As part of our first research tour of England and Wales, Jenn and I visited one of the most magical and iconic places in Britain, Glastonbury Tor. From a long association with King Arthur, it is sometimes called The Isle of Avalon, and there are some compelling reasons for this. My favorite name for the place is actually one of the originals, Ynys Witrin, or “The Isle of Glass”. I love the ancient stories that go along with that name, the one that would most likely have been known to Arthur.
(Glastonbury in the Arthurian Age image from http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/arthur/avalon.html)
Glastonbury Tor is a tall, narrow hill towering over a small collection of lower hills in the Somerset Levels. The “front” end, at about 518 feet high, points towards the northeast and is capped by St. Michael’s Tower, the only structure remaining of a 14th Century church. Currently, the Somerset Levels are a wide expanse of rich farmland. But in the Arthurian Age, the tor and it’s neighboring hills existed as an island within a great watery marsh, and nearly encircled by the River Brue. This may be part of the reason it is called the Isle of Avalon.
Most notable about the site, however, are the seven concentric terraces that circle the entire tor and create much of its mystique. No one is quite certain how or when they were constructed. Some claim they are natural weathering, but they seem too symmetrical for this. Some suggest they were carved by neolithic farmers, but the terraces on the north side would have been a lot of wasted work. Many believe they represent a religious function, in which worshipers would wind their way up the terraces like a maze. Some have said the terraces don’t clearly form that sort of design, but it is plausible. A common suggestion is that they are defensive in nature, similar to the ditch and bank fortifications of British Iron Age hillforts. However, the terraces don’t have a ditch as most such fortifications did, and there is not a lot of room on the top to protect. There is, however, legend and archaeological evidence to suggest a Post-Roman fortification existed on the summit. It may have been part of a signalling-station system, as it can been seen from a great distance. When I stood atop of another of our Arthurian Age sites, South Cadbury Castle, 11 miles to the southeast, I was able to clearly see the Tor.
(Inside St. Micheal’s Tower)
There is evidence that a community of monks maintained an abbey in the high ground between the hills below the tor, at least from the time of the Arthurian Age. Today, that ground is covered by the remains of Glastonbury Abbey. One of the legends of Glastonbury is that, following the Crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain, bringing the Holy Grail. He came to Wearyall Hill and thrust his staff into the ground, where it took root. This may be far fetched, but a hawthorn has grown at that site for centuries that only blooms once in spring, near Easter, and once in winter, near Christmas, which is very unusual. Unfortunately, horrible people in the past decade have made a habit of destroying the tree and any attempts to replant its scions. In any event, Glastonbury is claimed, by some, to have been where the first British church was founded.
(A scion of the original Wearyall Thorn at the Glastonbury Abby.)
Legends that may have originated in the pre-Christian era, suggest that the Isle of Glass is an entrance to Annwn, the other world of the Celtic gods and “fairies”. An old legend states that a hermit, St. Collen, made his home on the slopes of the tor. After insulting the King of the Otherworld by declaring the fairy-folk demons, he was summoned into a palace through a gate in the tor to make amends. Refusing to partake of the king’s hospitality or to apologize, Collen sprinkled holy water about himself and the palace disappeared, leaving him alone on the tor and destroying the tor’s gateway to Annwn.
There are a number of Arthurian legends tied to Glastonbury. With an appreciation that many legends begin with a memory of history, there is some measure of plausibility to each. The Holy Grail is said to have been brought there by Joseph of Arimethea, and is tied to a mystical spring that still carries iron-tinged water. And while the Grail legend has it’s roots in a tangled confusion of Celtic pagan lore and Christian symbolism, it may be that some important artifact was kept here, and it is possible that Joseph brought it. A story of the abduction of Guinevere, the watery resting site of Excalibur and even the burial place of Arthur are all tied to this place by long tradition.
Glastonbury is often called Avalon, and it appears the name has a long history there. Is it because Arthur was buried there? This question is explored in The Retreat to Avalon, and will be further explored in the sequel, The Strife of Camlann. For now, I will say that while the story of the discovery of Arthur’s grave in the 12th century is often dismissed out of hand as a hoax by clever monks, there are some compelling arguments for giving them the benefit of the doubt. This will be the subject of a future post.
There is far more to say regarding this remarkable locale, but rather than write a book, I’ll leave it open to questions, comments and future posts to expand upon. Even better, you could learn about this wondrous place from the eminent historian and resident of Glastonbury, Geoffrey Ashe. There are none who could claim a greater knowledge of Arthurian history and legend, and his books are thoughtful, wonderful reads. If you are interested in more about Glastonbury’s Arthurian connections, you might pick up his The Landscape of King Arthur, or King Arthur’s Avalon.
If you have the opportunity to visit, do so! We can’t wait to go back.
(Our attempt to recreate the Tor here in the US.)
Title The Retreat to Avalon
Author Sean Poage
Genre Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy
Publisher Made Global Publishing
After three generations of struggle against ruthless invaders, Britain has finally clawed its way back within reach of peace and prosperity. Across the sea, Rome is crumbling under an onslaught of barbarian attacks, internal corruption and civil war. Desperate for allies, Rome’s last great emperor looks to Britain and the rising fame of her High King, Arthur.
Arthur believes the coming war is inevitable, but many are opposed. Dissent, intrigue and betrayal threaten to tear the fragile British alliance apart from within, while the enemies of Britain wait for the first sign of weakness.
Gawain, a young warrior craving fame, is swept up in Arthur’s wake as the king raises an army. While his wife and kin face their own struggles at home, Gawain finds himself taking on more than he bargained for, and heading into the greatest battle his people have faced in generations.
The Retreat to Avalon is the exciting beginning of the historical fiction trilogy The Arthurian Age, introducing readers to the origins of King Arthur and the world he lived and fought for.
It seemed they would never stop running. Just as they thought Eudaf would bring them back to camp, he would veer away again on some rough track through woods or fields or across a small stream. For all but a few, breathing came hard, feet were raw, and legs were leaden. Their arms and shoulders ached from the training shields and spears, which were twice the weight of those used in battle. Many who had not thrown up their heavy dinner the night before made up for it that morning. When the slower fellows started falling back or slowed to a walk, gasping or vomiting, the cadre would call up the line to Eudaf. He would turn the entire column around, run back past the stragglers about fifty paces, turn back around again and scoop them back into the pack. Their fellows, tired enough with running forward, would welcome them back into the fold with curses and rebukes.
“We all stay together!” Eudaf yelled each time. “When you let your fellow in the shieldwall shirk, he puts your life at risk!”
Gawain, near the middle of the pack, kept his head down and focused on breathing. He had lost all sense of direction and location when Eudaf called a halt so suddenly that several people stumbled over the man in front of them.
They were on a narrow track through a forest of thin trees and dense brush. Gawain and his fellows squatted or leant against a tree, catching their breath. After only a minute or so, Eudaf bellowed for the men to gather up near him.
“Does anyone know where we are?” Eudaf swung his arms in a circle. The others looked around, perplexed. The sun was up enough to bring a dull grey light, but it was an unremarkable place with nothing that amounted to a landmark. Even the taller hills that surrounded their lands were masked behind trees, clouds and rain.
“Not one of you goat rapers has kept your head well enough to know where you are?” he roared. “What in hell? You!” He pointed at Ajax, who stood towards the edge of the group. “What's your name?”
“I'm called Ajax.”
“I know that, you horse’s ass!” Eudaf glared at him. "What's your given name?” All eyes turned to Ajax, who stood gaping for a moment. Either he was flustered by exhaustion, or it had been so long since anyone had called him by his actual name that he had to think about it.
“Tegid, my lord,” he stammered.
“Tell me, Tegid, do you wish your name to be remembered beyond your days on this earth?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Then you damned well better keep your wits long enough to do something worth remembering!”
Eudaf pointed his spear at another young man. “You've eaten from my table enough for me to know your name, Brychan! So tell me why you don't know where you are!”
“We just followed you,” the soldier spoke up hesitantly.
“What? Without any thought to keeping track of where you are, or where you've been? Why?”
“We knew you would lead us back when you were ready.”