Glastonbury Zodiac – Ancient Magic or Modern Fantasy?

          The Glastonbury Zodiac is a supposed reflection in the landscape of central Somerset of the stars in the sky that form the signs of the zodiac. Mrs Maltwood discovered it nearly a century ago. Mary Caine elaborated the discovery in a book of journeys of her own delicious imagination through millennia, Celtic lore, and her Fabulous Land of No Coincidence. She showed, too, that a planetarium can be scaled to trace the actual stars exactly over the zodiac signs in the Glastonbury Zodiac. By contrast, Philip Rahtz, the archaeologist, described it as a Rorschach test: it exists more, or less, depending on the eye of the beholder. People of a scientific bent tend to regard the alleged landscape zodiac as eyewash.

          Caine claimed, or at least speculated, that the Zodiac was created by ancient Sumerians…. despite there being neither evidence nor folklore to suggest that Sumerians visited the Britannic Summerland. Serious antiquarians cast grave doubt on the possibility of such antiquity on the grounds of climate and vegetation change during the intervening 6000 years.

          So is the Zodiac a nice new legend for Glastonbury’s esotericists to play with, but one with no pre-20th century foundations? Caine found many curious connections between names of relevant landscape features such as villages, ponds and streets and the signs of the Zodiac that they outline, ones that it stretches credulity to suppose were all due to “chance”. Tellingly, though, with the exception of half of one word, Havyatt, these nominal coincidences are all in English. If the landscape Zodiac were ancient, surely a considerable fraction of the names that Caine saw as signing its presence would have been Celtic? Somerset abounds in Celtic and part-Celtic names from Langport to Quantock, Camel to Glastonbury.

          Havyatt itself means “gate (yatt, old English) to the summer (hav, Celtic) land”. That the Celts of Somerset held the Glastonbury peninsula, with an eastern boundary at Havyatt, as a holy symbolic representation of the Otherworld or Summerland, land of eternal summer, is easy to believe; so too, that the origin of the name Somerset is this sacred Summerland, its meaning extended by English conquerors from just the peninsula to the whole surrounding kingdom. Hav- here has, however, no necessary zodiacal significance.

          There is a huge internal clue to the likely true origin of the Glastonbury Zodiac. The sign of Cancer is drawn not by a crab but by a ship. Caine truthfully says that zodiacs do not usually have ships, then eagerly leads her readers to understand that this was King Solomon’s ship, and makes a link from that to King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.

          Quite so. And who, in the thirteen and a half centuries’-long English-speaking era of the history of Glastonbury, had a special interest in King Solomon’s temple? The Templars, of course. The Templars also had a love of hidden trails. They controlled large parts of Somerset, with plenty of opportunity to establish names for physical features and to create and name hamlets: some lands in their personal ownership; others by controlling Glastonbury Abbey which owned the land. They spent some of the Abbey’s money on practical landscape work to improve the yields of its land. And it was they who created the stories of the Quest for the Holy Grail and of the Knights of the Round Table. The “Round Table” is recognisable as symbolic language for the zodiac.

          The Templars had both the means and the motivation to design the zodiac representation into the landscape of Somerset. They left their own unique signature on it in the shape of a ship. Conclusion: the Glastonbury Zodiac is neither ancient nor modern, it was designed and constructed by the Templars; possibly as a means to an initiation rite, possibly primarily for entertainment.

          As with much else in these blog posts, my conclusion cannot be proved for certain. I simply put it forward as the explanation that most credibly accounts for the existence and stellar accuracy of the Glastonbury Zodiac, the names in English which served as clues to medieval Questers who sought to identify the Signs, and the otherwise inexplicable representation of Cancer by a ship.




Annales Cambriae: real evidence?

Arthur in the Annales Cambriae

Did King Arthur exist? Two references to him in a source known as the “Annales Cambriae” affirm that he did. The significance of them, however, is controversial. There is evidence that the Annales Cambriae (AC) were written as such in 953CE. The AC is a compilation of brief notes of historical events over the previous half-millennium, drawn from earlier sources. It does not date them to the CE calendar; rather, it uses its own, unique, counting from its year 1 (which I will endeavour to show here in another post is 446CE) to its year 533.

The first Arthurian entry is dated to AC year 72. In translation from the Latin, it says: “The battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were the victors.” The other entry is dated to AC year 93. In translation from its mix of Welsh and Latin, it says: “The strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut were slain. And there was mortality in Britain and in Ireland.”

Some historians, most notably David Dumville, assert that King Arthur never ruled anywhere. They say that his purported existence is the result of a story-making process of historicisation of a mythical figure. They dismiss the AC references as a mere consequence of that story-making. The necessary implication is that the Arthur references were added to the sources from which the AC was compiled several centuries after the dates they are marked against.

The difficulty with this is that it cannot be disproved. Manuscripts were often amended by copyists and their originals sometimes lost. Indeed, a clear example of this is the manuscript of the AC that historians call the “B” text (in contrast to the extant copy of the 953CE version regarded as pure, which they call the “A” text). The B text contains most but not all of the words of the A text – set against a different, and also unique, year count – plus a substantial number of additional entries. The B text’s first entry with Arthur – the Badon entry – contains most of the same words as the A text. However, it omits “the Britons were the victors” and it adds “king” before Arthur. The second Arthur entry – the Camlan record – is more substantially different. It says “the famous [inclitus] Arthur, king of the Britons and the traitor Modred” were killed. The differences undoubtedly indicate that the copyist who created the B text was influenced in his choice of words by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century book “the history of the kings of the Britons”, a book now known to be a fabulous tale of British history rather than a historical account. The copyist probably thought he was improving the AC (as indeed with some entries he was), innocently unaware of the gay abandon with which Geoffrey invented stories and reshuffled names, dates, and places to formulate his creative masterpiece.

However, there is nothing textual to hint at any comparable copyist’s addition to the original sources of the A text. The Badon entry is in pure grammatical Latin just like the ones that precede it. The Camlan entry is in a mix of Welsh and Latin similar to some of the entries that follow it.

Nor is there any other evidence to suggest that the Arthur entries in the A text might be corrupt.

Significantly, there is nothing to honour Arthur above other district kings named in later sixth-century AC entries such as Maelgwn, Gabran, and Peretur. The AC entries are in this regard fully consistent with the “Arthur, king of Lindinis” hypothesis, provided that the battles of Badon and Camlann were fought in or near to the Lindinis territory. In earlier posts, I have given reasons for believing that indeed both were so located, Badon being probably Bath or possibly in NE Wiltshire – in either case, just outside Lindinis; and identifying Camlan as Queen Camel in SE Somerset.


Sources of the Annales Cambriae

Historians have customarily given little credibility to the AC as evidence on the history of the fifth and sixth centuries, because its pre-953 origins cannot be traced. What appears to have happened, though, is that around 950 King Rhodri commissioned some monks to compile a British historical record as a counterforce to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle published half a century earlier, to demonstrate that the British, not just the English, had an honourable and long history. The monks gathered the data from several different monasteries which had kept records.

Both the language and the content of the AC change from one time period to another. These changes are signposts for changes of sources. The first eight entries, those for before the 530s CE, are all in grammatically correct classical Latin with British and Irish names Latinized, with case endings.

One of these entries is about the Battle of Badon. The other seven all concern matters of interest only to Christians. Six of them record the births and deaths of Christians famous in Ireland; the seventh records a papal decision about the dating of Easter.

The second period runs from the 530s until the mid-610s. There is an important linguistic change. Many of the entries in this phase show distinct Welsh traits: Welsh names of people and places without Latin endings, such as ‘mailcun’ and ‘armterid’; Welsh words, such as ‘gueith’ (battle) and ‘map’ (son of); Welsh variants of Irish names such as ‘gabran’ and ‘byror’.

The content also changes. Content concerning Britain rather than, or occasionally along with, Ireland predominates; and political events such as battles and deaths of kings are recorded as well as matters only of interest to Christians.

The change is not total. Some of the entries for the second period have the same style and content focus as those for the first period. This makes sense if the second period entries were drawn from two or more sources, one of which was the same source as the first-period entries and the other(s) were new sources.

The language, and more especially the content, change again after 613. In particular, the content becomes politico-military rather than Christian, and it includes several events in the English kingdom of Northumbria as well as ones in and affecting Welsh kingdoms. Clearly the AC compilers had another additional new source for this period.


Source of Earliest AC Entries: Glastonbury Abbey

It is striking that six of the eight entries in the first period concern people with links to Glastonbury Abbey. Glastonbury is the only abbey that existed during most of that period in the regions covered by the AC (now Wales, Herefordshire, and the south-west peninsula). Also, it still existed in the 950s, albeit under English control. It is therefore the most credible source for monks working in the 950s to have obtained pre-530 historical information from. [1]

The book by L.S. Lewis, ‘Glastonbury – Her Saints’, includes chapters with these titles:






These five people are the focus of six of the eight first-period AC entries; a seventh, the decision to keep Easter on Sundays, has no personal or geographical provenance; the only missing link is Bishop Ebur. According to William of Malmesbury, Sts. Patrick and Benignus were abbots of Glastonbury, and Sts. Bride and Columba were among its famous visitors. King Arthur is well known to have supposedly been buried there. Even Bishop Ebur could well have been in Glastonbury’s awareness, via its connection with St. Bride, for he founded a monastery called Beg Erin on an island in Wexford harbour that St. Bride visited before coming to Glastonbury. [3]


Later AC Entries from Welsh Abbeys

The change in the second period of the AC, from the 530s to 613, is that more than half the entries contain Welsh words, such as gueith (strife) and map (son of), or Welsh forms of names of persons and places, such as Gabran and Armterid, or have Welsh geographical provenance.

Close analysis shows that these entries are linked to one family, that of King Pabo Post Prydein (‘Pabo sturdy defender of Britain’). Pabo, or Peibio, appears to have been a king of Ergyng (part of Herefordshire plus the Forest of Dean). Among the people featured in second-period AC entries with Welsh markers, Dunaut was Pabo’s son. Dibric and Deiniol, who was Dunaut’s son, were cousins, both being grandsons of Pabo. Bishop Dibric founded Hentland Abbey in Ergyng. Bishop Cinauc was Dibric’s probable successor there; both bishops still have a church named after them near Hentland. According to the Bonedd y Gwyr Gogledd  (‘Descent of the Men of the North’) [4] Guurci and Peretur were cousins of Dunaut with a common grandfather Arthwys. These two warriors were among the victors at the Battle of Armterid, which accounts for this geographically unexpected battle being recorded in this part of the AC. In the mid-sixth century, St. Deiniol founded the abbeys of the two Bangors – Bangor-is-Coed, which apparently was abandoned after the Battle of Chester in 611, and Bangor Fawr, which later became Bangor Cathedral. King Maelgwn was the royal benefactor who granted the land for the founding of Bangor Fawr.

It is therefore a reasonable inference that a habit of recording brief historical notes was initiated by Sts Deiniol and Dibric at the three abbeys they founded. Records from Hentland were carried by fleeing monks to Llandaff Cathedral during later wartime, and would, we can presume, have been available there to the compilers of the AC. They would also have drawn on records at Bangor Fawr, perhaps including ones from Bangor-is-Coed likewise transferred there after 611.

There are specific word-forms in a few of these second-period AC entries that support the view that the original source from which the compilers copied them was contemporary or nearly so to the events they record. Mailcun is one: the sixth- and perhaps seventh-century form of this king of Gwynedd’s name, rather than the form ‘Maelgwn’ used in the ninth and later centuries. [5]

The –mail name-component also occurs elsewhere in the sixth century: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries for Brittonic kings killed by Saxons at the Battle of Dyrham in 577 include Farinmail and Commail. The form of their names can be taken as sixth century, as it will surely have been ossified in transmission by English writers between 577 and the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for these copyists would not have been influenced to update it by the natural modernising tendencies of Welsh-speakers and writers using their own language.

Similarly, the name-forms Selim (killed at the Battle of Chester) and Dibric belong to Selim and Dibric’s lifetime; the bishop’s name was later written Dyfrig while the king’s shifted to Selyf. (The mid-word letter b always became f in later orthography, for example with dybris becoming dyfrys[6] The earlier b and the later f both represent the sound for which a v is used in English. Likewise, m also became f.)


Conclusion: The Annales Cambriae Deserve Respect

So the words of the AC entries for the period before 613CE do deserve respect. It is realistically probable, though of course not provable, that they were copied from contemporary or near-contemporary sources, those from before the 530s, and also the later ones of similar language and provenance, being from Glastonbury Abbey, and those after 530 with Welsh language or provenance being from one of the abbeys founded in or soon after the 530s by St. Deiniol and St. Dibric. The calibration of the AC and the accuracy of its dates is a separate topic which I shall address here in another post.


[1] The conventional assumption is that the AC relied for its earliest years on Irish annals. For example, D.P.McCarthy, in his Chronological Synchronisation of the Irish Annals (Dublin 2005), says, giving no evidence, “it is clear that AC has taken these entries from an Irish source”.
Seven of the AC’s eight pre-530CE entries are for events also mentioned in those annals. Of these, five report births and deaths of Irish Christians (Bride, Benignus, Ebur and Columba), a sixth reports the death of Patrick, the Christian leader whose primary work was in Ireland, and the seventh records a church decision to always celebrate Easter on a Sunday, which mattered to all Christians. However, there are several problems with supposing an Irish source. Firstly, the words in the text of the AC do not match those of any of the several extant Irish annals. In itself this is not disproof of the hypothesis, as the existence of lost Irish annals (such ass the Liber Cuanach) is certain; but it does cast doubt on it. Secondly, it does not explain the one entry for an event that is not recorded in Irish annals, that for the Battle of Badon. The entry shows no obvious stylistic difference from the other seven, except for being twice as long as the longest of them. Thirdly, one of the entries notes the death of a bishop Ebur. This man’s name is spelt Iubair or Ibar in Irish annals; Ebur occurs only in the AC. It can be figured to be a Brittonic variant, like the variants of Irish names in the second AC period such as ‘Byror’ for ‘Birr’, rather than a word that would have been in any text copied from an Irish source. Fourthly, if these entries were copied from Irish annals, why were only these few selected? The Irish annals were all much more copious in their entries than the AC. The Annals of Ulster, for example, record the deaths of nearly forty people during the years corresponding to the first 84 years of the AC. The Annals of Tigernach, which only start half way through the period, and the Chronicon Scotorum, each record more than two dozen. The AC by contrast, records four.

[2] L.S. Lewis, Glastonbury: Her Saints (Orpington, 1985), p. ix. Chapter 6 is titled ‘St. Indract’. Indract lived centuries later than the people among whom Lewis places him and is not mentioned in the AC. Chapters 9 and 11 are titled, respectively, ‘St. David’ and ‘St. Gildas’. Both these Christians are mentioned in the second period of the AC.

[3] ‘The Monastery of St Ibhair [Ebur], Begerin, Wexford – Saint Brìghde, and other Celtic saints, sailed from here to [Glastonbury].’ P. David, Bride’s Mound.

[4] The Bonedd is part of the manuscript Peniarth 45, fos.291v-292r; the Harleian genealogies are preserved in Harl.3859 written in about 1100CE.

[5] ‘The Welsh name Mailcun, later Maelgwn’ – Sir E. Anwyl. Quoted in Taliesin, section 27, by Sir J. Morris-Jones. Y Cymmrodor (London, 1918), vol 28.

[6] J.E.C. Williams, The Poems of Taliesin (Dublin, 1987), p. 21, top line; and p. 56, ‘dybris’.

King Arthur: Buried at Glastonbury Abbey?

The Fiction Show of c1191

In c1191, monks of Glastonbury Abbey dug up remains purporting to be the earthly remains of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere. Experts on the twelfth century are, I understand, agreed that the dig happened alright, but that the connection between what was dug up and King Arthur was wholly fictional.

For one thing, Guinevere was invented in the twelfth century: no early source about Arthur names his wife. Besides, the story put out in the 1190s was that the woman’s body was seen with a lock of golden hair – as might have been on the head of an English queen; but not one of sixth-century Celtic Britain. Thirdly, the inscribed cross found in 1191 below ground at a layer above the bones asserted that there lay King Arthur “in insula avalonis” – on the Isle of Avalon. The Isle of Avalon was also invented in the twelfth century: it was one of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s realms of fable.[1] Besides, there is no basis for supposing that anyone of the sixth century was buried with an inscribed cross; no other such crosses have turned up despite the considerable number of sixth-century graves that have been discovered.

Until recently, historians thought that the inscription was tenth century, and that it might have been added when the Abbey cemetery was raised by Abbot St. Dunstan. They now say that the appearance of tenth-century writing is itself phoney; the inscription was recent at the time it was “found”.[2]


Signs and Wonders: Not Disbarred

The next question, though, is: however phoney the show in c1191, why King Arthur there – Glastonbury? Certainly, the fact that the monks said that King Arthur was buried there does not, in its cultural context, mean by itself that there was any factual basis for their so saying. They said that Joseph of Arimathea came to live and die at Glastonbury, and this has zero basis in fact.

In what James Carley calls the official version of the events of c1191, Geraldus Cambrensis said that the site of King Arthur’s burial was “revealed by strange and almost miraculous signs…. Certain indications in their [the Abbey’s] writings, and others in the letters engraven on the pyramids…. Others again were given in visions and relations vouchsafed to good men and religious, yet it was above all King Henry II of England that most clearly informed the monks, as he himself heard from an ancient Welsh bard”.[3]

Carley’s own close review of William of Malmesbury’s record of what was on the Abbey’s pyramids is sufficient to show that this element of Geraldus’s “signs” adds up to nothing. Like the “Artognou” stone inscription excavated at Tintagel, Glastonbury Abbey’s pyramids are, in the story of Arthur, a red herring.

Geraldus’s reference to “indications in the… writings” can be set alongside William of Malmesbury’s words of c1125 in his book “The Deeds of the Kings of England”, where he calls Arthur “a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories as one who long sustained his tottering country and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war”[4]. The implication is that something about a real Arthur was recorded in the Abbey library, but not much – not at any rate, anything William found substantial enough to write up in either of his books. This record could well have included the words which formed the Battle of Badon entry in the Annales Cambriae, telling of Arthur’s victory and his the carrying the image of the Cross on his shoulders; and maybe little, perhaps nothing, more. William’s words after “histories” are a paraphrase of the words of praise that Gildas gave to Ambrosius Aurelianus in his book “De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae”, immediately prior to his report of the Battle of Badon that, infamously, does not name its victor. Perhaps William read both Gildas and the Annales Cambriae words and deduced, not without good cause, that in regional military resistance to English advances, Arthur successfully carried on where Ambrosius left off. All of which is relevant to an understanding of who the real King Arthur was, but says nothing about whether he was buried at Glastonbury.  

It is the “Welsh bard” component of the “signs” that makes political sense. King Henry had a clear political motivation to “prove” to the Welsh that King Arthur was dead, because the “once and future king” legend had by this time become attached to his name and Henry wished to curb its risk of fomenting rebellion. Henry would therefore have had motivation to bribe, cajole, threaten or force anyone his informants led him to believe knew the truth to reveal the whereabouts of King Arthur’s grave. But he would have cared little where the answer was. What mattered was that the Welsh would believe it to be genuine. If there had been any counter-tradition in circulation, this could have been hard to squash. There are only two credible possibilities for Geraldus saying that a bard named Glastonbury as the burial site. One is that it was, behind the vows of bardic secrecy, the true answer. The other is that nobody knew, that the answer (and maybe the bard, too) were fictitious, and that Glastonbury was picked out of thin air – one might imagine, by Abbot Blois, as a favour to King Henry II. It at least had the merits of being a Christian site of great, but unknown, antiquity; and with a cemetery to match.

“Visions and relations vouchsafed to good men and religious” is, as in other Abbey contexts, code for “the oral knowledge within the Abbey secretly passed down the generations”.

The combination of the “bard”, the “visions and relations vouchsafed”, and the “indications in the writings”, while not to the modern mind proof of anything, is stronger than the components individually in indicating that the burial of Arthur at Glastonbury, in contrast to the identification therewith of the bones and inscription that were dug up in c1191, is genuine. It is also to be noted that, in the age of veneration of relics, disputes arose about Glastonbury’s claims to those of St. Patrick, St. Dunstan, Sts. Aidan, Bede, Hilda and other Northumbrian saints,[5] but no other claimants ever came forward asserting that they and not Glastonbury had King Arthur.

I offer a basis for the claim that the Abbey buried King Arthur to have been true and yet for the man’s bones not to have been there in 1191. The most sacred thing to have done in 538 if the Abbey did bury King Arthur would not have been to sink his coffin to the south of the Old Church.[6] It would have been to take it by silent water craft through the meres that are now the drained Somerset levels[7], to a final resting place at Nyland, one of the Abbey’s “Seven Holy Islands” – Nyland’s other name is Andrewsey, a portmanteau word meaning “the isle (ey) of the door (drws) of the Queen of Heaven (An)”, i.e. the door to the Otherworld (Annwn).[8]





[1] As with so many of his imaginative creations, Geoffrey did not invent Avalon out of totally thin air. There is a poem titled Avallenau attributed to Myrddin, a bard who lived about 100 years after Arthur. (Geoffrey Latinised his name to Merlinus and used it for a major character in his story.) The author indicates within the Avallenau poem that he composed it in c620. The English for avallenau is “apple trees”. The poem is an esoteric work delighting in the chakras. For Geoffrey to use the word for an imaginary otherworldly place of healing, filled with apple trees, was therefore far from silly.

[2] Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury, 2009: p 59 report the similarity of the inscription writing to one of known twelfth century date at Stoke-sub-Hamdon.

[3] James Carley, Glastonbury Abbey, 1996: p148.

[4] ibid, p154.

[5] ibid, Chapter 5

[6] The earliest person named on the Abbey cemetery’s pyramids is Abbot Bregored, the last Celtic British abbot, who died in c670. All the names on the pyramids other than Bregored appear to be English. (ibid, pp150-151). Archaeologists found evidence of “two mausolea dating from the Celtic period” (ibid, p150; Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury: 2009, p111). Despite these, however, Rahtz and Watts (p109) date the origin of the cemetery to “the seventh to eighth centuries”. The burial of kings and abbots there may not pre-date Bregored.

[7] Tennyson, author of the imaginative and beautiful fiction poem Morte d’Arthur,  presumably knew this.

[8] See previous blog post (26 July 2013) on the Seven Holy Islands.

On the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey: Legends and Truths

The story of Glastonbury Abbey is coloured by forged charters, muddled by rival propagandists, amplified by legends (some invented by its own monks and others seized upon by them to add to its air of mystique and sanctity), threaded through by arcane societies, honoured by modern esotericists; its origins but dimly perceivable through the mists of antiquity.

Thus for example there is a charter attributed to St. Patrick, which historians are sure was not his. There is another, dated to 601, purporting a land grant to an otherwise unknown Abbot Worgret from an unnamed king of Dumnonia. The most instructive aspect of this is that the Abbey under Saxon rule acknowledged that it had existed in 601 under British Celtic rule. There is the “finding” in 1190 of the tomb of “King Arthur and Guinevere” on the Abbey grounds, marked by an inscription telling us that this was on “the Isle of Avalon”. Another piece of legendary Arthuriana is the fable in which a King Melwas of Somerset abducted Guinevere and held her until she was released after mediation involving an unnamed Abbot of Glastonbury.[1]

Most widely known of the legends that convey/conceal precious esoteric wisdom but which, unlike the Melwas fable (see footnote), are void of all linkage to historical veracity, is the tale of the coming to Glastonbury of Joseph of Arimathea leading a company of twelve monks in 63CE. Joseph’s party supposedly stopped on arriving in the holy Glastonian precincts at Wearyall Hill because they were “weary, all”, and stabbed his saint’s staff (an emblem of holy renunciation of Hindu origin – in medieval stories, every Christian saint has one) in the ground where it took root (a sure sign that he was a true saint!) and became the Glastonbury Thorn Tree. (Levantine thorn trees really do grow around Glastonbury; no-one knows how they came to be there or why the location is favourable for them: perhaps their seeds arrived on the Byzantine ships that brought olive oil and eastern wines and spices to the prosperous monks on the Tor in the fifth and sixth centuries.) After his rest, Joseph is said to have buried two cruets containing the blood and sweat of Christ in Chalice Well, to have built the first church (yes, the Old Church, the vetusta ecclesia) at Glastonbury, and to have lived and died on the site with his twelve good men of God and true.

John Scott, the historian who shares a name with a Celtic deeply wise ninth-century philosopher[2], has thoroughly proved the non-historicity of this tale, and generally with great skill and scholarship sieved ‘the wheat from the chaff’ in the content of Glastonbury’s manuscripts from the high Middle Ages.

William of Malmesbury: De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie

The primary sources of information on the early centuries of Glastonbury Abbey include various references in saints’ lives, and substantial archaeological examination; the principal primary documentary source, however, is the book whose title I have imitated for this post, “On the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury” (De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie), written by the monk William of Malmesbury in c1130.

William strove to serve two masters, truth and the Roman Catholic Church – as ever, an impossible task. He used ambiguous language when recording tales that he did not trust for accuracy, thus retaining sufficient goodwill from the Abbey for them to publish his book (if I may be permitted such anachronistic language), tales which someone less diplomatic might have brazenly described as poppycock.

William recorded oral tradition faithfully transmitted in secret within the Abbey from generation to generation and revealed to him, a source worthy to be highly regarded (as Scott himself substantially indicates) bearing in mind the continuity of the Abbey through and despite the Wessaxen English conquest of central Somerset, the Viking wars, and the Norman conquest – and also the relative unreliability of written sources, vulnerable as they were in the age of handwritten manuscripts and a Roman Church monopoly on learning, both to deliberate forgery and to unintentional copying errors.

Here, in summary, are the stages of the early history of Glastonbury Abbey as told by William (and, mostly, as translated by Scott), shorn of the sections of “his” book that Scott identified as later additions and not his work:-

(Chapter 2) Lucius, King of the Britons, asked Pope Eleutherius to send Christian preachers, which he did. They restored the old church of St. Mary at Glastonbury.

There are letters worthy of belief to be found at St. Edmund’s that the church at Glastonbury was built by the very disciples of Christ, sent by St. Philip the apostle. This is not inconsistent with the truth because if Philip preached to the Gauls, (Freculph, Book 2, Ch 4) it can be believed that he also cast the seeds of the Word across the ocean.

(Ch 19) birth of St. Patrick in 361AD…

(Ch 8) St. Patrick returned to Britain in his old age, rejecting his former dignity and popular acclaim. He landed in Cornwall [Cornubia] on his altar. Then coming to Glastonbury, he was made monk and abbot; and after several years he died of natural causes.

(Ch 11) [I paraphrase] As confirmed by a monk in a dream, he [Patrick] was a bishop, and later he became a monk and abbot.

(Ch 10) Patrick died aged 111 in 472AD, the 47th year after he’d been sent into Ireland. He reposes on the right side of the altar in the old church in a stone pyramid, later carefully covered in silver.

(Ch 13) In 460AD, St Benignus came to Glastonbury. He was a disciple of St. Patrick and the third to succeed him in his Irish see. Admonished by an angel, he forsook his homeland and undertook a voluntary pilgrimage which led him, under God’s guidance, to Glastonbury where he found St. Patrick. [There are] marks of his presence still at Meare.

(Ch 12) They say that after St Brigid, who had come there in 488AD, had tarried for some time on the island called Beckery [Beokery] she returned home but left behind a bag, a necklace, a small bell, and weaving implements, which are still preserved there in memory of her.

(Ch 7) As we have heard from our forefathers, Gildas the historian passed many years there [Glastonbury], captivated by the holiness of the spot.

(Ch 6) The Old Church [vetusta ecclesia = Ealdechirche] was at first made of brushwood [virgea].

(Ch 19) The traditions of our fathers maintain that…. Paulinus, Bishop of Rochester and earlier Archbishop of York, had strengthened the structure of the church, previously made of wattle as we said [virgee], with a layer of wooden boards [ligneo tabulatu], and had covered it from the top down with lead. It was managed with such skill by this ingenious man that the church lost none of its sanctity, and its beauty was much increased.

(Ch 14) In 504AD, St Columba [Kolumkilla] came to Glastonbury.

(Ch 15) The great David of Menevia, the famous archbishop….. approved of the antiquity and sanctitude of the divine church, and he came to this place intending to dedicate it with seven bishops of whom he was the prime. He slept the night before the planned festivities. Lord Jesus came to him and said it had already been dedicated in honour of his mother, and a human iteration of this sacrament was not seemly. But so that something would be seen, he quickly took action to get another church built, and dedicated that construction.

(Ch 18) The church at Glastonbury is therefore the oldest that I know of in England.

Most of these statements by William of Malmesbury require some commentary.

Scott convinces that the story of King Lucius and Pope Eleutherius “arose from a misreading of the Liber Pontificalis” and is therefore false. As for the putative side-visit from St. Philip’s mission to Gaul, William’s own language makes clear that this is speculation, and there is no evidence for it. St. Gildas states in his book De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae that Christianity first reached Britain towards the end of Emperor Tiberius’s reign, i.e. in 46 or 47CE; one tradition has it that it was brought by St. Aristobulus, brother of the apostle Barnabas and one of “the seventy” missionaries whose first training mission work is mentioned in the Gospel. In any case, there is no Glastonbury connection to any of these attested, possible, and putative, missions to Britain by very early Christians.

St. Patrick, Abbot of Glastonbury

St. Patrick was not born in 361AD. Much more possible is that he was born in 388AD, which was 361 ad passionem. Prior to the church’s publication of a definitive AD calendar in 529CE, Christians calculated dates sometimes from the Passion (deemed to be 28CE) and sometimes from the Incarnation (1CE); a muddling between the two was possible.

The only substantial clue to St. Patrick’s date of birth is that he was captured in a raid and taken to Ireland as a slave when he was 16. There was a particularly destructive raid on Lindinis in 398 during which several villas in the Avon and Cam valleys of northern Somerset were destroyed by fire, which makes 382CE the hot favourite for St. Patrick’s birth year. But this was not the only Irish raid on Lindinis; a nearby year for his capture, such as 404, which would be correct if he was born in 388, is also possible.

William’s Chapter 8 (and 11) statement about St. Patrick returning to Britain in his old age and becoming a monk and abbot at Glastonbury must have been based on a strong Abbey tradition. It should be noted that there is, however, nothing in William’s words which says that the abbey was then on its present site. Nor does William say that Patrick was Glastonbury’s first abbot.[3]

In the major work of St. Patrick that exists in manuscript in his own handwriting, his Confessio, a document which William had read, St. Patrick states a longing to return to Britain, but a willingness to do so only if God consents. It would be natural to put St. Patrick’s and William’s words together and infer that God did indeed grant St. Patrick his wish, and that he spent his last few years as Abbot of Glastonbury. Most of the Irish annals, as restored by D.P. McCarthy ( ), record Patrick’s death as in 458CE (not 472 as stated by William[4]), as also does the Annales Cambriae.

That William is not taken at face value on this is a mystery, for the only obstacle (other than the ultra-scepticism of some historians about the veracity of anything not proven to have been contemporaneously written down, or else archaeologically dug up and radio-carbon dated) is the perception created by Armagh sources that St. Patrick died there and was buried at nearby Downpatrick, when it is well attested that Armagh developed an effective propaganda machine in the seventh century to assert its claim to primacy as the archiepiscopal see of all Ireland, and that avowing St. Patrick’s loyalty to Ireland until his death was an aspect of that propaganda. Also, other sources say there was a second Christian leader called Patricius (which, after all, was a title fairly widely used in the fifth century, not a given-name) and that “the Patrick who died in Ireland was born there”.

St. Bride and other Celtic Saints

The Annales Cambriae record St. Benignus as having died in 469.

As noted in my post here of 4th July 2013, tradition says that in the late fifth century a Christian hermit lived at the place now called Bride’s Mound, and it is credible to suppose that when St. Bride visited Glastonbury in 488 she stayed at his house. Archaeology has found a grave of a man “of exceptional importance” at the Beckery location where evidence of a chapel and a male monastic community and cemetery were also found. He could have lived in the sixth century….. but could also have been centuries later. Rahtz, the archaeologist, suggests that “the community may have begun as the abode of a hermit, whose reputation attracted others to join him”.[5]

There is a charter saying land at Beckery was given to Abbot Berthwald in 670. The extant charter was probably written much later than 670, but its purported land grant and date may well nevertheless be genuine. Rahtz reckons the monastic community existed from the “eighth or ninth century”, which makes sense if the Abbey began to build the chapel there (the monks’ central focus) fairly soon after 670.

St. Gildas is believed to have lived at Street, just across the Pomparles Bridge over the River Brue from Beckery; most probably at what is now Holy Trinity church, where the shape of the grounds has been identified as typical for a sixth-century Celtic lan (church enclosure).

St. Pol de Léon

In Chapter 19, William made the mistake of assuming that the “Bishop Paulinus” who was the first to upgrade the Old Church was the Papal emissary Paulinus who was the first Archbishop of York. In fact, this was the Celtic British Christian leader St. Paulinus Aurelianus, better known as St. Pol de Léon, one of the “seven founding saints of Brittany”.

The Life of St. Pol written by Wrmonoc in 884 (therefore pre-dating the start of the main, more propagandistic, era of Saints’ Lives by two centuries) is consistent with the Lives of St Samson and St. Illtyd in the key facts for dating him. He was a pupil of St. Illtyd[6]; a contemporary of St. Gildas [lived 490-568/9], St. Samson, St. Brendan [d. 572/574], and St. David [c508-587]; met King Childebert of Paris [reigned 511-558]; and took part in the Synod of Llandewi Brefi (dated by the B script of the Annales Cambriae to 567). According to a website on the Seven Founding Saints,, his birth was either in 480 or 492 and his working life in Brittany was from 517 to 553.[7] His death is commemorated as having been on 12th March, in c575 (which is credible with a birth year of 492).[8]

His father was Porphyrius, which means “clad in purple”. Curiously, this is exactly the exceptionally noble status with which Gildas dignifies the father of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the general whom he praises for leading partially-effective British military resistance to English raiders after the Great Raid of 473. This suggests the possibility that St. Pol was the younger brother of Ambrosius in the Aurelian family; or, perhaps more likely, that Ambrosius himself inherited the title “clad in purple” and St. Pol was Ambrosius’s son.

St. Pol’s life’s contextual chronology sets a terminus ante quem of c567 for his strengthening of the Old Church. Any date between the 510s and the 560s, St. Pol’s working lifetime, is possible.

In turn, it follows that the Old Church, the original wattle-and-daub church, must have been built in or before the first half of the sixth century.

St. Columba and St. David (Dewi Sant)

St. Columba could not have visited Glastonbury in 504: he was born in 521. The year is much more credible for a second visit to Glastonbury by St. Bride. A visit by her at that date would make possible the story that St. Gildas made and gave her a bell, for by then he was 14, in those days a credible age for a youth to be working as a craftsman.[9] If the source of the early Annales Cambriae entries has a Glastonbury origin, it would also explain the mistaken date of 455 there for St. Bride’s birth, which was actually in 439. Tradition says St. Bride was in her 50th year of age when she visited Glastonbury, a statement which was true of her visit in 488, but which could have been mistakenly figured as true of her visit in 504 by the writer of the source used by the compilers of the Annales Cambriae.

William’s confusion of St. Columba’s visit date may be due to a copying error from 553 (in Roman numerals DLIII) to 504 (DIIII).

William’s brief note is the only record of St. Columba having ever been anywhere outside Ireland, other than in connection with his work in Dalriada in what is now Scotland. That this prince of Ulster (a great-great grandson of the famous Niall of the Nine Hostages) visited Glastonbury and nowhere else in what are now England and Wales implied that there was some unique attraction for him at Glastonbury. The obvious explanation is that he believed that St. Patrick died there and his relics were enshrined in the Abbey.

Archaeology has verified the existence and the dimensions of the extension to the Old Church attributed to St. David. St. David lived late enough into the sixth century for it to be completely credible that he built it in the 570s or 580s, later by at least one and perhaps several decades than St. Pol’s strengthening of the Old Church with boards and lead. The Irish annals as calibrated by McCarthy all record St. David’s death as in 587.[10]

Culturally, the story as reported by William has the feel of William’s time rather than David’s: it is hard to credit that any church would have been dedicated with pomp and ceremony in the presence of seven bishops in the sixth century, let alone an Abbey church in that age when Celtic abbots could be in authority at monasteries as superiors over bishops.

In recording St. David’s contribution to the history of the Abbey, William knew he was handling a politically hot potato. David had been made a saint by the pope just ten years before William compiled his book De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie. Rhygyfarch’s Life of St. David had been in circulation for about forty years. Rhygyfarch had there said that David had founded the monastery of Glastonbury. Without mentioning Rhygyfarch, William actively refutes this, firstly by naming St. Patrick as an abbot from well before St. David’s time, and secondly with the story of St. David’s visit to the Abbey that he wrote in Chapter 15. This story skilfully combines the purposes of shining a holy light on St. David sufficiently bright to deter his See of St. David’s in Pembrokeshire from challenging it, adding a visit from Christ himself to the aura of mystique and religious prestige with which Glastonbury Abbey was investing itself, as well as embroidering St. David’s halo with it, and conveying the plain truth that what St. David had actually done for Glastonbury was build the first eastward extension (of several, some already built by William’s time) to the Old Church.

And Did Those Feet?

The story continues to resonate, for it evoked Blake’s famous poem Jerusalem, set to music by Parry, “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green / And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?”[11]

The answer to Blake’s questions is “yes – symbolically, not literally”. The symbolism will be better understood by Glastonbury-loving mystics than by me. South of Street, just 4 miles from the Abbey, is a hill called Dundon, which means “Don’s Fort”. Don is a name of the Queen of Heaven, the Supreme Mother Goddess in the Celts’ Druidic faith. In the Glastonbury Zodiac, Dundon Hill embraces the child part of Gemini’s Mother-and-child / Mary-and-Christ symbol. So the Celtic Mother Goddess becomes the Catholic Mother of God on Dundon Hill.

The connection with St David is that the Zodiac balances (in Libra, naturally) around his name, Libra being represented by a Dove (c.f. Christ’s baptism by John, possibly across the Jordan from Jericho) at Barton St. David, whose church is on a straight (ley?) line from the River Tone at Athelney  – the tone, aum, being the Holy Sound or iera echo (> Jericho) – via Littleton where the other twin of Gemini is, a place at Bruton called Dovecote, and Monkton Deverill (Dove-rill??), to Stonehenge.

“And did the countenance divine / Shine forth upon our clouded hills?” Blake asks next. The name Glastonbury has the English words ‘ton’ (settlement), and later ‘burgh’ (citadel), added to an original British ‘Glas’, a word that denotes purity, Light, transparency, blue as in the blue of infinite sky – surely, characteristics of the shining ‘countenance divine’. Esoterically, Glas(tonbury) can be seen as Britain’s equivalent of India’s Kashi (the City of Light), also known as Varanasi because it is bounded by two rivers, the Varuna (c.f. the Brue at Glastonbury) and Asi (c.f. the Axe at Glastonbury).

Blake’s last question is “And was Jerusalem builded here?” to which the Templars, of whom William of Malmesbury may well have been one, presumably the creators of the Glastonbury Zodiac, who derived their sacred geometry and architectural inspiration from Solomon’s Temple, the spiritual pinnacle of Jerusalem, would surely say “yes – we did our Level best”.


Turning now from William of Malmesbury to archaeology, the good news is that a lot of excavation has been done both among the Abbey ruins and around the top of the Tor.

The bad news is that the building of a new church to replace the Old Church after it was utterly destroyed by fire in 1184 was sufficiently exact in location to wholly preclude the possibility of archaeology contributing anything to the question of when the Old Church was built. Excavation of the original boundary ditch of the Abbey, its vallum monasterii, also discovered no dateable evidence, neither in nor under the bank.

The archaeologist Rahtz therefore said “there is no evidence that it [the Abbey] was earlier than the seventh century”.[12] However, Rahtz did identify a well only 4 metres from the Old Church of which “the overall appearance was very similar to that of Roman wells excavated in the area”.[13]

Rather than on the present Abbey site, archaeologists found the earliest high-status settlement in Glastonbury on the Tor. They unearthed remains of meat joints that people had eaten, of graves, and of Byzantine amphorae (storage jars for wine, olive oil, spices, etc) that could “be matched from dated fifth- or sixth-century levels” in the Mediterranean, similar to ones found within Lindinis at South Cadbury, Cadbury-Congresbury and Cannington, and at Tintagel and other sites in Dumnonia. Rahtz allows therefore that the Tor may have been “in the later fifth or early sixth century, a monastic site”.[14]


In conclusion, the pattern by which events evolved that seems most probable, considering all the evidence, is that at some time in the middle quarters of the fifth century, two or a few monks set up a hermitage on the top of the Tor, which continued as a monastic settlement into at least the seventh century[15]. In the seventh century, the principal residential site became the more-practically located present Abbey. Their church, though, was from the beginning the Old Church, built close to the Roman well on the Abbey site. This church was the place of worship on high holy days also for other local monks who, in contrast to those on the Tor, lived in isolation as hermits, for example at Beckery, Meare, and Street.

So, what is the antiquity of the Old Church of Glastonbury? Clearly, no totally definitive answer can be given beyond the wide window of “almost certainly after 392,[16] certainly considerably before 587, and very likely at least several decades before 575”[17]. But a much tighter answer can be advanced on the balance of probabilities. On the one hand, the most credible supposition is that the inspiration to some British Christians to found a monastic community at all came from St. Germanus, either during his visit to Britain in 429 or during a second visit about a decade later. St. Germanus had himself been inspired by the monastic ways of the Desert Fathers of Egypt and St. Martin of Tours.[18]

This timing would also make sense of the condition of the ruling classes being so impoverished that they could accomplish only a wattle church. In the first few decades after independence in 409, the British economy went into a deep depression barely comprehensible to the modern mind – except possibly to someone who knew Maputo, Mozambique, during Portuguese rule and also during and just after the civil war. [19]  Following the overthrow of Roman imperial governors and the withdrawal of the Roman army, there was no work for mosaicists and stonemasons. The official postal service, the cursus publicus, stopped running, so the roadside shops went out of business.[20] Elegant town-houses, expensive villas, and baths with hypocausts were no longer assets. The socio-political culture and military needs of the indigenous ruling class called for timber feasting-halls and hill-fort defences; during Cador’s time as Governor of Lindinis, building them would have had priority call on the precious resources for construction of durable wooden structures.

On the other hand, if St. Patrick had become abbot of a monastery without a church, it would be most surprising if he had not built one. It is not as if the archaeologists unearthed evidence of a pre-eighth-century church on the Tor! And if it was he who built the Old Church, it would be at least as surprising that his abbacy was remembered but not his construction. On these grounds, the likeliest probability is that the Old Church, the Ealdechirche, the vetusta ecclesia, was built after St. Germanus’s visit(s) to Britian and before St. Patrick’s return from Ireland: i.e. during, or very close to, the 440s CE.

[1] The origin of the fable may be the genuine historical story (mentoned by James Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: 1996, p6) that in c708 a (presumably royal, or at least noble) Kentish woman was a hostage held by Abbot Beorhtwald at Glastonbury Abbey, and the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to Bishop Forthere of Sherborne (the diocese that in 708 included Glastonbury) asking him to intervene to procure her release.

[2] John Scottus Eriugena (meaning ‘Irish-born’), c815-c880, who taught the primacy of reason over religious dogma, that humans have free will, and that all creatures and things came from God and ultimately return to God – a combination of understandings even now more likely to find favour with Unitarians and Hindus than with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church.

[3] Interpolated text presents Patrick as having gathered hermits and taught them the cenobitic life; no such idea appears in the words Scott identifies as genuinely William’s.

[4] It is conceivable that 72 (LXXII) was a copying error for 58 (LVIII).

These annals also concur that Patrick arrived in Ireland in 432, not 425. The annals which McCarthy designates “Mageoghagan’s Book” includes the phrase “425AD” in its recording of Patrick’s arrival, but, on McCarthy’s calculations, this entry actually also belongs to 432CE.

[5] Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury: 2009, pp149-153.

[6] St. Illtyd founded a training institution at the place west of Cardiff now named after him, Llan Illtyd Fawr, in the mid-fifth century. Modelled on Druid and bard training, it was a Christian school for princely children, some of whom as adults became known to history as Christian leaders.

[7] St. David was younger than St. Gildas. Lives say that St. Gildas preached to St. Non, St. David’s mother, when she was pregnant with him. Of the two birth dates given for St. Pol, 480 and 492, the latter seems more probable for a man who lived to attend Llandewi Brefi.

[8] gives other details from St. Pol’s life, including giving his name to the village Paul, a mile and a half south of Penzance in Cornwall, where his sister had founded a convent.

[9] Based on a birth year for St. Gildas of 489/490, derived from a sensible, but controversial, interpretation of the period of “43 years and one month” connected to his birth which Gildas wrote of in his book De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.

[10] His reported life events imply a date of birth probably around 508.

[11] It is a neat link that this “Jerusalem” is sung at sporting events as England’s unofficial national anthem and that, in the Opening Ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012, pre-industrial England was expressed by a visual representation of Glastonbury Tor.

[12] Rahtz and Watts, Glastonbury: 2009, p91.

[13] ibid, pp108-9

[14] ibid, pp71-73 and 78

[15] and maybe into the 16th century. Continuity between the seventh and tenth centuries was not confirmed: ibid, p78ff.

[16] The Roman Emperor Theodosius I decreed that Christianity would be the only permitted religion in the Empire. 392 is the year in which he gained sovereignty over the Western Empire. To find a blatantly purpose-built church such as the Old Church before this date would be most unlikely.

[17] In addition to inferring this from the floruit of St. Pol, it is evident from the stories of other abbeys that conscious remembrance of, and sanctification of, the founder was the cultural norm for abbeys founded in and after the mid-sixth century, such as those of Mynyw (St. David), Bangor Fawr (St. Deiniol), Bangor-on-Dee (St. Dunawt), and Hentland (St. Dyfrig). If the founding of Glastonbury had been that late, there would likely, as with these examples, be uncertainty as to the exact date, but not the unknowing that there is with Glastonbury about the name of the founder.

[18] St. Germanus reputedly inspired St. Illtyd to found his school at Llan Illtyd Fawr.

[19] White, Britannia Prima: 2007, plate 51 (p134), gives a graphic visual example of the effects of this economic decline at Whitley Grange, even in a part of western Britain where destruction and theft by English raiders did not add to the economic disaster.

[20] St. Patrick in his Confessio says he was born in a small town of this kind, a place with shops and somewhere to stay the night, Bannaventa berniae. It has not been identified. The size and function of such a place suggests to me that it would have been at a significant road junction. The status of St. Patrick’s father Calpornius suggests that it would not have been very far from a civitas capital such as Lindinis’s at Ilchester. My speculative fancy is that Bannaventa berniae lost the second part of its name and became shortened to Benter. Benter is a quarter of a mile from the Fosse Way, just over 3 miles from its junction with the road from the Roman mining town Charterhouse to Winchester. Nettlebridge on the Fosse and nearby Benter have a reliable water supply, whereas the junction itself is on top of a hill.