The Special Nature of Glastonbury
by John Michell
There are many mysteries at Glastonbury, but they are all rooted in one great mystery: how is it that this small place, isolated among the Somerset marshes, plays such a leading part in the spiritual history of Britain ? Other religious centres, Canterbury, Westminster, Winchester have had their periods of glory, but the fame of Glastonbury is unique and has endured longer than that of any other English sanctuary. In medieval Christendom the site of the first English church, at the west end of Glastonbury Abbey, was called the ‘holiest earth of England’, and its precincts were sanctified as a model of earthly paradise, where the souls of the dead found their easiest passage to heaven.
This reputation did not begin with Christianity but evidently derived from very early times indeed. The evidence of this is in Glastonbury’s landscape and the remarkable legends that have settled upon it. Moreover, from time immemorial Glastonbury and the lands around it enjoyed special priveleges in law, appropriate to a most venerable sanctuary. As in the case of Delphi, where a federal assembly of twelve tribes upheld the rights of Apollo in his sacred territories, the area known as the Twelve Hides of Glaston was subject only to divine law and was administered by priestly rulers. No king, judge or bishop from beyond the Twelve Hides had any authority there. These rights were confirmed in successive charters by British, Saxon and Norman kings, including the pagan Caedwalla, king of Wessex in the seventh century. Every king attempted to ‘entrench’ these rights, binding his successors to them for all times to come.
The traditional origin of Glastonbury’s privileges is that a pagan ruler, King Arviragus in the first century A.D., bestowed twelve hides or 1440 acres of land upon twelve early Christian missionaries, led by St. Joseph of Arimathea. Like many traditions of the early Church, this probably reflected an earlier foundation legend from the time when Glastonbury was a Druid sanctuary. No traces have been found of any buildings from that period, but the great pre-historic earthwork, known as Ponter’s Ball, which runs across high ground about two miles east of Glastonbury, is thought to have marked one of the boundaries of the sacred precinct. It is likely therefore, that Glastonbury’s special status as a heavenly sanctuary, beyond the ordinary laws of the land, was acknowledged long before the introduction of Christianity.
Behind all the religious history lies the real reason for the special character of the place. The sanctity of Glastonbury is not a matter of human convention, nor did it arise from any historical event. It was decreed directly by nature. That conclusion is made obvious to anyone who visits Glastonbury, especially around dawn or evening when the mystical quality of the light over its landscape is particularly intense. As one enters the Glastonbury landscape, over the hills which surround its lowlands, one’s perception of natural light and colour subtly changes. Around the towering cone of Glastonbury Tor is a countryside which gives the impression of being somehow different from any other. It can seem wistful, nostalgic, other-worldly, even intimidating, but it is never quite ordinary. Those who recognise the spirit of celtic culture can find it there, in the limpid greenery of its hills and meadows and secluded among its moorland tracks and waterways, edged with willows and summer garlands of honeysuckle and wild roses. Seeing this, one ceases to wonder why the place has been compared to paradise, why so many mystics and holy men throughout history have been drawn to it and why its medieval abbey was able to boast the finest collection of saintly bones and relics in England.
When Henry VIII in 1539 laid sacrilegious hands upon Glastonbury Abbey and its Twelve Hides, hanged its abbot on the Tor, sent his dismembered body for piecemeal exhibition about the country, violated the sanctuary and turned it to profane use, he broke a long- lasting religious tradition which had survived all England’s enemies and invaders. Yet he was as powerless as King Canute over the forces of nature, and those forces, as we have seen, were the cause of Glastonbury’s sanctity in the first place. They are still as ever active. Though Glastonbury is no longer an important centre of priestly religion, the spirit which first made it so is constantly urging towards a renaissance. History marks out Glastonbury as the place where the forms of every new religion and way of thought are first manifested in England. New forms and thoughts are discernible there today. There are hints of old prophecies being fulfilled, of ancient mysteries revealed, as the Piscean age gives way to Aquarius. For those who are interested in such things, in the spiritual reality behind the material facade of history, the mystery of Glastonbury is of high topical interest.
Excerpted from “New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury” by John Michell ( Gothic Image, 1990) with the kind permission of the author and publisher.