Places in The Arthurian Age: Glastonbury Tor

Hi folks! I’m doing my best to keep my promise to my publisher to try to post more, so here is a short article in a series about some of the places that show up in the books of The Arthurian Age series.

As part of our first research tour of England and Wales, Jenn and I visited one of the most magical and iconic places in Britain, Glastonbury Tor. From a long association with King Arthur, it is sometimes called The Isle of Avalon, and there are some compelling reasons for this. My favorite name for the place is actually one of the originals, Ynys Witrin, or “The Isle of Glass”. I love the ancient stories that go along with that name, the one that would most likely have been known to Arthur.

Glastonbury in the Arthurian Age
image from http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/arthur/avalon.html

Glastonbury Tor is a tall, narrow hill towering over a small collection of lower hills in the Somerset Levels. The “front” end, at about 518 feet high, points towards the northeast and is capped by St. Michael’s Tower, the only structure remaining of a 14th Century church. Currently, the Somerset Levels are a wide expanse of rich farmland. But in the Arthurian Age, the tor and it’s neighboring hills existed as an island within a great watery marsh, and nearly encircled by the River Brue. This may be part of the reason it is called the Isle of Avalon.

Most notable about the site, however, are the seven concentric terraces that circle the entire tor and create much of its mystique. No one is quite certain how or when they were constructed. Some claim they are natural weathering, but they seem too symmetrical for this. Some suggest they were carved by neolithic farmers, but the terraces on the north side would have been a lot of wasted work. Many believe they represent a religious function, in which worshipers would wind their way up the terraces like a maze. Some have said the terraces don’t clearly form that sort of design, but it is plausible. A common suggestion is that they are defensive in nature, similar to the ditch and bank fortifications of British Iron Age hillforts. However, the terraces don’t have a ditch as most such fortifications did, and there is not a lot of room on the top to protect. There is, however, legend and archaeological evidence to suggest a Post-Roman fortification existed on the summit. It may have been part of a signalling-station system, as it can been seen from a great distance. When I stood atop of another of our Arthurian Age sites, South Cadbury Castle, 11 miles to the southeast, I was able to clearly see the Tor.

Inside St. Micheal’s Tower

There is evidence that a community of monks maintained an abbey in the high ground between the hills below the tor, at least from the time of the Arthurian Age. Today, that ground is covered by the remains of Glastonbury Abbey. One of the legends of Glastonbury is that, following the Crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain, bringing the Holy Grail. He came to Wearyall Hill and thrust his staff into the ground, where it took root. This may be far fetched, but a hawthorn has grown at that site for centuries that only blooms once in spring, near Easter, and once in winter, near Christmas, which is very unusual. Unfortunately, horrible people in the past decade have made a habit of destroying the tree and any attempts to replant its scions. In any event, Glastonbury is claimed, by some, to have been where the first British church was founded.

A scion of the original Wearyall Thorn at the Glastonbury Abby.

Legends that may have originated in the pre-Christian era, suggest that the Isle of Glass is an entrance to Annwn, the other world of the Celtic gods and “fairies”. An old legend states that a hermit, St. Collen, made his home on the slopes of the tor. After insulting the King of the Otherworld by declaring the fairy-folk demons, he was summoned into a palace through a gate in the tor to make amends. Refusing to partake of the king’s hospitality or to apologize, Collen sprinkled holy water about himself and the palace disappeared, leaving him alone on the tor and destroying the tor’s gateway to Annwn.

There are a number of Arthurian legends tied to Glastonbury. With an appreciation that many legends begin with a memory of history, there is some measure of plausibility to each. The Holy Grail is said to have been brought there by Joseph of Arimethea, and is tied to a mystical spring that still carries iron-tinged water. And while the Grail legend has it’s roots in a tangled confusion of Celtic pagan lore and Christian symbolism, it may be that some important artifact was kept here, and it is possible that Joseph brought it. A story of the abduction of Guinevere, the watery resting site of Excalibur and even the burial place of Arthur are all tied to this place by long tradition.

Glastonbury is often called Avalon, and it appears the name has a long history there. Is it because Arthur was buried there? This question is explored in The Retreat to Avalon, and will be further explored in the sequel, The Strife of Camlann. For now, I will say that while the story of the discovery of Arthur’s grave in the 12th century is often dismissed out of hand as a hoax by clever monks, there are some compelling arguments for giving them the benefit of the doubt. This will be the subject of a future post.

There is far more to say regarding this remarkable locale, but rather than write a book, I’ll leave it open to questions, comments and future posts to expand upon. Even better, you could learn about this wondrous place from the eminent historian and resident of Glastonbury, Geoffrey Ashe. There are none who could claim a greater knowledge of Arthurian history and legend, and his books are thoughtful, wonderful reads. If you are interested in more about Glastonbury’s Arthurian connections, you might pick up his The Landscape of King Arthur, or King Arthur’s Avalon.

If you have the opportunity to visit, do so! We can’t wait to go back.

Our attempt to recreate the Tor here in the US.

More to come. Thanks for stopping by!

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