What makes Glastonbury so mystical?

King Arthur, Avalon, Christ, the Grail, ley lines, paganism and a submerged village: even without the festival, there’s something about this Somerset town that continues to bewitch.

By Simon Ingram
Published 27 Jun 2019, 13:30 BST, Updated 14 May 2021, 11:38 BST
The 'Holy Thorn' – actually a more recent addition – on Wearyall Hill. Legend records that ...
The 'Holy Thorn' – actually a more recent addition – on Wearyall Hill. Legend records that Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff here and it grew into a hawthorn that miraculously flowered twice a year. The original tree was burned during the civil war; it was replaced a number of times and recently vandalised, before being removed altogether this year.
Photograph by Stephen Spraggon, Alamy

THIS week in the UK hundreds of thousands of people are gathering on 1.4 square miles of farmland in Somerset to attend one of the biggest and most famous music festivals in the world. For many it’s a chance to simply cut loose and party – but The Glastonbury Festival has, in its 49-year history, always had a different undercurrent to your typical event, and one that runs far deeper than the earthy vibe of its revellers. One that inhabits the ground on which it sits, and goes way back.   

These days, the festival of performing arts that descends on Glastonbury is more of a place than the place itself: the 2019 attendance is expected to exceed 200,000, increasing the population of its namesake town by a factor of 20. 

That town is a classically English place of jostled rooftops, old buildings of vibrantly decorated golden stone, and ruinously ancient religious structures. The whole extends apron-like from a steep sided 158-metre hill – bearing the terraced scars of excavation and the name Glastonbury Tor, ‘tor’ a word used to denote other such promontories in the south west of England. And atop this natural tower stands one that was built by people: the lone turret of St Michael’s, built in the 14th century, and all that remains of a church.  


Tents at Glastonbury Festival (left). Located on Worthy Farm in the marshy Somerset Levels, the event has long been notorious for mud – and famous for its earthy atmosphere, as events in the festival's Green Fields (right) often reflect.
Photograph by Edward Westmacott, NONE << NONE Alamy & Brendan Bell, Alamy

All of this is positioned in a pretty ruffle in the Somerset Levels, a largely flat place where water from the marshy ground shifts eagerly into mist at dawn and dusk. Combined with the sense of antiquity – the remains of an Iron Age ‘village’ were found on a crannog, or man-made island nearby – this gives Glastonbury a concentrated atmosphere. It’s not just skin deep, either: its history is linked strongly to numerous historical characters with ties to legendary royalty, mystical energies and even Jesus Christ. So how did all this fall together around one photogenic but otherwise unremarkable Somerset town? 

Lines of the Land

When it comes to the cultural seam that runs through it, the physical landscape around Glastonbury has perhaps more to answer for than mere aesthetics. “Right up until the later middle ages Glastonbury was a very watery place, essentially an island,” says Roberta Gilchrist, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading. “There was Glastonbury Tor, this outcrop that emerged out of the water, [then] further emphasised by a church on the top... it created an evocative landscape that attracted myths and legends from its earliest history. But because of the presence of monasteries and churches from as early as the 6thcentury, it became a sacred landscape, too.”

Glastonbury Tor rises above mist. The tor was once an island, and many 'Avalonians' believe it to be the island upon which King Arthur was buried – and Excalibur forged.
Photograph by Peter Millar, Alamy

To some, this is literal. Glastonbury is said to lie on a ‘ley line’ – part of an implied network of impressionistic significance said to run across the land in straight, intersecting lengths not unlike a cobweb. These are said by believers to link or align ancient monuments, notable landscape features and settlements across the world on a series of invisible energy pathways. Ley lines have been likened to the Chinese feng shui concept of beneficial alignment, as well as the energy associations of the Aboriginal ‘songlines’. They were first popularised by amateur British archaeologist Alfred Watkins in the 1924 book The Old Straight Track, when he noticed that notable sacred or prehistoric sites could be linked by straight lines on a map. The most famous joins St Michael’s Mount and the stone circles known as The Hurlers in Cornwall, continues through Avebury in Wiltshire and over a series of stone prehistoric mounds, churches, castles and monuments in a line right across the base of Southern England to Hopton on the Norfolk coast. 

Willow trees at Godney near Glastonbury, with the Levels in flood. The tor is visible beyond.
Photograph by Nick Pound, Alamy

The line – named the St Michael alignment, due to the number of landmarks referencing to the saint along its length – bisects Glastonbury Tor and St Michael’s Tower. There is no scientific evidence for ley lines, and it has been suggested – often via amusing case studies – that the density of British settlements and layered sites of historical significance makes it possible to link locations fairly easily. But there is certainly enough cultural basis to suggest that at one point these alignments could have been significant, and the belief was strong enough to be propagated throughout the centuries. Much in the manner of another similarly enduring local belief.  

Arthur’s Rest?

The lake from which Glastonbury Tor once rose as an island would, as early as the 12thcentury, become entwined with the legend of Britain’s most famous (and famously intangible) British king. A clue is in the adopted romantic name for the region: the Vale of Avalon. 

The alleged existence of a real King Arthur has always been confusingly conversant with the many legends the monarch is associated with throughout Celtic mythology. A chronology of Arthur’s life was assembled by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia regum Britanniae around 1140, which pinned down sites such as Tintagel in Cornwall and Caerleon in South Wales as being pivotal locations in his life. Another was the Isle of Avalon, a magical backwater where Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged – and one of many speculated locations where the mortally-wounded king was later buried.    

King Arthur, as depicted in a tapestry dated c.1384.

“As an archaeologist, to me Glastonbury is a great example of intangible heritage meeting tangible heritage. ”

Professor Roberta Gilchrist, University of Reading

One of the more potent reasons modern Glastonbury remains one of the strongholds of Arthurian legend is that Glastonbury Abbey not only claimed to be the home of Arthur’s final resting place: it claimed to have the bones to prove it. 

Recounted in detail by Gerald of Wales in his De instructione principis (1193), a grave containing King Arthur’s sword-chipped, giant-like skeleton and that of his queen, Guinevere, was discovered by monks in 1191 buried between two stone pyramids. These were re-interred in a marble tomb in the church, which according to a sign today marking the spot, ‘survived until the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539.’ The abbey was destroyed, and the bones lost. 

Most modern historians believe the entire affair was staged by the monks desperate for interest and funds following a devastating fire ten years earlier. The evidence for this centres largely on a lead plaque found in the grave in 1191, which specifically records that the remains belonged to King Arthur and Guinevere. This seemingly suitably grizzled artefact was consistent with the burial custom of a century before – but as Arthur was said to have died around the 6thcentury, had the plaque truly been interred with the king and his queen at the time of the funeral, it still would have been some 600 years ahead of its time. 

The plaque also references Arthur’s burial at ‘Avalon’, recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth only 50 years earlier. This sadly makes the grave and its contents in all likelihood a creative fraud orchestrated by the monks to authenticate their origins story – a not unusual practice at the time, particularly when it came to founding charters, which were often fabricated to underline a genuine belief in a church’s prestige and antiquity. As Roberta Gilchrist puts it: “They forged material culture in order to create material evidence. They just got the century wrong.” 

Despite this, the Arthurian ties to Glastonbury persist. Rather unusually, this could be thanks to the strong religious atmosphere of the town. “The Anglican aspect of Glastonbury has a very strong Celtic connection,” continues Roberta Gilchrist. “Arthur is regarded as Celtic rather than Anglo- Saxon. And in Glastonbury, you have a Christian church that was founded before the Roman mission to Christianise the English.” And this church is key to another of Glastonbury's impressively prestigious ancient claims.   

Stars and the rotation of the earth captured in a long exposure time-lapse above St Michael's Tower, Glastonbury Tor. Polaris, the pole star, is the static star in the centre.
Photograph by Stephen Spraggon, Alamy

The Holy Connection 

Famously central to Arthurian legend was the search for the Holy Grail: the cup Jesus Christ used at the Last Supper, and was said to catch his blood at the crucifixion. In this link between Arthurian legend and Christianity there are further links to Glastonbury – with a story that develops whisper-like through the ages. 

Entrusted with Christ’s burial, Joseph of Arimathea is variously said to have either sent the Holy Grail back to Britain with his followers, or brought it personally in his role as a missionary. In the latter case, he is found resting on the summit of Wearyall Hill, where he planted his staff – later sprouting into a miraculously flowering hawthorn. This tree suffered considerable persecution over the centuries: the alleged original was cut down during the civil war, and the ceremonial tree that stood on the site was repeatedly vandalised until being removed altogether just last month. The ‘Glastonbury thorn’ is today regarded as a descendent of the original, and refers to the genus  Crataegus monogyna biflora – a variant of the common hawthorn that flowers twice a year. 

The Grail, meanwhile, is said to have either been washed or buried by Joseph at the site of Chalice Well – which sits at the foot of Glastonbury Tor and is the exponent of vivid red-flowing water said to issue at a rate that never varies in flow or temperature. Today a wellness garden occupies the site. The arresting hue of the water is due to the source being chalybeate, or fortified with mineral salts: legend says it is fortified the blood of Christ. 

An ancient standing stone on the Mendip Hills overlooking Glastonbury and its Tor.
Photograph by Stephen Spraggon, Alamy

Another story suggests that Jesus himself may have come here as a boy, again in the company of Joseph of Arimathea – who was a travelling merchant and is said to have also visited Somerset and Cornwall in earlier life. The poet William Blake wrote of this in Jerusalem (1804): 

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

…and fittingly, Glastonbury Festival veteran Van Morrison wrote of the same in his song Summertime in England

Did you ever hear about Jesus walkin'
Jesus walkin' down by Avalon?

There is also the local lore that on his visit after the crucifixion, Joseph founded Glastonbury’s first church – probably a basic wooden structure – on the site of the ruinous abbey. 

Glastonbury has become a place where Christian and pagan beliefs mingle. Local lore says the Abbey (left) was once been the site of a church founded by Joseph of Arimathea, whilst pre-Christian paganism mingles with Christian and New Age beliefs. A modern interpretation of this is the Beltane festival, celebrated to mark May Day.
Photograph by Jane Tregelles, NONE << NONE Alamy & Mr Standfast, Alamy

“In the town to this day there is the strong belief in Joseph of Arimathea’s association with Glastonbury – and therefore that direct association with the life of Christ.” Says Roberta Gilchrist. “And it’s one that resonates not just with Anglican Christians, but with New Age Christians too.” 

The Modern Melting Pot

Today, Glastonbury is in a kind of ever-renewing cycle. A surge in interest in the town’s legends in the early 20thcentury and a series of alternative orchestral recitals – by the composer Rutland Boughton – led to the first 'Glastonbury Festivals' between 1914 and 1925 and established the town as a centre for arts. This received a much-needed post-war boost when the 1960s happened, the New Age movement swung into being – and Glastonbury was once again on the pilgrim trail. 

“I was born here, I grew up in the 60s when the hippies first arrived. There was deep shock – it was still a little market town,” says Ruth Morland, owner of Glastonbury Galleries. “Glastonbury is always madness, but we get some amazing people. An awful lot of artists and people with, shall we say, artistic intentions. Musicians, storytellers, performers – art with a broad brush. It’s unique, and it does fuel creativity.” 

A telephoto lens captures the sunset over St Michael's Tower, Glastonbury Tor.
Photograph by Andy Bush, Alamy

“Glastonbury is always madness. But we get some amazing people.”

Ruth Morland

Glastonbury’s apparently complementary fusion of faiths give it a vibe in which the spiritual blends with the historical, and legend with archaeology almost seamlessly. “Glastonbury is a great example of intangible heritage meeting tangible heritage. What fascinates me is that this has built up over 1000 years or more,” says Roberta Gilchrist. “The myths, landscape and archaeology are central to that. Archaeologists study prehistoric monuments in their ancient ‘sacred landscapes’ – AveburyStonehenge and the like – but Glastonbury is a living sacred landscape.

“The town has a strong Wiccan population, and you have the Christians and the Avalonians and they all interact,” she continues. "It’s a great example of a vernacular religion – one that continues to evolve.”

"Glastonbury might be a small market town, but it has a great big heart and a strong community spirit," says Morgana West, Director of the Glaston Centre, a cultural hub designed to offer a 'pilgrim reception' for those visiting the town. "Those who spend time in its atmosphere, learning about themselves and the world around them, find they become more open, kinder and understanding, and more conscious of their connection and responsibility to bigger world. The diversity here teaches us how to work together. To me, that’s the real Grail of Glastonbury."

So when Worthy Farm erupts into festivities this week it’s upon ground that's no stranger to slightly left-field happenings. This is despite the fact that it is slightly right of where its name suggests. “I remember when the festival first started in the 1970s we used to get a lot of people coming to the town and getting upset when they realised the Glastonbury festival is actually not in Glastonbury,” remembers Ruth Morland. “We used to call it the Pilton Pop Festival, as Pilton is where it is. They call it Glastonbury, but it’s actually nearer Shepton Mallet.”   

Festival-goers watch the sunset from Worthy Farm during the Glastonbury Festival.
Photograph by Charlie Raven, Alamy

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