GLASTONBURY, a market-town, in the union of Wells, hundred of Glaston-Twelve-Hides, E. division of Somerset, 124 miles (W. by S.) from London; containing 3314 inhabitants. This place, which is of very great antiquity, is situated in a marshy tract called by the Britons Avalon, from its abounding with apples, and Ynys-wytryn, or "the glassy island;" by the Saxons the tract was named Glastn-ey, a term of similar signification, and after the erection of a monastery, which formed a small town, it was styled Glastn-a-byrig, whence the present name is immediately deduced. The origin of Glastonbury is involved in so much obscurity, that it is difficult to separate its authentic from its legendary history. It is chiefly distinguished for its celebrated Abbey, said to have been originally founded by Joseph of Arimathea, whom Philip, the Apostle of Gaul, sent to preach the Gospel in Britain, and who, having arrived in the island, rested with his companions on a small eminence, half a mile to the south-west of the present town, still called Weary-all Hill, and established here the first society of Christian worshippers in Britain. In the most ancient charters of the monastery, Glastonbury is styled "the fountain and origin of all religion in the realm of Britain." When the church erected by Joseph had fallen into ruins, Devi, Bishop of St. David's, rebuilt it upon the same spot, and on its subsequent decay, it was restored by twelve persons from the northern parts of England. St. Patrick, who came from Ireland about 439, is said to have spent 30 years of his life in the convent, and to have formed the brethren, who previously lived in huts scattered round the church, into a regular community, restoring also the primitive form of Christianity, which, after the death of Lucius, the first Christian king of Britain, had fallen into disuse. About the year 530, David, Archbishop of Menevia, with seven of his suffragans, retired to this place, and greatly improved the church; he added a chapel dedicated to the Holy Virgin, and enriched the altar with a sapphire of inestimable value. The celebrated King Arthur, after the fatal battle with his nephew Mordred, was interred in the isle; and his remains are said to have been discovered in the reign of Henry II., who ordering a search to be made, a leaden cross was found, with a Latin inscription in the rude characters of that age, " Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the Isle of Avalon:" beneath was observed a coffin-like excavation in the solid rock, containing the bones of a human body, supposed to be those of Arthur, which were then deposited in the church, and covered with a sumptuous monument. St. Augustine, on his arrival in Britain, visited Glastonbury, and attempted to introduce into the abbey the rules of the order of St. Benedict; but the measure was not attended with success.
The monastery, during the heptarchy, was much favoured by successive monarchs; in 708, Ina, King of the West Saxons, took down the conventual buildings, which were greatly dilapidated, and rebuilt the abbey from the foundation in a style of superior splendour. In 942, Dunstan was appointed abbot by King Edred, who gave him the unlimited command of the royal treasury for the improvement of the monastery; he enlarged the buildings in a style of unrivalled magnificence, and in a short time completed an establishment, which, under his superintendence, became the "pride of England and the glory of Christendom," furnishing superiors to all the religious houses in the kingdom. Edgar, who had a palace within two miles of the town, in a romantic situation, at a place still called "Edgarley," endowed the abbey with several estates, and invested the monks with extensive privileges. The abbots were sovereigns within the Isle of Avalon, into which neither the king nor any of the bishops could enter without their permission; they sat among the barons in parliament, and enjoyed a revenue superior to that of most monasteries in the kingdom. Of the palace of Edgar there are no other vestiges than two wolves' heads and a pelican, placed in the front of a modern house; the former conveying a direct allusion to the tax imposed by him on the Welsh princes, for the extirpation of wolves within the realm.
At the time of the Conquest, William, not content with curtailing the power of the monks, and with exacting tribute, deprived them of their privileges, and seized on their possessions; he also imposed an abbot of his own nomination, whose tyranny ultimately compelled him to retire into Normandy. Under the succeeding abbot, the abbey recovered many of the estates of which it had been deprived; and during the abbacy of Henry de Blois, brother of King Stephen, whose liberality and prudence equally promoted the interest of the monks, and the cultivation of literature among them, it regained the greater part of its confiscated wealth, and retrieved its former fame and importance. A considerable portion of the abbey having been destroyed by fire in the year 1184, it was restored by Henry II., who granted the abbots a charter, confirming all the privileges which had been obtained from his predecessors. Its internal tranquillity, however, was now greatly interrupted by violent contentions between the monks and the Bishop of Wells, with respect to the nomination of the abbot, which continued, with trifling intermissions, until the Reformation. In the year 1276, the abbey was much injured by the shock of an earthquake, which threw down the church of St. Michael on the Torr Hill.
The strict discipline prevailing in the establishment delayed for a time its preconcerted fate; but in 1539, its venerable abbot, Whytyng, refusing to surrender to the commissioners of Henry VIII., was arraigned and condemned for high treason, and, with two of his monks, being drawn on a sledge to Torr Hill, was hanged and quartered; his head was placed over the entrance to the abbey, and his members were exposed at Bath, Bridgwater, Wells, and Ilchester. At the dissolution of this celebrated monastery, which had flourished from the earliest introduction of Christianity into Britain, the revenue was £3508. 13. 4¾. The abbey building and its dependencies comprehended a space of about 40 acres; the ruins consist chiefly of the chapel of St. Joseph, and fragments of the church. The prevailing character of the chapel is Norman, but the details and enrichment, which are in good preservation, are early English; the remains of the church are less embellished, but exhibit much of the pure simplicity of the early English style, with some portions of a later date. The abbot's kitchen is the most entire, and is probably of more recent erection than the other buildings: it is of an octagonal form, having four fire-places; the roof is finely vaulted, and from the centre rises an octagonal pyramid, crowned with a double lantern, of curious design. The ruins are richly overspread with ivy, and present a striking memorial of departed grandeur.
The town stands on the declivity of a considerable eminence, nearly in the centre of the county, and has a spacious street forming the principal thoroughfare, intersected nearly at right angles by another of smaller extent. The houses are in general low, but there are several of more recent erection and of more respectable appearance; many in different parts have been built entirely of stone taken from the ruins of the abbey. The George inn was appropriated by the abbots as a place of entertainment for pilgrims visiting the shrine of St. Dunstan, and still retains much of its original character and decoration: the old manor-house has been pulled down, and a beautiful building, harmonising in its style of architecture with the venerable remains by which it is surrounded, has been erected by the proprietor of the abbey land. An elegant cross was erected in 1846, on the site of the old market-cross, removed about 1806; it is of an imposing appearance, 38 feet high, and a great ornament to the town. The town is well paved and lighted, and supplied with water from a fine spring issuing from the ridge of a hill. Two branches of manufacture are carried on, those of stockings and a coarse sort of gloves; but the trade is of small extent. The market-days were Tuesday and Saturday, but the market on the former has been discontinued, and that on the latter is now only for butchers' meat; the fairs are on the Wednesday in Easter-week, September 19th (called the Torr fair, and chiefly for horses), and October 10th. A large market for fat-cattle has been established, which is held on the third Monday in every month. A canal has been cut from the bottom of the town to the mouth of the river Parret, and by it a trade has been opened up with South Wales, Bristol, Gloucester, &c.; its length is 14 miles. The corporation, under a charter granted in the 4th of Queen Anne, consisted of a mayor, and 7 capital and 16 inferior burgesses, assisted by a recorder, town-clerk, and two sergeants-at-mace. By the act of the 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76, the government is now vested in a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors; the mayor and late mayor are justices of the peace. There are petty-sessions on alternate Mondays, and a court leet for the hundred is held in the town.
Glastonbury consists of the parishes of St. Benedict and St. John the Baptist, for uniting which an act was obtained in 1834; and comprises by measurement 7059 acres. The livings are distinct, and are perpetual curacies in the patronage of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the appropriator, whose tithes have been commuted for £720, and whose glebe contains nearly 106 acres. The churchwardens of St. John's are a body corporate, having a common seal, and estates which are for the most part demised on leases for lives, but which, if in hand, would produce £500 a year: many of the muniments of title are as ancient as the year 1300. The churches are both interesting structures, in the later English style, with towers of very graceful and highly enriched character; St. Benedict's tower has open turrets and battlements, and more decoration than St. John's, which is, notwithstanding, a fine composition. There are places of worship for Baptists, Wesleyans, and Independents; and a national school is supported partly by an appropriation of £20 per annum, arising from property bequeathed by James Levinston, in 1666, for charitable uses. The Upper and Lower almshouses were founded by the abbots of the monastery, and since the Dissolution have been supported by the crown; the latter is inhabited by ten aged men, and the former by ten women, and attached to each is a small chapel. On the summit of Torr Hill, at a short distance from the town, is the tower of St. Michael, the only part remaining of a monastery erected on the site of one destroyed by the earthquake in 1276; over the west entrance is a sculptured figure of St. Michael, holding in his hand a pair of scales, in one of which is the Bible, and in the other the devil, aided by an imp in a fruitless effort to outweigh the sacred volume. Some chalybeate springs were discovered at Glastonbury, which, about the middle of the last century, were numerously attended by invalids from Bath, Bristol, and other parts of the country; and such was the repute of their medicinal properties, that the water was sent in bottles to London. A great variety of organic remains, consisting chiefly of nautili, cornua ammonis, bivalves, &c., has been found imbedded in the quarries near Torr Hill. Fielding, the novelist, was a native of Sharpham Park, in the parish; and among the many illustrious personages who have been interred here, are several of the Saxon kings, together with a numerous train of noblemen, bishops, abbots, and priors.