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

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