The Cultural History of Glastonbury

So for cultural history month I really struggled to decide upon a topic to explore, then as I was sat at the desk in my nieces bedroom I realised that I could see Glastonbury Tor on this misty horizon and instantly my indecision was resolved. Glastonbury, the west county town, (not the festival), is undoubtedly a place shrouded in myth and history, famed as the resting place of King Arthur. However, the town also boasts historical landmarks including the Tor, the Medieval Tribunal, the Chalice Well and the Abbey.  Now Glastonbury is a home of bohemian culture, a place of solace and celebration of all that is artisan, ancient and as most would see it, bizarre. Only in Glastonbury have I found an ancient labyrinth reproduced, indented into the grass of the churchyard, gems encrusted into the walls of café courtyards, Norse runes carved into the doors of shops and Celtic drum circles taking place naturally at the base of the Tor. Personally these perhaps unusual elements of an English country town make me feel at home, alive and brightened by the inhabitant’s clear acceptance of all that rebels against social convention.

Imageglastonbury

As a town its cultural history fascinates me, the connection with Arthur first and foremost in my mind. After all even before the growth of modern popular culture exploring the possible existence of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Roundtable the area has been long connected with the legends surrounding these figures. The Abbey reputedly discovered the bones of the king and his unfaithful Queen, Gwenievere in 1191. According to popular accounts the monks discovered a huge oak coffin, containing the bones and an inscription which read, ‘Here lies King Arthur buried in Avalon.’ After the dissolution of the monasteries these bones were conveniently lost. This discovery allowed the monks of the Abbey to collect valuable revenue at a time of financial difficulty for the religious house. Over time this discovery added to the legend, allowing Glastonbury’s connection to Arthurian lore to be reaffirmed. The Arthurian connection has been utilised by the monarchy, including Henry VII who named his first son Arthur, as a symbol of peace, prosperity and legitimacy. Arthur is connected to Glastonbury and Winchester in the same way that Robin Hood is to Sherwood Forest and Nottingham, these legendary figures and the places associated with them have become ingrained in the cultural heritage of Britain.

Glastonbury Tor is the icon of the town and also of the festival held at Pilton every year. Atop the hill stands the fifteenth century tower of the second church of St Michael to stand on the site. The roofless tower is famous as the execution site of the Abbot Richard Whiting who was put to death in 1549 on the orders of Thomas Cromwell. According to those of pagan belief the hill spirals in seven rings thus proving that it is an entrance into the Otherworld where Arthur was sent on his deathbed to be cared for by Morgan le Fay until the country is in need of him once more. This aspect of the legend has filtered into popular culture with the production of works of literature such as The Once and Future King, by T.H. White.

As demonstrated by the monk’s importance in reaffirming the Arthurian myth the church had a massive impact on the development of Glastonbury and surrounding areas. However, with the rise in Neo-Paganism Glastonbury has once more become a haven for those whose religious practices are largely viewed as unconventional by the world’s wider religious societies. A quick glance at some of the names of the town’s main shops, (The Cat & Cauldron,  Man, Myth & Magic, Star Child, and Stone Age), instantly demonstrates a reborn connection to the past and an attempt to reach into a world of magic and folklore that many  see as purely fiction thanks to the rise of science. Interestingly at Glastonbury a celebration of this mythic past has been reestablished and reformed, book shops containing volumes on natural healing, alternative therapies, practical witchcraft and worshipping the mother goddess are the norm. Obviously this is a recent renaissance which has been allowed to flourish due to the town’s legendary and obscured history. Despite this connection with Neo-Paganism Glastonbury is a town which welcomes all religions. In 2001 it became a World Peace Garden demonstrating its international importance as a town of acceptance, equality and pilgrimage. The history, mythology and culture of Glastonbury have come together to form a unique town popular with those of the New Age Society.

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