Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


GLASTONBURY IS KNOWN to many for its annual pop music festival, sort of Woodstock in the west of England. I confess, my appreciation of rock reached its zenith in Elton John’s 11-17-70 album, so I’ve never been to the Glastonbury music events, which commenced in 1971.


Wife Dottie and I were introduced to Glastonbury and its environs through the enthuisiasm of Rob Walker’s wife Betty. They lived not far away at Nunney Court, Nunney, nr Frome, Somerset, and Betty enjoyed sharing the history and legends of Glastonbury.


Glastonbury Abbey: its eastern piers and adjacent bay of the transept. This and other images from Glastonbury Abbey: The Isle of Avalon, by C. A. Ralegh Radford, Pitkin Pictorials, 1973.

In his guide to Glastonbury Abbey, archaeologist C. A. Ralegh Radford cites William of Malmesbury, 12th-century historian, assembling the abbey’s earliest tales at the invitation of its monks. With regard to Malmesbury’s veracity, Ralegh Radford notes, “In more than one place we can sense the critical outlook of the historian overshadowed by the guest anxious not to displease his hosts.”

One Glastonbury legend concerns Joseph of Arimathea. According to the Bible, Joseph was a respected businessman who offered his own prepared tomb for Christ’s burial.


Joseph of Arimathea, as pictured in a detail of Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Pietro Perugino, 1495.

In the late 12th century, Joseph was identified as first custodian of the Holy Grail. Later, a legend evolved about his having traveled to England where he owned ore mines. In fact, there are those who believe that Christ, possibly a great-nephew of Joseph, might have visited England with him.


An unorthodox rendition of the Arthurian legend, as described at ”King Arthur, Through the Ages.”

The Holy Grail leads to the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Ralegh Radford cautiously notes that, “ ‘King‘ Arthur, who died in the 6th century, was probably buried at Glastonbury. In 1191 the monks claimed to have identified his tomb and that of his consort, Guinevere.”


The tomb of Arthur and Guinevere, said to be enshrined in 1278 and rediscovered in 1934.

Apart from its music festival inaugurated in 1971, there are two pivotal dates in the history of Glastonbury: 1184 and 1539. Prior to 1184, the abbey had been established, damaged, rebuilt and expanded. It had survived the onslaughts of pagan Saxons, then Christianized Saxons, then the French in the Norman Conquest of 1066.

A huge fire on May 24, 1184, destroyed all but one chamber and the bell tower. Subsequently, rebuilding and expansion recommenced, with somewhat fewer aggressive intrusions.


The late 15th-century George Inn, High Street, Glastonbury.

For instance, the George Inn on High Street was established in the late 1400s for those visiting Glastonbury. According to Ralegh Radford, “Pilgrims who made offerings at the various shrines and altars were a valuable source of revenue to the monastery and they were accommodated according to their station.”

On the other hand, when King Henry VII visited in 1494, he was a guest at the Abbot’s House.


A model of how Glastonbury Abbey might have appeared prior to Henry VIII’s nationalization of the place in 1539.

Between 1536 and 1541, Henry VII’s son Henry VIII dissolved monasteries throughout the realm, appropriated their wealth and stayed wherever he damned well pleased.

Henry VIII, time and neglect took care of what the Saxons, pagan or otherwise, and Normans couldn’t accomplish. Ralegh Radford notes, “Apart from fragments of the church, few buildings survive within the monastery precincts.”


A view of Glastonbury Abbey today. Image from

Today, Glastonbury Abbey remains a popular tourist attraction. In fact, a four-year research project by Reading University archaeologists culminated in 2015 by “rewriting the history of Glastonbury Abbey.”

According to, Reading University Professor Roberta Gilchrist said, “This doesn’t dispel the Arthurian legend. It just means … he [archaeologist Ralegh Radford] rather over-claimed.”

I’ll bet they say the same about David Bowie and Glastonbury ’71. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

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