Monday 19 August 2019

Monks 'made up myths to help finance Glastonbury Abbey'

Medieval monks spun up myths surrounding Glastonbury Abbey (Reading University/PA)
Medieval monks spun up myths surrounding Glastonbury Abbey (Reading University/PA)

Medieval monks spun up myths surrounding Glastonbury Abbey to raise funds after a devastating fire, an archaeological study has found.

Researchers examined archaeological records from excavations at the Abbey between 1904 and 1979, none of which had ever been published.

They found that some of the Abbey's best known archaeological facts are in fact myths - many perpetuated by excavators influenced by its fabled legends.

The research by the University of Reading found the site was occupied 200 years earlier than previously estimated, with fragments of wine jars evidence of a Dark Age settlement.

It also revealed how the monks spin-doctored the Somerset Abbey's mythical links to make Glastonbury one of the richest monasteries in the country.

Glastonbury Abbey was renowned in the middle-ages as the reputed burial place of the legendary King Arthur and the site of the earliest church in Britain, thought to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea.

Roberta Gilchrist, professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, said: "This project has rewritten the history of Glastonbury Abbey.

"Although several major excavations were undertaken during the 20th century, dig directors were led heavily by Glastonbury's legends and the occult.

"Using 21st century technology, we took a step back from the myth and legend to expose the true history of the Abbey."

The project examined the archaeological collections of Glastonbury Abbey Museum, including chemical and compositional analysis of glass, metal and pottery.

A geophysical survey of the Abbey grounds was also undertaken.

The researchers focused on the work of Ralegh Radford who excavated there in the 1950s and 1960s and claimed to have discovered a Christian 'British' cemetery.

This Saxon cloister was believed to be the earliest in England, as well as the site of King Arthur's grave, allegedly located by the monks in 1181.

But the latest analysis disputes these findings, with the graves Radford judged to be Dark Age actually found to be later than the Saxon church and cemetery.

The site of King Arthur's grave was revealed to be a pit in the cemetery containing material dating from the 11th to 15th centuries, with no evidence linking the era to Arthur and Queen Guinevere.

Prof Gilchrist added: " It's likely the judgment of excavators like Radford was clouded by the Abbey myths.

"They were also less critical of historical sources than we are today and did not have the luxury of 21st century technology.

"Our most amazing discoveries relied on radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis.

"We identified an early timber building of very high status, as well as a large craft-working complex of five glass furnaces radiocarbon dated to c. AD 700.

"This represents the earliest and most substantial evidence for glass-working in Saxon England."

Research also highlighted how the monks crafted the legends to restore the Abbey to its former glory, following a devastating fire in 1184.

"The monks needed to raise money by increasing the numbers of visiting pilgrims - and that meant keeping the myths and legends alive," Prof Gilchrist added.

"We found evidence that the monks laid out the buildings in a very distinctive way to emphasise the 'earliest church' story.

"Uniquely, the religious and cult focus of the site was to the west of the Abbey church, centred on the Lady Chapel.

"This occupied the site of the legendary early church, allegedly founded by Joseph of Arimathea.

"The monks also deliberately designed the rebuilt church to look older in order to demonstrate its ancient heritage and pre-eminent place in monastic history, using archaic architecture style and reused material to emphasise the Abbey's mythical feel.

"This swelled pilgrim numbers - and the Abbey's coffers."

She added that t he strategy paid off, with Glastonbury Abbey becoming the second richest monastery in England by the end of the Middle Ages.

The project, conducted with partners Trustees of Glastonbury Abbey and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, involved a team of 31 specialists.

PA Media

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