Tho once surrounded by fenland, the Abbey of Glastonbury--a veritable treasure-house of legendary lore--stands now amid orchards and level pasture lands engirt by the river Bure. The majestic Tor overshadows this spot, where, undoubtedly, the first British Christian settlement was established. The name of the new builder of the first early church can never be ascertained, so that in want of more substantial evidence the old legend of St. Joseph of Arimathaea must be accepted, however slight its claims to historical authority. Certain it is that Christianity was introduced into this land on the island of Yniswytryn, or "Isle of Glass" (so called on account of its crystal streams), in the very early centuries.

According to the Arthurian legends, St. Philip, Lazarus, Martha, Mary and Joseph of Arimathaea, having been banished by their countrymen, journeyed to Marseilles, from whence Joseph, with twelve companions and holy women, was sent by St. Philip to Britain. They landed on the southwest coast and made their way to Glastonbury, then Avalon (and so named in allusion to its apple orchards), and by means of preaching and many miraculous deeds persuaded the people to adopt Christianity. Gaining the good will of King Arviragus, they built a church of wattle and twigs on the ground given to them by their royal patron. The Benedictine, with its later developments in Norman times of Augustine and Cluniac orders, was the first religious order introduced into this country. It was instituted in Italy early in the sixth century by St. Benedict of Nursia. Many monasteries established before the Conquest came under its sway, and were, centuries later, after the Dissolution, converted into cathedral churches.

A sharp distinction should be drawn between the monasteries established previous to the Conquest and those subsequently founded by the Cistercian and other orders. The former were national houses--in every way belonging to the English people and untouched by Papal influence; while the latter, which were under the immediate control of the Bishop of Rome, were essentially of foreign foundation….

King Ina, persuaded by St. Aldhelm, rebuilt and reendowed the abbey in the eighth century, renounced his royal state, and lived as an ordinary civilian, being induced to do so by extraordinary devices on the part of his wife Ethelburgh. On one occasion, after King Ina had given a great feast to his barons, he and his queen left the castle and proceeded to another of the royal residences. Before leaving, Ethelburgh had commanded the servants to strip the castle of all its valuables, furniture, etc., and to fill it with rubbish, and to put a litter of pigs in the king's bed. A short distance on their journey, Ethelburgh persuaded the king to return, and, showing him over the desecrated palace, exhorted him to consider the utter worthlessness of all earthly splendor and the advisability of joining her on a pilgrimage to Rome. Imprest by her words, Ina acted as she advised, and later endowed a school in Rome in which Anglo-Saxon children might become acquainted with the customs of foreign countries. Ina and Ethelburgh spent the remainder of their days in privacy in the Holy City.

The famous Dunstau, one of the greatest of ecclesiastical statesmen, was born in Glastonbury, and, after proving his many marvelous capabilities and aptitude for learning, was made abbot of the Benedictine house in his native town in the reign of Edmund the Magnificent. Many strange stories are told of him--the most fantastic, perhaps, being that of his interview with the natural enemy of man, the Devil himself, during which the reverend man became either so irritated or terrified that he was provoked to seize the nose of his ghostly visitor with a pair of red-hot pincers….

The fame belonging to this noble foundation exceeded that of any other great building in England. An old writer tells us, "Kings and queens, not only of the West Saxons, but of other kingdoms; several archbishops and bishops; many dukes; and the nobility of both sexes thought themselves happy in increasing the revenues of this venerable house, to ensure themselves a place of burial therein." The story of the burial of St. Joseph of Arimathaea at Glastonbury, to us a mere shadowy legend, was accepted as a fact in the early English ages, and that it figured in the mind of these worthies as endowing Glastonbury with extraordinary sanctity is beyond doubt.

At the time of the Dissolution no corruption whatever was revealed at Glastonbury, nor any blame recorded against its management. It was still doing splendid work, having daily services and extending its educational influence for miles around. There was but scanty comfort for its inmates, who rested on a straw mattress and bolster on their narrow bedstead in a bare cell, and whose food, duties and discipline were marked by an austere simplicity. Nor were they idle, these monks of Glastonbury--some taught in the abbey school, others toiled in the orchards, and the beauty of the stained glass, designed within the abbey walls, found fame far and wide.

Richard Whiting was Abbot of Glastonbury when, in 1539, Henry VIII. ordered inquiries to be made into the condition and property of the abbey. Altho he recognized the monarch as supreme head of the church, he respected the Glastonbury traditions and met the "visitors" in a spirit of passive resistance. With the object of preserving them from desecration, the abbot had concealed some of the communion vessels, and for this offense the venerable man was tried and condemned to death. His head, white with the touch of eighty years, was fixt upon the abbey gate, and the rest of his body quartered and sent to Bath, Wells, Bridgwater, and Ilchester. The abbey building--one of the most perfect examples of architecture in the land--served as a stone quarry, much of the material being used to make a road over the fenland from Glastonbury to Wells. The revenue at the time of the Dissolution was over L3,000, a big income in those days.

[27] From "The Abbeys of Great Britain."