Controversy is no stranger to Glastonbury when it comes to sacred relics said to rest there; the Abbey is famous for the discovery of the remains of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere in the old cemetery in 1190/91. An event that confirmed the great warrior Arthur was dead and Glastonbury was Avalon.
Much of the Patrick at Glastonbury legend comes from the Charter of St Patrick, described by modern scholars as Glastonbury's most notorious forgery and dated to around the 12th century. Significantly, it was around this time that the development of the legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury began.
Chronicles and Charters
The history of Glastonbury Abbey is said to begin with the hand of William of Malmesbury. By 1126 this highly regarded historian of mixed Norman and English descent had already completed two works, Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England) and Gesta pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops), during the next few years he wrote the Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan). William was then invited by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey to write the history of their house to prove the antiquity of the establishment.
William compiled De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (Concerning the Antiquity of Glastonbury) between 1129-35, in which he wrote that on the site of the Abbey there stood a church constructed of "wattle and daub” which he called "the oldest church in England," a symbol of the ancientness of Glastonbury's Christianity. By William's time the historical origins of the Old Church (vetusta ecclesia) had been lost but legend claimed it had been built by two early missionaries sent from Rome.
No original copies of De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae have survived but what we know of its original text is based on large sections that had been transcribed into the Gesta Regis Anglorum. In the second edition of the Gesta (c.1135) William tells us that Patrick spent thirty-nine years at Glastonbury up to his death and burial there in the year 472, at the age of 111.
The earliest version of the "De Antiquitate" that has come down to us is a 13th century copy heavily interpolated by the Glastonbury monks which adds significant elaboration not present in William's original document. William's book, in its interpolated form, asserts that during the 2nd century, in response to a plea from King Lucius, Pope Eleutherius dispatched the missionaries, Faganus and Deruvianus (Phagan and Deruvius), who came to the island of Britain to preach the Gospel, “as the Charter of St. Patrick and the Deeds of the Britons attest.” And so the legend began.
St Patrick's Charter tells us that he was sent on a mission to Ireland by Pope Celestine. On his return to Britain he came to an isle called Ynswitrin (the British name for Glastonbury) and discovered a church there dedicated to the Virgin, built by 12 disciples of St Philip and St James.
Here he found several brethren well instructed in the Catholic faith. They had followed those saints that Phagan and Deruvian had left there; until the coming of Patrick in the 5th century there was an unbroken succession of twelve hermits living at Glastonbury. They had no leader and were always twelve in number in memory of the twelve companions who first settled at this spot under Joseph of Arimathea.
Patrick choose to dwell with them and they made him their chief. The brethren showed him the writings of St Phagan and St Deruvian, wherein it was contained that the twelve disciples had built the Old Church. The Charter asserts that these 12 disciples were each given pieces of land, the so-called “twelve hides” of Glastonbury.
The twelve hermits whom St Patrick found when he arrived at Glastonbury are named as: Brumban, Hyregaan, Bren Wencreth, Bantommeweng, Adelwalred, Lothor, Wellias, Breden, Swelwes, Hinloernus and Hin. The names do not seem to be of any obvious ancestry; neither Irish, Welsh, nor Saxon. Yet, there may be some correspondence between these names and the names engraved on the larger of the two ancient pyramids of the old cemetery as recorded by William of Malmesbury.2
Patrick was succeeded as abbot by his own disciple Benignus who had followed him from Ireland. Benignus preferred to lead a solitary life and lived as a hermit on the Somerset Levels near the site of the pre-historic lake dwellings at Meare, visiting the brethren at Glastonbury infrequently.
Later, in the mid-14th century John of Glastonbury produced his Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Chronicle of the Antiquities of the Church of Glastonbury) and elaborated the Glastonbury story even further. John provides further details in his Chronicle about St Patrick's mission to Glastonbury. John tells us that St Patrick, a nephew of St Martin of Tours, was born in Britain in 361. He was abducted at the age of sixteen by Irish pirates subsequently spending six years as a slave to a cruel Irish chieftain called Milchu. After escaping he was then sent back to Ireland in 425 by Pope Celestine I where his mission was to convert the Irish. He returned to Britain on a floating wooden altar, landing at Padstow in Cornwall. In 433 he arrived at Glastonbury and remained there as abbot until his death in 472 when he was buried in a beautiful shrine. The shrine was destroyed in the fire of 1184, his bones were then exhumed and placed in a new shrine covered in gold and silver where they were venerated until the last days of the monastery.
John also produced an imaginative pedigree for King Arthur, claiming that through his mother, was descended from Joseph of Arimathea. John's Cronica appears to be an attempt to bring together all of the available sources regarding Joseph of Arimathea's connection with Glastonbury. In so doing he introduced the Prophecy of Melkin which suggests Joseph is also buried at the Abbey, a claim which resulted in the search for Joseph's body at Glastonbury by John Blome as evidenced by a Royal Writ of 10 June 1345.
It appears that during this time new information on St Patrick was added to William's De Antiquitate in an attempt to confute the claims of Ranulph Higden (d.1364), a monk of the Benedictine abbey of St. Werburg, Chester, in his Polychronicon, which enjoyed considerable popularity, being translated into English in the late 14th century, and printed by William Caxton in the late 15th century. Ranulph argued that the Glastonbury Patrick was a later Irish bishop who died in 863 ending his days at Glastonbury and the saint of the Irish was, as the Irish claimed, buried at Down.3
The Life of St Patrick
In his introduction to De antiquitate William of Malmesbury states that he has written a Life of St Patrick, which is now unfortunately lost to us. However, John Leland, the antiquary of Henry VIII, claimed to have found a copy of two of William's books in the library at Christchurch (Hampshire). William appears to have used material from two Irish sources. The only two items that cannot be traced to these two sources seem to derive directly from Patrick's own writings such as the Confessio.
John of Glastonbury's Cronica includes material from William's De antiquitate with additions from other sources to bring the history of the Abbey up to date. The Cronica includes four passages on St Patrick which corresponds to passages in Leland's summary suggesting that William's Life of Patrick did indeed exist. Leland states he has never found the third book, and although he found two manuscripts of the work in the library at Glastonbury, they too like the Christchurch copy, were also incomplete. William may never have completed the third book but it seems probable that he intended to fill it with material connecting Patrick with Glastonbury.4
Regardless of the later additions by the Glastonbury monks, in his original writings, such as the second edition of the Gesta as we have seen above, William did seem convinced that Glastonbury possessed the majority of Patrick's relics although it is not altogether clear that he actually believed him to have been one of the early abbots. So rich was the Glastonbury collection of relics that William said it presented a “heavenly sanctuary on earth”.
The Irish Connection
Why so many Irish saints feature in the Glastonbury calendars has not been answered by modern scholarship. The Irish were certainly influential in the south west of England during the early 7th century as attested by St Adhelm's letter to Heafrith berating him for yielding to Irish learning. Heafrith has been identified as Ecgfrith who later became abbot of Glastonbury.
In the entry for the year 891 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to an Irish presence in England as the result of the travels of Irish pilgrims; “Three Gaels came to King Alfred in a boat without any oars from Ireland, which they had left secretly, because they wished for the love of God to be in foreign lands, they cared not where.”
By the 10th century Glastonbury was the centre of a cult of St Patrick and destination for Irish peregrini. As a young boy, Dunstan, perhaps the Abbey's most famous abbot, studied under the Irish monks who were then at Glastonbury. The Life of St Dunstan, written c.1,000 by an author identified simply as 'B' makes particular mention of an Irish community at Glastonbury:
“Irish peregrini, as well as other flocks of the faithful, sought this aforementioned place called Glastonbury with great veneration, especially because of the renown younger Patrick who is said to lie buried in that church.”5
Osbern of Canterbury's 11th century Vita S. Dunstani (Life of Dunstan) also makes mention of the Irish peregrini “who embraced a life of voluntary exile in England, chose Glastonbury for their habitation.”6
Then of course there is the tradition that Brigid followed Patrick to Glastonbury. Brigid holds a special association with Glastonbury and is depicted on Saint Michael's tower on the Tor milking a cow. Brigid also appears on the north door of the Lady Chapel in the Abbey ruins in a carved figure and has traditional connections with the Somerset town. According to Giraldus Cambrensis and John of Glastonbury, She visited Patrick at Glastonbury during the 5th century. William of Malmesbury claimed that Brigid stayed at Beckery on the western side of Glastonbury where she founded a small chapel. Near the foot of Wearyall Hill, made famous by Joseph of Arimathea and the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, is a small hillock known as Bride's Mound. On this mound was a spring known as Saint Bride's Well. Relics, claimed to be Brigid's, including a spindle and a bell, were left at Bride's Mound where the adjacent fields are called “The Brides.”
|St Brigid on St Michael's Tower, Glastonbury Tor|
One suggested meaning for the name “Beckery” is Beag Eire, or Bec-Eriu, "Little Ireland" as found in a charter of Henry II, “Bekeria quae Parva Hibernia dicitur” i.e. Beckery, known as Little Ireland.
It is fairly certain that there was a pre-Conquest Irish community at Glastonbury, but it remains a puzzle as to their attraction to the Somerset town; did they come to Glastonbury because of the tales of St Patrick or did their presence lead to the creation of the traditions?
Throughout the Middle Ages and even after William of Malmesbury, considered a reliable historian in his own days, endorsed some of Glastonbury's claims in his now lost Life of St Patrick, there continued to be persistent doubts surrounding the Glastonbury cult of St Patrick.
The Irish had their hagiographical tradition that there had been more than one Patrick many years before William's history was manipulated by the Glastonbury monks. In the 8th century an Irish hymn was composed which stated that “When Patrick departed this life, he went first to the other Patrick: together they ascended to Jesus the Son of Mary.”
The 10th century Clonmacnoise Chronicle records the death of Senex Patricius/Sen Phátric in 457 AD and calls him bishop of the church of Glastonbury. The early 9th century Martyrology of Tallaght lists two Patricks for 24th August; Patrick of Ros Dela and Patrick of Armagh. Whether, this entry is meant to be the same Patrick, or two individuals, we have no way of knowing, yet it suggests that at this time there was at least a belief in two Bishops Patrick in Irish Provenance. However, some saw this as a misidentification of the apostle of Ireland with the other St Patrick (Sen Phátric) who's feast day fell on 24th August. Who then was Sen Phátric of Ros Dela? Ros Dela has been identified with Rostalla in Ossory where the elder Bishop Patrick had a localised cult.
The elder Patrick, Sen Phátric, is seen as a probable a reference to Palladius, the Roman deacon sent to Ireland in 431 by Pope Celestine, “who suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Irish, as is the tradition of the holy men of old.” Chronological difficulties in the tradition of St Patrick may have prompted the theory of two Patricks; whether the knowledge of a Patrick of Ossory offered a solution, or whether Palladius was associated with Rostalla, is unknown.7
Two Patricks appear in the kalendar composed in 970, now found in the Leofric Missal. The distinction between the two is made by the grading of the festival day; the elder Patrick, Sen Phátric, commemorated on 24th August had a graded feast, i.e. second rank, whereas Patrick whose feast fell on the 17th March was ungraded. This may suggest that the earlier tradition at Glastonbury concerned Palladius, the elder Patrick (Sen Phátric) but it was later transformed when the monks realised the benefits of possessing the relics of the greater and more prestigious saint, THE Apostle of Ireland.
Yet it seems clear that if indeed Glastonbury held the genuine relics of a Saint Patrick it was those remains of the elder Patrick, Palladius. The Bosworth Psalter, dated to the final quarter of the 10th century, had a calendar added in 988-1012 with Canterbury and Glastonbury saints which records that “Patrick senior rests in glaston”.8 The early 11th century Old English tract 'Secgan be pam Godes sanctum pe on Engla lande ærost reston' (The Resting Places of English Saints) also lists the relics of St Patrick as lying at Glastonbury. However, this fails to answer who the historian Ranulph Higden referred to as a third Patrick, as noted above, an Irish bishop who died in 863 and was buried at Glastonbury?9
In 1942 the Irish scholar T. F. O'Rahilly published a lecture entitled “The Two Patricks”. At the time the work caused enormous controversy by proposing that there had actually been two "Patricks"; Palladius and Patrick. The lecture claimed that what we now know of St. Patrick was in fact in part a conscious effort to blend the two into one hagiographic personality but in fact only confirmed what the Irish had known since the 8th century at least.10
It has been commonly accepted for centuries that Saint Patrick lived in the first half of the 5th century and died in 461. However, following years of debate between scholars it is now generally agreed that Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland was most likely to have been active in the latter half of the 5th century, d.17th March 493. While Palladius, the elder Patrick (also named Patrick Senior/Senex Patricius/Sen Phátric) was active in the earlier part of the century and may, or may not, rest at Glastonbury.11
Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. Harry Jelley, Saint Patrick's Somerset Birthplace: A Serious Study into the Birthplace of Saint Patrick in the Fifth Century, Cary Valley Historical Publications, 1998. See: Harry Jelley, The Birthplace of St. Patrick in Somerset - Vortigern Studies website.
2. James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey:The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996.
3. John of Glastonbury. The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation, and Study of John of Glastonbury's Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie. Ed. James P. Carley. Tr. David Townsend. Rev. ed. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1985.
4. Clark H. Slover, William of Malmesbury's "Life of St. Patrick", Modern Philology, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1926, pp. 5-20.
5. Carley, Glastonbury Abbey, p.99.
6. A distinctive tradition in the Celtic church across Britain and Ireland was the peregrinatio pro Christo, or "exile for Christ". The peregrini were in voluntary exile, spending their life in a foreign land far from home, a lifestyle which came to be termed the "white martyrdom". It is a martyrdom in which there is no violent death as opposed to the traditional "red martyrdom" when a Christian is killed for his faith.
7. D.N. Dumville, Patrick senior and junior, pp.59-64, in Dumville and Abrams (eds.), Saint Patrick, AD 493–1993, Studies in Celtic History 13, Boydell, 1993.
8. Matthew Blows, A Glastonbury Obit List in Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey, eds. Lesley Abrams and James P. Carley, Boydell Press, 1991, p.259. See also pp.218-9.
9. Carley, Glastonbury Abbey, p.104.
10. T. F. O'Rahilly, “The Two Patricks”, Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1942.
11. The Two Patricks and which, if any, is buried at Glastonbury is a complex subject. Interested readers requiring a fuller account are directed to Lesley Abrams, St Patrick and Glastonbury Abbey: nihil ex nihilo fit?, pp.233–242 in: Dumville and Abrams (eds.), Saint Patrick, AD 493–1993,
Photographs © 2015 Edward Watson
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