Somerset Urban Archaeological Surveys (EUS) The Somerset EUS

Glastonbury by Clare Gathercole

This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).

Download Glastonbury report

A brief history of Glastonbury

Glastonbury stands on a peninsula which protrudes westward into the Somerset Levels. The peninsula, dominated by the hard-sandstone capped Tor, has for millennia formed a prominent landmark, an apparent island in the often flooded lowlands (though a natural causeway in fact links it with the Mendip uplands to the east). Enough raised limestone, marl and clay beds surround the Tor to form a shelf suitable for occupation, cultivation and quarrying, whilst the Levels below have provided a range of natural resources varying with sea and rainfall levels.

The Brue Valley, which runs to the south of Glastonbury, separating it from Street, and north-west into the Levels, has in the last 150 years been the scene of archaeological discoveries of international importance. The Prehistoric trackways and 'lake settlements' are the remains of thousands of years of exploitation of a wetland environment which has only gradually been domesticated. These remains have been preserved by the alluvial and peat deposits created by the endemic flooding which brought each individual episode of activity to an end. The same deposits are responsible for the potential richness of the land around Glastonbury, and therefore in part for the huge effort that its historic rulers have put into maintaining drainage and controlling sea floods. However, the area has always been, and remains, liable to flooding, with the peninsula of Glastonbury providing a constant focus, always accessible by water, and a less constant refuge, the lower reaches (including the town) having been flooded many times.

There is curiously little firm archaeological evidence (though many beliefs) relating to the role of the peninsula of Glastonbury, and the Tor itself, in the Prehistoric landscapes.

Evidence of a Roman presence at Glastonbury is also fragmentary at present, but coins and the remains of glass, tiles and building materials found in the Abbey area imply that an establishment of some kind existed near there. It has been suggested that at least one of the wells in the Abbey - that in the crypt of the Lady Chapel - may be of Roman date, and that, in a similar process to that seen at Wells, an early sacred place venerated in the Roman period (and perhaps earlier) may have formed the nucleus of later churches. Other finds of building materials on Wearyall Hill may represent activity along the Roman road, as it is thought that the southern causeway onto the peninsula, the Street, may have been established in this period. However, much work remains to be done before the Roman period at Glastonbury can be understood.

The legends of Glastonbury suggest that it was an important place in the shadowy years between the collapse of imperial government in Britain and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon power in the west. Glastonbury's associations with post-Roman British resistance to the Anglo-Saxon expansion - and in particular with Arthur - may have been exaggerated by the medieval monks, but are not necessarily wholly without foundation. High status dark age occupation on the Tor, perhaps a chieftain's stronghold (though perhaps a monastic site), has been confirmed by archaeological excavations.

It is also possible that the traditions of a British origin for the Abbey may be based in truth, though this remains more problematical. The first reliable charters for the estates of the Abbey, the driving force of Glastonbury's medieval history, are late 7th century, and there is no proof - archaeological or documentary - that the Abbey existed before this. However, an earlier charter of 601, though not considered authentic in its present form, may record an actual grant of land by an unnamed British king of Dumnonia to the Old Church. The Saxon charters also show that some (though not the earliest recorded) of the early Abbots had British names, which may support the idea of an existing British tradition, later taken over by the Saxons, as may the close links between Glastonbury and Ireland.

The interest of the Irish in Glastonbury is recorded in Irish documents. The association with the Irish church was potently expressed in the later Saxon belief that the Abbey had been founded by Patrick, and that it held the remains or relics of a number of saints of the Celtic church; it may also have been expressed in the form of the Abbey and outlying monastic sites in the 7th and 8th centuries. Glastonbury was certainly on the cross-peninsular pilgrim route heading for the Continent, by the later Saxon period, by which time there must have been some kind of settlement servicing the pilgrims. In fact a named settlement is first referred to in charters also of the late 7th and the early 8th century, the name appearing as Glestingaburg. The 'burg' element is Anglo-Saxon and could refer either to a fortified place or, more likely, a monastic enclosure; the 'Glestinga' element is obscure, and may derive from a British word or from a Saxon personal name.

Even by the 9th century, the settlement would have been dominated by Abbey, which had a 'special relationship' with the Wessex dynasty. However, there is an indication of the effect that the unsettled years of the Danish incursions had on the Abbey's growth in the fact that Alfred the Great apparently granted it no land at all. Whilst a small number of 9th and early 10th century charters nevertheless indicate the continued existence of some kind of community at Glastonbury, it is possible that it was weakened by the appropriation of many of its lands by the king to reward his men, and it may itself have been attacked during the wars (though this is not certain). William of Malmesbury indeed states that Glastonbury was without monks from Alfred's time until the mid 10th century. Whilst the church would probably have continued to function, served by clerks like other minsters, it would have been a far cry from the rich royal monastery of the previous century.

In this context, Dunstan's reform and virtual refoundation of the monastery as a Benedictine house in the mid 10th century was a true renaissance. He expanded and remodelled the Abbey and one must also assume that he presided over an expansion of Abbey lands to support the building programme, perhaps a recovery of lands lost in the 9th century. Following Dunstan, Glastonbury continued to ride the crest of a wave: witangemots were held there, Kings Edmund (946), Edgar (975) and Edmund Ironside (1016) were buried there; and for a short time the English treasury was held at Glastonbury. The Abbey became 'one of the richest, and at times the richest, of all the great Benedictine houses in England', and its special jurisdiction over the Twelve Hides became established.

There must have been a sizeable settlement serving the Abbey by Domesday, but there is no evidence that it was in any sense urban: there was no mint, and no town was recorded at Domesday. As already stated, the pilgrim trade must have been a major driving force for the settlement. Certainly by the late 10th or early 11th century, several saints (including both Aidan and Patrick) were already popularly believed to lie at Glastonbury and 'lives' of famous figures associated with Glastonbury (especially Dunstan himself) were already circulating.

The extent of the lands granted to Glastonbury between the mid 10th and the mid 11th century reflects the importance of the place not only to the populace but also to the English aristocracy. The Domesday Book reveals Glastonbury Abbey to have been the wealthiest in England in the second half of the 11th century, even though the Conquest had disrupted its economic, and its spiritual, life. Perhaps because it was such a Saxon power base, the first Norman Abbot (Turstin, appointed 1082) came in determined to bend the monks to his will, and was not averse to the use of force. He began a new church which was never completed, and his successor, Herlewin, began an even larger one. Just as significantly for the town, Herlewin and Turstin also extensively remodelled the precinct boundary, laying the foundations of a new stage in Glastonbury's development.

The 12th century brought both successes and misfortunes to the Abbey and its settlement. Herlewin's church was completed in the 12th century by Henri de Blois, an aristocrat and an extremely able man. During his term he sorted out the Abbey's finances, and refurbished, improved and extended its buildings and territory. He was also the patron of William of Malmesbury, who wrote his 'De Antiquitate...' in the first half of the 12th century (to prove that Glastonbury was more venerable than Westminster). This work, the original text of which does not survive, was manipulated and 'improved' in the later 12th century by other Abbey chroniclers, the most important being Adam of Domerham (to 1291) and John of Glastonbury (to the end of the 15th century), and their forgeries have shaped the popularly perceived history of the town.

Part of the reason for the treatment of William's work was the huge and long-lasting financial crisis provoked by the serious fire which took place in 1184, not long after the death of Henri de Blois. This destroyed the Old Church and many books, vestments and relics which had been accumulated. Glastonbury was therefore bereft of some of its greatest 'tourist attractions' just as it needed the income in order to rebuild. Henry II was very supportive of the Abbey but at the time of his death, in 1189, its future must have looked very uncertain. It is in this context that the monks' 1191 exhumation of 'Arthur' took place. This 'coup' proved to be a mixed blessing as the Abbot responsible (Henry de Soilly) was quickly promoted to a bishopric and left. His successor, Savaric, who was also bishop of Bath, attempted, sometimes brutally, to subordinate Glastonbury to Bath. The Pope had to intervene, undoing the union of Bath and Glastonbury, and ushering in a period of intense rivalry for the control of the resources of the Levels, leading to lawsuits and physical attacks.

Up to this point, the growth of the medieval settlement had been inhibited by the proximity of Wells and the degree of control exercised by the Abbots. After the fire, in an attempt to foster the revenues, the new precinct was slightly adjusted to form the nucleus of a new medieval town. This, the Nova Villa referred to in documents of 1260, was gradually laid out in the late 12th and 13th centuries, probably across the old settlement: archaeology is building up a picture of wholesale reorganisation in the town at this time.

The mid 13th to the 15th centuries were comparatively settled times for the Abbey and the town. The Abbey's buildings and estates continued to expand, as did the legendary associations (such as that between Glastonbury and Joseph of Arimathea), which were vigorously promoted. The town rode on the back of the Abbey's success, attracting many visitors, some of whom left descriptions. These visitors included William of Worcester, who came in 1478 and 1480, and gives much useful information on locations and dimensions of buildings and streets. The town did not entirely depend on the Abbey: the wool trade was also important to it. But the Abbots maintained control of their town, which did not become a free borough; a request to send MPs to Westminster in 1319 was ignored and was not repeated.

One of the latest Abbots, Richard Bere (1494-1525), is also regarded as having been one of the greatest since Dunstan, and a number of his buildings still survive in town. The last Abbot, however, was Richard Whiting (1525-1539), who presided during the Dissolution. Though the Abbey, valued in 1535 as the richest in the land, survived longer than any other Somerset Abbey, its final closure was particularly traumatic. Whiting, then in his 70s, was hanged, beheaded and quartered on the Tor for alleged 'robbery' (that is, concealing the Abbey's treasure, which he probably did). The shocked and demoralised monks were pensioned off and a long chapter in Glastonbury's history drew to a close.

One of the earliest post-medieval accounts of Glastonbury is that of Leland, who had actually been entertained by Abbot Whiting when he visited the town in 1533. It was after his second visit, in 1542, however, that Leland wrote his description of the route in across the marsh and the town's layout, market and churches: he did not even mention the Abbey, which was by then closed and being dismantled. The loss of business, status and confidence caused by the Abbey's closure could have crippled the town, and there was some concern amongst the major landlords. An attempt to revivify the economy took place under Edward, though the plantation of a large community of Walloon weavers in the precinct failed on the accession of Mary. An attempt in 1554 to make Glastonbury the county town of Somerset also failed, and in the later 16th century the town experienced intermittent difficulties. A 1598 crown survey of the manor showed some urban decay, but, significantly, also showed that the inns continued to flourish, for Glastonbury was still in a good location.

Other travellers' accounts - of which there are a good number, including those of Brereton, Savage, Fiennes, Defoe and Stukeley - show that the town continued in reasonably good repair and survived as a communications and local market centre in the 16th to 18th centuries, though the economy was never buoyant, and the Abbey itself was virtually left to rot. Sir William Brereton visited in 1635, and described the town as good and fair, mentioning the precinct wall, the 'dainty' market house and the surrounding lands. But by the 1640s, though Glastonbury was still considered one of the 'great towns', it was not keeping up with places like Bridgwater and Wells, and its reputation suffered. It was plundered in 1645 by Parliamentary troops on the retreat, and the precinct was used as a campsite by Monmouth's forces in 1685. In the late 17th century Celia Fiennes described the Abbey as 'now a ragged poor place' and in the early 18th Stukeley described the awful state of the old Abbey, and the sales of fine stone which he observed. The post-medieval accounts and other documents also show that flooding was still a serious, if occasional, problem.

Despite these problems, the potential for growth was still there. Notwithstanding the failure of the Walloon weavers, clothiers are consistently recorded in the 17th century. The charter of incorporation received in 1705 was perceived as a major boost to the town and Peter King, the first Recorder for the town under its terms, and afterwards Lord High Chancellor of England, was a great local celebrity. The cloth trade and the market continued for a while to grow, though competition from Somerton was a problem in the mid 18th century. The early drainage and enclosure of Common Moor (the 1722 act was the first Parliamentary enclosure Act in Somerset) and the establishment of a small spa (in the 1750s) gave the town an edge for a while, though it was short-lived.

In common with many towns in Somerset, Glastonbury's woollen trade failed in the late 18th century, though the recent agricultural and communications improvements (the enclosures and the turnpikes) buffered the economy to some extent. The town emerged from the Municipal Reform process with a confirmed and amended charter of incorporation, and the mid 19th century saw concerted efforts to boost the economy. Ambitions were concentrated on further enclosure and improvement of the infrastructure. The success of the Brue Drainage (which followed another great flood of 1794) and the early canals prompted a project to connect Glastonbury to the canal network. The opening of the Glastonbury Canal did indeed cause an upturn in trade, especially in the building trade. But the canal soon had drainage problems and the Company almost collapsed, causing a great furore in the town and the suicide of one of the shareholders, who jumped from St John's tower.

The dramatic failure of the canal depressed the economy. In 1848 many houses in the town were empty, and rentals had collapsed. But in that year the Canal Company sold out to the railways. The Somerset Central opened its Highbridge to Glastonbury line in 1852, the line running parallel to the Canal, which had been used to facilitate its construction and was shortly closed despite undertakings to keep it open. Further lines linked Glastonbury to Wells and Blandford by the mid 1860s. Some commercial growth in the sheepskin and footwear industries took place, largely in Northover and connected to the growth of Street. Moreover, the rise of antiquarianism and the improvement in communications led in the 19th century, and has done so even more in the 20th, to an increase in tourism. Indeed, though there was no dramatic expansion in Glastonbury as a result of the initiatives of the 19th century, the resident population has been rising steadily since 1801, except for minor hiccups in the 1840s and the 1890s.