Thursday 15 November 2012

The Bones of Richard Whiting

"Item, Certayn persons to be sent to the Towre for the further examenacyon of the Abbot, of Glaston . . . . Item. The Abbot, of Glaston to (be) tryed at Glaston and also executvd there with his complvcys. . . Item. Councillors to give evidence against the Abbot of Glaston, Rich. Pollard, Lewis Forstew, Thos. Moyle." - The Remembrances of Thomas Cromwell, October 1539.

Mystics and Madmen
From the memoirs of the King's henchman, Thomas Cromwell, is it is clear that the fate of the Last Abbot of Glastonbury had already been decided before he had left the Tower; Richard Whiting was guilty and should suffer before his own community the ultimate indignity, and destined for him the gruesome death of a traitor in the sight of his own Abbey; Cromwell decreed the Abbot was to be hung, drawn and quartered at Glastonbury.

Following what can only be described as a mock trial at the Bishop's Palace at Wells, the proceedings appear to have moved directly to the execution the next morning, 15th November 1539, when Abbot Whiting and the Abbey treasurers John Thorne and Roger James, were taken to Glastonbury.  On the outskirts of the town the frail old Abbot was spread-eagled across a sheep hurdle which was tethered to a horse, and then dragged through the streets of Glastonbury, past his beloved Abbey, now in ruins after wrecking by the Royal Commissioners, and up the Tor where the gallows had been erected by the side of St Michael's tower.

On 16th November, the day after the execution, Lord Russell, he who had assembled the jury at Wells, wrote to Cromwell:

" My Lord, - 'This shall be to ascertain that, on Thursday, the 14th day of this present month, the Abbot of Glastonbury was arraigned, and the next day put to execution, .... for the robbing of Glastonbury church, on the Torr Hill, next unto the town of Glaston : The said abbot's body being divided in four parts, and head stricken off; whereof one quarter standeth at Wells, another at Bath, and at Ilchester and Bridswater the rest, and his head upon the abbey gate at Glaston.

To the cities and towns here named, these fearful tokens of royal vengeance were duly despatched and at once placed on poles in prominent places, " according to law :" at Bridgwater, near the market-place ; at the borough of Ilchester, on the ancient octagonal tower of the parish church of Our Lady ; at Wells, over an old gateway, now wholly destroyed, which stood not far from the east end of the cathedral ; and at Bath, on a spot said to be covered by the handsome Roman Catholic church...' - J. Russell."

Just as Rusell had reported, Whiting's lifeless body was cut down, the head hacked off and his corpse divided into four parts. Before nightfall Whiting's head had been fixed over the gateway of his Abbey at Glastonbury, the four parts of his body dispersed to Bridgewater, Ilchester, Wells and at Bath.

The events of the downfall of Glastonbury Abbey and the execution of its Abbot and two treasurers can only be described as one of the most abhorrent episodes of the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the 16th Century. Yet it is also perhaps the most enigmatic. Most of the information about Richard Whiting's arrest, trial, and crime are now 'missing'. The Letters of Lord Russell and Richard Pollard, the Royal Commissioner, seemingly the only surviving accounts of the execution.

Events of the last days of Glastonbury Abbey and it's Abbot generate an atmosphere of such strangeness it is difficult to argue with Geoffrey Ashe who describes the execution on the Tor as “the act of madmen or mystics …” [2] Cromwell clearly thought Whiting was hiding something and not just treasure. Theories abound that the Abbots of Glastonbury were guardians of the true Apostolic Succession of the British Church. If the King could have uncovered this it would have served him well in his fight for supremacy over the Church of Rome. Whatever it was, Whiting took the secret to the grave with him.

Consequently there are doubts about the record of the execution: there was almost certainly no trial at Wells; Cromwell had already decided the fate of the Glastonbury Three in London.

It has been suggested that the place of Abbot Whiting's martyrdom was not the Tor, but the smaller hill nearer the town, called Chalice Hill, arguing that Cromwell had ordered that "the Abbot of Glaston would' be taken to Glaston and executed by its ruins . . " [3] and that the Tor cannot be seen from the Abbey. But this is not correct - the Tower of St Michael can be clearly seen from the Abbey grounds and therefore the hangman's gibbet constructed by the side of the Tower would also be clearly visible. Indeed, my understanding is that the site of the executions were on the North side of the Tor facing the Abbey and the last thing that Whiting would have seen as he stood at the gallows was the wrecking of his beloved Abbey. The whole act of this execution of  a frail, harmless old man was cruel beyond reason.

The Abbot was executed on his own; the two monks are not reported as being strapped to hurdles along with Whiting. There is no record of the two monks John Thorne and Roger James being taken to the place of execution with him, but immediately afterwards and by another route.  Dr. F. G. Lee states “The refinement of cruelty which thus compelled an old man to bear his sufferings alone is manifest.” [4]

“From a MS. in the handwriting of the late Mr. Sharon Turner, it appears that in looking over certain transcripts of papers from the family collections of the house of Russell he found the draft of a letter from Sir John Russell to Cromwell, in which the former admits that the Abbot was intentionally executed alone, so as to prevent his receiving any sympathy or aid from his two spiritual sons in the Order—who were executed on the same day—and because of his stubbornness and obstinacy.[5]

The letter of Richard Pollard to Thomas Cromwell, November 16, 1539, tends to confirm this:

“Pleaseth it your Lordship to be advertised that..[On November 15] the late abbot of Glastonbury went from Wells to Glastonbury, and there was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called the Torre, where he was put to execution; at which time he asked God for mercy and the king for his great offences towards his highness…Afore his execution [he] was examined upon divers articles and interrogatories to him ministered by me, but he could accuse no man of himself of any offence against the king's highness, nor would he confess no more gold nor silver nor any other thing more than he did before your Lordship in the Tower…I suppose it will be near Christmas before I shall have surveyed the lands at Glastonbury, and take the audit there….[6]

Out of the Ruins
Following the Dissolution, the Abbey remained an abandoned ruin, albeit for a period in the 16th century when a colony of Protestant Dutch weavers were established on the site. In the 17th century even more stones were removed, so that by the turn of the 18th century the once illustrious Abbey was described as a ruin and remained in private ownership until the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1908 the Abbey ruins were purchased by the Bath and Wells Diocesan Trust and became the property of the Church of England. Shortly after Frederick Bligh Bond was appointed by the Church to direct an archaeological investigation. Bligh Bond had considerable expertise in church architecture and had quite rapid success in rediscovering a number of buildings that had once occupied the site. Before completing his archaeological work Bligh Bond was dismissed in 1921 by Bishop Armitage Robinson after he claimed in his book The Gates of Remembrance (1918) to have received information from the dead monks of the Abbey who guided his excavations in automatic writing sessions through the medium Captain John Allan Bartlett. These were the first recorded results by psychic archaeology and of course the Church would have none of it. Five years later Bligh Bond left for America where he worked as editor on the magazine, of the  American Society for Psychical Research.

Bligh Bond never actually claimed to have used spirits but said  that he had tapped into a memory bank of the monks who once occupied the Abbey, who he termed the 'Company of Avalon'. One of the discoveries Bligh Bond made at Glastonbury were some human bones interred near the site of the High Altar. Bligh Bond was convinced that these were the remains of Richard Whiting. An automatic writing session revealed that the Abbot's bones were recovered from the towns where they were displayed and at sometime must have been re-interred at the Abbey as Bligh Bond found them.

In the session Bligh Bond asked, "As to traces of an interment behind the reredos wall. Can you tell us anything of this ?[7]

The response: "Yee martyr was hee. They made a martyr's grave.  He was not coffined, for they were but bones got by ye faithful from Bathe and Tauntone, and brought in secret. He was yplaced under ye altare, and they who pulled yt downe when Elizabeth was Queene drew hym out. They knew not who hee was, our Abbot. Ye knowe. . . . Hee who swam in ayre when hee wold not. Whytynge. They knew not. Wee deemed the altare wold stande for alle tyme." [8]

The Company of Avalon seemed to confirm  that the bones that Bligh Bond removed from behind the reredos wall did indeed belong to Richard Whiting. In 1910 Dom Aelred Carlyle, Abbot of Caldey, an Anglican Benedictine community in South Wales, visited Glastonbury Abbey to meet with Frederick Bligh Bligh Bond. On his return to Caldey, Dom Aelred took with him ‘a casket of old bones’ that had been excavated at the Abbey a few years earlier. The casket contained a third of the bones found. Both Bligh Bond and Dom Aelred believed these bones were the remains of the Last Abbot of Glastonbury.  The bones, believed to be Whiting's, were placed in a reliquary at Caldey and “honoured at Vespers, Lauds and High Mass.” [9]

In 1913 Caldey changed allegiance from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism, and the relics were quietly removed from view. Eventually the monks, taking the bones with them, moved from Caldey to Prinknash Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery in the Vale of Gloucester in the Diocese of Clifton, near the village of Cranham, Gloucestershire.

Today these relics are still preserved at Prinknash Abbey, and were shown in a television programme about the paranormal.

Evidence produced during the 2008 Channel 4 documentary presented by Tony Robinson have since  raised considerable doubts about the accuracy of the claims that the bones belonged to the martyred Abbot Richard Whiting. The relics, rolled in muslin and housed in a hand painted reliquary, were examined during the programme which found no evidence of the expected wounds that would have been inflicted by the brutal butchering of the Abbot's body on Glastonbury Tor. Two plastic bags containing what appeared to be powder was apparently the remains of Whiting's skull. Following analysis one of the bones was found to be non-human in origin, from a medium sized mammal. But although there is some doubt on one of the bones examined, others are human, and should be carefully considered in the context of whom they belonged to before disregarding the relics out of hand. [10]

The find seems to have raised more questions than answers: why was only a third of the remains found behind the reredos wall and passed onto Caldey Abbey? Where are the other two thirds? Is this all of the Abbot's remains that was recovered from Bath and Taunton as recalled by the Company of Avalon? Perhaps only the old monks knew the answers.

Today, there seems no way of substantiating the claim that the bones belong to Richard Whiting just as it is impossible to prove that Bligh Bond had breached the gateway to the memories of the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. Make of it what you will.


Today, 15th November, we remember the Glastonbury martyrs; the deaths of Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury and his companions John Thorne and Roger James. But it was also at this time that the last Abbots of Colchester, Thomas Marshall (John Beche), and Reading, Hugh Cook Faringdon, were cruelly executed outside their Abbey gates as traitors. We should remember them also and all those that lost their lives during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the early days of the English Reformation. These five men were included in a list of sixty-three martyrs recognised by the Catholic Church for dying for their faith between the years 1534-1560 and formally beautified by Pope Leo XIII between 1886 and 1895.

Copyright © 2012 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1.  Dr. F. G. Lee, Historical Sketches of the Reformation, P.217.
2.  Geoffrey Ashe, King Arthur's Avalon.
3.  Francis Aidan Gasquet, Last Abbot of Glastonbury and Other Essays.
4.  Dr. F. G. Lee, op.cit. fn p.212.
5.  Ibid.. Appendix V, p.419.
6. T. Wright, ed. Letters Relating to the Suppression of Monasteries, (London: Camden Society, 1843), pp. 255-56, 261-262, Reprinted in Leon Bernard and Theodore B. Hodges, eds. Readings in European History, (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 241-42.
7.  A 'reredos' is an altarpiece, or screen behind the altar in a church, usually depicting religious iconography or images. Holy men were typically interred under the altar of their own religious house.
8.  Frederick Bligh Bond. The Gate Of Remembrance : The Story Of The Psychological Experiment Which Resulted In The Discovery Of The Edgar Chapel At Glastonbury. p.65.
9.  Jon Cousins, The Glastonbury Documents I: Re-Membering Richard Whiting. Cousins describes the execution of the Glastonbury Three as an act designed to break the spirit of the Somerset town. Something is missing that can only be restored by the the return of Whiting's remains to the Abbey.
10. Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury -Tony Robinson and Becky McCall investigate antiquarian Frederick Bligh Bond, who claimed his excavations at Glastonbury were guided by communications from dead monks. First shown 30 December, 2008, Channel 4.

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1 comment:

  1. What a strange bit of history... You're amazingly reserved when it comes to your opinions! Would love to hear more of your own thoughts about the mystery of Glastonbury.


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