When Was Glastonbury Abbey Founded?

Our Latest Thoughts
On
Several Controversies 
 
which we send you
with our Respect and Affection
from Stephen and Margot Morland

Glastonbury

as on July 26th 1992

our first 90th Birthday

 
 
When Was Glastonbury Abbey Founded? 

 

As the Abbey was a religious, a Christian foundation, this question involves Rulers, Kings and Princes, their beliefs and needs in caring for their people and themselves. We know, sometimes, in immense detail, what happened in Rome and Constantinople during the centuries while the Anglo-Saxons were invading and settling in Britain, but very little about events here.
 
In the 4th century the chiefly Germanic tribes from central and eastern Europe were threatening and invading the Empire. The Legions in Britain were needed to defend the province against Pictish marauders, but more urgently to support a commanding officer claiming sovereignty in Gaul, or to fight invaders crossing the Rhine. In Britain most villas were robbed and burnt before 370 AD. Some towns could be defended, but trade declined, most were decayed and some abandoned. After 410 AD Roman officials were not sent to govern Britain.
 
The Imperial Government was nominally Christian, but Paganism survived in Britain. Temples have been excavated at Lydney in the Forest of Dean, on Brean Down and on Creech Hill: recent excavation at Shepton Mallet showed two Pagan cemeteries and one cemetery that was clearly Christian. 
 
The few records of British Christians are most interesting. Pelagius, who probably lived from about 360 to 420 AD split the Church by what seems to me to have been a rational and sensible heresy. He argued that Adam’s sins could not justly have consigned his descendents for ever to Hell, and other parallel contentions. Monks and Bishops were strongly exercised about this ethical and logical matter in the 5th century. Eventually the Emperor put his foot down; persistent Pelagians could lose all their property; the Church (and the Emperor) must be able to decide between right and wrong.
 
About 405 AD Patrick, then a boy of about 15 or 16, was carried off from his family farm, location unknown, by Irish raiders, and sold into slavery. He escaped, more than once, and spent many years in Gaul studying religion, becoming warmly attached to the Church and Rome. In middle age he became the famous missionary to Ireland, baptising thousands, counteracting Pelagian tendencies, a bishop and a much loved saint.
 
Patrick probably worked with Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, who visited Britain twice in the middle of the 5th Century intent on defeating the Pelagians. It was possible at that time for a bishop to visit Britain, meet fellow churchmen in conference and return safely to Gaul.
 
Gildas lived from about 500 to 570 AD and could have written of the Anglo Saxon invasions and settlement in a period of which we are profoundly ignorant. He was a Briton, Latin-speaking, well educated and Christian. He wrote a sermon against the wickedness of contemporary British princes and their subjects, which was bringing disaster to the country. In a short historical introduction he refers to the “Proud Monarch” who invited unnamed Jutes into Kent to fight northern marauders; they revolted against him and could not be expelled.
 
Ambrosius Aurelianus, the “last of the Romans” here, rallied the Britons and defeated these invaders. Battles followed during the years, neither side prevailing, until the great British victory at Mount Badon, possibly in the year of Gildas’ birth. Later writers say Arthur was the victor there; Gildas must have known.
 
The five princes whose wickedness shocked Gildas ruled only Wales and Dumnonia which probably included what was later Somerset and Dorset.
 
Excavations on Glastonbury Tor have shown that there were wooden buildings on the summit during the 6th century. The occupiers ate much meat, had a small brass furnace, and curiously collected fossil ammonites. "The site might have been the stronghold of a Dark Age Chieftain, or an early monastic site". (Rahtz, Invitation to Archaeology, 1991, p.128). The choice between these possibilities could depend on the writers interest: nothing excavated indicated a Christian context, so I prefer the Dark Age Chieftain.
 
In 577, possibly seven years after the death of Gildas, the Saxons won the battle of Dyrham, and captured Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath. But did the Saxons at Dyrham come from the Upper Thames valley, where there are many Pagan burials or, as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle suggests, from what are now Hampshire and Wiltshire where there are very few?
 
 
The Wansdyke is an earthwork running from near Portishead eastward to the present Berkshire boundary near Inkpen Beacon, that could have been a defence against whoever held Bath and Cirencester. There are many gaps in it; where timber was growing a palisade may have been thought more effective than a ditch and bank with a fence on the top. It was probably not a defence against Saxons after the Battle of Dyrham, but of one unknown British Chieftain against another unknown.
 
By way of Yneswitrin we are approaching Glastonbury, its written charters and sometimes fanciful Chronicles. We read that St Patrick ended his life as Abbot here, followed by Benignus who succeeded him in his Irish bishopric; St David built a church here; Gildas and St Bridget lived here: Indracht and Patrick were laid in tombs on either side of the altar by Ine, although Indracht seems to have been martyred a century later. Arthur's grave was only found in 1191. But these claims took many years to emerge from the minds of Abbots, Monks and their friends, and are out of place in this brief study of events leading up to Ine and the stone church he built.
 
Was there a monastery at Glastonbury before the Saxons got here? My answer is “very probably”. The Church at Llandaff in South Wales received land gifts during the 7th century which, much altered, were recorded in Charters which have survived. Glastonbury, with its Tor and its later history, preserved a single Charter, much altered, dated 601 AD.
 
 
William of Malmesbury writing “of the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury” in about 1133, saw this charter by which a King of Dumnonia whose name was illegible, gave the land called Yneswitrin to the Old church situated there, five cassati, (that is hides) at the request of Abbot Worgret. Bishop Mauron wrote the Charter, which he and Abbot Worgret signed. The Charter is not right; the “Old Church” implies that a new Church had been built presumably by Ine; dating “Anno Domini” was unknown in 601. But I think it more probable that whoever wrote the document that William saw was working from some written record that named perhaps Mauron or Worgret, perhaps Yneswitrin, perhaps 601, rather than from his own imagination quite unaided.
 
In 658 after the Battle of Pen the West Saxons pursued the Britons to the Parret. In 682 the Britons were pursued to the sea. The West Saxons were now Christians, with some vigorous and devoted leaders. Among these was Aldhelm who studied in Ireland and Western Europe, was learned in literature and religion and wrote poems in fanciful Latin. He became Abbot of Malmesbury and was the first bishop of Westwood, Wessex west of Selwood. He was a much loved preacher and organiser of the church and died at Doulting in 709. He was the West Saxon's first Saint.
 
Winfrith, known later as Scant Boniface, was born at Crediton in 675 to a well placed Saxon family and educated at Exeter from the age of five. So a good Saxon family was living in mid-Devon only seventeen years after the battle of Pen, when the Britons were pursued to the Parret. His missions to Thuringia, Bavaria, Hesse and Frisia ended in his martyrdom as an old man in 754. They were amazingly successful, showing his courage and adventurous spirit, his ability to win the support of Pope and Kings and the love of the people whose souls he was trying to save.
 
Ine, King of the West Saxons from 688 to 725, was a man of outstanding ability, who regarded Christianity as essential to government, as monasteries were to Christianity. At a monastery men, and sometimes women, could learn to read, write and keep accounts, and sometimes to record the successes of the King. Religion taught there impressed subjects that speaking truth, keeping oaths, orderly behaviour and attendance on and obedience to priests could possibly avoid eternal damnation for believers.
 
Ine, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, founded the monastery at Glastonbury. What was there at an Abbey in the eighth century? A church, with relics of Saints; somewhere for writing and teaching; somewhere for books and records to be kept safe and dry; somewhere to live and perhaps a barn for storage of food. These elements could make monastic life possible for those who wished to serve their fellows and themselves in this way.
 
Grants of land to an Abbey provided an income to feed, clothe and support those living there and their work. During the few years before Ine became King, the Abbey was given land at Meare, “Glastingai”, Leigh in Street, Clewer, twenty Hides on the bank of the Tone, and Brentmarsh which the Abbot abandoned. In Ine’s time were added Pilton including Shepton and Croscombe, land on Pennard Hill, Zoy an island in Sedgemoor, and twenty Hides on Polden Hills, increased to sixty Hides in 729. Brentmarsh was recovered. A stone church was built next to the Old Church.
 
 
Although Ine may not have founded the Abbey, he made it rich and powerful enough to last another 800 years.

 S.C.M.

Glastonbury Antiquarian Society, 48 High Street, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 9DX - Registered Charity No: 309955
Website designed by Sean Miller - All images and text © Glastonbury Antiquarian Society 2017

Site Map