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Churches of the British Isles

Gallery: Churches of Somerset

by Peter Kessler, 31 October 2010

Mendip Part 1: Churches of Glastonbury

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey lies at the south-east of the junction of Magdalene Street and the High Street in the centre of Glastonbury. The abbey was founded in the early 600s by the Dumnonian British, but the Saxons of Wessex conquered the territory in 658. Earlier Saxon settlers in the area were known as the Somersaete (Somer settlers), and they inherited the abbey. King Ine of Wessex erected a stone church here, and its base forms the west end of the nave.

Glastonbury Abbey

This church was enlarged in the tenth century, while the arrival of the Normans in 1066 contributed a great deal of magnificent building work to the abbey, which was added to the east of the old church, away from the ancient cemetery. By 1086 it was the richest monastery in the country. The great Norman structures were consumed by fire in 1184 so to raise funds, in 1191 the monks claimed they had found the bodies of King Arthur and Guinevere buried under the abbey.

Glastonbury Abbey

The monks reconsecrated the 'Great Church' in 1213, probably before it was fully completed. As the head of the second wealthiest abbey in Britain (after Westminster), the powerful abbot lived in some splendour. The Dissolution visited the abbey in 1539, stripping it of its riches, whilst the abbot was hanged for resisting. By 1600 the abbey was in ruins, many of its stones probably taken for local buildings. The Church of England purchased the ruins in 1908.

The Church of St Michael

The Church of St Michael lies at the top of Glastonbury Tor, immediately east of the town. The Tor is rich in legend, being linked with 'King' Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea, and possibly it served as a site of ritual for centuries before them. Until about the first century the sea washed up against the foot of the Tor, and even by the 400s AD the flatlands around it were marshy and constantly prone to flooding. To the Romano-British it was known as Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass.

The Church of St Michael

Between 900-1100 monastic cells were cut into the rock on the summit, and these developed into St Michael's Monastery. The church was built within this, but was probably destroyed in the great earthquake of 1275. The present church was built in the fourteenth century, and the monastery was closely associated with Glastonbury Abbey. It fell into ruin after the Dissolution, when the abbot of Glastonbury was hanged here, and only the church tower survives.

All photos on this page by P L Kessler.



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