But we are at the foot of an eminence called Weary-all-hill, and we pause, and in our mind's eye see the Eastern traveller, weary and worn, who slowly mounts it, followed by a few monks. It is Joseph of Arimathea, sent from Gaul by Philip to carry the tidings of salvation to Albion, and if possible to overthrow the horrid Druidical religion.
We see him strike his staff into the ground and hear him say, "Here will I build a temple for the worship of Christ, my Lord." And the staff bursts into white blossoms, and behold the Thorn of Glastonbury. But the spot proved too small for the site of a church, and the missionaries moved forward and built their lowly temple, of wattles and wreathed twigs, in mystic Avalon.
There is still a Chapel of St. Joseph. Did the holy Jew really bring the Gospel to Britain? It does not seem impossible, when we remember how far the Apostles travelled and preached; and of one fact there is no doubt: it was at Glastonbury that the tidings of salvation first reached the ears of the British people. In the most ancient charters of the monastery are these significant words applied to the abbey, "the fountain and origin of all religion in the realm of Britain."
Hither also came St. Patrick from Ireland, believing, no doubt, the legend of St. Joseph, and anxious to see the hallowed spot where he had taught, though there was no monastery there then, and the few priests who served the lowly chapel burrowed in caves and wretched huts. Here the saint of the Green isle spent his latter years, and raised Glastonbury into a regular community of monks.
About the year 530 St. David, Archbishop of Menavia (uncle of King Arthur), with seven of his suffragans, came to Glastonbury, and enlarged the buildings there by the erection of a chapel to the Holy Virgin.
In 708 Ina, King of Wessex, rebuilt the whole, and lavished his wealth on St. Joseph's Chapel. He garnished it with silver and gold, and filled it with costly vessels and ornaments. The place grew in magnifcence, and about a century and a half afterwards Glastonbury, - still further enlarged - was called "the pride of England and the glory of Christendom." One proof of its pre-eminence is that it furnished superiors to all the religious houses in the kingdom.
The celebrated and undoubtedly gifted Dunstan was born within the precincts of the abbey, and received the tonsure within its walls. He left it for the court of Athelstane, but seems to have been disgusted with court life and returned to Avalon, where, near the abbey, he built himself a cell or hermitage with an oratory attached, where he dwelt, spending great part of his day in devotion, and the rest in making crosses, censers, or vestments for the abbey; for Dunstan was a skilled artist and a fine musician. It was in this hermitage that tradition said he had his contests with Satan, who (the Golden Legend, printed by Caxton, tells us) appeared to the hermit in the form of a beautiful woman.
Dunstan introduced the Benedictine order of monks into England. They were at first very unpopular on account of the severity of the discipline that they insisted on, and the laxity of the Saxon priesthood. Dunstan's conduct to Edwy and Elgiva has scarcely any excuse; his cruelty to the unhappy queen none at all. He was banished in Edwy's reign, but returned to rule with extraordinary grower over Edgar, and is supposed to have persuaded the king to build a palace near Glastonbury at a most lovely spot, still called Edgarley. By the privileges Edgar conferred on Glastonbury, the abbey was raised to great dignity. Its abbots were ritually rulers of the Island of Avalon; neither king nor bishop might enter it without their permission.
The monks elected their own superior; they were rich, and twice a week the poor of the whole country round were relieved at their gates; and when the last abbot rode forth he was attended by a hundred followers. This good man died on the scaffold, one of Henry VIII.'s numerous victims; refusing to surrender his monastery, he was condemned for high treason, and hanged with two of his monks on Tor Hill.
The kitchen of the abbey, some fragments of the church, and the chapel of St. Joseph alone remain now; and of the origin of the kitchen the following anecdote is told. The abbot had offended Henry VIII., and the king sharply reproved him for his sensual indulgences in food and wine, which he asserted disgraced the abbey, and added that he would burn the monk's kitchen. The abbot replied haughtily that he would build such a kitchen that all the wood in the king's forests would not suffice to burn it; and he forthwith built the one whose ruin we see. Thus runs the story, but the architecture of the kitchen is of an earlier date, and the speech would scarcely have been made to the despotic Tudor.
Of the great church and its five chapels, there remain only some walls, windows, pillars and other fragments, and those large crypts which contain the tombs of many illustrious persons.
Of the workmanship of the builders of the abbey, enough remains to show that the edifice was in the best Norman style. A little westward from the church is the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, which is nearly entire, and has a large, handsome crypt; the arches of the windows are semicircular and adorned with the lozenge, zig zag, and embattled mouldings; underneath are interlaced semicircular arches springing from slender shafts, and ornamented with zigzag mouldings and roses, crescents and stars in the spandrels; the doors, north and south, are very much ornamented.
Of the monastery a stone edifice said to be the abbot's house remains, and near it, amongst ruins, the famous kitchen. It has been described as an octagon included in a square; four fireplaces fill the four angles, having chimneys over them in the flat part of the roof. Between these rises an arched octagonal pyramid with a double lantern for the egress of the smoke. There are eight carved ribs within, that support the vaults, and eight funnels for letting out steam through the windows, within which, ill a smaller pyramid, hung the bell to call the poor people to the almonry.
Not far on the kitchen stood the refectory, dormitory, and great hall. North-eastward of Glastonbury, on the very high hill on which Abbot Whytyny suffered, stands the Tor or Tower of St. Michael. It serves as a landmark to sailors in the Bristol Channel, as in clear weather it can be seen a long way off.
At the foot of the lofty for on the north side rises the Blood or Chalice well, and somewhat higher, south-westward, rises another spring; both are medicinal, "strongly impregnated with iron and fixed air." Asthma and dropsy, scrofula and leprosy are the diseases they were said to cure.
King Arthur, wounded in one of his battles, was taken to Glastonbury to be cured of his wounds by these healing waters. And after his last fatal battle, that of Camlan in Cornwall, in which he fell, he was conveyed by sea to Glastonbury to be buried. In course of time the spot where he slept was forgotten; but a Welsh bard singing to Henry II., as he passed through Wales on his way to Ireland, of the great British king, declared that Arthur slept between two pyramids at Glastonbury. When the king returned to England he told the abbot what the bard had sung, and search was at once made for the grave. One of our chroniclers, Giraldus Cambrensis, was an eye-witness of what ensued, and has recorded it.
Digging down seven feet below the surface, a huge broad stone was found with a small thin plate of lead in the form of a cross, bearing in rude letters the Latin inscription: "Hic jacet sepultus Inclytus Rex Arturius in Insula Avalonia." Nine feet deeper they found the trunk of a large tree hollowed out for a coffin, in which lay Arthur, and by his side Guinever. The bones of the king were of extraordinary size; the skull was covered with wounds, ten distinct fractures were counted, one of great size, probably the fatal blow. The beautiful Guinever's form was singularly whole and perfect. Her burnished gold hair fell in plaits on her shoulders, but when touched fell instantly to dust.
The bodies were again interred, but Edward I. and his queen desired to look, if possible, on that noble king, and the remains were again solemnly exhumed. The skulls were then placed in the Treasury, to remain there, and the skeletons were returned to their grave, Edward enclosing an inscription recording his visit. The beautiful monument erected over Arthur and Guinever was destroyed at the Reformation.
Here also are buried Coel, king of Britain,; father of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, Edmund the Elder, King Edgar, Edmund Ironside, St. Joseph of Arimathea (it is said), St. Patrick, St. Dunstan, and Gildas, one of our earliest historians.
Avalon is no longer an island; for the marshes that surrounded it with water have been drained, though within memory many miles of land between Glastonbury and the sea were inundated during the winter.
The Glastonbury thorn still blossoms about Christmas; frequently on Christmas Day. It also blossoms again in May. Aubrey, the Wiltshire antiquary, tells us that a Mr. Hinton grafted a bud of the Glastonbury thorn on a ordinary thorn at his farm-house at Wilton, and it also blossomed at Christmas. In Parham Park is a similar tree. This thorn is supposed to have been brought by some pilgrim from the East.