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?
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|
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|
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.|
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|
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?|
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
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