The Glastonbury Legend - An Introduction  

Closeup of Wearyall Hill, as seen from Glastonbury Tor. This is where Joseph of Arimatheia on his arrival from the Holy Land supposedly planted his staff, which flowered into a hawthorn tree.


"And did these feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green? /And was the holy Lamb of God /On England's pleasant pastures seen?" begins William Blake's poem ‘Prelude To Milton,’ the basis of England's "alternate national anthem," Jerusalem. (See inset below right.) It is perhaps the most familiar source referring to what is known as the Glastonbury Legend or The Holy Legend, though the allusion is not always understood by those singing the hymn.

In summary, the legend is this: Joseph of Arimatheia was a rich man, a relative of Jesus (and one of his covert disciples), who after the Crucifixion claimed the body of Jesus from Pilate. He came to Britain with other disciples and founded the first British church at Glastonbury, where he planted his staff. This miraculously flowered into a tree, The Glastonbury Thorn, whose offshoots may still be seen today, flowering every Christmas. (A sprig or cutting is sent to Buckingham Palace every year from this tree, which analysis has shown is a Palestinian variety.) Joseph also brought and kept there certain sacred relics, perhaps the Chalice Cup or Grail. He knew Britain from his trips as a tin merchant, and in fact, on one of his trips he had brought his nephew, the boy Jesus. Joseph, and some say the Virgin Mary, is said to be buried there, along with the Grail featured in legends of Arthur – whose official tomb is still to be seen there.
Although Blake's own source of inspiration may lie in the rumour (perhaps begun by him) he was a Druid, the 'Holy legend' first surfaced in print in the Grail romances of the early Middle Ages. There was a Romance from around 1200 called Joseph Of Arimatheia, depicting him and his followers (not the Church) as Keepers of the Grail, never reaching Britain but founder of a secret Order whose members in the "vale of Avaron" knew the "secret" of the Grail -- the words which will end the "enchantment of Britain." The High History Of The Holy Grail, alias Perlesvaus, of c1225 AD, and later Romances, even imply a dynasty from Joseph and Christ to Sir Galahad.


The poem 'Prelude to Milton' by William Blake (1757-1827) is better-known as the popular "hymn" Jerusalem, set to music by Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Edward Elgar, and sung at national events since the First World War, when it was adopted as an 'anthem' by the Women's Institute. As well as being sung in church, it is now a popular alternative to the England's official God-Save-The-Queen anthem, to close national cultural events, like the last night of the Proms concerts.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Joseph of Arimatheia on 'Albion's rocky shore'
Joseph of Arimatheia on (in Blake's words) 'Albion's Ancient Druid Rocky Shore'. The belief that Joseph of Arimatheia was buried at Glastonbury led to Edward III (who visited the Abbey in 1331) authorising a seer to search the abbey precincts for the grave. It was never found.

This story has become a part of British folklore and legend accepted in part by some clerics, and the motif became an integral part of the Grail legend. The legend is now recorded in various versions in many guidebooks, as well as novels (eg Margaret Steedman's Refuge In Avalon), and there are various local-folklore "Holy visit" traditions throughout the West Country. The British Church itself historically did not promote the legend, parts of which were somewhat heretical, but which would have not only have promoted Glastonbury Abbey but established historical precedence for the then Church of Britain over all others. (It did make a few attempts at Ecclesiastical Councils in the Middle Ages, but these were not accepted by the Vatican.) It never became established church legend -- perhaps because such a claim of precedence over the Roman Church became dangerous. It remains regional folklore, with no definitive version - details vary and conflict. Where, then, did these ideas come from?
In the Bible, Joseph of Arimatheia (ie from that village, to distinguish him from other Josephs) was, in Matthew 27:57-8 and John 19:38-40, a rich "man of means." The Vulgate Bible gives him as nobilis decurio, a decurion being a term often used for an official in charge of mines. (It is also said to be part of Cornish tin-miners folklore that there is a saying and song that "Joseph Was A Tin-Man and the miners loved him well.") The New Testament also says he claimed the body from Pilate -- which implies legally he was a relative, usually given as an uncle.

In the 1980s, the Folklore Society tried to trace the legend back. A.W. Smith in the Folklore Society Journal 1989 outlined the details of the legends in its various manifestations. He explores the idea of tin-workers as the credited source of the folklore. He cites Henry Jenner, the old Chief Bard of Cornwall writing an account for the Benedictine Journal Pax in 1916 describing metal workers as "a very old fraternity" with a saying "Joseph was in the tin trade" which reflects their tradition Joseph made his money as a tin merchant, and also once brought "the child Christ and His Mother and landed them at St Michael's Mount." (This is now a tidal islet in Penzance Bay.) The tin-trade has long been associated with Phoenician traders coming to Britain to buy raw ore, and Bournemouth vicar and writer Stuart Jackman in a 1984 magazine article refers typically to "those Phoenician sea-gypsies who came on a tin-buying cruise to Cornwall with the teenager Jesus as a cabin boy."
Smith traced the popularisation of the legend back to the writings of three clerics: the Rev. H.A. Lewis, Vicar of Talland in Cornwall and author of Christ In Cornwall (1939); the Rev C.C. Dobson of Hastings, author of Did Our Lord Visit Britain As They Say In Cornwall And Somerset (1936), and the Rev. Lionel S. Lewis, Vicar of St John's, Glastonbury, author of St Joseph Of Arimathea At Glastonbury Or The Apostolic Church Of Britain (1922, revised through 1955 and still in print in Glastonbury). These authors cited older folk's sayings from around the turn of the century, but neither they nor Smith could trace any earlier source, e.g. among Cornish tin-miners' folklore. Smith found there were inconsistencies in the details as to time and place, so no core legend could be identified. Stymied, Smith decided the legend was simply a product of the then-active British Israelite movement, though he offered no evidence. The legend was also popularised near the turn of the century by being referred to in Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson's influential Arthurian verse cycle The Idylls Of The King.


Glastonbury was then a portGlastonbury was a sea-port in the Roman era. Later it became an impassable marsh which became a vast freshwater lake after rains. Since then, most of the Somerset Levels have been reclaimed as farmland. Glastonbury port is the round yellow bit.

Medieval woodcut showing the Glastonbury ThornThere are few corroborative details in the West Country folklore that he brought the boy Jesus with him on one or more of his tin-trading trips. Supposedly the Thorn grew on Wearyall Hill originally where Joseph planted his staff and asked to be shown where his nephew had lived when he resided here during his 'missing' years (i.e. sometime between ages 12 to 30, years not covered by New Testament accounts). This implies Jesus was here on his own and would have been more than a boy. A variant tradition has him shipwrecked or stormbound here for a winter. It is true that Glastonbury was a port in Roman times (the sea flooded the Somerset Levels tidally - see sketch map right). However, dating the founding of the first Church in Britain has proved impossible, though the monk St Gildas, himself connected with the site, put the coming of Christianity to Britain at the height of Tiberius's reign -- which would put it spectacularly early, i.e. within five years of the Crucifixion itself, and before the Roman Conquest. Even the reliable mediaeval historian William Of Malmesbury, though he could not get any details, refers to the discovery of "documents of no small credit, which have been discovered in certain places to the following effect: "No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ created the church of Glastonbury."

  The Glastonbury thorn tree

The Abbey's main surviving buildings.The 1st-century wattle-n-daub church is thought to have stood on the site where the Lady Chapel [behind] stands today.

The founding of the early Church here helped launch the Celtic Monastic Movement which would among other things educate the generally illiterate Saxon population, including Alfred the Great, via his Welsh tutor Asser.
  Dates of Joseph's final arrival vary from AD 35 to 70. According to the Pseudo-Gospels, he was freed by the Emperor Vespasian, who had supposedly become a Christian after a miracle cure, in AD 70. A 13th-C. account says he was sent AD 63 by St Philip to found the first Christian church in the West (i.e. Europe). British legends add the local King, Arviragus, gave Joseph 12 hides of land, and on this was built Britain's first church, a modest wattle-and-daub affair (perhaps circular in shape). Arviragus seems to have been an historical king in southwest Britain.
Some argue he was the same man as, or else the brother, of the war leader "Caractacus" (it should be spelt Caratacos, in Welsh, Caradoc), who led the British resistance against Vespasian's legions for 9 years until he was betrayed in AD 52, and taken to Rome, where he and his family were allowed to live quietly. Caractacus was originally a king of the east-British tribe the Catuvellauni. After an initial defeat by Claudius's legions, Caractacus fled west to fight on alongside the Silures of South Wales.
According to legends compiled in Chris Barber & David Pykett's 1993 Arthurian study Journey To Avalon, Arviragus is supposed to have surrendered at South Cadbury Camp hillfort (12 miles east of Glastonbury). He was thereafter bound to Rome as an ally via marriage to Emperor Claudius's daughter Genuissa in AD 45, and remained by order in Rome. (Note that no Genuissa, Venissa etc is listed in Roman imperial genealogies; she appears only in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century romance-chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae, while Arviragus gets only a single passing mention in Roman sources, in a poem.) However Barber & Pykett argue he returned as a client king in Britain, and argue the body allegedly dug up by Glastonbury monks in 1191 AD, buried in an ancient dugout-canoe style coffin made from a hollowed tree, and identified as Arthur, was in fact Arviragus.
A potential link with the legend is that if Arviragus or Caractacus was living in enforced retirement at Rome, through which Joseph and his entourage supposedly passed en route to Marseilles and hence overland to Brittany and Britain (the old tin-trade overland route), ie Caractacus may have suggested his kingdom would shelter the exiles. John Whitehead in his 1959 Guardian Of The Grail also argues that Arviragus and Caractacus were two different names for the war leader who became the inspiration for the Arthurian legend, with the Latin Arwiragus representing the Britonnic tribal name Arqwir-auc, i.e. "Bear-chief-folk" becoming Arthwir-auc and hence the original Arthur, part of a secret royal dynasty.
Since the publication of the 1982 bestseller The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, and its sequel The Messianic Legacy, the idea of an actual bloodline has been taken up by the heraldic genealogist, the late Laurence Gardner. In his 1996 Bloodline Of The Holy Grail, Gardner identifies the original "Joseph Of Arimatheia" as Jesus' brother James, alias St James The Just (AD 1-82), and the boy "Jesus" visitor to Britain as James's nephew, that is, the eldest son of Christ and Mary Magdalene, with the uncle's visit placed in AD 35 and the boy's visit in AD 49, at age 12. Gardner argues that James's younger son Josephus or Josephes (born AD 37) was the "Grail Child" referred to in the Romances. Gardner says this boy has been confused with his uncle Joseph of Arimatheia, and says he was properly "Joseph Rama-Theo," meaning the Crown Prince, and was the same person as the biblical Eli and the Saint Ilid of British saints' biographies, who was "summoned to Britain by ... the wife of King Caractacus." Gardner says Joseph Rama-Theo worked with the legendary Bran Bendigeit of British mythology, who Gardner says was Caractacus' Arch-Druid, and who married Joseph's daughter Anna after Bran was taken hostage to Rome with Caractacus in AD 52. Caractacus's elder daughter then became mother of Prince Linus, historical first Bishop of Rome, and Arviragus's great grandson Lucius became the first recorded Christian king of Britain, in AD 156 at Winchester, and it was he who rebuilt Glastonbury, after the original church had fallen into decay, as a refuge for persecuted Christians. Gardner argues this was the real basis of the "Grail dynasty" idea, of descendants carrying on the most sacred early Christian traditions.
Since then, Bloodline: The Celtic Kings Of Roman Britain (2010) by Bournemouth University archaeology lecturer and tv presenter Dr Miles Russell has taken another look at the relationship between the British and Roman dynasties.
  Abbey ruin, exterior and interior

Glastonbury grew to be the largest and richest monastery in the country - a factor which led to its annihilation in Henry VIII's Dissolution of The Monasteries in 1540.


Abbey and cross

Artist's impression of oldwattle church An artist's impression of the thatched 1st-Century "wattle 'n daub" church (ie with walls made of intertwined withies packed with clay mud and straw). One theory is it would have been circular, in Celtic style.

This negative-reversal image from an illustration from Camden's 1608 Britannia shows the wrap-around inscription on the foot-long lead cross reportedly found in the grave in 1191. It says 'Hic iacet sepultus inclitus Rex Arturius in Insula Avalonia' - 'Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.'

Abbey grounds, Tor behind
The Abbey grounds, looking towards The Tor. The town's most distinctive landmark - a 500' conical hill shaped like an upturned boat, is barely visible from the Abbey. Just visible is the 15th-C. tower of St Michael's Chapel, built where once stood a Dark Ages monastery. Henry VIII had the last Abbot hanged from the tower in 1539.


Glastonbury's Old Church was built up after 700 AD with funds from King Ine, first English king of the area. It became the seat of Christianity in Britain, with many Saints buried there: Gildas, Columba, Bridget, Patrick, David. The Grail was also thought to be hidden there, perhaps down the Chalice Well, alias the Blood Spring. The site also features other mysteries like the giant zodiac supposedly existing in the surrounding landscape pattern, and the Celtic Maze pattern around the Tor. Both the site and the Holy legend also became connected with later Arthurian legend. According to the Life Of St Gildas, written before the Romances, Guenevere was abducted and kept there at 'Glastonia' by the local king, and Arthur could not capture it "owing to the asylum offered by the invulnerable position due to the fortifications of thickets of reed, river and marsh." Glastonbury was then a natural retreat like the nearby Isle of Athelney (where Alfred, in hiding, later burnt the cakes).
The Somerset Levels being still largely a tidal swamp, Glastonbury was reached from inland by a causeway from Street. It was referred to as Ynys-Witrin in a 601 AD charter as the "Isle of Glass (or Glaze)", a name which may refer to the way its shape was reflected in the water. "Isle Of Glass" became a place-name used in several Romances, and the site may be an inspiration for the Grail Castle as well as the Isle of Avalon, both of which can be reached by water at certain times. Just before Henry II died, he told the Abbot that a Welsh bard had informed him that Arthur was buried there. During reconstruction in 1191 after the great fire, the monks dug up a body there, identified by a foot-high lead cross. According to 13th-century writer Gerald of Wales, it was inscribed with the Mediaeval Latin for"Here Lies The Renowned King Arthur And His Second Wife Guenevere In The Isle Of Avalon." (The rather startling reference to Guenevere as a second wife was edited out in later reproductions.)
Along with the cross, the bones recovered in 1191 were later lost, the modern 'grave-site' being the site of a tomb where the bones were relocated in 1278. Some historians think the inscription was merely a fake to help pay for rebuilding the burnt Abbey by promoting Glastonbury as an early heritage-tourism destination. (The Mediaeval Latin in which it is inscribed is anachronistic, and the added phrase "in the Isle of Avalon" seems an unnecessary addition to secure place-name identification with the Romances.) Henry's son, Richard I, who had precipitated the Abbey's financial crisis by cutting off their funding when he became king, claimed on his only visit that he also found Excalibur there, giving it away on Crusade -- which would seem an unlikely act if he thought it genuine.)

original 1191 gravesiteSign marking the gravesite dug up in 1191, with the Tor behind   'Site of King Arthur's Tomb' - not the gravesite found in 1191 but a black marble tomb built before the high altar of the main Abbey church in 1278, destroyed in 1539, and rediscovered in 1934. 

Since the 1191 discovery of "King Arthur's Grave," the Glastonbury legend has become a key part of the Arthurian legends, with Joseph portrayed as first of a line of guardians of the Holy Grail. Thus, the Isle of Glastonbury became both the mysterious "Grail Castle" and the Isle or Vale of Avalon, where Arthur rests. Today, as well as a centre of the British "New Age" movement, it remains a Christian annual-pilgrimage site (Catholic and Anglican, both in June), and a year-round international tourism destination.

Further Reading
Alcock, Leslie, Arthur's Britain (Penguin Press, 1971)
Ashe, Geoffrey, King Arthur's Avalon: The Story Of Glastonbury (Dutton 1958)
Barber & Pykett, Journey To Avalon (1993 Blorenge Books)
Benham, Patrick, The Avalonians (1993; rev. 2006 Gothic Image,Glastonbury)
Fortune, Dion, Glastonbury: Avalon Of The Heart (1934; repr 2000) Red Wheel/ Weiser Books
Treharne, R. F. The Glastonbury Legends: Joseph Of Arimathea, The Holy Grail And King Arthur (Cresset 1967, Abacus 1975)

  Historian RF Treharne's study, one of the first to make it into paperback, compiled details of early legends from early sources not otherwise accessible. The cover, a painting by Thomas Archer, illustrates the Tennyson version of Arthur's demise, with Arthur being tended by three fays prior to being taken by boat to the Isle of Avalon.

Glastonbury has not only become the historical centre of English Christianity, but with its symbolic identity as "Avalon," a New Age pilgrimage destination as well.


Glastonbury Tor, as seen in a BBC documentary-and-book series on historical mysteries presented by the historian Michael Wood. ("Arthur: The Once And Future King" from the BBC series In Search of Myths & Heroes.)