Seminar CLXXXVI: making sense of Glastonbury

There are a great many seminars to interest medievalists in London of a term-time, but the two that most usually cross my radar are, of course, the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and the Joint Medieval Seminar of the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum. I can’t usually get to both in the same week, but in recent years they have got round this for me (and maybe some others, hey) by coinciding for the first instance of the latter each year in order to host the David Wilson Lecture in Medieval Studies. This year the speaker will be Guy Halsall, which should be fun; last year it was Professor Robert Gilchrist, which certainly was. She was speaking with the title “Glastonbury Abbey: reinterpreting the Anglo-Saxon archaeology”.

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Glastonbury Abbey is of course a site in which many people are interested, for reasons not always critically historical, but it’s certainly of deep academic interest too: largely because of the testimony of William of Malmesbury, it has been held to be the earliest Christian site in Britain, St Patrick’s foothold in England, the first cloister in the country and also a place with pyramids in its cemetery.1 This is, as you can imagine, the kind of stuff that one would hope archæology might be able to check, and indeed the site has been much dug, in more-or-less continuous campaigns from 1904 to 1974, but not very much of that ever got published by any of the eight directors in charge, and what Professor Gilchrist has been doing with her team is working through the extensive surviving notes of the last excavator, C. A. Ralegh Radford, and the remaining finds, and trying to get to the point of a modern synthesis of what has actually been located by all these people.2 (Thus, she hasn’t actually done any digging, but as she said at the outset, since she isn’t an Anglo-Saxonist perhaps it’s best that she hasn’t done any damage…)

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

This is, as you can probably imagine, not at all simple. Radford was lone archæologist on his project, which he was doing with a rotating staff of volunteers well into retirement, and all the notes were apparently kept in his spare room and occasionally turfed off the bed to accommodate guests! He had done all his digging as narrow trenches across the site, never dug beyond the precinct and thus wound up with a very complex set of findings. This was further complicated by the fact that he was also doing the same job of synthesis with the earlier digging, which had been larger-scale and open-plan but not necessarily so well-informed (and Radford was, at least, informed by a full lifetime of digging Anglo-Saxon sites). So, he never dug the churches, but reinterpreted the findings of the previous archæologists, which had also never been fully published… It’s turtles all the way down.

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Anyway, what Radford thought he had drawn from all this was a site of pagan or Celtic origins (despite his having no material he’d identified as earlier than eighth-century!), largely because he thought he’d found a vallum (a rampart marking a monastic precinct, usually reckoned Irish practice), on which a series of early churches were built with a cemetery in use from the seventh to tenth century, then a big rebuild under St Dunstan in the tenth century, including the cloister and many extra buildings of which one at least was a glass workshop. Reevaluation of this produces some interesting results: actually, Radford did have pre-eighth-century remains, late Roman pottery of the fifth and sixth century not recognised as such, and the glass he’d found which he took to be Dunstan’s era’s is actually very late seventh-century, and so probably relates not to Dunstan but to the endowment of the abbey by King Ine of Wessex that is its earliest documentation.3 The vallum also seems to date to the seventh century, from what little there is to date it with. But there are also signs of Dunstan’s work, too, including perhaps canalising the river to supply the abbey’s water. What there isn’t is a cloister: the sections that Radford had taken to be part of one don’t date consistently and would if joined up be about the hugest cloister that ever was. As for the cemetery, that shows no good sign of use before the eleventh century, although there are some cist graves (of that period!) with material heaped up round them that might just have been whatever William was describing as pyramids, and between them, where he said the body of King Arthur was found, there was apparently at least a really big hole dug somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth century…

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur on the abbey site, pyramids not shown

So, in so far as we can give a synthesis yet, it might go like this. If there is a pre-Christian site at Glastonbury, it’s probably on the Tor, where late Roman pottery has been recovered, though that still doesn’t make religious activity up there any earlier than the current St Michael’s.4 The earliest church, in fact, was probably not there or on the abbey site, but at Street nearby. Down where the abbey now is, though, we have some evidence for fifth- and sixth-century occupation, in timber buildings that might qualify as halls, and this may even be what the vallum relates to, so, not a monastery at all then but some kind of fort like an Irish dún It was presumably in fact a royal vill, since King Ine was able to endow a church here in the seventh century, and we can be pretty sure that church had glazed windows. No sign of St Patrick sadly, though as Professor Gilchrist pointed out the wattle church of his date that William of Malmesbury records had not only burnt by William’s time, but would also have been archæologically eradicated by the current Lady Chapel, so we can never say it wasn’t there… The church that was, however, seems to have been two separate chapels on what is a common pattern for early English churches, which were as at Canterbury subsequently joined together in rebuilding, and this perhaps in the tenth century, when the site seems to get a general kick up the material scale; most of the small finds are of that period or later. Before St Dunstan, it’s hard to see very much going on here at all, and King Ine’s best attempt may not have been very long-lasting. There is also the strong possibility that the core of the site of that period was off to the north and just hasn’t been dug, however! Anyway, despite these interruptions to its noble spiritual history, the evidence for sub-Roman occupation here is actually better than Radford thought, and if it doesn’t tell us about continuity, when put in its wider context it might tell us about the shift of focus and use in a settled area during the period of sub-Roman collapse, as well as the early Saxon church later on. So apparently now Professor Gilchrist is quite keen to do some digging after all! We can but hope…

Route up to Glastonbury Tor viewed from bottom of steps

To finish with some stairs… the Tor and St Michael, viewed from (well) below

1. William of Malmesbury, De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, transl. Frank Lomax as The Antiquities of Glastonbury (London 1906 repr. Llanerch 1992).

2. F. B. Bond, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations”, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 72 (Taunton 1926) pp. 13-22; Theodore Fyfe, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1926”, ibid. pp. 20-22; idem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1927”, ibid. vol. 73 (1927) pp. 86-87; C. R. Peers, A. .W. Clapham & E. Horne, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1928”, ibid. Vol. 74 (1928) pp. 1-9; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1929”, ibid. Vol. 75 (1929), pp. 26-33; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations, 1930-31”, ibid. Vol. 77 (1931), pp. 83-85; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1932”, ibid Vol. 78 (1932), pp. 109-110; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1933”, ibid. Vol. 79 (1933), p. 30; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1934”, ibid. Vol. 80 (1934), pp. 32-35; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1937”, ibid. Vol. 83 (1937), pp. 153-154; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1938”, ibid. Vol. 84 (1938), pp. 134-136; C. A. Ralegh Radford, “Excavations at Glastonbury, 1954” in Antiquity Vol. 29 (London 1955), pp. 33-34; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1955” in Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset Vol. 27 (Wells 1958), pp. 68-73; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1956-7”, ibid., pp. 165-169; and finally, synthesizing the lot, idem, “Glastonbury Abbey before 1184: interim report on the excavations, 1908-1964” in Medieval Art and Architecture at Wells and Glastonbury, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 4 (London 1981), pp. 110-134, supplemented later on by Humphrey Woods, “Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1987-1993”, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 138 (1994), pp. 7-73 & Oliver Kent, “Ceramic finds from archaeological excavation at Glastonbury Abbey, 1901-1979”, ibid. Vol. 140 (1997) pp. 73-104 with corrections Vol. 141 pp. 221-231. That is a total of eighty pages, more or less, with another hundred or so on the finds in the later two articles. Not so much to show for nearly as many years’ work…

3. Susan Kelly (ed.), Charters of Glastonbury Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 15 (Oxford 2012), presumably no. 1, but I don’t know as the Electronic Sawyer hasn’t yet caught up with this publication.

4. See Philip Rahtz & Lorna Watts, Glastonbury: Myth & Archaeology (Stroud 2003) for details of the Tor digs and the wider landscape.

7 responses to “Seminar CLXXXVI: making sense of Glastonbury

  1. On the pyramids, just remember William of Malmesbury was no mathematician and had probably no idea of what the pyramids looked like. I’ve seen a suggestion (no idea where – haven’t been able to find my note) that William used pyramid for large commemorative monuments such as a cross, which seems plausible.

  2. I think the standard discussion of the pre- and early post-conquest usage of Lat. ‘pyramis (-idis)’ is still in Dodwell’s Anglo-Saxon Art (1982), pp. 113–18. I’ve not seen the entry in Howlett’s Dictionary though. Dodwell suggests the term, and the monumental form, derived from the genuinely pyramidal funerary monuments observed by travellers to Rome. In pre-conquest England the term wound up getting used less specifically for tall stone sepulchral or commemorative monuments, narrower at the top than the bottom. Dodwell’s suggestion it might have come to refer to cross shafts or perhaps the crosses themselves when they were used as grave memorials, but I don’t think there’s any clear evidence for this specificity (although it’s not implausible). Subsequent scholars will therefore sometimes silently refigure these English pyramides simply as crosses. They crop up in Lantfred of Winchester’s account of St Swithun, and (after the conquest) in Eadmer of Canterbury on the tombs of Dunstan and Odo (‘constructed in the fashion of a pyramid’) which stood below the high altar in Christ Church. William has St Wulfstan lying in his grave ‘between two pyramids, under a beautiful stone arch’ (where the pyramids may or may not have been structural), and the C12th tomb of John of Beverley had a marble monument supported on pillars over a ‘pyramid’ that seems to have stood on top of the grave itself.

  3. Of course, it’s just a supposition that an English pyramis was necessarily notable for tallness: not all the examples are indicative of that (I wouldn’t tend to picture the tombs of Dunstan and Odo in Christ Church as consisting of standing crosses, or tapering columns, for instance). In which case, I can’t help wondering whether one might have called one of these a pyramid as well as one of these

  4. Dating correction: the Old Church (vetusta ecclesia) was in use during William’s stay at Glastonbury (c1125), yes it was burnt, and then replaced in situ, but not till 1184.

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