A Topographical Dictionary of England 1831
By Samuel Lewis, R Creighton
GLASTONBURY, a market town having separate jurisdiction, locally in the hundred of Glaston-Twelve- Hides, county of SOMERSET, 7 miles (N. by E.) from Somerton, and 124 (W. by S.) from London, containing 2630 inhabitants. This place, which is of very great antiquity, is situated in a marshy tract, called by the Britons Avalan, from its abounding with apples ; and Ynys-wytryn, or the glassy island ; by the Saxons it was named Glastn-ey, a term of similar signification, and after the erection of its monastery, which formed a small town, it was called Glastn-a-byrig, from which its present name is immediately deduced. That it is a place of very remote antiquity is certain, but its origin is involved in so much obscurity, that it is difficult to separate its authentic from its legendary history.
It is chiefly distinguished for its celebrated abbey, said to have been originally founded by Joseph of Arimathea, whom Philip, the Apostle of Gaul, sent to preach the gospel in Britain, and who, having arrived in this island, rested with his companions on a small eminence, half a mile to the south-west of the present town, still called Weary-all hill, and established here the first society of Christian worshippers in Britain. In the most ancient charters of the monastery, Glastonbury is styled " The fountain and origin of all religion in the realm of Britain." When the church erected by Joseph had fallen into decay, Devi, Bishop of St. David's, rebuilt it on the same spot, and on its subsequent decay, it was restored by twelve persons from the northern parts of England. St. Patrick, who came from Ireland about 439, is said to have spent thirty years of his life in this convent, and to have formed the brethren, who previously lived in huts scattered round the church, into a regular community, restoring also the primitive form of Christianity, which after the death of Lucius, the first Christian king of Britain, had fallen into disuse. About the year 530, David, Archbishop of Menevia, with seven of his suffragans, retired to this place, and greatly improved the church, to the east end of which he added a chapel, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, and enriched the altar with a sapphire of inestimable value. The celebrated King Arthur, after the fatal battle with his nephew Mordred, was interred in this isle : his remains are said to have been discovered in the reign of Henry II., who ordering a search to be made, a leaden cross was found, with a Latin inscription in the rude characters of that age, to this effect, " Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the Isle of Avalon." Beneath was observed a coffin-like excavation in the solid rock, containing the bones of a human body,- supposed to be those of Arthur, which were then deposited in the church, and covered with a sumptuous monument. St. Augustine, on his arrival in Britain, visited Glastonbury, and attempted to introduce into the abbey the rules of the order of St. Benedict, but the measure was not attended with success.
The monastery, during the Heptarchy, had been much favoured by successive monarchs, and in 708, Ina, King of the West Saxons, took down the conventual buildings, which were greatly dilapidated, and rebuilt the abbey from its foundation in a style of superior splendour. In 942, Dunstan, who was appointed abbot by King Edred, and to him that monarch gave the unlimited command of his treasury for the improvement of the monastery; he enlarged the conventual buildings in a style of unrivalled magnificence, and in a short time completed an establishment, which, under his superintendence, became the "pride of England and the glory of Christendom," furnishing superiors to all the religious houses in the kingdom. Edgar, who had a palace within two miles of the town, in a romantic situation, at a place still called "Edgarley," now a hamlet in the parish of St. John, endowed the abbey with several estates, and invested the monks with extensive privileges. The abbots were sovereigns within the Isle of Avalon, into which neither the king nor any of the bishops could enter without their permission ; they sat among the barons in parliament, and enjoyed a revenue superior to that of most monasteries in the kingdom. Of the palace of Edgar there are no other vestiges than two wolves' heads and a pelican, placed in the front of a modern house ; the former conveying a direct allusion to the tax imposed by him on the Welch princes, for the extirpation of wolves within the realm. At the time of the Conquest, William, not content with curtailing the power of the abbots, and with exacting tribute from the monastery, deprived them* of their privileges, and seized on their possessions ; he imposed on the monks an abbot of his own nomination, whose tyranny ultimately compelled him to retire into Normandy. Under his successor, the abbey recovered many of the estates of which it had been deprived ; and during the abbacy of Henry de Blois, brother of King Stephen, whose liberality and prudence equally promoted the interest of the monks, and the cultivation of literature among them, it regained the greater part of its confiscated wealth, and retrieved its prior fame and importance.
A considerable portion of the abbey having been destroyed by fire in 1184, it was restored by Henry II., who granted the abbots a charter, confirming all the privileges which had been obtained from his predecessors : but its internal tranquillity was greatly interrupted by the violent contentions between the monks and the bishop of Wells, with respect to the nomination of the abbots, which continued, with trifling intermissions, until the Reformation. In 1276, the abbey was much injured by the shock of an earthquake, which threw down the church of St. Michael on the Torr hill. The strict discipline prevailing in the establishment for a time delayed its preconcerted fate ; but, in 1539, its venerable abbot, Whytyng, refusing to surrender to the commissioners of Henry VIII., was arraigned and condemned for high treason, and, with two of his monks, being drawn on a sledge to Torr Hill, was hanged and quartered ; his head was placed over the entrance to the abbey, and his members were exposed at Bath, Bridgwater, Wells, and Ilchester. At the dissolution of this celebrated monastery, which had flourished from the earliest introduction of Christianity into Britain, the revenue was £3508. 13. 4f. The abbey and its dependencies comprehended a space of nearly sixty acres ; the ruins consist chiefly of the chapel of St. Joseph, and fragments of the conventual church : the prevailing character of the chapel is Norman, but the details and enrichment, which are in good preservation, are in the early style of English architecture. The remains of the church are of a less embellished character, but exhibit much of the pure simplicity of the early English style, with some portions of a later date. The abbot's kitchen is the most entire, and is probably of more recent erection than the other buildings : it is of an octagonal form, having four fire-places; the roof is finely vaulted, and from the centre rises an octagonal pyramid, crowned with a double lantern, of curious design : the ruins are richly overspread with ivy, and present a striking memorial of departed grandeur.
The town stands on the declivity of a considerable eminence nearly in the centre of the county, and consists of a spacious street forming the principal thoroughfare, intersected nearly at right angles by another of smaller extent : the houses are in general low, but there are several of more recent erection and of more respectable appearance ; and many houses in different parts of the town have been built entirely of stone taken from the ruins of the abbey. The George Inn was anciently appropriated by the abbots as a place of entertainment for pilgrims visiting the shrine of St. Dunstan, and still retains much of its original character and decoration : the old manor-house and tribunal of justice are interesting relics ; and a beautiful modern building, harmonising in its style of architecture with the venerable remains by which it is surrounded, has been erected by the present proprietor of the abbey land. The town is well paved and lighted by act of parliament, and supplied with water from a fine spring issuing from the ridge of a hill, three quarters of a mile distant, and collected in an ancient reservoir of stone, whence it is conveyed by pipes into the town. The principal branches of manufacture are those of stockings and a coarse sort of gloves, which have superseded the woollen manufacture formerly carried on here, and now afford employment to several hundred persons in the town and neighbourhood. It is in contemplation to form a communication between this town and Bridg- water, by means of a canal from the river Parret, at Boroughbridge. The market days were formerly Tuesday and Saturday, the former has been discontinued, and the latter is now only for butchers' meat : the fairs are on the Wednesday in Easter week, September I9th, called the Torr fair, principally for horses, October 10th, and the Monday week after St. Andrew's day.
The government, by charter of Queen Anne, is vested in a mayor, recorder, seven superior, and sixteen inferior, burgesses, assisted by a town clerk, two coroners, and subordinate officers. The mayor, who is chosen annually from the superior burgesses, the recorder, who must be a barrister of three years standing, and the late mayor, are justices of the peace within the borough. The corporation hold quarterly courts of session for the trial of all offenders within the borough ; and a court leet for the hundred is held in the town. Glastonbury comprises the parishes of St. Benedict and St. John the Baptist, and gives name to a peculiar jurisdiction which extends over several parishes. The living of St. Benedict's is a donative annexed to the perpetual curacy of St. John's, jointly endowed with £800 private benefaction, £400 royal bounty, and £600 parliamentary grant, and in the peculiar jurisdiction and patronage of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The churchwardens of St. John's are a body corporate with a common seal, and have estates producing at present about £500 per annum, of which part was granted in the year 1300. The churches are both interesting structures in the later style of English architecture, with towers of very graceful and highly enriched character, of which the former has open turrets and battlements, and more decoration than the latter, which is notwithstanding a fine composition. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Wesleyan Methodists, and Independents, which last has an endowment of £80 per annum. A National school, in which thirty boys are instructed, is supported partly by subscription, and partly by an appropriation of £20 per annum, arising from property bequeathed by James Levinston, in 1666 for charitable uses. A rent-charge of £4, left by the Earl of Godolphin, is paid to a school-mistress for teaching ten children ; and £5 per annum, arising from two turnpike deeds assigned by Mrs. Honora Gould, is paid for teaching twelve female children to read and sew. The Upper and Lower almshouses were founded by the abbots of the monastery, and since the dissolution have been supported by an annual grant from the crown ; the former, which is in a greatly dilapidated state, is inhabited by ten aged men, and the latter, which has been lately rebuilt by a grant from the crown, is inhabited by ten aged women ; attached to each is a small chapel, and in the hall of each, one additional tenant is allowed to reside in expectation of the first vacancy.
On the summit of Torr hill, at a short distance from the town, is the tower of St. Michael, the only part remaining of a splendid church and monastery, erected on the site of a former one which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1276 ; over the west entrance is a sculptured figure of St. Michael, holding in his hand a pair of scales, in one of which is the bible, and in the other the devil, aided by an imp in a fruitless effort to outweigh the sacred volume. Weary-all hill, the spot where Joseph of Arimathea and his disciples are stated to have rested after their pilgrimage, is connected with a legendary account of the origin of a species of thorn, called the Glastonbury thorn : on this hill, the legend relates, Joseph struck his staff into the ground, which immediately taking root, grew up into a flourishing tree, producing in succeeding ages what was called the holy thorn, there being still •some trees of that species in the neighbourhood. Equally absurd with this are a variety of other legendary tales which have been interwoven into the history of this place. Some chalybeate springs were discovered here, which about the middle of the last century were numerously attended by invalids from Bath, Bristol, and other parts of the country, and such was the repute of tKeir medicinal properties, that the water was sent in bottles to London. A great variety of organic remains consisting chiefly of nautili, cornua ammonis, bivalves, &c., have been found imbedded in the quarries near Torr Hill. Henry Fielding, the celebrated novelist, was a native of Sharpham park, in this parish ; and among the many illustrious personages who have been interred here, are several of the Saxon kings, together with a numerous train of noblemen, bishops, abbots, and priors. Glastonbury formerly conferred the title of baron on the family of Greville, which became extinct on the death of the late lord without issue.