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Glastonbury, Somerset

Historical Description

Glastonbury, a town and a parish in Somerset. The town stands on a peninsular tract, engirt by the river Brue, and on the Somerset and Dorset railway, at the junction of the branch to Wells, 131 miles from Londo½ 5 SSW of Wells, and 25 SW of Bath. Glastonbury has a post office, with money order and telegraph departments. It occupies eminences connected with the inferior oolite of the county, but is largely environed by marshes, and is flanked on one side by Weary-all-Hill, on another by Glastonbury Tor. Its peninsula was called by the ancient Britons, Yniswytrin, signifying the " glassy island," either from the "glasten" or " blue-green" colour of its surface, or from its abounding with "glass" or "woad;" was called by the Saxons, Glastn-Ey or Glaestingabyrig-the former also signifying " the glassy island;" and was called by the Romans Insula Avalonia, or the Isle of Avalon, either from the British word " avalla," which signifies apples, and in allusion to its having orchards, or from a British chief of the name of Avallac. The town arose from an ancient monastery, and is alleged by monkish historians to have been founded in the apostolic times, but does not appear on any good evidence to date higher than about the year 708. It was demolished in 873 by the Danes, was rebuilt in 942 by King Edmund, was destroyed by fire in 1184, was restored by Henry III., was destroyed by an earthquake in 1276, was soon once more restored, and continued till the Reformation to be a grand seat of monastic rule. A remarkable whirlwind, from W to E, passed over it in Sept. 1856, and tore the roofs from several of its houses.

The main interest of the town centres in its ancient abbey. The monkish writers say that this was founded by Joseph of Arimathea, sent by the apostle Philip to preach in Britain; they say also that, when the structure built by him had wasted-away, a new one on its site was built in 530 by Devi or St David, Archbishop of Canterbury; and they say further that a reconstruction of this, in great splendour, was done about 708 by King Ina. This last appears to have been, not really a reconstruction, but an entirely new edifice, and really the first monastery at the place; and even it was rebuilt, in 942, by Sfc Dunstan, and constituted a Benedictine abbey. Violent tumults occurred among the monks in 1083, and led [ to the dismissal of the abbot. A new minster was begun in 349, 1102-20, by Abbot Herlewin; suffered great damage by the fire which destroyed the town in 1184; and was restored and extended, by successive abbots at successive dates, till 1500. j The church was cruciform, measured 550 feet in length, and ] had a nave with aisles 220 feet long, a transept with north i aisle and two eastern chapels 135 feet long, and an apsidal , choir with broad procession path and eastern chapel 153 feet; long. The chief parts of it still standing are three bays of the south nave aisle, the eastern piers of the central tower, an eastern bay of each wing of the transept, one of the eastern chapels of the northern transept, and the south wall, with five pointed windows, of the choir. The best preserved and most interesting portion of the ruin is a chapel, called the chapel of St Joseph of Arimathea, which stood at the west end of the church, in front of the nave. This is supposed to have been built in the times of Henry II. and Eichard I., measures 100 feet by 25, shows characters of transition from Norman architecture to Early English; and had, at the angles, turret-towers, arcaded above the corbel table and surmounted by spires, one of which remains. Under this was discovered, in 1825, a Norman crypt, 89½ feet in length, 25½ feet in width, and 10 feet in height, which is now fast crumbling to decay. The cloisters were on the south side of the church's nave, and measured 220 feet each way. The kitchen still stands, was built in 1374-1420, is all of stone, and has an octangular form, wifh peaked octagonal roof, and a two-staged lantern. The barn also still stands, is partly Decorated English but chiefly Perpendicular, has a cruciform plan, and is lit by loopholes— Joseph of Arimathea is fabled to have been buried in the church. Berin, Archbishop of Armagh in the 5th century, also is alleged to have been buried here. King Arthur too, and his queen Guinevar, are said to have been buried here, and their supposed remains are recorded to have been found, by special search in the time of Henry II., and to have been removed by order of Edward I. to a magnificent shrine before the high altar. King Edmund died at the abbey in 1017, and King Edward I. visited it in 1278. The abbot had precedence of all the abbots in England till 1154, and he always was a member of the upper house of convocation, and a baron of parliament. Whiting, the last abbot, from 1524 till 1539, educated here about 300 sons of the nobility, and, on account of refusing to surrender the abbey, he was hanged on the Tor, and his body quartered. The abbey revenue at that time was £3509.

Weary-all-Hill commands a fine view of the town, and has a spot where it is alleged Joseph of Arimathea and his fellow-travellers, weary with their journey, sat down to refresh themselves, and where Joseph's staff, then stuck into the ground, took root, and afterwards became a blooming hawthorn, budding regularly for 1500 years on Christmas Day till it was cut down in the time of Charles I. by the Puritans. A flat stone with an inscription marks the spot. A hawthorn actually grew here; grafts of it also were raised to treeson other spots; several of these trees still exist in gardens through which the abbey ruins are approached, and in other gardens in the town, and the blossoms of the trees were held through the Eomish times in so much repute that exportations of them were made from Bristol to foreign countries. Glastonbury Tor ia about 500 feet high, commands a good prospect of the surrounding country, and is crowned by a beautiful tower which belonged to a ruined church of Sfc Michael. The monkish writers say that the original edifice on this site was a, small oratory, erected by Saints Phagunus and Duruvi-anus about a century after the alleged founding of the abbey by St Joseph; that a reconstruction of this was done by St Patrick, who came out of Ireland, and was abbot of Glaston-bury, and that a church and a monastery were added to the½oratory by some of St Patrick's successors. St Michael's Church here, whatever were its date and character, was totally destroyed by the earthquake of 1276, but was soon afterwards re-erected in a more splendid manner. The tower is the only part of it now standing, and this has over the doorway two rude bas-reliefs, the one representing a woman milking a cow, the other representing St Michael with a pair of scales weighing the Bible against the devil. At Torhouse is what is termed a(t blood spring," which was formerly supposed to possess miraculous properties.

The town consists chiefly of two streets crossing each other at right angles, and running to the four cardinal points. Many of the houses in both streets consist of stones taker— from the abbey, and some of them show, small features or fragments of it in their front. The Abbey House, on the east side of the Abbey Close, was built out of the ruins of the old abbot's residence in 1714 at a cost of £8000; is itself in the Tudor style, but includes some relics of the old edifice, and, together with the abbey ruins and 40 acres of land, was sold, in 1851, to Mr H. Danby Seymour, for £10,000, and was purchased in 1856 by Mr. James Austin, who did all that could possibly be done to preserve the ancient ruins— which are now considered one of the most interesting in England, both in extent and in historical associations. The-Red Lion Inn in Sfc Magdalene Street was formerly the great gate to the abbey; retains the narrow gateway for foot-passengers, with pointed arch and groined roof; and has in the yard a small chapel built in connection with an almshouse about 1500. The George Inn in High Street was formerly the house for pilgrims resorting to the abbey, and has an interesting front of the time of Henry VII. or Henry VIII., with an archway bearing the arms of Edward IV. and those of the abbey. The Tribunal in the same street, higher upy belonged also to the abbey, is a domestic edifice of the 16th-century, and has a window which was once filled with painted glass showing escutcheons and arms of the abbots and the-kings. The market-cross, at the intersection of the four streets, was originally built in 1520, was one of the most elegant structures of its kind in the kingdom, and was rebuilt in the Decorated English style in 1846. St John's Church is Later English and cruciform; has a superb tower of three stages 140 feet high with open-worked parapet and slender pinnacles; contains a fine stone pulpit and an ancient coloured tomb of a burser to the abbot, and was restored in 1858-60. St Benedict's Church was partly rebuilt in 1493-1524 by Abbot Beere; has his initials with emblems. over the north entrance and on one of the battlements, and contains monuments of the Goulds of Sharpham Park— There are Congregational, Wesleyan, Primitive Methodist— Plymouth Brethren, and Roman Catholic chapels, alms-houses, and other charities; a bridge, a reservoir, a two banks, a town-ball, assembly and reading-rooms, and police barracks, the town being the headquarters of the Somerset county constabulary. A Wesleyan chapel facing High Street was½ built in 1866. Markets are held on the second and fourth Mondays in each month; fairs are held on the second Monday in Sept. and Oct., and a weekly newspaper is published on Saturdays. Some trade is carried on in tanning and glove-making. The town anciently sent members to parliament, but was disfranchised in 1539. It received a charter from Queen Anne, and it is governed by a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors. Henry Fielding was born at Sharp-ham Park, in the vicinity.

The parish includes the tithing of Edgarly, and the hamlets of Wick, Haviatt, and Norwood Park. The rocks include lias and inferior oolite, and Dean Buckland found here a rare-great fossil animal, which he figured in his " Bridgewater Treatise." The parish comprises an area of 7166 acres; population of the civil parish, 4233; of the ecclesiastical½ 4215. The two livings, St John and Sfc Benedict, are-vicarages in the diocese of Bath and Wells; gross value of the former, £270; net value of the latter, £280. Patron of both, the Bishop of Bath and Wells.

In 1892 an early English village was discovered about half a mile from Glastonbury in the direction of the hamlet of Godney. Several articles of ancient British pottery have-been found there, and also a brass cup of unique pattern, all of which are deposited in the Glastonbury Museum. Another feature of great interest to antiquarians was the discovery of an ancient British boat in one of the rivers adjoining the village. The land upon which the discovery waa made consisted of about six acres, which was generously presented by the owner, Mr. Edward Bath, to the Antiquarian Society so that further excavations might be made.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountySomersetshire 
Poor Law unionWells 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records, in association with Somerset Archives & Local Studies, have images of the Parish Registers for Somerset online.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Glastonbury from the following:


Online maps of Glastonbury are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following Somerset papers online:

Visitations Heraldic

The Visitation of Somersetshire, 1623 is available on the Heraldry page.

RegionSouth West
Postal districtBA6
Post TownGlastonbury