD 1322 to 1335


The next abbot, Adam de Sodbury, "vaulted nearly the whole of the nave, and ornamented it
with splendid painting." He was buried in the nave, also under his work. "He gave the great clock, which was remarkable for its processions and spectacles14," after the manner of that period. Leland records the position of the clock, at the south part of the transept, and the inscription on it:. "Petrus Lightfote, monachus, fecit hoc opus," which gives the maker's name. The clock itself, or rather great part of its automatic mechanism, is in Wells cathedral to this day, whither it was transferred after the fall of Glastonbury; this automatic clock is the oldest on record as a clock, self-striking hours with a count wheel, the next being Walingford's, at St Alban's, 1326 to 1334, and the next the Horloge du Palais at Paris, made by a German, Henri de Vic, In 1370.

This abbot also gave organs of wondrous magnitude and endowed the Lady chapel with four additional priests, of which more below. He also decorated the high altar with an image of the Virgin in a tabernacle of the highest workmanship.15

The eastern part of the church, according to this history, appears to have been now completed for service, but was soon subjected to alterations and improvements, for the record of which we are indebted to Leland alone, for although John Glaston's Chronicle is continued down to the year 1493, it contains no allusions to the works in question.

A.D. 1341 to 1374

Leland says, writing in Latin, that Abbot Walter Monington, buried in the choir, made the
vault of the choir and presbytery, and enlarged the length of the presbytery by two arches.16 This is another example of a benefactor buried in the place of his work.

In a subsequent page we find "There be vj goodly windows in the top of eche side of the Est part of the Church. There were 4 of old Time sins 2 addid and the Presbyterie enlonggid by Gualter Monington Abbate." William of Worcester confirms this, by a note that "in each part of the choir are six great high windows, glazed ... and in each side of the aisles of the choir 8 windows."

AD 1493 to 1524

No other works about the church are men t tioned till we pass over more than a century, to Abbot Richard Beere. Leland's visit to this abbey was made, as he tells us,17  in the time of Beere's successor, Richard Whyting, the last abbot, and he records his works in the following memoranda:

"Abbate Beere buildid Edgares Chapel at the Est End of the Chirch but Abbate Whiting performed sum part of it.

" Bere Archid on bothe sides the Est part of the Church that began to cast out.

"Bere made the Volte O the Steple in the Transepto and under 2 Arches like S. Andres Crosse els it had fallen.

"Bere made a rich Altare of Sylver and Gilt and set it afore the High Altare.

" Bere cumming from his Embassadrie out of Italie made a Chapelle of our Lady de Loretta joining to the north side of the Body of the church.

"He made the Chapelle of the Sepulcher in the South End Navis Eccl. whereby he is buried sub plano marmore yn the South Isle of the Bodies of the Church."18

Thus ends the recorded history of the building of the great church. It was rich in monuments and saints. In the presbytery the monument of King Arthur and his queen was placed in front of the high altar, with King Edmund the Elder on the north side, and Edmund Ironside on the south, as founders of the church. King Edgar, another founder, had a chapel allotted to him, apparently at the east end, for he was a saint, and his bones were translated to a shrine.

The dedications of the chapels have been lost, but we may suppose that they were appropriated to St. Dunstan, St. Patrick, St. Benignus, St. Gildas, and the other saints, to whose entire bodies the history of the abbey lays claim.

The monuments of benefactors to the works of building and ornamentation are remarkable, as I have endeavored to shew, for the numerous examples they present of being placed in contiguity with the works themselves.