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|
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 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|
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, 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, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996.
James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996.
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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