Saturday 25 March 2017

Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury

Why Glastonbury?
Unlike other major religious houses in Britain, such as St Cuthbert at Durham, Glastonbury Abbey never enjoyed the patronage of a founding saint. Late Medieval Chronicles claimed that the first church at Glastonbury had been founded by Joseph of Arimathea. Yet, after the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere where discovered there in 1191, Glastonbury seemed reluctant to accept the burden of Joseph.

Construction of the Lady Chapel during 1180s
The raison d'etre for the Glastonbury Legend is twofold; first and foremost, it provided a foundation legend for the Abbey; secondly, it provided an explanation for how the Holy Grail came to Britain. Ultimately these two two motives came to support each other although in Medieval literature Joseph's two roles  are never fully combined and neither the Glastonbury Legend or the Grail Romances provide a satisfactory answer to why Joseph of Arimathea should have come to Britain at all.

To deal with the second point first, the first Grail story was Perceval by Chretien de Troyes, which is always is set in Britain. In this work the “Grail” is described by Chretien as “un graal”, a simple serving dish or platter. In Chretien's account the significance is in the procession in which sacred items are paraded before Perceval, the bleeding lance, a candelabra and a dish containing a single mass wafer that sustains the Fisher King. Perceval does not seek an explanation to the procession and fails in his quest.

Chretien's unfinished work left later writers free to develop the Grail story restricted only be their imaginations. Led by Robert de Boron these writers Christianised the Grail as relics of the Passion; Robert dropped the bleeding lance altogether but in the First Continuation it became the spear that was used by the Roman centurion Longinus to pierce Christ's side as he hung on the cross, and the chalice was introduced as the Cup of the Last Supper, used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the Holy Blood at the Deposition. Chretien's “un graal” had now become the “Holy Grail”. After all, this was the time of the Crusades when, following the sack of Constantinople in 1204, Holy relics were sent back to France in abundance.

Robert's story, known as Roman de l'Estoire dou Graal, consisted of three parts, Joseph d' Arimathie, Merlin and the Perceval, is generally dated to around 1200, generally accepted as some twenty years after Chretien's work first appeared. Robert combined elements of Chretien's story of the Grail with the Gospel of Nicodemus. He maintains that he is the first author to bring the story of the Grail from obscurity and translate it into French from a Latin work for his patron Gautier de Montbeliard.

That Montbeliard went on Crusade in 1199 and died as Constable of Jerusalem in 1212 suggests an earlier date for Robert's story of Joseph, presumably written around 1190, before his patron went on Crusade. Others have argued it was produced ten years before Chretien's Grail story. Either way, we can argue that Robert's account is roughly contemporary with Chretien's, which seems to hint at a connection between the two works and raises the possibility that both may be based on the same unknown Latin work.

The Lady Chapel at night
The Cult of the Holy Blood
It would be surprising if Robert was not influenced by the Cult of the Holy Blood that thrived in northern France toward the end of the 12th century. Several religious houses in the Western Europe claimed to possess relics of the Holy Blood brought back from the Holy Land. In the early 9th century one such relic, said to have been brought there by by Longinus himself, was discovered at Mantua in northern Italy. This relic was rediscovered in 1048, after being lost, and then presented to Count Baldwin V of Flanders. His family, in turn, passed it on to the abbey at Weingarten. And then there is the famous Holy Blood relic of Fecamp on the Normandy coast, to name but two.

An illuminated manuscript of the Grail story held by the abbey at Weingarten is one of the earliest depictions of Joseph of Arimathea collecting the blood of Jesus at the Deposition, dated a hundred years before the first appearance of Robert de Boron's account. Whereas earlier depictions of the Crucifixion in religious iconography show an unnamed figure collecting the blood of Jesus in a chalice as he hung on the cross.

Joseph of Arimathea was particularly venerated in the Vosges area of Lorraine, north east France. At one time the abbey at Moyenmoutier claimed to house Joseph's relics. Significantly, this was not far from Montbeliard and the nearby village of Boron, presumably Robert's place of birth.

However, true to Chretien's original tale, Robert de Boron now had to explain how the Cup of the Last Supper had come to Britain from the Holy Land. In Robert's version of the Grail story Joseph spent his last days in the Holy Land, while his family and followers brought the Cup to “vaus d'Avaron”, the valleys of Avaron in the west, interpreted by many as Avalon and identified with Glastonbury since King Arthur's grave was found in the Abbey grounds in 1191. The leaden cross found in Arthur's grave left no doubt that the King was lying in Avalon, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth had claimed in 1136. However, later writers of the Grail story, such as the Vulgate Cycle (Lancelot-Grail) claimed that Joseph himself was responsible for bringing the Cup to Glastonbury.

The Glastonbury link with Joseph of Arimathea does not emerge until the 13th century. Around 1125 AD William of Malmesbury was invited to write the history of Glastonbury Abbey by the abbot Henry de Blois, the old wizard of Winchester. William was given unrestricted access to the Abbey archives but made no mention of either Joseph or indeed the tomb of King Arthur at Glastonbury in his subsequent work entitled De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię (On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church), the first history of the Abbey. Around one hundred years later “amended” versions of William's manuscript were produced to include the arrival of the Arimathean at Glastonbury shortly after the Passion. A hundred years further on, in the mid-14th century, John of Glastonbury claimed to have access to texts that augmented William of Malmesbury's earlier work and produced his own Chronicle of the history of the Abbey. John's work included, for the time in print, the Prophecy of Melkin, an obscure Latin text which actually detailed the location of Joseph of Arimathea's grave, which many interpret as meaning Glastonbury.

Melkin the Bard
The so-called Prophecy of Melkin appears for the first time within the pages of the Cronica of John of Glastonbury, (Cronica Sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie) c.1342, claimed to be the earliest known account of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury.

Melkin (Melchinus) was said to be a Celtic bard of the time before Merlin. Although the Prophecy is not found before John's Cronica, later writers claim to have seen works authored by Melkin. In the mid-15th century John Hardyng makes reference to Melkin and John Leland, antiquary to King Henry VIII, claimed to have seen works by the bard in the Glastonbury library in the 16th century prior to the Dissolution. John Bale, a contemporary of Leland, states that Melchinus wrote three works: de Arthurii Mensa Rotunda (On Arthur’s Round Table); de Gestis Britannorum (On the Deeds of the Britons); and de Antiquitatibus Britannicis (On British Antiquities). Yet no one has seen any of these works since.

The Prophecy:

“The Isle of Avalon, greedy in the burial of pagans, above others in the world, decorated at the
burial place of them all with vaticinatory little spheres of prophecy, and in future it will be adorned
with those who praise the Most High. Abbadare, powerful in Saphat, most noble of pagans, took his
sleep there with 104,000. Among them Joseph de Mamore, named ‘of Arimathea’, took everlasting
sleep. And he lies on a forked line close to the southern corner of the chapel with prepared wattle
above the powerful venerable Maiden, the thirteen aforesaid sphered things occupying the place. For Joseph has with him in the tomb two white and silver vessels filled with the blood and sweat of the prophet Jesus. When his tomb is found, it will be seen whole and undefiled in the future, and will be open to all the earth. From then on, neither water nor heavenly dew will be able to be lacking for those who inhabit the most noble island. For a long time before the Day of Judgement in Josaphat will these things be open and declared to the living. Thus far Melkin.

Inscription on the Lady Chapel
The Prophecy is interpreted as describing Joseph's tomb as lying on a forked line close to the southern corner of an oratory or chapel, commonly thought to mean the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury. The description “prepared with wattle” would appear to refer to the old church (vetusta ecclesia).  Many argue that “above the venerable maiden” suggests that the Blessed Virgin Mary accompanied Joseph and was also buried at Glastonbury. The Cup of the Last Supper from the Grail stories has become two cruets containing the blood and sweat of Jesus, sounding remarkably similar to the Holy Blood relics such as those at Weingarten and Fecamp Abbey.

The adjective “bifurcata” is often said to describe a forked path. In modern times this notion has had held great attraction for ‘ley-lines’ hunters who draw alignments across modern maps claiming to have identified the location of a long lost tomb or such. Further, in seeking a rational explanation for Melkin's Prophecy, in the 19th century the Rev. R. Willis suggested that in Medieval Latin “linea” would be an undergarment such as a shirt. Taken a step further this has been interpreted as meaning a split linen burial garment. From this, many deduce that Joseph's tomb lies on a forked line under an oratory dedicated to the Blessed Virgin where Joseph lies, uncorrupted, wrapped in a linen burial shroud with the two cruets, in a marble tomb.

Chronology of a Legend

7th century - First stone church at Glastonbury constructed during the reign of King Ine of Wessex.
10th century - The stone church was enlarged by St. Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury.
11th century - Extensive Norman embellishment of the Abbey buildings.
1125 – William of Malmesbury commissioned to document the early history of Glastonbury Abbey (De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae). William wrote that it is said that the old church at Glastonbury was built by unnamed disciples sent by St Philip. In his original text William does not associate King Arthur or Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury.
1136 - Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his chronicle The History of the Kings of Britain. Following the final battle at Camlann, Arthur, mortally wounded, is taken to the Isle of Avalon. Geoffrey does not associate Glastonbury with Avalon.
1184 - a great fire destroyed many of the Norman buildings at the Abbey on St. Urban's Day, 25 May. An extensive rebuilding program begins.
1191 – King Arthur's grave discovered in the monks cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey.
1193 - Gerald of Wales describes the inscription on the leaden cross found in the grave at Glastonbury as “Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon” thus, confirming Glastonbury as Avalon.
1200 – Robert de Boron writes his Joseph of Arimathea and claims the Holy Grail, the Cup of the Last Supper, is taken to Britain shortly after the Passion. Other Grail stories (such as the Vulgate Cycle) emerge shortly after stating that Joseph actually brought the Grail to Avalon in Britain.
1247 – William of Malmesbury's history of Glastonbury Abbey is amended by a later copyist to include the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury.
1278 - King Arthur's bones placed in black marble tomb at the Abbey by Edward I.
1342 – John of Glastonbury writes a chronicle of the Glastonbury church (Cronica Sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie). John claimed to include many items that previous historians had omitted,  including the Prophecy of Melkin (for the first time), a text which describes the location tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
14th century - Abbot Chinnock (1375-1420) promotes the cult of St Joseph who then becomes a major object of pilgrimage at Glastonbury.
1500 - crypt, known as St. Joseph's Chapel, constructed by Abbot Bere beneath the Lady Chapel where a stone image of the Saint was set up for veneration by pilgrims.
1539 - Glastonbury Abbey suppressed under the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Last Abbot, Richard Whiting hung, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor on 15th November.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Photographs of Glastonbury Abbey © Edward Watson

* * *

Tuesday 14 March 2017

The Glastonbury Legend

The Tin Merchant
An old Cornish legend claims Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain accompanied by his great nephew the Christ child. No one seems certain of the roots of this legend but Joseph is linked with the Cornish tin trade through his title as 'Nobilis Decurion', a term usually interpreted as a Roman title for someone with responsibility for the local mines. Similar legends persist in Somerset where Joseph is linked with the lead mines at Priddy in the Mendips. The Glastonbury Legend asserts that Joseph was responsible for establishing the first Christian church in Britain. How did this tin merchant from a town in Judea end up in Glastonbury?

Glastonbury Abbey
Joseph is a minor biblical character who features immediately after the Crucifixion. Matthew refers to him as a rich man and Mark says he is a member of the council, or Sanhedrin, but all four canonical Gospels are agreed that Joseph of Arimathea was responsible for the burial of Jesus after the Crucifixion, providing his own rock-cut tomb. The Gospel of John refers to Joseph as a secret disciple of Jesus who was given permission by Pilate to remove the body from the cross at Golgotha. Joseph, assisted by Nicodemus, took the body and bound it in linen clothes with a mixture of myrrh and aloes, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

Joseph of Arimathea then quickly fades from the Gospels. However, he returns in several later apocryphal and non-canonical works which expand the rather sparse accounts of him in the New Testament. Joseph is mentioned in the works of the early church historians through the 2nd to 4th centuries. An apocryphal work known as the Gospel of Nicodemus, dated to the mid-4th century, claimed to have been derived from an original Hebrew work written by Nicodemus himself is mostly a reworking of the earlier Acts of Pilate, apparently a report written by Pontius Pilate. Together Joseph and Nicodemus are always associated with the removal of Jesus' body from the cross; many medieval depictions of the Deposition show Nicodemus with Joseph removing the dead Christ from the cross and collecting the Holy Blood. The Catholic Church even commemorates Nicodemus on the same day as Saint Joseph, 31 August.

The early history of Christianity in Britain is obscure. The official arrival of Christianity in Britain is associated with the mission of Augustine in 597 AD but there seems to have been a traditional presence in these islands long before that date. Writing in the 6th century Gildas describes the execution of the first Christian martyr St Alban at Verulamium in the early 4th century during the Diocletianic Persecution, but claims the arrival of Christianity occurred during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Roman Emperor from 14 to 37 AD, seemingly within a few years of the Crucifixion. But Gildas fails to mention the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea in Britain.

The Somerset Tradition
The legendary 2nd-century King Lucius of the Britons is also credited with introducing Christianity in to Britain. A 6th-century copy of the Liber Pontificalis (Book of the Popes) claims Lucius despatched a letter to Pope Eleutherius requesting to be made a Christian. Bede (Book I.IV) tells us that this was during the time of Marcus Antoninus Verus and his brother, Aurelius Commodus, who jointly reigned from 161 to 169 AD. In response Eleutherius is said to have sent the missionaries Faganus and Dumanus to Britain around 185 AD who established sees at London, York and Caerleon.

On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church, c.1130, William of Malmesbury also claimed it came in the 1st century from a mission by Philip the Apostle, concluding “No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ created the church of Glastonbury.” However, later versions of William's work, seemingly much altered by the monks of Glastonbury, claim Joseph of Arimathea established the first Christian church there in the 1st century. The revised version of William's work adds that Phaganus and Deruvianus (Faganus and Dumanus presumably) restored this first wattle church around 170 AD.

Although the details can only be described as murky at best, history and legend suggest in principal that there are two key events concerning the establishment of Christianity in Britain: the religion first arrived in Britain in the 1st century AD with a mission associated with Jesus' disciples, and by the 2nd century Christianity was reaffirmed among the Britons.

Abbots, Blood and Bones
Following the same route as the Mediterranean tin traders, as described by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century BC, Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Britain, 37 AD or 63 AD depending on the source. Diodorus described the tin trading centre in Britain as an island called 'Ictis' which is usually identified as St Michael's Mount off the south coast of Cornwall, but another candidate is Glastonbury (the Isle of Avalon). Before the River Brue was diverted in the 12th century it provided a direct, navigable route to the sea at Burnham-on-Sea, thirty miles west.

Joseph is said to have sailed in-land down the River Brue and landed at the Isle of Avalon. He then climbed up to Wearyall Hill with his companions where he thrust his staff into the ground.  The staff rooted and grew in to the so-called Holy Thorn. Joseph and his followers built the first church at Glastonbury, a simple wattle building. Legend claims a local King named Arviragus presented Joseph with 12 hides of land, focused upon six dry knolls rising out of the surrounding Somerset marshes.

No one is certain of the origin of the 'Twelve Hides of Glaston' but a thousand years after the date of Joseph's traditional arrival in Britain the Domesday Survey of 1086 records the Twelve Hides as a privileged estate which never paid geld granted to the abbots of Glastonbury in a series of charters, in some cases of dubious legality, by the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex. William of Malmesbury quotes a charter of 601 from the Glastonbury Abbey archives in which an unnamed king of Dumnonia granted the estate known as 'Yneswitrin' to the old church (vetusta ecclesia) at Glastonbury on petition of Abbot Worgret.

During the reign of King Ine of Wessex (r. 688 to 726) the first stone church was erected at Glastonbury. In the 10th century this church was enlarged by Abbot Dunstan, he who went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. The Abbey continued to develop to such an extent that by the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 it was recorded as the richest monastery in the country. However, tragedy respects no boundaries of wealth and in 1184 a major fire destroyed much of the church leaving it in need of an extensive rebuild.

St Joseph's Well
Memories of Joseph of Arimathea faded in time. Indeed, when William of Malmesbury was invited to write the early history of Glastonbury Abbey by Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen and abbot from 1126 until 1129 when he became Bishop of Winchester, he made no mention of The Arimathean. A hundred years later, William's original manuscript was much altered to include the establishment of the first Christian church in Britain in the 1st century AD by Joseph and his followers.

This 13th century amendment to William's work failed to have any major impact on the Abbey at the time; thereby Glastonbury passed up the opportunity to host a major Apostolic shrine like that of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. That venture was to come later. Perhaps it was unnecessary to introduce Joseph at this time owing to the recent discovery of the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in 1191 AD in the monk's cemetery. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, King Henry II had encouraged the monks to dig for Arthur's grave after he had heard of the location from a Welsh bard. However, Henry II did not live long enough to see the monks discovery.

In 1189, the year Henry II died, his cousin Henry de Sully was appointed Abbot of Glastonbury by Richard I who concentrated funds into the Third Crusade rather than church building. Two years later they discovered the remains of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury. Two years after the discovery Henry de Sully left Glastonbury to become Bishop of Worcester in 1193.

By one of those odd coincidences an abbot of the same name was at Fécamp across the Channel, although we are told it was not the same person. Henry de Sully, Abbot of Fécamp, was the nephew of King Stephen of England and Henry de Blois. By another odd coincidence, he is said to have died 1189, the very same year that a man named Henry de Sully became Abbot of Glastonbury.

The Legend of Fécamp is remarkably similar to The Glastonbury Legend, and tells of two knives used by Joseph of Arimathea to remove the blood from Christ's wounds. Nicodemus scraped the dried blood from Christ's wounds with a knife which he then concealed in a small lead cylinder which he hid in the trunk of a fig tree. The fig tree was cast into the sea and finally washed up on the coast of Normandy at Fécamp in the 1st century. The trunk took root and sprouted leaves. At this spot miracles began to occur leading to the building of a church, later becoming a monastery. The relic of the Holy Blood was not discovered until 1171 during the rebuilding of the church that had been destroyed by fire.

St Joseph's Chapel - This place makes me shiver; 'something' was here.
Joseph and the Grail
It is significant that shortly before the interpolated version of William's account of the early history of the church at Glastonbury appeared two major Grail texts had been written. The French poet Robert de Boron gave the 'Graal' of Chretien de Troyes a Christian dimension, introducing the “Holy” Grail as the cup used at the Last Supper, the same vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea then collected the blood of Jesus after the crucifixion.

Robert wrote his story of the Grail around the turn of the 13th century in three parts; Joseph d'Arimathe, Merlin and Perceval. According to Robert, Joseph's family brought the Grail to the “vaus d'Avaron”, the valleys of Avaron in the west, interpreted by many as Avalon, identified with Glastonbury.

The second text, the anonymous Perlesvaus (The High History of the Holy Grail) was originally written in Old French sometime in the early half of the 13th Century as a continuation of Chretien de Troyes' unfinished work “Perceval, or the Story of the Graal”. Perlesvaus is said to be of the lineage of Joseph of Arimathea, and a colophon at the end of the text states “The Latin from whence this history was drawn into Romance was taken in the Isle of Avalon, in a holy house of religion that standeth at the head of the Moors Adventurous, there where King Arthur and Queen Guenievre lie”, thus confirming the Glastonbury connection between Joseph and the Grail. This link was reaffirmed when a fragment of a Perlesvaus manuscript was found at nearby Wells Cathedral.

The Cult of Joseph of Arimathea
In the later Middle Ages greater significance was placed on the Abbey's claim to be the oldest religious community in Britain. Indeed, as the Glastonbury tradition claimed an Apostolic foundation it was in a position to directly challenge the authority of Rome, a claim that would ultimately lead to the destruction of the Abbey and the execution of its last Abbot, Richard Whiting on the Tor in 1539.

A major contribution to the Joseph of Arimathea tradition at Glastonbury was when John of Glastonbury produced his mid-14th century chronicle of the abbey. John's Cronica Sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Chronicles or Antiquities of the Glastonbury Church) drew extensively on William of Malmesbury's earlier work on the Abbey, claiming to have added much which William omitted, and the Grail texts. Notably, John includes the episode at St Augustine's chapel from Perlesvaus, but in the Cronica it is St Mary's chapel at Beckery at the foot Wearyall Hill. John's work included, for the first time in manuscript, The Prophecy of Melkin.

Shortly after John's Cronica Abbot Chinnock (abbacy 1375-1420) did much to promote the cult of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury with the abbey becoming a major object of pilgrimage. In the late 14th century Chinnock restored the ruined chapel in the cemetery, re-dedicating it to St. Michael and St Joseph of Arimathea. Chinnock also placed wooden boards at the Abbey which contained extracts from the Cronica encouraging those who came into the Abbey to read the legend.

St Joseph's Chapel
During the abbacy of Richard Bere (1495-1525), the penultimate abbot, Glastonbury embarked on extensive construction works. He built the chapels of King Edgar, Our Lady of Loretto and of the Holy Sepulchre. The numbers of pilgrims had now grown so great that around the year 1500 Abbot Bere excavated a great crypt below the Lady Chapel and Galilee, providing an entirely new subterranean chapel which he dedicated to St Joseph of Arimathea. A stone image of St Joseph was set up in the crypt for the pilgrims. He changed the Abbey's coat of arms to that of Joseph of Arimathea featuring the two cruets of Melkin's Prophecy containing the sweat and blood of Jesus. The cult must have spread throughout Somerset; a 15th century stained glass window of Langport Church shows Joseph with the two cruets.

The Return of the Grail
There is a tradition that the Nanteos Cup is the Holy Grail, brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea. This cup, now on permanent display at the National Library of Wales, was in the possession of Glastonbury Abbey at the time of the Dissolution, so the story goes. Abbot Whiting sent the cup in the charge of seven monks to Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire, mid-Wales. On the death of the last monk he revealed that the cup was the Holy Grail that had been brought to Glastonbury by their founder Joseph of Arimathea. The cup then passed into the Powell family at Nanteos House, near Aberystwyth.

The Nanteos Cup - is this the Holy Grail?
In 1938 Revd Lionel Smithett Lewis, vicar of Glastonbury, led a delegation to Nanteos to plead for the return of the cup to Glastonbury. But the cup remained at Nanteos which by now had acquired healing properties.

However, historians cannot trace references to the cup further back later than the 19th century. The Nanteos Cup has been identified as a medieval wooden mazer bowl made of olive wood or wych elm, dated to the 14th or 15th century, about 1,400 years after the crucifixion, around the same time as the cult of Joseph was established at Glastonbury and the first appearance of the Prophecy of Melkin.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Photographs of Glastonbury Abbey © Edward Watson

* * *