In Glastonbury, things aren't quite of this world A journey abroad

March 24, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

GLASTONBURY, England -- A middle-aged businessman, warming himself on a rainy night in the Markethouse Tavern, said if you live here for a while you can never really leave for good. Something strange holds people to Glastonbury.

Outside the icy rain falls over the abbey ruin. It nourishes the sleeping trees, saturates the still-torpid earth. It abrades the stones. The abbot's kitchen is black with the rain. The wind shrieks on the Tor.

Strange? What isn't strange about this place? It has a Gothic allure, and a story older yet, one that is probably richer than that of any other village in England. It certainly has more myth, which is often just history not yet confirmed.

And it is full of people who are drawn by the strangeness, all representing a contemporary counterculture: tarot card readers, owners of bead shops, New Age bookstores, people in love with the arcane, of which there is more than enough here to keep them in thrall.

Is that grave in the ruins, marked there beneath where the great nave once flew, but now open to the sky, really that of Arthur Pendragon?

Was there a King Arthur? And did he have a wife named Guinevere, brought here in the dawn of the 7th century, as it says in the account by Thomas Malory, to lie beside the king? Or is that just bunk for the tourists? The same bunk fed in earlier years to the pilgrims?

And is that other site actually where Joseph of Arimathea, a contemporary of Jesus Christ, built a chapel?

And does the Glastonbury Thorn tree actually flower on Christmas Day?

One should see the abbey at Glastonbury in the rain and wind, the water rushing down the stone, darkening the soaring piers that rise out of the earth like supplicant hands that once held up the second largest church in England. And the oldest.

Inclemency brings out its brooding magnificence and prods the mystery to seize the mind.

Today, what remains of it is sinking into a green field. It is a well-cared-for relic, precious as the bone of a saint.

The legend says that Joseph of Arimathea came here in 63 A.D., and with the help of 12 followers, and the local Celtic king, Arviragus, built a chapel, of wood and mud. Joseph was the wealthy disciple whoclaimed Jesus' body after the crucifixion and had it entombed.

That wooden church was thus the cradle of Christianity in Britain, a point that was to become politically important.

About 100 years after Joseph died, Pope Eleutheris sent two missionaries to enhance the structure. They built a stone church.

The abbey grew in wealth and power, overshadowing the small and ancient chapel, until in 1184 a fire destroyed virtually the entire complex. Henry II began the reconstruction of the abbey, which took 120 years to complete.

Henry's purposes were not entirely devotional.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII broke from Rome and dissolved the monasteries all over England. The Glastonbury Abbey was pillaged.

Did Joseph of Arimathea really found the Christian Church in England? Barbara Tuchman, the late historian, wrote a book, "Bible and Sword," making the point that true or not, the leaders of the Christian Church in Britain needed the story to be accepted and to have influence in the councils of what was then the universal Catholic Church.

She wrote: "Joseph at least had one important qualification: He was an actor in the events that gave birth to Christianity. From among the Twelve Apostles Rome had chosen Peter, Spain had James, France had Philip, nor could British national pride be satisfied with anyone less immediate to the original scene."

And the Arthurian connection? How did that develop?

Even before Thomas Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur" was published in 1470, the historian Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his "British History (1135-1140)" that Arthur was taken to Avalon after his death, Avalon being a locale at Glastonbury.

According to an account written by Frances Howard-Gordon, not long after the fire at the abbey, a Welsh poet told Henry II that Arthur was buried on the abbey grounds. It was just what the king needed. He ordered a search and, sure enough, a grave was uncovered with a Latin inscription bearing Arthur's name.

The grave contained two skeletons, one of a woman. Henry declared he had found the final resting place of the legendary RTC king known as "the last Roman," and his wife.

It was a suspiciously convenient find for the king. Henry II was the king whose angry oath aroused his knights to murder his archbishop, Thomas Becket. It was a crime for which he had been ostentatiously contrite for years. Finding the remains of the greatest of Christian kings enhanced the abbey, and who could blame Henry if it drew some of the pilgrims away from Canterbury, where the martyred Becket lay?

Real or imagined, Arthur means more to Britain than probably any figure in its long history.

One reason Glastonbury is so rich in myth may be that the loftiest of aspirations Britons harbor about themselves reside here.

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