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England's Legends and Myths

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 2

 

Glastonbury Tor
Even at a distance the Glastonbury Tor looms like a great landlocked whale on an ocean of English meadow. Rising five hundred feet above the ground, the Tor casts a shadow as large as the legends surrounding it. 

One legend has it that the Tor was the spot of England’s first Christian Church. It was built by Joseph of Arimathea. Prior to this Joseph’s claim to fame was helping Jesus Christ down from the cross, and providing his burial tomb. In 63 A.D. the Apostle Philip commissioned Joseph of Arimathea to bring the Gospel to Britain.

Joseph of Arimathea
 

Philip may have chosen Joseph because he had already been to Britain. The Gospels describe Joseph as a rich man. It is claimed that part of his wealth came from the tin mines of Cornwall, on the southwest tip of England. That Joseph occasionally visited England to inspect his financial interest has proved a sturdy legend. It lives even today among the miners and metal craftsmen of Cornwall, and in local carols, one of which begins “Joseph was a merchant, a tin merchant, a tin merchant,“ and describes his arrival on a boat.[1]

 

On Joseph’s last visit to England, he took his boat around the tip of Cornwall and landed in Wales. Driven eastward by hostile Druids, he and his party acquired a benefactor in the form of a local king, who gave the small band of Christians an island called Ynys-witrin: the Glassy Isle, or Glastonbury.[2] The Glastonbury Tor (Tor means hill) was in these times not a giant hill but an island surrounded by water and marsh. 

A miracle occurred on a smaller hill near the Tor, Weary-all Hill.  While preaching to the locals Joseph struck his staff into the ground. Was he emphasizing a point, expressing exasperation, or praying for a miracle to convert the souls of the Celtic Druids? Whatever his motive, when Joseph’s staff hit the ground leaves and blossoms shot forth from the wood. 

Double trunked miracle

On that spot, veiled by the mist of antiquity, grew a huge, double trunked tree that sported white blossoms each Christmas. Known as the Hawthorn Tree, or the Glastonbury Thorn, the flowering Hawthorn fascinates botanists even today. A plant of middle Eastern origin that blooms every Christmas in a cold climate has proved impossible to explain, at least by natural means. And why did the miraculous tree exist in Glastonbury alone? More than one Puritan tried to answer this question with the blade of an axe.[3]

Glastonbury Thorn

 The early Druids may have had a similar response, but Joseph and his party were undeterred. They built a church out of mud and reeds and sticks, and dedicated it to the Mother of God. Called the WattleChurch,[4] it featured a wooden statue of Mary carved by Joseph. The ground the first Christian Church rested on became known as “the holiest earth in England.“[5] Joseph was buried there. His tombstone is said to have read: “I came to the Britons after I buried Christ. I taught. I rest.”[6] 

English author J.R.R. Tolkien was familiar with the Glastonbury legends, which included the tales of King Arthur. A literary legend, Arthur was also an actual man who trod the same hallowed ground as Joseph of Arimathea. 

King Arthur

Whether or not he was an actual King is debatable, but Arthur’s heroism as a warrior was documented by Benedictine monks. Riding into battle with an image of Our Lady of Glastonbury painted on his shield, Arthur time and again routed the Saxons. Mortally wounded after a final great victory, Arthur was carried away to the Isle of Avalon, never to be seen again. Although some legends interpret this disappearance to mean Arthur never died, die he most certainly did, for eventually his tomb was found and exhumed.

Arthur's tomb
 

It happened in 1193, during the reign of Henry II, six centuries after Arthur’s death.[7] Sixteen feet below the floor of the Glastonbury Abbey was found a huge, hollowed out log, a common burial custom  among Celtic Britons. Engraved letters on a leaden cross identified the remains as that of Arthur and his wife Guinevere.[8] Arthur’s skeleton was enormous, and his skull showed the effects of ten wounds. Strands of plaited golden hair on the smaller skeleton turned to powder under the fingers of a curious monk. Arthur’s famous sword, Excalibur, passed to Henry II’s son, Richard the Lion Hearted, who took it with him when he left England on his Crusade.[9] 

From the location of Arthur’s tomb it is evident that the Isle of Avalon was really the Isle of Glastonbury. Another interesting coincidence is Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. Usually dismissed as literary fancy, Arthur’s quest for the Grail in the same area inhabited by Joseph of Arimathea is at least logical, for it is said that Joseph brought the Grail with him to England.[10]

Holy grail

 Sources

 [1] Hugh Ross Williamson, The Flowering Hawthorn, The Neumann Press, 1999 Edition, p. 12.

[2] Why it was called Ynys-witrin, or the Isle of Glass, is unclear. It may have to do with the appearance of the water that surrounded the island, or with an old Druid legend that the area was an entrance to the Celtic underworld, a passage that went through a druidic palace of glass.

[3] Eventually the Puritans reduced the Glastonbury Thorn to a stump, but not before some shoots were preserved.

[4] Wattle means materials that are twined or woven together.

[5] Or in the words of St. Patrick, “a place holy and ancient, chosen and sanctified by God in honor of Mary the pure Virgin, the Mother of God.” After converting Ireland Patrick spent the last years of his life in Glastonbury, When he died, in 472, he was buried on the right side of the altar of the WattleChurch (Williamson, p. 38.).

[6] Williamson, op. cit., p. 28.

[7] Approximately 542 A.D. Arthur was born around 470, and his real name may have been Artorius, for he was said to have been of Roman as well as English blood.

[8] Reginald Francis Treharne, The Glastonbury Legends, London, The Cresset Press, 1967, pp. 93-98. The depth of the tomb was intended to protect the remains from vengeful Saxons.

[9] Williamson, p. 50. The Glastonbury Abbey was at the time the most famous Christian landmark in Britain. It was destroyed by fire and restored by Henry II. Arthur and Guinevere’s relics were solemnly deposited in a large tomb in the restored Abbey. Four centuries later the Abbey and the tomb were destroyed by the Reformers.

[10] This is a later tradition that developed after Arthur’s remains were found. Although the Church has never endorsed the tradition that Joseph brought the Chalice of the Last Supper with him to England, an older and more generally accepted tradition is that Joseph brought with him 2 small cruets containing the Precious Blood, which he collected while removing Christ from His Cross. The cruets, and wooden staffs representing the Glastonbury Thorn, appear on Joseph’s coat of arms. 

The tor
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Comments

Aug 27, 2013 7:56am
jssaggie12
Very interesting read, I love English mythology!
Aug 29, 2013 1:48am
langlj1
Very informative article. I learnt a few things and I'm an Englishman! Thanks.
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