|Glastonbury Abbey Ruin|
|Snowdrops at Glastonbury Abbey|
The most famous of these islands in the Somerset Levels is the 'Isle of Avalon'. Many people (mistakenly) view Avalon as a fictional location because of its ties with the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Whether Arthur or the Grail existed are a matter for conjecture and debate; the existence of Avalon is fact. It just means the island of apples, no coincidence then that the land around this area is largely given over to apple orchards (not just any old apples - cider apples).
|King Arthur's Grave (?)|
|The Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey|
The main part of the day was spent in Glastonbury Abbey, now a ruin. Glastonbury was one of the largest, richest and most powerful abbeys in medieval England. To put this into historic context, the abbeys were where most of the wealth of the nation resided. In medieval times wool was the most sought after commodity and the abbeys had vast tracts of land populated by huge flocks of sheep. When Henry VIII 'dissolved' the monasteries Glastonbury was defiant and, thus, he made an example of it. The abbot was hung, drawn and quartered (with two of his monks) for treason on top of the tor and his head displayed on the west gate of the abbey. The tor is visible for miles around and is (and was) an iconic landmark. Henry's men knew how to make a point!
The earliest Christian settlement in Somerset was, reputedly, founded in AD63 by Joseph of Arimathea, reputedly the uncle of Jesus Christ. The oratory was founded on Wearyall Hill where Joseph planted his staff which flowered. The offspring of this particular tree are still to be found in Glastonbury and known as the Glastonbury Thorn. It flowers twice a year, one of those blossoming is at Christmas when the Queen receives a posy of blossom. Joseph was no stranger to the West Country as he made a number of trips to trade tin in Cornwall.
So where does Arthur fit in to all of this myth, legend and history? In 1191 the monks discovered a tomb near the high altar containing the remains of a man and woman with a cross with a Latin inscription claiming the body to be Arthur. This discovery was incredibly convenient coming, as it did, shortly after the abbey burned down. In medieval times abbeys needed pilgrims because pilgrims brought income. If you need to rebuild an abbey, money is what you need. The cynic in me finds the Arthur part of the Glastonbury legends just a little too convenient!
I would certainly recommend a visit to Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels. You may well return with more questions than answers, not necessarily a bad thing, and I bet you'll go back more than once!