Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Welcome to the Isle of Avalon.

No, really.  I went to the Isle of Avalon.

Well, that's what Glastonbury Abbey says it is, anyway.

That was our first stop the next day.  Glastonbury...what can I say?  If the legends are all right, it's the location of the oldest purpose-built church building, and...you know what, let me start from the beginning.  Or at least give some background.  So we show up at this old abbey, almost on the ground, and wander through the museum where they've picked up a few artifacts like broken glass and talk about what the abbey would have been like at its height, and then we split into two groups and followed our guides.  Ours was a Tudor lawyer who'd come to investigate the abbey.  The guy was awesome.  And so was his garb.  Anyway, he took us around and explained  the mythology and/or history of the monastery.  I'm not going to go through the whole "legend says" every time I say something, but here's what they say about it.

Waaaay back in about the second decade AD or so, a certain tinsmith came to Britain to find tin for the Romans, which is how he established his wealth enough to have a large gravesite in his hometown.  Hometown: Jerusalem.  Name: Joseph of Arimathea.  He actually went several times, and once or twice brought his young nephew, named Jesus.  While there, he noticed an interesting hill once out in a swampy area  that seemed perfectly round (from one angle, that's how it looks). Fastforward a few decades, this nephew had a large following who called themselves Christians, had been crucified by the Romans, and the Romans weren't...altogether accepting of the Christians.  Nor were most people, apparently.  Some Christians stayed in Jerusalem, some got on a boat or traveled and ended up in France-ish, where, guess what, there were still Romans.  Remember, big empire at the time, they weren't staying in Italy.  Persecution resumed, and Joseph, who happened to be with this traveling group, remembered this hill on this country that wasn't under strong Roman rule, and so he gathered up about 11 others and they crossed the channel and found this hill, climbed to the top, where Joseph stuck his staff in the ground and said "We are weary, all."  So the hill is now called the Wearall hill, or however they spell it.  The staff, incidentally, took root and became the Glastonbury Thorn Tree that flowers once in the spring for Easter and once in the winter for Christmas.  Hence the name; that and its shape and so on.  Every year at Christmas, they have a ceremony where they cut a sprig and send it to London where it graces the Queen's (or presumably King's) breakfast table on Christmas morning.

Well, they settled down and built a little community--12 wattle and daub houses around a central building, their wattle and daub chapel.  See, first purpose-built church!  Assuming they were still doing the "hide in caves" or "use people's houses" thing out in Jerusalem.  And when the Romans showed up later, a) they'd cooled (a bit) on the whole "Christians are only good as lion-fodder and entertainment" thing and b) couldn't tell the difference between a wattle-and-daub chapel and a wattle-and-daub goose pen.  (So you don't make the same mistake, the goose pen has feathers and goose dung in it, and not just on the walls.)  Eventually, Joseph grew old and knew he wasn't long for this world, but there was something he needed to take care of first, so he wrote to his brother to come pick up and take care of some objects for him.  He'd buried them "at the bottom of the hill next to the well."  Unfortunately, he died before his brother got the letter, or maybe his brother never got the letter, because said objects have never been found.  What are they?  Only the Holy Grail and two small containers containing the blood and sweat of Christ from the cross.  There is a "Grail Well" on Glastonbury Tor, but it's named that through legend and not since a few hundred years ago because it turns the surrounding rocks red.

English history being English history, some invaders swept through the country after a span of time.  These ones in particular were Saxons!  Fierce, bloodthirsty, barbarous, and probably not all that different from a whole bunch of the locals except they had practice Saxons!  (Come on, they were called in the first place because one of the (thick in the head) kings wanted help with a war.) Well, as they began taking over and settling in a sweep across the country, they somewhere ran into Christianity, converted, and were well enough settled in that new religion that by the time they reached Glastonbury, they wanted to preserve it as a site sacred to their new religion.  Maybe it was because it was a new religion for them and a memory of a time when the church itself was still only a fledgling.  Anyway, they built a church there and enclosed the original chapel in a box of wood and lead to preserve it.

Time passed, Thomas a Becket got offed, and King Henry felt like his soul was at stake because he'd been responsible for the death of a friend and the archbishop of Canterbury (no worries, mate, he gets that whole "hooly blisful martir" deal and people go pilgrimaging for him), so he's looking for ways to up his ratings on the eternal meter.  It so happens the Saxon church burns down around this time and Henry goes "Ah, shame.  Waaaait...this is a really important religious site, isn't it?  So...if I put money into fixing it up...I could, oh, you know, make it to Heaven, theoretically?"  So he pours money into building a new cathedral there to St. Mary, which actually was colorful like you wouldn't believe if all you know of old churches is the stone that's left because paint has a shorter shelf life than stone but you might believe it if you've studied this stuff.  And this is a big thing.  People pour in on their pilgrimages here, too, to the extent that they have to put a "Mary and Jesus" stone on the outside (they carved the words into one of the exterior walls) just to have another spot for the masses of pilgrims to pray.  Then the bishop at the time thinks, you know, people come here because it's where the original Joseph of Arimathea church was, so I should put a place for them to go and then there'll be even more pilgrims!  (Which is, of course, important because pilgrims bring not just faith and prayers and problems but also cash, and if you can part them from it, it stays when they go home and you get to use it.)  So this bishop looks around and realizes something--his church is standing on the best spot for this worship site, seeing as they keep building on the same sites.  So he excavates beneath it and makes a new chapel below the church for these pilgrims.  This erases all evidence that may have once existed of a wattle-and-daub building encased in lead, so...it's impossible to verify.  Way to go, you.

More time passes and Richard is up on the throne!  Yay, good ol' Lionheart!  There's just one problem with this king.  He's never home.  He's all "CRUSADES!  HOLY LAND!  CHAAARGE!"  which some people are fine with but some people aren't but it doesn't much matter because he's the bally King and if he says he wants to go Crusading, he's going to go Crusading and I'd like to see you try and stop him.  But turns out Crusading takes money, too.  Lots, in fact, so he drains the budget that went to all the other church functions (Wouldn't you love that to be a church function?  "So in October, there's a potluck, we'll have a dance in November, and for Christmas, since it's kind of cold, maybe we'll head down to the Middle East and visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  And take them over by force.") which left Glastonbury Abbey/Cathedral high and dry.  Literally, because it's on a hill.  But more on that in a second.  At this point, incidentally, all the monasteries are pretty open.  The public can use their cathedrals and there aren't rules about that whole messy "marriage" issue.  That's not until the future from then which is now well in the past.  Anyway, where were we?  Ah, yes, cathedral with a money stoppage.  Especially because the pilgrimage furor isn't hitting people as much at the time.  They've been there, done that, there are no new pilgrimages any more.  *dramatic "Or are there?"*  So the monks gather around and have a prayer.  One of these fine fellows has a dream that guides him to the graveyard where they've had so many people buried they've had to start stacking them.  This guys says his dream led him to a pyramid or some such which we'd now call an obelisk (Not Obelix!  Get it straight!) and they dig under it and find a huge oak chest.  No, no gold.  Sorry to disappoint.  It's got cooler stuff.  They open this and find two skeletons--one is a man who is so tall his shin bone is taller than the shin bone of the tallest guy at the monastery by a good three inches.  They checked.  Also, he's got battle scars on the bones and his skull is cracked open on one side.  The other is a smaller one, a woman, and her hair glitters gold when they open the casket until a greedy monk tries to touch it and it turns to dust.  Any guesses of who it is now?  The lead cross they find with it clinches the deal--"Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere, his second wife, in the isle of Avalon."  The lead cross has been lost over time, too, by the way.  Anyway, this discovery sends a huge rush of pilgrims and their moneybags with them back to Glastonbury who now has money for all the repairs and everything they need.  About a hundred years after that, Edward has a huge ceremony where they put the skeletons in a huge carved black marble coffin in the center of the (by now huge) cathedral.  Or at least up past the nave where all the important people get to sit.  (The coffin's gone too, along with the skeleton, because of the icon destruction thing.)  People believe this may have been a hoax because aside from the part where they got money out of it, the Welsh were at the time being troublesome in the English mind and they were talking about Arthur being their hero, so it may have been a "stick it to 'em" issue.  On the other hand, there was a very large hill fort nearby, Arthur was supposed to have fallen because Mordred hit him on the head after Arthur ran him through, and if the church was there at the time, you take people to a place where they can be healed and the priests are generally pretty good with medicine besides the fact that prayers were just as effective in their minds for healing people, and if someone dies at a church, you bury them there.  Plus, the stories say he was taken to Avalon and that's what they called this hill, which was surrounded long back by marshes and wet wet wet terrain, making it an island.

And then Henry VIII tears it all down because he's ruining the monasteries and this was one of the richest but he needed a reason, so our Tudor guide friend's persona comes in as one of the lawyers sent to investigate and discovers wealth unrecorded in the royal records which is treason so they overly thoroughly kill the bishop, the monastery is quarried and taken apart, and then is eventually bought by the historical people and they're now preserving it.

This isn't all for the day, but it's enough for one post.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post, Elizabeth! This is so up my alley, you have no idea! (Not only do I have an interest in the Middle Ages, but I'm an English major with an emphasis in folklore).

    Funny, thought-provoking, and informative!