Glastonbury Abbey - the Olde Churche
During the Middle Ages, Glastonbury Abbey was one of Europe's greater pilgrimage places, home of a large library and host to a succession of scholars. It was a place of learning drawing in more than scriptural and ecclesiastical studies. It had a special sanctity to it, overriding ecclesiastical doctrine and drawing to it freethinkers of all times. The Orthodox church still recognises Glastonbury as the primary church of the West, superior to Rome by dint of its Christian antiquity. This is because tradition has it that Jesus came here.
Joseph of Arimathaea at St John's Church
The tradition of Joseph of Arimathaea and Jesus (as a young man during the 'lost years') visiting Glastonbury, despite all the scepticism given it, seems quite sound to me [See The Fire and the Stones, Nicholas Hagger, Element, 1993, A Glastonbury Reader, John Matthews, Aquarian, 1991, A Quest for the Historical Jesus, Prof Fida M Hassnain, Gateway, 1993, and IsleofAvalon: History section]. He was a world teacher, not limited to Palestine, and his audience was not just Jews and Greeks. Many suggest that the Glastonbury Jesus tradition was a publicity stunt staged by medieval monks to raise money and favour after the Abbey fire, yet this in itself smacks of spurious debunking and medieval church politics emanating from Canterbury and metropolitan authorities more than evidential fact. Fact is, throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic and later the Anglican church in Canterbury and its proxy, the bishopric of Bath and Wells, were jealous of Glastonbury's primacy and did their best to bring it down – at one time there was a serious hostile takeover attempt by Wells, which failed.
After the Crucifixion, Joseph, a metals trader and Essene, seemingly the financier of the Jesus operation, came to Glastonbury as a refugee with twelve acolytes, to found the first purpose-built church in Europe, possibly the world – since Christians of the time met quietly in cellars and kitchens, and didn't build temples until a later date. Joseph was, according to tradition, welcomed by the Druids of the time and allocated twelve 'hides' of land on which to build and support a wattle church and community. He died here. The Christian line faltered in the following decades and centuries, though it more or less survived until St Patrick came along in 433 to found a monastic community and set in motion the incremental development of the Abbey.
The Abbey was eventually fully endowed by the Saxon King Ine in 704 and, with the help of Patrick, Dunstan and other noble clerics, by Norman times in the 1100s it had become great and wealthy. Glastonbury Abbey stood separate from the rest of the Church in England since, embarrassingly for the Church, and particularly the bishop of Wells, it was older and England's 'holyest earthe'.
Even at the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and his men in the 1530s, Glastonbury was closed down a full two years after all of England's other abbeys and cloisters – and probably only because Abbot Whiting refused to yield up the sacred relics (phials of the blood and sweat of Christ on the Cross, plus possibly the chalice used in the Last Supper). These relics would have conclusively proven the primacy of the leader of the English church – by now the king himself, by his own self-appointment – over the Pope in Rome, which was a political move of considerable import akin to the British prime minister of today hijacking the whole European Union.
An Historical Twist
Arising from the collapse of Jesus' mission in Palestine, which had been backed by the Essenes, of whom he was a member, Glastonbury eventually became the first Christian church in the West. Out of this and other developments in Wales and Scotland grew the Ancient British Church, a mystical and druidically-influenced form of Christian faith which was close to Essence teachings and deeply contrasted the doctrinal and institutional approach of the Romish Church. The Culdees, a band of roving British Christian-Druid renunciates, whose tradition lived on into medieval times at Glastonbury, were derived from a melding of Essene and Druidic traditions initiated at Glastonbury and in Wales [Celt, Druid and Culdee, Elizabeth Hill Elder, Covenant, London, 1962].
The later long-running rivalry in medieval times between the Abbot of Glastonbury and the Bishop of Bath and Wells was not merely a little local tiff, but a remnant of the tragic political friction between the Ancient British (Celtic) and Catholic (Saxon) churches, which had ended with the suppression of the Celtic church after the Synod of Whitby of 664. Christianity was the modern faith, and both the Saxons, who had invaded England in the 500s, and the Pope, who supported them, sought to maintain a cultural distinction from the British (Celts) and, eventually, to overwhelm the British.
Though there were some 150 years between the Anglo-Saxon-Jutish invasion and the Synod of Whitby, during which the Celtic and Catholic churches coexisted, with regional concentration, the Saxon-Catholic conspiracy to overcome the British Church was concerted and intentional. Being more hierarchical and centrally-controlled, the Catholic church was politically more appropriate as a state religion. In the Celtic church the druid-bishops advised rulers and, in some cases, possessed the capacity to dethrone them which, of course, was politically anathema to the Roman order – traditionally, power in the Celtic world was not inherited by rulers but elected and conferred. The Saxons' payoff was that alignment to Rome gave them respectability and a civilising influence, helping them eventually outstrip the Britons who, until then, had been inherently more civilised.
Here's the twist. Going back to Joseph's time, the apostles Peter and Paul, who travelled to Rome from Palestine, unwittingly to lay the first seeds of the Catholic church, had been invited there by British aristocrats, resident in Rome as guarantors of treaties between the Britons and the Romans [The Fire and the Stones, Nicholas Hagger, Element, 1993]. Time passed. Centuries later, after the fall of Rome and superseding the Roman order, the Catholic church gradually grew larger, spreading into north-west Europe. The Saxons, seeking respectability, converted to Catholicism, with the help of the mission of St Augustine to England from 597 onwards. Later, at the ill-fated Synod of Whitby of 664, the British church was overwhelmed. Thus it was that, over 550 years, British Christians inadvertently created their own downfall: they had brought Peter and Paul to Rome, and their own British Christian faith was eventually brought down as a result.
St John's Church tower from the Abbey
During ancient times Glastonbury served as a kind of spiritual capital of Britain, thus beginning its career as a pilgrimage place. If it is true that Cadbury Castle was King Arthur's Camelot – a plausible notion – the prominence and proximity of Glastonbury Tor suggests a local polarity of secular and magical/spiritual poles of power in Cadbury and Glastonbury.
In medieval times, the primacy of Canterbury over Glastonbury was a matter of political expediency more than genuine spiritual precedence. Canterbury was the headquarters for the Saxon Catholics, but Glastonbury was five centuries older. Glastonbury's sanctity and primacy was kept awkwardly discreet by Canterbury and Rome over the centuries that followed. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, Glastonbury was the very last of the ecclesiastical institutions to be destroyed. Henry would have preferred Glastonbury and its holy relics to have come willingly under his control. However, then as today, Glastonbury was independent-thinking, in a world of its own.
The last abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, caused these relics to be spirited away, refusing to give them up. He was duly hanged, drawn and quartered atop the Tor. The relics have never since been found. The Abbey was closed and all valuables – including such things as a high alter lined with pure emerald – were taken by the king's men (one of them a predecessor of Oliver Cromwell). Much of the stonework was used over the decades in local building and roads, and traces of gargoyles, columns and windows still adorn houses around the town (including my own 330-year old cottage).