Sunday 23 April 2017

St George and the Order of the Garter

Today, 23 April, is St George's day, patron saint of England, but he is far removed from the exemplar “British Knight” that many believe him to have personified.

Knights and Saints
The influence of St Edmund as the patron saint of Anglo Saxon England began to wane under the Normans. He was finally replaced after the English successes under the patronage of St George during the Crusades and victories on the battlefield in France during the Hundred Year's War.

While the veneration of St George as a soldier-saint can be traced back to the 7th century, the first depictions of St George the Dragon Slayer go back only to 10th or 11th century Cappadocia (Central Turkey). A dragon was commonly used to represent the Devil in the Middle Ages. A late legend claims that St. George killed a dragon on the flat topped Dragon Hill at Uffington, Berkshire, where the beast's blood spilled today no grass grows. However, many of the legends associated with St. George lack historical substance and are generally considered fictitious; indeed the slaying of the ‘Dragon’ is one of many stories of the saints preserved in the Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275 after being brought back to Europe by Crusaders in the 12th century.

St George and the Dragon (Carpaccio, 1502)
It is often claimed that Crusaders returning from the Holy Land were responsible for introducing St. George’s to western Europe, but there is evidence of a cult before the Crusades, however slight, in early medieval Germany, Italy, France and England. Today he is the patron saint of many countries and cities in both eastern and western Europe.

The person typically identified as St. George is an unnamed man martyred in 303 AD during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284-305) as recorded by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the mid-4th century. This man is commonly thought to have been Georgios Gerontios, a tribune in the Roman Army who refused to renounce his Christian faith and tore down Diocletian's edict of persecution. He was subsequently imprisoned, tortured and finally beheaded on the 23rd April 303 in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city in what is now Turkey.

However, the connection of the saint with Nicomedia is inconsistent with the early cult of St George at Lydda in the Roman province of Syria-Palaestina, also claimed to be the place of his birth and his martyrdom, an important cult site to the Crusaders.

The first Christian Emperor Constantine the Great is said to have constructed a basilica over the St George's tomb at Lydda, but this church was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the crusades. Between 1150 and 1170 a cathedral was said to have been built over the tomb by Richard I (the Lionheart) of England only to be destroyed by Saladin in 1191; yet there is little evidence to support this claim.

However, “visions” of St George were recorded twice during the First Crusade, at the sieges of Antioch, 1098, and Jerusalem, 1099. The story goes that the crusaders received miraculous help at the siege of Antioch from a great army coming to their aid on white horses, clothed in white and bearing white banners, outpouring from the nearby mountains. The leaders of this phantom army were recognisable by the names on their banners; St George; St Demetrius; St Mercurius.

Richard the Lionheart is said to have received a personal vision of the saint at Acre during the Third Crusade. After these “appearances” St George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers and many military orders.

The Cross of St George, was first recorded as the ensign of the Republic of Genoa, before it was used by the crusaders. From the time of the Second Crusade (1147–1149) the red Cross of St George became associated with the Knights Templar, a military order that emerged out of the ruins of Jerusalem after its capture in the First Crusade.

The English king Henry II and the French king Philip II used red and white crosses to identify their respective soldiers during the so-called “Kings' Crusade” of 1187. The red-on-white then became a recognisable symbol of the crusader from about 1190. Indeed, the banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers by the reign of Richard I (1189 – 1199). The flag of England is derived from St George's Cross.

In the 1270's the Red Cross was worn by English soldiers during the reign of Edward I.  In 1348 Edward III established a premier order of Knighthood in England, with Saint George as its patron. At the “Battle of  Agincourt” in 1415 many of Henry V's English soldiers believed they witnessed Saint George fighting alongside them as they routed the French. Shakespeare recorded the success of St George with Henry V ending his speech before the battle with the famous phrase, “Cry God for Harry, England and St George!

The Order of the Garter
With such a fine military pedigree it was no surprise that Edward III chose Saint George as the patron saint of his Order of the Garter in 1348, the oldest surviving Order of Chivalry in the world, adopting the red-on-white cross for his Royal Standard. It was around this time that Edward proclaimed St George as Patron Saint of England; significantly, Edward created the Order of the Garter on St George's Day, 23 April.

Edward III, the Order of the Garter
Around this time chroniclers were complaining of the behaviour of knights with many criticised for promiscuity and committing lawless acts. In 1346, before the Crécy campaign, Edward III had forbidden his men from wanton ravaging and the destruction of holy places, but to no avail. It seems the exclusive Order of the Garter was created in an effort to return to chivalry and honour following Edward's victory at Crécy.

Without doubt the creation of the Order of the Garter and the return to chivalry was inspired by the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with Edward III, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Edward I, actively promoting himself as the New Arthur. His son Edward, later the Black Prince, was raised on the traditions of Arthurian Romance.

As Edward I had visited Glastonbury in 1278, for the translation of King Arthur's relics to a new marble tomb in front of the high altar, Edward III also visited the Somerset town in 1331 in a intentional act planned to associate his reign to both the Arthurian tradition and the reign of his grandfather.

Edward III’s Somerset itinerary was remarkably similar, but not identical, to that of Edward I, travelling from South Cadbury to Glastonbury. He spent 19 December 1331 at at South Cadbury and Cadbury Castle, the potential site of Camelot, before travelling to Glastonbury between 20 December and 22 December. Finally he moved on to Wells on 23 December, where he spent Christmas. There are no records of any further visits by Edward III to Glastonbury Abbey, though in 1345 he granted permission for one John Blome to search the abbey grounds for the grave of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus and legendary founder of the Abbey, and through the Grail stories an ancestor of Arthur, and guardian of the Holy Grail.

This was the Golden Age of Glastonbury Abbey, a site of pilgrimage for the cults of King Arthur, whose bones were discovered there in 1191, and Joseph of Arimathea, whose bones were not.

King Arthur's Round Tables
At the end of the “Round Table” festival at Windsor Castle in January in 1343, Edward III announced his intention to found an Order of the Round Table with three hundred knights with St George as their Patron, with a corresponding building and chapel, "in the same manner and estate as the Lord Arthur, formerly King of England".

The Round Table is King Arthur's famed table in the Arthurian legend, around which he and his famous Knights would gather.  The Table has no head, so that everyone who sits there has equal status. Yet Geoffrey of Monmouth does not mention this round table in his Arthurian epic The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae), and there is no mention of it in the early Welsh texts.

The Round Table was first described in the Roman de Brut by the Anglo-Norman poet Wace in 1155, a chronicle based on Geoffrey's earlier work. The symbolism of the Round Table developed during the Arthurian Romances and came to represent the chivalric order of the Knights of the Round Table.

During the Middle Ages, festivals called “Round Tables” were celebrated throughout Europe in imitation of Arthur's court; the earliest known was held in Cyprus around 1220. These aristocratic festivals consisted of tournaments with jousting knights performing Arthurian roles, concluding in a great feast.

The Round Table in the Great Hall, Winchester
A large wooden tabletop, eighteen feet across, known as the “Winchester Round Table” now hanging in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, bearing the names of various knights of Arthur's court is thought to have been created for a Round Table tournament. Dendrochronology has determined that the Winchester Table was constructed between 1250 – 1280, during the reign of Edward I, an Arthurian enthusiast, known to have held Round Tables many times in his reign: at Kenilworth in 1279, Warwick in 1281, Nefyn in 1284 and Falkirk in 1302. At least two of these, Nefyn and Falkirk, were personally arranged by Edward himself. He hosted one himself at Windsor around 1290, which was thought to be the occasion for the creation of the Winchester Round Table.

The iconic Round Table hanging in the Great Hall seems to have influenced Thomas Malory's identification of Winchester as the site of Camelot. Malory composed his Le Morte D'Arthur while in Newgate Prison, London, between March 1469 and March 1470 and published by William Caxton in July 1485. In 1934 the headmaster of Winchester College W. F. Oakeshott discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in the library of Winchester College that is closer to Malory's original than Caxton's printed edition.

It would appear that Caxton did not use the Winchester manuscript in preparing his printed text. Caxton divided Malory's original work of four sections into twenty-one books of roughly equal length and omitted the colophons found of the tales containing autobiographical information about the author, including Malory's reference to himself as the “knyght presoner”.

The legs were removed from the Winchester table in 1348 and the top hung on the castle wall as a symbol of the chivalric concept of the fellowship of Arthur's Round Table. Two centuries later Henry VIII had the table repainted with himself in Arthur's seat above a Tudor Rose.

By 1348, Edward III had abandoned his earlier plan for an Order of the Round Table consisting of 300 knights, and announced the creation of the Order of the Garter, with an exclusive membership limited to just 25 Knights, with the first places reserved for those commanders who had helped him to win the Crécy campaign; the exact same number of places around the Winchester Round Table.

The Garter and the Motto
Today, the official seat of the Most Noble Order of the Garter sits at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where its chapters have assembled since its creation by Edward III in 1348. The Sovereign and the Prince of Wales being permanent members, together with 24  Companion Knights.

The Garter Knights wear a mantle made from dark blue velvet fastened with blue and gold rope strings. Upon their shoulders the Knights wear the badge of the cross of St. George upon a shield encircled with the Garter.

The origins of the Order’s blue garter and motto, “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense” (Shame on Him Who Thinks Evil of It), are uncertain but shares much with the 14th century English Arthurian work “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In this anonymous chivalric romance Gawain resists the temptations of the Lady of the Castle of Hautdesert, accepting only kisses from her. On the third day after resisting her further advances she presents Gawain with a magic green girdle that will protect him from being slain. With his forthcoming duel with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, Gawain takes the girdle but does not pass it on to the lord of Castle Hautdesert (Bertilak), with whom he has an agreement that whatever each of them wins during the day they will exchange that evening. Gawain's dishonesty is his sin.

When it is revealed that the Green Knight is actually Bertilak and that the attempted seductions were a test of Gawain's worthiness, the knight is shaken with guilt, but Bertilak praises him for never giving into sexual temptation by the Lady of Hautdesert

Bertilak invites Gawain to return to the castle but Gawain refuses and sets off for Camelot, wearing the girdle for his shame. On arrival he tells Arthur the story who then decides that all the knights of the Round Table will wear a belt of green as a badge of honour in support of Gawain and proclaiming as their motto “Honi Soyt Qui Mal Pense” (Shamed be the One who Thinks Evil).

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

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Monday 17 April 2017

Joseph in Perpetual Sleep

The Man who buried Jesus
Easter is the most important event in the Christian faith; the death and resurrection of Jesus on the third day of his burial after his Crucifixion on Good Friday. The days leading up to Easter Sunday are known as Holy Week which commences when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and concludes with the Easter Triduum on Maundy Thursday and the night of the Last Supper, commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as told in the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Descent from the Cross
 (Rogier van der Weyden)
Joseph of Arimathea suddenly appears on Good Friday for first time in an albeit brief appearance in the New Testament. As a member of the Council (the Sanhedrin) and a secret supporter of Jesus, Joseph is never mentioned as being present at the Crucifixion. In the evening after the death of Jesus, Joseph requests permission from Pilate to remove Jesus' body from the Cross and provide a proper burial for him. Hence, Joseph is popularly known 'as the man who buried Jesus':

“When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.

Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb”. [Matthew 27:57-60]

The Gospels agree on the events after the Crucifixion, but only John (19:39) includes Nicodemus as Joseph's aid in the burial of Jesus. He then disappears, as quickly as he arrived; Joseph's history begins and ends with the burial of Jesus. Sceptics maintain he is not a historical figure at all and was introduced into the Gospels as a literary creation who is purely mythological. Further, they claim, there is no evidence for Joseph's town of Arimathea, Luke refers to it as simply “a town in Judea”; its location is unknown and does not exist outside of the Gospels.

Over time legends developed about Joseph, who, being the man who took the bleeding Christ from the Cross, is always associated with the relic of the Holy Blood in the ensuant art and literature, always depicted collecting the blood of Jesus at the Deposition, never the Crucifixion. Toward the end of the 12th century the French poet Robert de Boron merged the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus with Chrétien de Troyes' Story of the Grail. Chrétien never specified the meaning of the grail procession but hinted at its connection with the Eucharist when he wrote of 'un graal' (a serving platter or dish) that contained a single mass wafer that sustained the maimed Fisher King. Chrétien never mentioned Joseph of Arimathea, however, as he left his version of the story unfinished we will never know for certain what he intended. However, Robert developed the story further with the vessel becoming the Cup of the Last Supper, the Holy Grail.

The boy Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea
 (Pilton Church banner, Somerset)
According to the Grail Romances, after the Crucifixion Joseph is imprisoned by the Jews for forty years, where he is visited by Jesus who gives him the Cup of the Last Supper and sustained by a single mass wafer placed in this vessel each day by an Angel. Eventually Joseph is released and leaves the Holy Land and on arriving in Britain erects the first Christian church at Glastonbury. Later tradition claims that Joseph brought with him to Britain two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus which lie in his tomb with him.

Western legend does not mention Joseph of Arimathea in England until the 13th century which appears to be a direct response to his emergence of the Grail stories. The legend continued to develop with popular claims that the term 'nobilis decurion' identifies Joseph of Arimathea as a tin merchant who brought the young Jesus with him on trading voyages to south west Britain. Yet this tradition can only be traced to the 19th century at the earliest. If the arrival of Joseph in the West was a late development what of the tradition in the Near East?

Was Joseph buried in the Holy Land?
Alternative tradition from the Holy Land claims that Joseph was preaching in Galilee after the Crucifixion, then after dying in his homeland was buried in Jerusalem. Indeed, excavations under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City of Jerusalem, said to have been built on the site of Christ's tomb where Helena found the True Cross in the 4th century, have revealed additional ancient Jewish tombs.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
According to Eusebius of Caesarea, in the 2nd century the Roman emperor Hadrian built a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus to deliberately obliterate the place where local tradition believed was the site where Jesus had been crucified and buried. About 326 AD the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, ordered that the temple be replaced by a church constructed over the tomb discovered by his mother Helena. On demolition of the Roman buildings in the 4th century, a series of rock-cut tombs was discovered. One of the tombs was identified as that of Joseph of Armithea.

Constantine's Church was razed to the ground in 1009 by order of the Fatamid Caliph al-Hakim during his campaign against Christian sites in the Near East, including the shrine of St George at Lydda. The destruction of the Church was said to be so complete that its remains could only be detected by archaeology. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus restored part of the Church in 1048, but most of the present building is the result of 12th-century Crusader reconstruction. The fate of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre featured in the motivation for the First Crusade, which was retaken when Latin knights entered Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.

A full program of restoration work began in 1959 with the complete archaeological exploration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within the Syriac Orthodox Chapel of St Joseph and Nicodemus two rock cut tombs were discovered during this restoration work, which, although they have no identifying features, tradition claims belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

A 7th century Syrian-Nestorian chronicle (dated 670-680) asserts that Joseph's sarcophagus was discovered near the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 605. The chronicle claims that the Jews asked the Persians for permission to seek under the grave of Jesus for treasure. Here they found a sarcophagus inscribed, “This is the sarcophagus of the councillor Joseph, who gave a tomb for the body of Jesus.

However, Joseph's relics were apparently brought back from the Holy Land by Fortunat, Patriarch of Grado (802–820) and enshrined at Moyenmoutier Abbey in Lorraine in the 9th century. The 13th century Chronicle of Sens records that during the time of Charlemagne (c. 747 - c. 814), Fortunat fled from pagans in the Holy Land taking with him the body of Joseph of Arimathea and other sacred relics, eventually becoming Abbot of Moyenmoutier in the Vosges mountains. As we have seen [Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury] there was a Cult of Joseph of Arimathea in this region of France, the very homeland of Robert de Boron and his patron Gautier de Montbeliard who joined the Fourth Crusade and died as Constable of Jerusalem in 1212.

Before the end of the 10th century Joseph's body was taken from Moyenmoutier by visiting monks (monachis peregrinis). It is doubtful that Joseph's relics were taken by Glastonbury monks, even though they claimed to have 'recovered' the relics of St Dunstan after Canterbury had been sacked by Danes in the early 11th century, as they were not aware of the man from Arimathea's presence at the Abbey until the 13th century and even then the monks never claimed to know the location of his burial. There is certainly no record of such a venture in the Glastonbury records.

The Holy Blood, The Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges
In 1247 king Henry III of England took possession of the relic of the Holy Blood, preserved supposedly from the time of the Crucifixion. On 13 October he is reported as carrying it barefoot from St Paul's to Westminster Abbey in a crystal phial, sent to him by Robert of Nantes, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem (1240–1254). Yet, again where we find the Holy Blood we often find Joseph of Arimathea. It would appear the Royal family of Jerusalem seem to have collected relics of the man who buried Jesus.

Between 1878 and 1879 the Exuviae sacrae Constantinopolitanae (Religious Spoils of Constantinople) of Count Paul Riant appeared in Geneva. The publication of these two volumes assembled for the first time all the historical documents relating to the transportation of the religious relics stolen from the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1202–04). Riant claims that Joseph of Arimathea's body is preserved in the Royal Chapel of Jerusalem.

Tales From the East
It would seem the Near East has a stronger claim for Joseph's relics than Glastonbury and several sites claiming to be his tomb when England actually has none. Indeed the Glastonbury Legend has striking similarities to the 5th century Georgian legend of Lydda, which links Joseph with Philip.

In 1247 William of Malmesbury's history of Glastonbury Abbey from 63 to 1126 (De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae) was copied by the Glastonbury monks with “additions”. The amended introduction read, “St. Philip was in Gaul, as Freculphus tells us. He sent twelve disciples to preach in Britain, and as is said, he placed at their head his favourite disciple, Joseph of Arimathea”. In William's original work he did not mention Joseph of Arimathea.

A Georgian manuscript dated from the 5th century contains probably the earliest mention of Joseph's missionary work associated with St. Philip in that together the two men built a church at Lydda dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Joseph is said to have collected the blood of Jesus on the burial wrappings at Golgotha. This is closely reflected in the Glastonbury Legend; is it possible that the old Lydda tradition of Joseph and Philip as missionaries and their construction of a church to the Virgin was taken and altered by Glastonbury?

It is an odd coincidence that Joseph of Arimathea does not appear in the tradition of south west England until the emergence of the Grail Romances in the late 13th century in which he is responsible for bringing the Holy Grail, the vessel of the Holy Blood, to the West. It is clear that many of the authors of later Grail sequels that followed Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron did not truly understand the meaning of the Grail but it is always associated with relics of the Passion brought to Europe from the Holy Land by crusader knights, many of whom were the patrons of the Grail Romances.

From Robert's work it is clear the Holy Grail is the relic of the Holy Blood and Joseph of Arimathea is the carrier of that relic to the West. Joseph is depicted with two relics: collecting the Holy Blood at the Deposition in a bowl or dish; and the other is Jesus' blood soaked burial shroud.

The Templecombe Head
Holy Grail, Turin Shroud
There is a strong argument that the story of the Holy Grail is based on the Turin Shroud, the burial linen that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus' body in after the Crucifixion and would have performed as a receptacle for the Holy Blood. When this blood congealed on the linen it would have been scrapped off and placed in vials as a sacred relic. The Shroud was taken to Edessa around 50 AD before moving to Constantinople in 944 from where it was taken by the Templars in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade before reappearing in France in the 14th century. It was during these missing years that images of a face appeared in Templar preceptories across Europe and led to the Order being accused of worshipping a head. Ian Wilson (2010) has shown that these images strongly correspond to the face on the Turin Shroud, that is Jesus. Images have been found in Britain, perhaps the best known the panel at Templecombe in Somerset, discovered during the 1940s.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the Shroud was located in Somerset at some time, indeed Daniel Scavone (1999) has come up with an ingenious theory in which he argues that texts placing Joseph and the Grail in Britain, actually refer to Edessa, which was also known as 'Britium', where the burial shroud of Jesus was held from 50 to 944.

This confusion of the name of Edessa (Britium) may also explain references to the legendary 2nd century British King Lucius who is traditionally credited with introducing Christianity into Britain. Lucius is first mentioned in a 6th-century version of the Liber Pontificalis (Book of Popes), which says that he sent a letter to Pope Eleutherius seeking to be made a Christian. Bede repeats this and adds that Lucius' request was granted and the Britons followed him in converting to Christianity.

In 205 King Lucius Abgar VIII, the first Christian king of Edessa, constructed the Birtha (Latin Britium), or citadel of Edessa. Subsequently,  the citadel of Abgar was known as 'Britio Edessenorum'.

In the original text of William of Malmesbury, c.1125, on the early history of Glastonbury, following Bede, he writes that missionaries were sent to Britain by the pope at the request of British King Lucius in 166. As we have seen above, later additions to William's work in the 13th century add that Philip, who was who was in Gaul, sent Joseph with twelve disciples as missionaries to Britain, where they built a church to the Virgin.

From the above we can see that all elements of the Joseph of Arimathea tradition can be accounted for in the Near East at an earlier date than the Glastonbury Tradition. Additionally, there is certainly a stronger case for Joseph's burial in the Holy Land. Yet, it must be conceded, all the known tombs ascribed to Joseph are empty.

Much of the claim for Joseph of Arimathea's presence in England is drawn from interpretations of the Prophecy of Melkin which appears for the first time in John of Glastonbury's 14th century Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey. Melkin's Prophecy is an enigmatic text written in garbled Latin which, although it has proved impossible to accurately translate, clearly asserts that Joseph's tomb has not yet been discovered. Melkin claims that Joseph is buried on a “linea bifuracta”; this is typically translated as a “forked line” in the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey, but this has also been interpreted as a linen burial shroud.

Melkin is usually considered a Welsh bard who lived before Merlin. But in light of the above, in which we have seen the origins of the Holy Grail, did Melkin's Prophecy also originate in the Near East?

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Valerie M Lagorio, The Evolving Legend of Joseph of Arimathea, Speculum Vol. 46, No. 2, 1971, pp. 209-231.
Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Harvard University Press, 2004.
Emma Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, Princeton University Press, 1998.
Ian Wilson,The Shroud, Bantam Press, 2010.
Barbara Frale, The Templars and the Shroud of Christ, Maverick House, 2011.
Noel Currer-Briggs, The Holy Grail  and the Shroud of Christ, ARA Publications, 1984.
Daniel Scavone, Jospeh of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and the Edessa Icon, Arthuriana, The Journal of Arthurian Studies, Vol 9. No. 4, 1999, pp.1-31.

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Friday 14 April 2017

Visions of Montacute

Mons Acutis
The name of the Somerset town of Montacute derives from the Latin words 'Mons Acutis' meaning pointed, or sharp hill. Montacute is about 14 miles south of Glastonbury, both have prominent hills and each can be seen from the other. References to a now lost 7th century charter asserts that Baldred granted 16 hides to Glastonbury at Logweresbeorh (Montacute). William of Malmesbury (followed by John of Glastonbury) also refers to the ancient name Logweresbeorh for Montacute and associates the site with the personal name Logwar which appears on one of the two pyramids in the ancient cemetery at Glastonbury in between which King Arthur's grave was discovered. This is just one strange occurrence that has been recorded at Montacute which appear analogous to events at Glastonbury.
St Michael's Hill, Montacute
The Castle and Priory
Tofig (Tovi), the great Danish standard-bearer of King Cnut, had large estates in Essex and in Somerset. On the hill-top of his land at Logweresbeorh in Somerset there was found about the year 1035 a miracle-making crucifix concealed under a large slab of stone, and this was regarded by Tofig as so precious that he determined to build a church for its preservation on his estate in Essex. Tofig then handed this precious site over to the church and by 1066 it had been placed in the guardianship of the Abbot of Athelney.

Being a natural conical hill Montacute was well suited for fortification, and after the conquest William the Conqueror gave it to his half-brother Count Robert of Mortain, who built a castle there of typical Norman motte and bailey construction, a 9 metre high scarp forms a motte with the bailey on the south east slope, the other three sides formed the outer terrace. Today the site of the Norman castle is known as St Michael's Hill, named after the castle chapel that survived into the mid-17th century. It seems the choice of Montacute for the castle was a political statement as the site of the discovery of the Holy Cross, c.1035. The local people saw this as disrespectful to the sacred site and attacked the castle but their revolt came to nothing.

Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Harold Godwinson held the cross in great esteem; he richly endowed the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham,  Essex, with the Holy Cross becoming an object of veneration and pilgrimage. Harold stopped at Waltham Abbey on his way south to Hastings from the battle at Stamford Bridge and his English troops used “the Holy Cross” as the battle cry at Hastings.

In the late 11th century Robert gave his manor of 'Biscopestune' (Bishopston) consisting of the church at Montacute, the castle and burgh to the abbey of Cluny, following pressure from the King that if he did not do so, he would take the land from him.

In 1102 AD a Cluniac Priory was founded at the bottom of the hill at Montacute with a church dedicated to St Peter built in association with the priory. The stonework for construction of the priory by provided by the short-lived castle which was now dismantled. By 1200 a chapel dedicated to St Catherine had been added next to the monks cemetery.

We know little of the Priors of the Cluniac Priory of St. Peter and St. Paul at Montacute yet it is a persistent claim that Henry de Blois, abbot of Glastonbury 1126-71, was associated with the priory, although he is not listed among them. At its height in the 13th century there were 25 monks recorded at the Priory but at the time of the Dissolution in 1539, sixteen monks and the abbot were pensioned off. Today, all that remains of Montacute Priory is the gateway which is incorporated into the 16th century Abbey Farmhouse.

Following the Dissolution the church of St Catherine became the parish church. Henry VIII's antiquarian John Leland visited the area between 1535 and 1543, recording a tradition of an earlier Saxon stronghold and described the site of the Priory as “ruinous”. Earthworks in a field south of this church are thought to cover the foundation of the Priory and its buildings.

The Norman castle chapel, dedicated to Saint Michael, continued in use until at least 1315. In the 18th century a folly was built on the castle chapel's foundations and named after the original chapel; today St. Michael's Hill Tower stands as a local landmark with views across the Somerset countryside.
St Michael's Tower, Montacute

The Legend of the Holy Cross of Waltham
Around the year 1035 a Montacute blacksmith had a dream one night that he should go and tell the parish priest to go to the top of St. Michael’s Hill, where something was buried.

The next day he decided that it must have been something he had eaten and thought no more about it. However, a few nights later he had the same dream again; more vivid than the time before and even worse; an apparition that frightened him near to death visited him. Waking in a cold sweat he told his wife that he had to see the priest at once. She told he would be ridiculed by the whole village.

On the third occurrence the apparition took hold of him and left him with wounds on his arms. He rushed off to wake the parish priest, who, on being told the story of the three visitations and seeing the wounds, took the whole thing seriously. The commotion had woken many residents who gathered outside the church and formed a procession to walk to the top of St. Michael’s Hill.

Many had brought spades and started digging; it was not long before someone struck a large, flat stone which they gently lifted. Beneath it they found a large black flint cross, finely carved with  an image of the crucifixion. Under the right arm of the cross lay a smaller crucifix and under the other, an ancient bell and a book (liber niger).

They took the bell, small cross and bible down to the church for safe keeping, but he big cross was very heavy, they would need equipment to move it. Some stayed and erected a shelter to keep the cross and the guards dry. 

Tofig, King Cnut’s standard bearer who was in the area, so a messenger was sent off to find him. The small cross would stay in the church but no one seemed certain where to take black flint cross. Tofig arrived and organised the removal of the cross from the hill and had it loaded onto a wagon pulled by twelve red oxen, together with the bell and gospels, but no one seemed sure where to take it; Durham, Winchester, Glastonbury, London and Reading all mentioned, but the oxen refused to haul it.

Then Tofig decided to take the black flint cross back to his estate at Waltham in Essex and build a greater church to house the relics and the oxen immediately moved off in that direction. When it arrived at Waltham it was set up and became the glory and the greatness of the Abbey of Waltham Holy Cross.

King Harold enlarged the Abbey and the Holy Rood became the special object of his devotion and the rallying cry of his men at Senlac. Before it he knelt on his way south to fight the Norman invaders and received warning of his impending doom. (see Gordon Rendell)

Smoke and Mirrors
The Montacute excavation of the Holy Cross is reported as taking place around 1035, but the earliest account was not written until after 1177, shortly before the excavation of King Arthur's grave at Glastonbury in 1191. The two events are similar in several key details:

  • At Montacute they unearthed a large black flint cross under a stone slab (mire magnitudinis), a smaller cross, a bell and a book (liber niger).
  • At Glastonbury an inscribed leaden cross was found under a slab (mirae magnitudinis) identifying the grave with King Arthur who lies buried here in Avalon.
  • The lettering on this Arthurian cross as depicted by Camden is identical to the “Sagittarius” lettering on the 12th century tympanum on the north door of St Mary's church at Stoke-sub-Hamdon (Aeldred Watkin in Carley, 1985).
  • Tents were erected around the excavation site at Montacute until the relics were removed from the earth.
  • At Glastonbury Adam of Damerham reports that screens were erected around the excavation site in the monks cemetery.

James Carley (1985) suggests that the parallels between the two excavations may indicate that the Montacute event acted as a model for the later Glastonbury excavation.

Was Joseph of Arimathea Buried at Montacute?
The testimonies of two men who worked at Glastonbury Abbey at the time of the Dissolution suggest a further connection between Glastonbury and Montacute.

William Good who served as an altar boy at St Joseph's chapel at the Abbey, recalls that although Joseph was buried in Somerset no one was exactly sure where; “the monks never knew for certain the place of the saint's burial, or pointed it out; they said the body was hidden most carefully either at Glastonbury or on a hill near Montacute, called Hamden Hill”.

In the 16th century William Weston recorded a meeting with a man of about 80 years of age who also served at the Abbey before the Dissolution. Before the Royal Commissioners arrived at Glastonbury he was able to save a richly decorated cross and a nail said to have come from the Crucifixion and brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea. Even after the Dissolution, he continued to journey to a high hill associated with St Joseph as an act of pilgrimage.

In his home this man kept a lamp burning that faced this hill. However, this hill was was not Hamden Hill as William Good had stated, but Montacute Hill where the ruins of the medieval chapel of St Michael lay. (Carley, 1994) In time the story became slightly confused and the nail of the Crucifixion was apparently found at the chapel and a tradition grew that Joseph of Arimathea was buried at Montacute. (Thomas Gerard, Description of Somerset, 1633).

The site at Montacute has not undergone full archaeological investigation but partial excavation has shown that archaeological remains are present relating to the use of the summit. Indications on the ground suggest the tradition of a Saxon stronghold as recorded by Leland in the 16th century may well be correct, although this requires further investigation. In 1989 a small excavation found evidence for a building on the summit, thought to be the medieval chapel. Evidence for the demolition of the castle may exist in a layer of rubble found containing early medieval pottery.

Bards and Burials
The events at Montacute and Glastonbury, the discovery of the Holy Cross and King Arthur's grave, share much in common that it suggests a common source. According to Gerald of Wales the details of Arthur's grave in the Glastonbury cemetery were passed to King Henry II by a Welsh bard. The details of Joseph of Arimathea's grave exist in an enigmatic text by the bard Melkin, who, we are told, lived before the time of Merlin.

This presents two possibilities:
  • The Prophecy of Melkin, as it exists today is a truncated text, originally, in its fuller form, detailed the graves of both King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea; or,
  • The Prophecy, which cannot be traced back earlier than John of Glastonbury's “Cronica”, is a re-working of an older prophecy about Arthur, adapted by Glastonbury to accommodate Joseph of Arimathea.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996.
James P Carley, A Grave Event: Henry V, Glastonbury Abbey, and Joseph of Arimathea's Bones, 1994, in Glastonbury and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, Boydell, 2001.
James P Carley, The Discovery of the Holy Cross of Waltham at Montacute, 1985, in Glastonbury and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, Boydell, 2001.
James P Carley, The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury's “Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesiae”. Translated by David Townsend. Boydell Press, 1985.
The Legend of Montacute by Gordon Rendell

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Saturday 8 April 2017

The Search for the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea

Where They Laid Him Down to Rest

Following the first known appearance of The Prophecy of Melkin in John of Glastonbury’s 'Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey' (Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesiae, c.1342) John Blome of London wrote to King Edward III in 1345 requesting permission to search the abbey grounds for the remains of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who according to the Gospels buried Jesus.

Seemingly an esoteric message detailing the location of the tomb of Joseph, The Prophecy of Melkin claims he lies in everlasting sleep on a forked line close to the southern corner of a wattle chapel above the powerful Venerable Maiden on the Isle of Avalon.

St Joseph window in St John's Church, Glastonbury
Blome had a vision in which he received divine instruction to search for Joseph's tomb in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. The King is reported as granting permission and issuing a writ on June 10th for Blome to search for Joseph’s body at Glastonbury provided he obtained the permission of the abbot and monks and caused no damage to the abbey.

In 1367 a report appeared in an East Anglian chronicle by a Lincolnshire monk named R. de Boston claiming that “The bodies of Joseph of Arimathaea and his companions were found in Glastonbury.” However, the abbey records make no mention of this search by Blome or indeed of such a significant find and we are forced to conclude that Boston's statement was incorrect.

Since 1247, when William of Malmesbury's history of Glastonbury Abbey was amended by a later copyist, about a hundred years after the original, to include the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, the abbey seemed reluctant to promote their foundation by the man who buried Jesus. Perhaps Joseph was not necessary as a pilgrim attraction after the discovery of the grave of King Arthur and Guinevere there in 1191. The amendment to William's work appeared to be in direct response to the Grail stories of the late 12th - early 13th centuries, which, following Robert de Boron, claimed Joseph brought the Holy Grail to England.

A few years later in 1382, John Chinnock (abbot 1375-1420) restored a small chapel in the cemetery, rededicating it to St Michael and St Joseph of Arimathea. Its decoration included a life-size triptych featuring Joseph’s role in the deposition. It would appear the Cult of St Joseph at Glastonbury had begun.

However, it was not until the abbacy of Richard Bere (1494 - 1525) that Glastonbury began to seriously exploit St Joseph at Glastonbury.

Division in the West 
Glastonbury always seemed reluctant to accept the responsibility of owning Joseph's grave; they accepted that he was buried in the Abbey grounds but no one really seem to know where.

Lagorio (1971) asserts that the slow emergence of the Joseph of Arimathea tradition at Glastonbury can be attributed to the lack of crisis at the Abbey from the mid-13th century until the Dissolution in 1539. This period was a golden age of prosperity for the Abbey which had little need to further embellish its Arthurian tradition with that of St Joseph.

However, pressure to find Joseph's grave increased in the 15th century following several ecclesiastical councils attended by the Abbots of Glastonbury who were now using their foundation legend with Joseph of Arimathea in their claims for Apostolic authority.

The medieval church entered a forty-year crisis of authority, known as the Western Schism, or Papal Schism, when two popes, and later three, competed for supremacy from the period from 1378 to 1417.

The Schism started when Pope Gregory XI left Avignon to return to Italy and re-established the pontifical see in the Eternal City, where he died on 27 March, 1378, returning the papal residence to Rome following almost 70 years in Avignon. Shortly after Gregory's death the Roman populace were demanding “a Roman, or at least an Italian”, and elected the archbishop of Bari as pope Urban VI. The council of Pisa in 1409 added another claimant to the papal throne with the election of a third pope, Alexander V. The matter was finally resolved during a series of councils in the early 15th century, attended by the abbots of Glastonbury, now seen as chief among the churchmen of England.

In March 1417 at the council of Constance in which Abbot John Chinnock was head of the English delegation, the Frenchman Jean Campan produced a document attacking the nationhood of the English. On 31 March the English response called on the Glastonbury Legend:

“The greater antiquity of faith was proved by the fact that Joseph of Arimathea himself had come to England with 12 companions; and he converted the people to the Christian faith. The King of England gave him the diocese of Bath and the twelve hides of land, and the saint was buried at Glastonbury.”

Alphonso presented the Spanish claim of Apostolic foundation arguing that St James had preached throughout Spain and was a significantly greater authority than Glastonbury's claims as The man from Arimathea had only preached in the south-west of England. The English counter-argument was that St James was beheaded in the Holy Land by Herod and the only evidence for his evangelising in Spain was to be found in the Golden Legend.

To verify their claims to Apostolic authority from Joseph of Arimathea, the secret disciple of Christ, the onus was now on Glastonbury to produce evidence of his burial in the Abbey grounds and produce relics, as they had done previously with King Arthur in the 12th century.

Yet Another Search
Further searches for Joseph’s remains were seemingly made in the cemetery and in the Lady Chapel in 1419. The details are found in a letter of Abbot Frome of spring 1421 which was in response to an enquiry from Henry V who was aware of the excavation carried out in 1419. Frome informs the King that three coffins were discovered in the southern sector of the cemetery at a similar depth to Arthur's grave in 1191 (consistent with the raising of the level of the cemetery by Dunstan in the 10th century); two contained individual remains, but the third contained the full relics of twelve skeletons.

Another coffin was discovered which held the remains of a single individual “adorned most excellently beyond the others, with linen cloth inside all over” and which “excelled all others in delicacy of scent” under the southern corner of the altar in the chapel. As Carley (1994) notes, the ‘linen cloth’ seems to be taken from 'linea bifurcatea' in Melkin's Prophecy, which some understood as a reference to a linen burial shroud, rather than a ‘forked line’ in the cemetery. But surprisingly, there was no mention of Melkin's two cruets containing the blood and sweat of Jesus.

Carley (1994) suggests that this apparent discovery of Joseph and his companions, although Abbot Frome never said as much in his letter, was in preparation for a political propaganda exercise in which the discovery would be announced, perhaps by the King himself, to enhance the English Church’s Apostolic authority founded at Glastonbury, but was aborted because of Henry V’s death in 1422 and there was no major announcement of the discovery of Joseph of Arimathea's tomb.

The alleged search in 1419 was just part of a process that had started in earnest during the abbacy of John Chinnock (1375-1420) promoting the Cult of St Joseph who then become a major object of pilgrimage at Glastonbury; soon after the Abbey was venerating Joseph's relics.

By 1424 the English delegation at the Council of Sienna maintained that the body of Joseph had indeed been found and a leaden plaque identified it as such. However, by the time of the Council of Basel in 1434 the English were no longer claiming that his relics had been found and the Glastonbury delegation fell back on their former position relying on the written word of John of Glastonbury.

Chinnock also responsible for introducing the Glastonbury Tablets (Magna Tabula Glastoniensis), a large hollow wooden box with two hinged wooden leaves inside and located in a prominent position in the chapel, readily accessible to pilgrims. Pasted on these leaves was the history of the abbey, drawing heavily from the amended version of William of Malmesbury's early history of the Abbey and John of Glastonbury's Chronicle. The text begins with the mission of Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury in 63 AD, and includes excerpts from the Prophecy of Melkin, St Patrick's Charter, the translation of St Dunstan and the discovery of King Arthur's grave.

The Magna Tabula contains two small pieces not found in any other Glastonbury documents. One of these pieces, in the form of a short chapter, claims there was an ancient and ruinous chapel in the cemetery where numerous, unidentified relics, had been stored under the altar. Chinnock rebuilt this chapel in 1382 (as noted above) and rededicated to St Michael and the saints resting in the cemetery and chapel, the chief among these saints was Joseph of Arimathea, which thus made Glastonbury's cemetery the holiest earth in the land. The Magna Tabula asserts that St Joseph's remains had been buried in the cemetery but the exact place of his burial was unknown.
The penultimate abbot of Glastonbury Richard Bere (1494-1524) developed the cult further, devising the Glastonbury coat of arms, influenced by Melkin's Prophecy, featuring a cross formed by two tree trunks shorn of their branches (St Joseph's staff which became the Glastonbury Thorn), with two cruets in the lower corners and drops of blood (or is it heavenly dew) falling across the shield. Several stone representations of this device are known in Glastonbury, three on buildings erected by Abbot Bere.

The numbers of pilgrims had now grown so great that around 1500 Abbot Bere constructed a crypt, known as St. Joseph's Chapel, beneath the Lady Chapel, destroying any archaeological evidence of the vetusta ecclesia, where a stone image of the Saint was set up for veneration by pilgrims. Originally the crypt was reached by a staircase that passed the ancient well of Joseph.

The Tomb of 'JA'
Many years after Glastonbury Abbey was wrecked during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 a stone tomb said to be that of Joseph of Arimathea was reportedly seen in the crypt by John Ray in 1661. This stone tomb was apparently the same tomb that was placed in the original, smaller Joseph's Chapel before the crypt was made around 1500.

Inside this stone tomb was a step for a silver casket which it is claimed at one time contained the relics of Joseph of Arimathea. Fearing destruction by puritans during the Reformation, a year later, in 1662, the sarcophagus was relocated into the churchyard of St John's in Glastonbury High Street.

After some 250 years in the churchyard the sarcophagus, said to be the same that Ray saw in in 1661, was moved inside St John's church in the 1920's by the Reverend Lonel Smithett Lewis (late Vicar of Glastonbury) who was convinced the 'JA' initials, complete with caduceus, on the side of the sarcophagus stood for 'Joseph of Arimathea'. The tomb has been worn smooth on the top edges, perhaps by the weather, perhaps by the hands of many visiting pilgrims.

Today, the stone tomb, alternatively known as the 'John Allen' tomb, remains in St John's church Glastonbury, placed under stained glass windows depicting the story of Joseph's arrival in England, formerly known as St Katherine's Chapel in the north transept. On top of the tomb is a case containing the cope of the last Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting.
The JA tomb in St John's church, Glastonbury
If Joseph's relics had been recovered from the so-called 'JA' tomb many years ago by the faithful there is certainly no record of their whereabouts today and the silver casket, if it indeed it ever existed, has never been found.

A Green Hill Far Away?
William Malmesbury described Glastonbury as a house of 'saintly relics', but rather tellingly, Joseph's remains do not appear in any of the Glastonbury Abbey relic lists. We must remember that Joseph’s presence in England is by no means historical, however, it follows that if there are no known remains of St Joseph at Glastonbury, it does not necessarily disprove the legend: are we looking in the right place; do his bones lie somewhere else entirely?

A Jesuit exiled in Italy after the Dissolution, but born at Glastonbury in 1527 and serving as an altar boy at St Joseph's chapel at the Abbey, William Good recalls that although Joseph was buried in Somerset no one was exactly sure where; “the monks never knew for certain the place of the saint's burial, or pointed it out; they said the body was hidden most carefully either at Glastonbury or on a hill near Montacute, called Hamden Hill”.

The autobiography of another Jesuit, William Weston, who worked as a missionary in England from 1584 to his arrest in 1586, included a meeting with a man who also served at the Abbey before the Dissolution. Before the Royal Commissioners of Henry VIII arrived at Glastonbury and claimed all relics the man was able to save a richly decorated cross and a nail said to have come from the Crucifixion and brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea. The nail eventually came into the possession of the Bishop of Salisbury, but the man had kept the reliquary that contained it. Even after the Dissolution, he continued to journey to a high hill associated with Joseph as an act of pilgrimage.

In his home this man kept a lamp burning that faced this hill. However, this hill was was not Hamden Hill as William Good had stated, but Montacute Hill (Latin - Mons Acutus), fourteen miles south of Glastonbury, where the ruins of the medieval chapel of St Michael lay. In time the story became slightly confused and the nail of the Crucifixion was apparently found at the chapel and a tradition grew that Joseph of Arimathea was buried there. 

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

J A Robinson, Two Glastonbury Legends: King Arthur and St. Joseph of Arimathea. Cambridge University Press, 1926.
R F Treharne, The Glastonbury Legends, The Cresset Press, 1967.
William John Lyons, Joseph of Arimathea: A study in reception history. Oxford University Press, 2014.
James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996.
James P Carley, A Grave Event: Henry V, Glastonbury Abbey, and Joseph of Arimathea's Bones, 1994, in Glastonbury and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, 2001.
James P Carley, The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury's “Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesiae”. Translated by David Townsend. Boydell Press, 1985.
Valerie M Lagorio, The Evolving Legend of St Joseph of Glastonbury, in Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, 1971, edited by James P. Carley, 2001
Emma Jung, ‎Marie-Luise von Franz, The Grail Legend, 1998
Richard Hayman, Holy Grail and Holy Thorn, Fonthill Media, 2014.

(Edited 10/04/17 - minor revision)

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