Saturday, 25 August 2012

Glastonbury and the Grail

Next month sees the publication of a new book on Glastonbury and the Grail, Justin E. Griffin's third book in his investigations of the Grail legend:

Glastonbury and the Grail
Did Joseph of Arimathea Bring the Sacred Relic to Britain?

Justin E Griffin
ISBN: 978-0-7864-6582-8
Paperback, photos, bibliography, index
McFarland, due publication1st September 2012

From the publisher: “Glastonbury, a small town in Somerset, England, stands at the epicentre of a longstanding tradition placing the Holy Grail in Britain. Legend holds that Joseph of Arimathea travelled to Britain, bringing with him both a gathering of followers and the cup that Jesus used at the last supper. He is said to have buried the Grail at Glastonbury, where some claim he founded the first church in England. This volume chronicles one man’s personal quest to find historical evidence supporting the traditional beliefs surrounding Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail in southern England. Bolstered by an abundance of evidence supporting the presence of Joseph in 1st Century Britain, he separates his findings from the fantasy of the Grail Romances, answering questions about the Grail and the origins and progressions of its legend.”

Griffin's first two books, The Holy Grail (McFarland 2001) and The Grail Procession (McFarland, 2004) received mixed reviews, with Griffin, who professes to quest for the 'Historical Grail', accused of stretching possibility and conjecture, representing it as fact. Griffin appears to accept that all written sources provide historically factual evidence, and ultimately he combines the grail texts with the history of the Pelagian heresy in Britain which he argues is a factual retelling of the legend of the Fisher King, claiming it is the actual life of Pelagius on whom King Pelles of the Grail Legend is based.

In his first book, The Holy Grail: the Legend, the History, the Evidence, Griffin examines the legitimacy of the claims of several modern day claimants with chapters on The Spear of Destiny, The Historical Grail Candidates, The Santo Caliz of Valencia, The Nanteos cup,  and comes up with a theory of multiple grails.

In Griffin's second book, The Grail Procession: The Legend, the Artifacts, and the Possible Sources of the Story, in addition to the sacred artefacts tied to the Passion of Christ, the Holy Grail, the Holy Lance, that pierced Christ’s side, the sword that was used to behead John the Baptist, and the dish from the Last Supper, he examines the forgotten relics of the Grail Procession using material omitted from his first book. Griffin comes to the conclusion that the Grail Hallows did exist as archaeological relics and the legends surrounding the Grail Hallows are reputed to uphold the theory that the blood of Christ was taken west by Joseph of Arimathea following the crucifixion.

Now, in his third outing, Glastonbury and the Grail: Did Joseph of Arimathea Bring the Sacred Relic to Britain? Griffin follows the trail of Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, Griffin inevitably arrives at the Mysteries of Glastonbury, the enigmatic Somerset town, site of the Abbey and King Arthur's grave. There was certainly a cult of St Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, instigated by Abbot Chinnock, in the late fourteenth century. But it wasn't until Abbot Bere constructed the crypt, known as St. Joseph's Chapel, beneath the Lady Chapel, c.1500 AD, that the cult became a major attraction.

Traditionally, the twelve Hides of Land of the Church of Glastonbury, descend from an original grant given to Joseph of Arimathaea, by King Arviragus (10 -74 AD). The Glastonbury tradition claims that, after arriving in Britain in 63 AD, Joseph pushed his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill and this grew into the Glastonbury Thorn, flowering every Christmas.

Hopefully Griffin will delve into the Prophecy of Melkin the bard which appears for the first time in John of Glastonbury's fourteenth century "Chronicle". According to the prophecy, Joseph of Armimathea established the first Christian church at Glastonbury and carried with him 2 cruets of Christ's blood and sweat which are buried with him at Glastonbury, “linea bifurcata”; yet the jury is still out as to whether this is a reference to a linen shirt or a forked line.

The early thirteenth century Perlesvaus, or The High History of the Holy Grail, puts the Grail firmly at Glastonbury. Katherine Maltwood, commissioned to illustrate Perlesvaus,  became convinced that the adventures of the knights of the Round Table corresponded to places in the Vale of Avalon. A fragment of the Perlesvaus manuscript found at Wells cathedral lends support to the claims that it was written at Glastonbury Abbey.

But the Glastonbury tradition of Joseph of Arimathea really starts when Robert de Boron, wrote his "Joseph d'Arimathie", in the late twelfth century, thus Christianising Chretien's pagan "graal" and transforming it into the vessel of the Last Supper, a theme continued in the Vulgate's "Estoire del Saint Graal,” that produced "The Holy Grail" for the first time.

 Robert is the first author to give the Holy Grail myth an explicitly Christian dimension. According to him, Joseph of Arimathea used the vessel of the Last Supper vessel to catch the blood from Jesus's body as he hung on the cross. Joseph is imprisoned by angry Jews and sustained for forty years solely by the Grail.  Following his release he leaves for foreign lands in the west, presumed to be Britain, with a party of Christians. Eventually the party arrive at vaus d'Avaron, the valleys of Avaron (Avalon?) although Joseph is not recorded as travelling on this last part of the journey, where the Grail is entrusted to a succession of keepers. And a legend was born.

However, we must bear in mind that the Grail texts cannot be considered historical accounts. For this we are limited to the letter of  St. Augustine (d. 604 AD) to Pope Gregory which states that there was a church in the west of Britain that was divinely constructed for the salvation of His people. This has been interpreted as evidence that Christ himself built the first church at Glastonbury, inevitably accompanied by his uncle Joseph of Arimathea.  Added to which we have the statement from Gildas that Britain “received the beams of light, that is, the holy precepts of Christ, the true Sun” during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, (Emperor from 14 AD to 37 AD). It should be interesting reading.

This is the book of thy descent, here begins the book of the Holy Grail,
here begin the terrors, here begin the marvels.

* * *


  1. Justin Griffin is an interesting case. He has sussed that Graham Phillips' "history" isn't exactly on the money but can't let go of that scent jar thing, instead weaving an imaginative but highly flawed theory that the real Nanteos Cup is not the bowl held in the National Library of Wales but this little Graham Phillips scent-jar on the basis that some early references refer to the Nanteos Cup as "Phiol Nanteos". The Welsh word Phiol, sometimes spelled Ffiol, usually means cup, even in biblical contexts, but can mean bowl or vial occasionally.

    1. Ian, I saw something similar on Justin Griffin's website 'The Historical Grail' which seems to have been taken down.

      In an unpublished Appendix 'The Fate of Joseph's Cruets' Griffin sees the green onyx “egg cup” that Phillips claimed to have found at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire was the closest item to fit the bill. However, on digging into Phillips sources, Griffin found them to lead nowhere and turned to the Nanteos Cup.

      In attempting to link the Nanteos Cup to Joseph's Cruets, Griffin references Juliette Wood's book The Eternal Chalice:

      'Although the case seems pretty well closed on the Nanteos Cup, Ms. Wood’s book offered one last sparkle of hope in my hunt for the cruets. On page 61, she makes two references that made all the difference. Speaking about the legend of monks fleeing Glastonbury to Strata Florida, she first states, “A few monks were pensioned off and continued to live at Strata Florida after the Dissolution…” In the next paragraph, she states, “A more localized version of the Nanteos cup legend suggests that, in an attempt to exploit the lucrative pilgrim trade, the monks of the Cistercian Abbey at Strata Florida acquired a ‘phiol’ (vial) known as the Cwpan Nanteos.”'

      Griffin continues: 'Ms. Woods’ comment suggests the claim of possessing a vial was merely an attempt to “cash in” on pilgrimage funds, however further research seems to indicate Strata Florida was not wanting for pilgrims. A Pilgrim’s medallion from Santiago de Compostella was unearthed in archeological digs conducted at the abbey. It would seem that the more traditional version of this story indicates that the true “Nanteos Cup” that existed at Strata Florida was a vial, not a cup. Since the Nanteos Cup with which we are all familiar now was discovered during the first wave an antiquarian digs at the site in the 19th century, it would appear that this cup was found, likely in a place of some prominence, and was assumed to be the healing cup of existing legend.'

      Griffin then notes that a branch of the Stedman family left Aberystwyth and moved to Shropshire and Staffordshire; Shropshire is of course where Phillips claims to have found the green onyx “egg cup”, or vial, identified as an authentic Roman scent jar. Griffin concedes it is possible that Phillips might have “stumbled across” a relic that could actually be one of the two lost cruets belonging to Joseph of Arimathea.

    2. The source for Wood's "phiol" is "Pilgrim Routes to Strata Florida" by S. M. Powell (not a Nanteos Powell btw)

      "...It became the custom to treasure at certain shrines the bones of saints and other relics possessed of healing powers. At Strata Florida the principal treasure of the monastery was the cup, or phiol, which is now known as Cwpan Nanteos. The tradition with regard to the cup varies according to one it was made out of a piece of the True Cross according to another it was the very cup which Our Lord used at the Eucharist."

      So the "phiol" is in this context a cup, not a vial and other sources I've seen use "phiol" in this fashion also.

      Mr. Griffin is basically producing a conjecture based on a theory which is of his own making. Once you realise that the word "phiol"
      means Cup (in this case) then it all fall apart.


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