Some Wonders of the Abbey of Glastonbury

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Saint Dunstan was an important minister of state to several English kings, an abbot of Glastonbury, a bishop of Worcester and London and an archbishop of Canterbury. He restored monastic life in England and reformed the English Church. Adding to his myth was his legendary cunning in dealing with the Devil.

As a young boy Dunstan studied under the Irish monks who then occupied the ruins of Glastonbury abbey. In his youthful optimism, he had a vision of the abbey being restored. But before he could work on this project, Dunstan was appointed to the court of King Athelstan. There a plot was hatched to disgrace him and he was accused of being involved with witchcraft and black magic. The King ordered him to leave the court and outside the palace he was attacked by his enemies, beaten severely and thrown into a cesspool.

In 943, Dunstan returned to live as a hermit at Glastonbury. Against the old church of St Mary he built a small cell where he studied, did his handicrafts and played on his harp. He also worked as a silversmith in the scriptorium. It is thought likely that he was the artist who drew the well-known image of Christ with a small kneeling monk beside him in the Glastonbury Classbook.

Dunstan, now abbot, began to rebuild the abbey and established the Benedictine monasticism. In 995, King Edwy came to the throne, a headstrong youth wholly devoted to the reactionary nobles. On the day of Edwy’s coronation, Dunstan found the young monarch cavorting with a noblewoman and her mother. Edwy refused to return with the bishop and, infuriated, Dunstan dragged him back and forced him to renounce the girl. When he realised he had provoked the King, Dunstan fled to the sanctuary of his cloister, but Edwy followed him and plundered the monastery.

Dunstan managed to escape and seeing his life was threatened, he fled England and crossed the channel to Flanders, where he was received by Count Arnulf I and lodged in the abbey of Mont Blandin in the city of Ghent. This was one of the centres of the Benedictine revival in Flanders. His exile ended in 957, when Edwy had to flee for his brother Edgar, who was chosen to be the new king of the country north of the Thames.

By the time Saint Dunstan died, the now rich and powerful Glastonbury Abbey got associated with King Arthur and some time later with the legends of the Holy Grail. In 1191, at the time Chrétien de Troyes left his unfinished masterpiece Perceval, the Story of the Grail, abbot Henry de Sully discovered in the cemetery of Glastonbury two graves. According to the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis, at the depth of 16 feet a massive hollowed oak trunk was found, containing two skeletons. Above it, under the covering stone, was a leaden cross with this inscription: Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia (Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon). The other skeleton had to be Queen Guinevere, of course.

Was it a mere coincidence the abbey of Glastonbury got associated with King Arthur and the Holy Grail at the time Chrétien wrote his Story of the Holy Grail for a patron, who was the son of Thierry of Alsace, who brought the Holy Blood to Bruges?

Mmm… Don’t think so.

Full story:

The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes


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