Glastonbury, Abbey of
GLASTONBURY, ABBEY OF
Former benedictine monastery in Somerset, England. The origins of Glastonbury are remote and obscure. The legendary founder was Joseph of Arimathea. This and other legends, e.g., that St. Patrick the Younger, King Arthur, the holy grail, and St. brigid of ireland were buried there, made Glastonbury a perennial pilgrimage center. In fact, Celtic monks were at Glastonbury from at least the 5th century; the benedictine rule was instituted there probably in the early 8th century. During the Danish invasions, regular life disappeared, but Glastonbury served as the center of the great monastic revival in 10th-century england that followed St. dunstan's installation as abbot there in 940. Glastonbury's reformed abbots and monks served as bishops and missionaries and were instrumental in spreading Benedictine life and the spirit of reform throughout England and Scandinavia.
At the Conquest, Glastonbury was the wealthiest monastery in England. The new Continental customs were resisted there, and as a result, some of the monks were killed by Norman men-at-arms. Not until the rule of henry of blois (1126–71) did Glastonbury obtain an administrator who was able to reorganize its finances, embark on an extensive building program, and introduce reform discipline. But Henry's rule was not entirely beneficent; he was also bishop of Winchester and more a patron than a father to his monks. Misfortune followed; in 1184 the abbey buildings were destroyed by fire, and in 1194 the bishop of Bath began his attempts to make Glastonbury an episcopal monastery. Not until 1234 was the abbey completely independent once again.
The 13th century was a golden age for Glastonbury, which reached a high point under John of Taunton (1274–90). The economic basis for this revival was the abbey's scientific farming. Glastonbury was a proponent of monastic reform in provincial meetings and led the way in eliminating many liturgical accretions and in emphasizing intellectual development. Glastonbury's library had become large and very early included works of modern theology, such as those of Thomas Aquinas. An extensive building program was completed and charitable services were extended during this period.
In the 14th and 15th centuries discipline declined at Glastonbury, though scandals were few. Community life was marred by the increasing separation of abbot and monks, the decentralization of finances, and the presence of a wasteful or superfluous household staff. However, liturgical life remained essentially unaltered.
The last abbot, Richard whiting (1524–39), kept good order in the monastery, though he was not a disciplinarian. Despite the abbot's acquiescence in the gradual assumption of control of the English Church by henry viii, the great wealth of Glastonbury made it a rich prize, and the King's spoilers were sent in. Whiting was sent to the Tower. He was executed in 1539, the abbey was dissolved, its monks were pensioned, and its treasures
were delivered to the King. The abbey buildings became a quarry for the area, so that little survives today. The Church of England has owned the property since 1907 and has sponsored archeological excavations on the site.
Bibliography: Sources. a. watkin, ed., The Great Chartulary of Glastonbury, 3 v. (Somerset Record Society 59, 63, 64; London 1947–56). adam of domerham, Historia de rebus gestis Glastoniensibus, ed. t. hearne, 2 v. (London 1727). john of glastonbury, Chronica: sive historia de rebus Glastoniensibus …, ed. t. hearne (Oxford 1726). william of malmesbury, De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne, 179:1681–1734); De gestis regum Anglorum, ed. w. stubbs, 2 v. (Rerum Britannicarum medil aevi scriptores 90; London 1887–89). Literature. w. dugdale, Monastitcon Anglicanum (London 1655–73); best ed. by j. caley et al., 6 v. (1817–30) 1:1–79. f. b. bond, An Architectural Handbook of Glastonbury Abbey (4th ed. Glastonbury 1925). g. ashe, King Arthur's Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury (New York 1958), with good bibliog. a. watkin, The Story of Glastonbury (London 1960), short introd. d. knowles and r. n. hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales (New York 1953) 66. d. knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 943–1216 (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1962). d. knowles, The Religious Orders in England, 3 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 1948–60), scattered, but excellent references.
[j. r. sommerfeld]