Medieval storytellers were known for mixing a bit of history with a dose of myth and a dash of legend. They stirred it all up and the result was a rousing good tale. The town of Glastonbury is awash with many such stories: Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, the Holy Thorn, St. Patrick’s tomb, and a hill leading to the underworld.
Let’s start exploring Glastonbury’s myths with the legend of Joseph of Arimathea…
Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus
What we know of Joseph of Arimathea from the Bible is minimal. He is mentioned as a rich man who took Jesus’ body off the cross and placed it in his own tomb.
But legend fleshes out the story quite a bit more…
It’s said that Joseph of Arimathea was Jesus’ uncle. He was a businessman – a tin merchant who travelled often to Britain to the tin mines of Cornwall. It’s even claimed that when Jesus was a young man, he might have accompanied his uncle on some of these trips and visited Glastonbury. This is the basis for William Blake’s 1808 poem titled And did those feet in ancient time which was also set to music as the anthem, Jerusalem.
Joseph and Glastonbury’s Old Church
It was in the Middle Ages that Joseph became associated with Glastonbury Abbey. After King Arthur’s tomb was found, the monks wrote Joseph of Arimathea into their history. Ancient legend said that their Old Church (the first church in Britain) had been founded by a disciple of Jesus. So, they thought, maybe it had been Joseph of Arimathea. Why not? It could have been him. So, they just slotted him right into their history books.
Joseph and the Holy Grail
This was about the same time that the Arthurian story of Joseph of Arimathea was written. It linked together Joseph, King Arthur, and the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail (or chalice) being the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper.
The legend continues…
Joseph of Arimathea was a spectator at the Last Supper. He hadn’t earned a seat at the table, so he watched from his chair off to the side. But when Jesus and his disciples got up and left the table, Joseph wandered over and picked up the cup they had drunk from and stashed it in his pocket.
Soon afterward Jesus was arrested and crucified. Joseph, who was well off and had connections, went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate agreed, so Joseph and his friend Nicodemus went to take the body down from the cross. While they were in the process, blood began to drip from Jesus’ foot. Joseph still had the Last Supper chalice in his pocket, so he pulled it out and caught some of the blood in it.
The two men wrapped Jesus’ body in sheets and placed it in the new tomb that Joseph had provided. When he got home, Joseph hid the cup under his bed because it wasn’t safe to be associated with Jesus. In fact, he was arrested a few days later for taking Jesus’ body – even though he had permission.
Joseph Goes to Jail
Soldiers beat him and threw him into a small building without windows, and left to die. But Jesus appeared to him the first night. He was holding the cup which Joseph had hidden at home – and it was glowing. Jesus gave the chalice to Joseph and told him not to worry, that he would be set free when the time was right.
Every day, one wafer would magically appear in the cup for Joseph to eat. It wasn’t much, but, miraculously, it sustained him. He was locked up in that building for many years, and then one night he was supernaturally released. He found himself back at his home, and he was fit and healthy and hadn’t aged a bit. Joseph began asking around for other Christians who might want to make a trip with him. They would go to Britain, a place he knew well from his tin trading days.
When Joseph and his traveling party reached Britain’s shores, they made their way to Glastonbury. There they established the first church in Britain. Joseph wanted to make sure the Holy Chalice was safe, so he hid it. He tucked it inside the mouth of a spring, and immediately the water began to run blood red.
Today this place is called the Chalice Well or the Blood Spring. We now know that the red color comes from iron oxide in the earth, but in the Middle Ages it seemed magical. Water from the spring tastes like iron (or blood), and some say it has healing powers. Just next to the Chalice Well is the White Spring, whose calcium-rich flow leaves a white trail behind.
Now back to our legend…
Glastonbury Thorn Myth
After Joseph and his friends had safely hidden the chalice, they walked up a nearby small hill. When they reached the top, they were tired, and Joseph said, “Let’s sit and rest, for we are weary all.” He stuck his staff in the ground and they all sat down. After a chat, and maybe a little picnic, they were refreshed. They got up and walked back to the church, but Joseph forgot his walking stick.
The next day he sent a boy up the hill to fetch his cane. But when the boy tried to pull it out of the ground, it wouldn’t budge. It had taken root. The stick had been carved from a hawthorn branch – perhaps from the very tree that produced the crown of thorns. However, the tree that sprouted from Joseph’s cane wasn’t a normal hawthorn. This tree bloomed twice per year: once in spring and once in winter – at Christmas time.
Glastonbury Thorn Tree
Today, the special species of twice-blooming hawthorn can still be seen in Glastonbury. It’s called the Glastonbury Thorn or the Holy Thorn. And the hill where it first grew and where Joseph rested became known as Wearyall Hill – because Joseph said, “We are weary all.”
The Glastonbury Thorn trees growing in the town today are all claimed to descended from the original. This special tree can’t be propagated by seeds or cuttings – the resulting plants will just be normal hawthorns. However, if a cutting from the Glastonbury Thorn is grafted onto regular hawthorn rootstock, it will retain its twice-blooming characteristic.
Destroyed by Puritans
Wearyall Hill is no longer home to the Glastonbury Thorn. In the 17th century, during the English Civil War, the Puritans chopped it down and burned it as an object of superstition. It was replaced in 1951 but vandalized in 2010. Subsequent trees planted on the hill were also vandalized. But plenty of the old trees descendants can still be seen around the town – including one at the Abbey and one at the Church of St. John.
Thorn Flowers for the Queen
Every year at Christmas time the students from St. John’s Infants School gather around the tree and sing carols. Then the oldest child has the honor of cutting a blooming branch from the Holy Thorn tree. This branch is sent to the Queen for her Christmas table, following a tradition that began in the 1600s.
The first Holy Thorn tree grew on Wearyall Hill, but Glastonbury has a much larger hill: the Tor. Tor is a Celtic word meaning “hill,” and the 500-foot tall, cone-shaped Glastonbury Tor is hard to miss. In ancient times, the plains were covered in shallow marshy water, and the tall hill was an island. This is why it’s called the Isle of Avalon – or the Isle of Glass.
The Tor is crowned with the remains of a 14th century chapel (St. Michael’s tower) which was built to replace an earlier one that toppled in an earthquake in 1275. And the hill is believed to have been an ancient pagan site before that. This odd outcropping has inspired many legends: Some say the Tor is actually hollow and is a portal to the underworld and the fairies. Others claim that there is some powerful magnetic force underneath it. Whatever it is, many people enjoy walking to the top of this seemingly out of place hill. They want to see for themselves if there are any magical powers up there.
St. Patrick at Glastonbury
Another thing that seems a bit out of place in Glastonbury is St. Patrick’s chapel. Everyone knows that St. Patrick was an Irish saint – so why would he be here? As it turns out, Patrick was born in Britain and it’s claimed that in his later years he returned and lived in Glastonbury. He was, supposedly, buried in the Old Church in a tomb adorned with gold and silver. One source written about 1000 AD says that many Irish pilgrims came to Glastonbury to see St. Patrick’s tomb. So who knows?
Putting Glastonbury’s ancient and mythical sites aside, it’s still an interesting little town. It could be described as quirky, odd, magical, new age… The small main street is lined with shops smelling of incense and selling crystals, chimes, fairies, green men, and more. But it’s probably best known for the Glastonbury Festival – a performing arts festival which takes place in the summer. Funny enough, it isn’t even in Glastonbury, it’s in Pilton another small town close by.
You Might Also Like:
- King Arthur was Buried in Glastonbury
- Who Was Saint Patrick?
- Saint Martha and the Tarasque in Provence
Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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