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The History of Glastonbury

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The age of the settlement now known as Glastonbury is the subject of discussion, and of legends. Glastonbury, or the Isle of Avalon, is steeped in history and mystery. Legend even suggests it to be Camelot, the mythical seat of King Arthur . Whatever the fanciful stories one thing is certain, man has been in the Glastonbury area for a very long time. The ‘Sweet Track’, an ancient timber causeway, was found just west of Glastonbury. The 5,000 year old causeway is the oldest engineered road in Northern Europe, and some say the world, having been dated to 3806 or 3807 BC. At the time that the track was built Glastonbury would have risen as an island out of the marsh and the flood-plains surrounding it. Many hold the opinion that the so-called Sweet Track only existed because of settlement of religious shrines at Glastonbury.

It is known that a village, Glastonbury Lake Village, existed three miles north west of Glastonbury in what is now Godney . The village once housed around 100 people in about 300 BC and was still occupied at the time of the Roman invasion. The village, which has yielded many ancient artefacts on excavation, was basically floated on the peat bog using brushwood, bracken, rubble and clay with foundations of timber driven into the peat. Rising water levels may to have caused the village to be abandoned at around 100 AD.

Joseph of Arimathea is said to have arrived in Glastonbury in the first century, reaching the revered isle by boat over the flooded Somerset Levels. He got out of his boat and planted his staff into the hallowed ground and legend says that it flowered miraculously into the Glastonbury Thorn , also known as the Holy Thorn. This hybrid hawthorn tree only grows within a few miles of Glastonbury and, unusually, flowers twice annually. It produces flower once in spring and then again at Christmas time. Each year a sprig of thorn is cut by the local Anglican vicar and the eldest child from St John's School. It is then sent to the Queen as part of an age old tradition.

The original Holy Thorn was a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. During the English Civil War it was chopped down by Cromwell ’s men, derided as an object of Catholic superstition. However, superstition persisted and legend soon spread that the Roundhead soldier who chopped the thorn down was blinded by a flying splinter. A replacement thorn was planted in the 20th century on Wearyall hill in 1951 to mark
the Festival of Britain. The first one died and had to be replanted the following year. The thorn also grows elsewhere throughout Glastonbury, including in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey , St Johns Church and Chalice Well.

The abbey at Glastonbury was a powerhouse of wealth for centuries. Legend has it that the abbey was founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the first century and it certainly pre-dates the Saxons, unlike the majority of English priories. British monks were even allowed to retain power of the abbey when the Saxons first conquered the western reaches of southern Britain in 658. But by 669 Saxons abbots were installed at the abbey although british monks remained there for many years.

A stone church was built there as early as 712 by the Saxon King Ine of Wessex. St Dunstan enlarged the abbey in the tenth century and King Edmund was buried there in 967. The first Norman abbot started a program of extension to the abbey buildings but was replaced in 1077 because some of his men killed monks next to the High Alter. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Glastonbury was already the richest abbey on the land. The abbey had grown rich not just on the agricultural bounty that surrounded it in the Somerset fields, but also on the mystical reputation of the ancient isle of Avalon.

A church, dedicated to St Michael, was built on top of the Tor but this was said to have been destroyed by earthquake in 1275. The roofless tower stands on top of the hill in a spot that excavations suggest has been the subject of some kind of human endeavour since Neolithic times.

The power of the church, and Glastonbury with it, came crashing down when Abbot Richard Whyting resisted King Henry VIII as the monarch stripped the abbey of its treasures. At the start of Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, Glastonbury was second only to Westminster in wealth and prestige. The Reformation left it a shattered ruin, completely ransacked and demolished in a brutal message to the church and its supporters from the king. Abbot Whyting was hung drawn and quartered on the top of the Tor.

Glastonbury ticked over as a quiet agricultural market town after the loss of the mighty abbey. Progress largely passed it by and its only real industry was itself tied to the land, the manufacture of sheepskin goods by the now defunct Moorlands. Today the town relies again on agriculture but also increasingly once again on its
reputation for legend and myth and is still an important centre of spiritual pilgrimage.

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