The Late Medieval Cultus of the Virgin at Glastonbury.

This paper is a brief overview of devotion to St Mary at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset which I presented at the Glastonbury Symposium. Due to time constraints there was much which I was unable to discuss on the day. For a more detailed consideration of the subject matter, please see: Hopkinson-Ball, Timothy ‘The Cultus of Our Lady at Glastonbury Abbey: 1184-1539’ in the Downside Review, No. 485, January 2012


When most people visit the Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, they fail to notice a small and unobtrusive block of blue-gray stone mounted above the holy water stoop by the south door to the Holy House. Simply marked ‘Glastonbury’, this fragment of Somerset Blue Lias comes from the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey. Arguably one of the oldest Marian shrines in the British Isles, the gaunt ruins of ‘the monastery of Our Lady of Glaston’[1] barely hint at this shrines antiquity or its importance to our understanding of Marian devotion in medieval England.


 The origins of the Virgin’s cultus at Glastonbury are obscure and our first glimpses are found in the abbey’s seventh-century Anglo-Saxon charters. The problematic nature of this archival evidence has been recently highlighted by Dr Susan Kelly.[2] None the less, the earliest charter accepted as authentic, albeit only extant in an interpolated tenth-century copy, is a land grant dated 681 AD. This was given by the West Saxon sub-king Baldred to the ‘church of blessed Mary and blessed Patrick’[3] at Glastonbury, although the addition of St Patrick to the dedication may be a later tenth-century addition. A charter of King Ine of Wessex, witnessed by St Aldhelm just over twenty years later in 704 AD, described this church as the ‘wooden church’ (lignea basilica), while an addition to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Ine built the first stone minster church at Glastonbury which was dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. In the centuries that followed, the wooden church started to be called the ‘Old Church’ (vetusta ecclesia); more formally it was known as the Church of St Mary ‘of Glastonbury’ and it was this building which constituted the focus of Marian devotion while the stone church of SS Peter and Paul to the east served as the monastery’s ecclesia major.

Having established that seemingly there was a church dedicated to St Mary in Glastonbury by the late seventh century – and we must be mindful of Kelly’s warning regarding the unreliability of the Saxon charter evidence – we can turn to the earliest surviving account of Glastonbury’s origins. This is to be found in the first Vita Dunstanae (Life of St Dunstan).[4] Written within a year or two either side of the first millennium, we only know the Vita’s author by the initial ‘B’, but it seems likely that he knew St Dunstan personally. The relevant passage regarding the origins of the Old Church appears close to the beginning of the Vita. The latest academic translation by Michael Lapidge runs as follows:

‘For it was in this island that by God’s guidance, the first novices of the catholic law discovered an ancient church, not built or dedicated in the memory of man. Later, the builder of the heavens Himself revealed by many miraculous and supernatural happenings that it was consecrated to Him and His holy Mother Mary. To this church they added a second, building it of stone and the bishops dedicated it to Christ and his apostle St. Peter.’[5]

Thus, from the tenth century, Glastonbury was believed to have a special relationship with Christ and his Mother. Her church, regarded as ancient, holy and fundamental to the monastery’s existence, was widely acknowledged, and oaths using the formula ‘the church of the blessed mother of god Mary, which is located in the monastery called Glastonbury’ (or variations on this theme) became common place in documents to underline their importance.[6] But of the appearance of this ancient church we know little. The Anglo-Norman chronicler William of Malmesbury writing in the second quarter of the twelfth century provided a brief description of a wooden building sheathed in lead in his De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie (On the Antiquities of the Church of Glastonbury)[7] but other than this and the possible depiction of the Old Church on the abbey’s first common seal,[8] little comment can be made; even its precise dimensions are in doubt, although they are presumed to have been perpetuated in the present Lady Chapel. The liturgical arrangements of the Old Church’s interior are likewise lost to us, although it is known to have contained a principal altar ‘packed with relics’, the three tomb-shrines of SS Indract, Patrick and Gildas, a remarkable tiled pavement and (possibly) a wooden image of the Virgin and Child.[9]

After William, Duke of Normandy’s conquest of England in 1066, Glastonbury was ruled by a succession of Norman ecclesiastics. The most significant influences on the intensification of Marian devotion at the abbey during this period were the actions of the Cluniac abbot, Henry of Blois (1126-1171). One of most influential churchmen of the twelfth century, Blois is known for his energetic building schemes at Winchester, Farnham, London and Glastonbury, but despite such vigour, Blois none the less respected the integrity of the Old Church of St Mary: seemingly it was deemed too sacred to be reconstructed. It did not, however, prevent him from embellishing it. Blois may have commissioned a statue of the Virgin for the OldChurch (or perhaps repositioned or beautified an old one) as an image of Our Lady is first mentioned during his abbacy when Blois personally provided funds to keep a candle ‘perpetually burning’ before the image.[10] Blois also fostered devotion to the Virgin by presenting his abbey with a number of Marian relics. These included: ‘some of blessed Mary’s milk and some of her hair… part of her sepulchre and some of all the garments of that same blessed Mother of God’.[11] It was through Blois’ inspiration that ‘the brothers observed all the principal festivals of St Mary, Dei Genetrix, with much more than the accustomed devotion and solemnity’ and after the first day of the Feast of the Assumption ‘they celebrated the three following days in copes, as is done in the week of Easter and that of Pentecost’.[12] He personally provided an endowment for the upkeep of an 8lb candle to burn in St Mary’s Church on all the principal feasts of the Christian year and through his influence with his uncle, Henry I, Blois ensured that Glastonbury was granted its first fair in 1131, significantly commencing on September 8th – the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.[13]

During Henry of Blois’ abbacy Glastonbury’s reputation as a specifically Marian cult centre even extended across the Channel, if a later passage inserted in Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate can be trusted. In the third chapter it is claimed that during Blois’ time as abbot, one of his monks visited the abbey of St Denis in the Ile-de-France where he was reportedly asked if Glastonbury’s ‘ancient church of the perpetual Virgin and compassionate mother’ was still standing?[14]  Whether or not this story is apocryphal, it demonstrates Glastonbury’s active promotion of itself as a centre of Marian devotion, before such shrines as Walsingham, Ipswich, Caversham or Westminster had been conceived, and it is beyond doubt that Blois’ careful fostering of devotion to the Virgin at the abbey had a profound impact in the centuries that followed. 

Barely fifty years after William of Malmesbury penned his brief description of the OldChurch, Glastonbury Abbey suffered its only major disaster, the Great Fire of 1184. It is not known how or where the fire started, but the Glastonbury community believed that it was due to the desecration of St Mary’s Church. The abbot designate, a career churchman by the name of Peter de Marcy, was not only said to have been in a state of mortal sin (he had killed a man in close combat), but in an effort to ingratiate himself with his new community he supposedly feigned the celebration of mass in the Old Church at dawn, on Christmas morning 1183.[15] The following summer’s conflagration was considered to be God’s (rather belated) judgement on the abbot’s misdeeds. Its consequences were far-reaching. Devastating the entire monastic complex, it left only a single chamber, a chapel and a bell tower undamaged.[16] Fortunately for the monks, Henry II came to their aid and with royal patronage reconstruction was swift.

The king’s chamberlain and site-manager at Glastonbury, Ralph Fitzstephen, ‘finished St Mary’s Church on the spot where the Old Church had originally stood, using squared stones and the most attractive workmanship, and he spared nothing in its ornamentation.’[17] That this construction was undertaken in parallel to the building of the presbytery of the new great church of SS. Peter and Paul is exceptional, and it clearly signals the importance of the Old Church to the Glastonbury community. This new Church of St Mary is the roofless building which still stands at the west end of the abbey ruins today (fig. 1). Consecrated by Reginald, Bishop of Bath, on St Barnabas Day (June 11th) in 1186 or 1187, the new structure was conceived as a free-standing building designed in a deliberately old fashioned style to echo the antiquity of the OldChurch it replaced. The interior of St Mary’s new church was profusely carved, extravagantly painted with rare and costly pigments, and lit with richly coloured glass; pilgrims would have been in little doubt that they were on holy ground.

 Unsurprisingly, the fire prompted a profound shift in the abbey’s spiritual geography. Before 1184 the OldChurch had been the monastery’s sanctum sanctorum, while the Norman ecclesia major to the east with its tombs and memorials had been a clear visual statement of the monastery’s dignity and power. But in the fire, all this was lost. The oldest church in the land built by the first British Christians and dedicated to the Virgin had perished. A new focus had to be found as Glastonbury’s antiquity could no longer be taken for granted. Now the monastery’s ancient origins had clearly to be emphasised. After all, a pilgrim arriving at the abbey after 1184 would have found a building site where almost everything was new.

It is little surprise therefore that the only object from the OldChurch which survived the fire intact, a wooden statue of the Virgin and Child, suddenly took on a profound new significance. Although we cannot be wholly certain, it seems likely that the enthroned Virgin depicted on the abbey’s thirteenth century seal is an idealized depiction of this wooden image (fig. 2). According to a passage later inserted in Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate, this statue:

‘…was not touched – not even the veil that hung from its head – by the great fire that surrounded the altar and consumed the cloth and all the ornaments on it. Yet because of the fire’s heat blisters, like those on a living man, arose on its face and remained visible for a long time to all who looked, testifying to a divine miracle.’[18]

 The chronicler John of Glastonbury later repeated this story, but commented on the blisters, noting that they were ‘a worthy demonstration of the miracle that fire could not touch the image of her who remained ever virgin in body and mind and who knew no lust of the flesh. Thus the holy Mother of God herself defended her image from fire and showed that she is able, with the greatest ease, to free those who serve her from the fire of hell.’[19] This ancient statue thus became a tangible link and perhaps the only direct visual link, in the new Church of St Mary (which also served as the monastery’s Lady Chapel) to Glastonbury’s lost past. Granting a direct sense of continuity between the two buildings, the statue and its miraculous survival stood as incontrovertible proof that Glastonbury’s patron, St Mary the Virgin, both watched over the community and regarded it as her own.

 It is from the last quarter of the twelfth century therefore, that Marian devotion at Glastonbury becomes a cultus proper, focused on a ‘miraculous’ image housed in a purpose built chapel. In the aftermath of the 1184 fire the Virgin’s special relationship with her abbey is frequently signalled textually, nowhere more so than the Great Privilege of King Henry II. Supposedly written shortly after the fire and signed in London by an impressive array of dignitaries including Heraclius, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who was briefly in the capital in the autumn of 1184 to consecrate the Temple Church, the charter was seemingly later revised and embellished with further names to give it greater standing. Having listed all Glastonbury’s ancient liberties and dignities granted by his royal predecessors, King Henry states that he concedes them all: ‘to the honour of God and of the most blessed Virgin Mary, who in this kingdom first chose that place especially for herself, and to the honour of all the saints who rest there.’[20] While the exact meaning of this enigmatic statement that the Virgin had chosen Glastonbury ‘especially for herself’ is left unexplained, it may imply that the ‘miraculous’ survival of St Mary’s statue in the great fire was interpreted by the monastic community as a mark of particular favour. Whatever the text’s precise meaning, its implication is clear; while other churches laid claim to the tombs of great saints such at Thomas at Canterbury, Swithun at Winchester and Cuthbert at Durham, Glastonbury alone claimed to be England’s first and premier shrine of the Mother of God.

It was less than a decade after the great fire when an event transpired which has been frequently described as the most important in Glastonbury’s history – the exhumation of the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.[21] But Arthur himself did not significantly impact upon the Virgin’s cultus other than to reinforce her growing dominance at the abbey. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius before him claimed that Arthur had gone into battle with an image of the Virgin on his shield, ‘which forced him to think perpetually of her’.[22] Thus, when Arthur’s Marian credentials were combined with the abbey’s, it is perhaps not surprising that by the second quarter of the fourteenth century John of Glastonbury incorporated a story in his chronicle which claimed that the king had attended a mystical mass just outside Glastonbury at Beckery.[23]

At this mass both Our Lady and the Christ Child were present. The holy infant was offered at the altar, miraculously consumed and then made whole again before the closure of the liturgy. Modelled on the Mass of St Gregory, at which the bread of the Eucharist was transformed into the living body of Christ in the priest’s hands, this child-host miracle was well known to medieval theologians and the story became a commonplace frequently employed to stress the Real Presence in the mass, especially after the introduction of the feast of Corpus Christi by Pope Urban IV in 1264.[24] John concludes his story by stating that at the end of the mass Our Lady gave Arthur a rock-crystal cross as a memento of the occasion, which the king in turn presented to the abbey. A crystal cross, said to be Arthur’s, was preserved in Glastonbury’s treasury from the fourteenth century and throughout the Middle Ages it was regularly carried in procession through the great church on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent. The story of the Beckery mass was seemingly so well regarded by the monastic community that from the beginning of the fifteenth century (if not earlier), both the Virgin and her cross were depicted on the abbey’s official shield of arms – a most appropriate heraldic device which epitomised both the orthodoxy and dedication of the convent of St Mary of Glaston.

 In the century which followed the 1184 fire, the abbey grew and prospered, helped by a succession of able and prudent abbots. One of the most powerful monastic foundations in England, Glastonbury had consolidated its huge estates, enjoyed immense wealth, received numerous privileges, enshrined many prominent saints and claimed to be the most ancient Christian foundation in the realm. Then, quite unexpectedly, during the abbacy of Adam of Sodbury in the second quarter of the fourteenth century (1323-1334) a miraculous event occurred in the Lady Chapel:

‘Once, while the convent of Glastonbury was chanting the antiphon Salve regina in devotion to God and blessed Mary, the glorious Virgin’s image which stood at the altar moved like a living lady. While a whole crowd of secular people looked on, and while the monks watched as well, she clapped for the child she held on her lap, now putting her hand to his face, now drawing it back in reverence; nor did she cease these movements until the choir had haltingly sung through the whole antiphon.’[25]

This miracle was first recorded by the Glastonbury monk Edmund Stourton, in his lost book De nominibus Ihesu et Marie (The Name of Jesus and Mary), which he addressed to Pope John XXII (1316-1334).[26] Although we only know of Stourton’s book and the account of the miracle it contained from a later reference, works such as his indicate that Glastonbury’s monks had a lively enthusiasm for the Virgin’s cult and that they zealously promulgated it at the very highest levels beyond the confines of their monastery. It seems that this miracle deeply affected Abbot Sodbury, for it was later recorded that he not only ‘adorned the high altar [of the abbey church] with a large statue of the Mother of God and a magnificent tabernacle’[27] (which may be the standing image of the Virgin depicted on the abbey’s fourteenth century seal) (fig. 4), but in February 1333 he also instituted a body of eight secular priests whose primary purpose was to ‘minister daily in the Lady Chapel’ and serve in the charnel Chapel of St Michael which stood on the south side of the Old Cemetery. [28] The most important development in the devotional life of the abbey since the re-ordering after the great fire of 1184, Abbot Sodbury’s initiative seems likely to have been a direct result of increased pilgrim traffic to the Lady Chapel in the wake of the miracle of the moving statue.

Later collectively known as the ‘Clerks of Our Lady’, these priests’ daily routine mirrored the Canonical Hours of the monks’ Divine Office – Nocturns, Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline. In addition to observing this formal timetable of prayer, the clerks were also expected to celebrate their own masses, the Office for the Dead and join the monastic community in worship on certain festivals. Provided with lodgings and garden close to the Lady Chapel, by the Dissolution in 1539 it seems there were twelve clerks – doubtless intentionally mirroring St Joseph of Arimathea’s twelve legendary companions. Acting almost like a monastery within a monastery, these priests served in a church in which it was believed that the Virgin, in a very tangible way, had made evident her continued support for Glastonbury.

Only a decade or so after the miracle in the Lady Chapel, the abbey’s history was newly chronicled by a Glastonbury monk commonly known as ‘John of Glastonbury’, although his name was probably John Seen.[29] Completing his history of Glastonbury Abbey by circa 1342, the Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (The Chronicle of the Ancient Church of Glastonbury) sets out to be a comprehensive history of the monastery from the earliest times to the author’s own day and was written to update Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate. The introduction – possibly written by someone other than John – has a lengthy, but revealing title: ‘On the antiquity of the ancient church of St Mary at Glastonbury; and on the addition which St David made to it, at the insistence of divine revelation, and which he dedicated to the honour of blessed Mary.’[30] From the outset it is thus clearly signalled that Glastonbury is an ancient foundation of peculiar importance to the Virgin and as the book proceeds, it rapidly becomes evident that the ethos of John’s work is essentially Marian. As James Carley has observed, John’s account of fourteenth-century developments at Glastonbury is particularly valuable as ‘it represents his immediate response to personally witnessed events.’[31] It is quite possible that John had been present during the miraculous occurrence in the Lady Chapel or at the very least knew people who were. The Marian tone of the chronicle is thus both explicable and understandable. Indeed, it would be surprising if the Virgin’s presence were not felt throughout the work.

To cite just three examples: In the prologue which follows the introduction, John dedicates the Cronica to his fellow monks who live ‘under the quiet protection and direction of our advocate Mary the blessed and ever-virgin Mother of God’[32] In the Cronica’s fourteenth chapter, John discusses Glastonbury’s virtues as a place of burial, echoing William of Malmesbury by claiming that: ‘The chief personages of the country would rather await the day of resurrection in the monastery of Glastonbury, in the protection of Mary the ever-virgin Mother of God, than anywhere else.’[33] John also recounts an otherwise unknown miracle story which clearly emphasises the Virgin’s role as Glastonbury’s protector. Claimed to have transpired in the early eleventh century: ‘At this time Cnut, king of the Danes, rampaged through England: and so, while life in England was made hard by their invasion, the Danes came to the gate near Glastonbury which is called Havyatt, something over a mile from the church. Many of them heard of this place’s sanctity and so turned back, lest they should provoke to anger the Mother of Mercy and the other saints whose bodies rest there; but some scoffers entered the island – yet not with impunity. For the Virgin Mother brandished the weapons of justice and punished them all with blindness; later she mercifully illuminated them, when they had repented and publicly repudiated what they had so wickedly done. And when they had conferred among themselves, they built a cross of quite elegant workmanship and offered it to the Old Church as a monument to this miracle.’[34] St Mary’s continuing interventions in Glastonbury’s history are thus clearly signalled by John and the Cronica’s reader is left in little doubt as to the monastery’s exceptional status.

In the final decades of the fourteenth century, Abbot John Chinnock (1375-1420) thoroughly restored the Lady Chapel. During this renovation work Chinnock ‘…clothed this image [the ancient ‘miraculous’ statue of St Mary] as befitted it, adorning it with gold and precious stones and enclosing many relics within it.’[35] The appearance engendered by the image’s garnishing with precious materials clearly heightened its profile in the Lady Chapel, stressing its status as the building’s principal devotional aid and visual focus. To the medieval mind, the gold and gems used to adorn the image served as material analogues of the Virgin’s spiritual glorification. Abbot Chinnock’s enclosure of holy relics within the image is also noteworthy. A not uncommon practice throughout the Middle Ages, the relics, unseen by human eyes, further guaranteed the holiness and authenticity of the statue, and the altar which it adorned. More than this, like the Lady Chapel it inhabited, the image of the Virgin became simultaneously relic and reliquary, the vessel of salvation. As God himself had been enclosed in the Virgin’s womb, so the relics of the saints were enclosed in an image of Our Lady, the Virgin, symbolic of the Church enclosing and sheltering the saints, just as the Lady Chapel enclosed and sheltered the faithful – a complex multi-layered symbolism which would not have been lost on her monastic audience, even if not fully appreciated by the average pilgrim.

Although by the sixteenth century the Lady Chapel had its own choir consisting of ten clerks, ten boys and an organist, sadly, we know little of the presentation of the cultus and its internal modus operandi. No service books, collections of miracles, or lists of offerings survive, and there is no shrine customary to provide details about the ritual and ceremonial surrounding the cult. Aside from ‘a set of prayer beads [made] out of pure gold’[36] gifted to the Lady Chapel by Queen Philippa, the wife of Edward III, sometime after the royal visit to the monastery in 1331 we know of no other gifts, but surviving wills make clear that burial in the church or surrounding cemetery was highly sought after: Sir Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Devon, for example before his death in 1469, bequeathed his ‘body to be buried in the Church of Blessed Mary, in the monastery of Glaston.’[37] The liturgies celebrated at the Lady Altar and subsidiary altars were doubtless rich and visually stimulating; John of Glastonbury for example, records that Adam of Sodbury gave ‘…the chapel of the Blessed Virgin a set of green silk [vestments] with barbed fishes and gold birds; two silver basins; a thurible and incense boat with a silver and gilt spoon; and a gold and silver book’ the cover of which had ‘the Crucified, Mary, and John quite splendidly represented in enamel.’[38] Combined with stained glass, painted stone, wooden screens and complex polyphonic music, we need not doubt that the laity’s experience of the liturgy in the Lady Chapel would have been intoxicating and that veneration of the image of Our Lady of Glastonbury was carefully orchestrated ‘sacred theatre’. Drawing on parallels with other English Marian shrines, having reached the goal of their pilgrimage, the experience of the faithful in the Church of St Mary of Glastonbury would primarily have been the ritual viewing and veneration of the image itself, enriched by the celebration of masses, the singing of litanies, the offering of individual prayers, the lighting of candles, prostrations and the presentation of ex votos.

The evidence of the few surviving personal seals from the abbey demonstrates that the community was not only custodian of the Virgin’s shrine but had an active devotion to their patron. This is most clearly demonstrated by the continuing architectural development and elaboration of the Lady Chapel. This can be reconstructed with some certainty – although it is too complex to be considered in detail here.[39] Suffice to say that although originally conceived as a free-standing structure, the Church of St Mary was quickly joined to the west end of the ecclesia major by a Galilee chapel dedicated to All Saints. After various liturgical re-orderings in the interior, by the late fifteenth century the Galilee had been incorporated into the Church of St Mary proper to form its chancel. By this time the church also possessed two single cell chapels which acted as embryonic transepts, a sacristy and a crypt inserted beneath, which was dedicated to St Joseph of Arimathea. This last addition was seemingly the work of Glastonbury’s penultimate abbot, Richard Beere.             

It was during Beere’s abbacy at the beginning of the sixteenth century that the last medieval source addressing Glastonbury’s sacred origins, the Lyfe of Joseph of Armathia (Arimathea) was written.[40] Presumably commissioned by the abbot, it was printed in London by Richard Pynson in 1520. Although the Lyfe’s author remains anonymous, he is thought to have been a Glastonbury monk. A simple pamphlet meant for easy sale and distribution, its production clearly illustrates Glastonbury’s promotion of its putative founder, Joseph of Arimathea, and of itself as the birth place of English Christianity, but just as importantly, it explicitly underlines the abbey’s claim to be England’s premier Marian shrine.

The majority of the poem is based on the familiar version of St Joseph of Arimathea’s life taken from the narrative in John of Glastonbury’s Cronica and does not concern us. Having travelled from the Holy Land to Britain, St Joseph and his companions eventually settle in ‘au[i]longe’ (Avalon), ‘Nowe called Glastonbury’ which was given to them by the local pagan ruler, Arviragus.[41] What they then did is summarised by two verses of enormous importance both to the development of the abbey’s foundation legend and to perceptions of Glastonbury as England’s premier holy site. Although the Lyfe was written to emphasise St Joseph’s role as the monastery’s founder and to extol his intercessory potency at the abbey, these two verses clearly signal not only the close connection between St Joseph of Arimathea and the Virgin, but more importantly, a shift in emphasis in the presentation of St Mary’s cult at Glastonbury. Although difficult to decipher, they repay close examination.

‘There Ioseph lyued with other hermyttes twelfe,

That were the chyfe of all the company,

But Ioseph was the chefe hym-selfe;

There led they an holy lyfe and gostely.

Tyll, at the last, Ihesu the mighty,

He sent to Ioseph thaungell gabryell,

Which bad hym, as the writing doth specify,

Of our ladyes assumpeyon to bylde a chapel.


So Ioseph dyd as the aungell hym bad,

And Wrought there an ymage of our lady;

For to serue hyr great deuocion he had,

And that same ymage is yet at Glastenbury,

In the same churche; there ye may it se.

For it was the first, as I vnderstande,

That euer was sene in this countre;

For Ioseph it made with his owne hande.’[42]

Not only is the Lyfe’s author clearly reasserting Glastonbury’s pre-eminence as the earliest and most important shrine to Our Lady in the British Isles but just as significantly, Our Lady’s statue is now presented as a type of image known in Greek as an acheiropoietos, i.e. ‘not made by ordinary human hands’.[43] Such images were extremely uncommon in the medieval world and were held in high esteem. Believed to have been created miraculously or to have been painted or carved from life, often by St Luke the Evangelist or someone close to Christ, they were regarded as sacred from their very creation; they became relics in their own right, quite aside from any later miraculous occurrences associated with them.[44]

In this respect, Glastonbury’s ancient statue of St Mary took on a whole new dimension. Claimed to have been carved at angelic prompting by St Joseph himself, who not only knew the Virgin in life but was also considered Christ’s step-uncle, at a stroke, Glastonbury’s statue was seen to transcend all other images of St Mary in England. It thus became a unique object of pilgrimage which underlined the abbey’s sanctity. The Lyfe’s author also links the existing Lady Chapel with Joseph’s first church by stating that they were ‘the same churche’. He also notes that the Lady Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, thereby associating both the chapel and the image with what had become the most important Marian feast of the late Middle Ages. At a stroke this promoted Glastonbury’s Lady Chapel into the feast’s primary devotional locus in England – if you wished to celebrate Our Lady’s Assumption, then you should do it at Glastonbury.

While the Lyfe of St Joseph represents the final flowering of Catholic legend at Glastonbury, it does not quite constitute our last glimpse of Marian devotion. The royal injunctions of 1536 launched a national campaign against images which intensified in 1538 when relics and shrines were also targeted. It is thus highly likely that the image of Our Lady of Glastonbury was removed from the Lady Chapel and hidden from view by the late fifteen-thirties. The statue perhaps escaped the humiliation of public burning which the more famous Marian images from Walsingham and Ipswich endured at Chelsea in July 1538, but the ultimate fate of Glastonbury’s wonder-working statue is unknown. The impact of the injunctions on the life of the cultus is likewise uncertain, but presumably it was significant. However, Glastonbury’s account rolls for 1539 list money spent on mending and gilding the foot of the Lady Chapel’s thurable, on repairs to the window glass and on brooms for keeping it clean, all of which signal continual heavy usage. Significantly, the sacristan’s revenue for the year, some £311 12s. 6d. was drawn from a number of sources including ‘offerings in the Old Church’[45] which strongly suggests that despite the Henrican proscriptions, pilgrims continued to visit the Virgin’s shrine until the Suppression, even if bereft of its miraculous image.


To summarize. Glastonbury’s dedication by Christ to His mother is perhaps now the least well known element of the medieval abbey’s foundation story. As this paper has suggested, devotion to St Mary at Glastonbury Abbey was central to the monastery’s spiritual identity and it is difficult to over emphasize the Virgin’s significance to the medieval community. An image of the Virgin seems to have been present in the OldChurch before 1184 where it was presumably already a focus of veneration as the principal image of the church’s patron. Under the abbacy of Henry of Blois, Marian devotion intensified. However, it was not until after the great fire that the image apparently attracted greater attention from both the monastic community and the laity. The destruction of the majority of the abbey’s buildings and relics at this time was a major contributing factor in the emergence of the imagocentric cultus, its popularity fuelled by the statue’s ‘miraculous’ survival and the subsequent phenomena with which it was associated.

The gradual development and embellishment of the Lady Chapel complex over the following three and a half centuries emphasise the importance of the cultus to the spiritual and cultural life of the Glastonbury community, and the gradual evolution of its own foundation myth. The legends associated with the statue of Our Lady at Glastonbury gave a prima-facie reason for its presentation and veneration as a ‘true’ image of the Virgin with an ‘apostolic’ pedigree derived from its putative creator, Joseph of Arimathea. Thus, the elaborate legendary presentation provided by the anonymous sixteenth-century verse Lyfe was a rationalisation of the appeal of an already powerful cult image and the cult it embodied. Historically anchoring the image in the first days of Christianity helped clarify the origins of Glastonbury’s foundation story, while simultaneously emphasising both the monastery’s antiquity and its exceptional status amongst English churches. While medieval England possessed many other Marian shrines, not least Walsingham in Norfolk, only Glastonbury claimed a direct Biblical connection to Christ’s mother through its founder.

St Joseph’s gradual rise to prominence can therefore be seen as inextricably linked to Marian devotion at Glastonbury. Indeed, without the antiquity of St Mary’s cult and the mystery surrounding its origins and the identity of its originator, St Joseph’s adoption as the monastery’s putative founder in the thirteenth century would have been impossible. But it was not just Joseph as founder which was important, but his role as messenger, for he, it was said, had brought the Christian faith to these shores, established the first British church and introduced devotion to the Mother of God. Remarkably, the epitome of this message can still be found in the abbey ruins today, carved into the south exterior wall of the Church of St Mary, probably at some time in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. Variously described as a ‘pilgrim station’ or ‘foundation stone’, it may equally commemorate a significant moment in the abbey’s history (fig. 5). Reading simply IESVS: MARIA (JESUS: MARY), the inscription can be eloquently expanded to read ‘He made His home in her: She made her home in Him’. Thus the central message of the Incarnation of Christ through his mother Mary and the Salvation of all humankind through Christ is proclaimed in its simplest form. This message, after all, lay at the heart of devotion to the Virgin at Glastonbury, and was the very reason for the cultus’ existence.

Tim Hopkinson-Ball


[1] Watkin, Aelred ‘A hand-list of the Horner MSS. at Wells’ in Collectanea III: A Collection of Documents From Various Sources (SRS) Vol. 57, 1942, 112.

[2] Kelly, Susan E. (ed.) Charters of Glastonbury Abbey (Anglo-Saxon Charters) (OUP/British Academy 2012) 112-130.

[3] Kelly Charters 220.

[4] Winterbottom, Michael & Lapidge, Michael (ed. & trans.) The Early Lives of St Dunstan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012).

[5] Winterbottom & Lapidge The Early Lives 12-13.

[6] See Kelly Charters for examples.

[7] Scott, John The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation and Study of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1981).

[8] Watkin, Aelred ‘The earliest Glastonbury Seal’ in Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society (94, 1948) 157–158 & fig. 8.

[9] Scott Early History 66-67.

[10] Carley, James The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and study of John of Glastonbury’s Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985) 164-165.

[11] Carley Chronicle 166-167.

[12] Carley Chronicle 168-169.

[13] Watkin, Aelred (ed.) The Glastonbury Chartulary Vol. I (Somerset Record Society) Vol. 59, 1944, lxvii-lxviii & 171.

[14] See Scott Early History 50-51.

[15] Carley Chronicle 172-173.

[16] Carley Chronicle 172-173.

[17] Carley Chronicle 178-179.

[18]  Scott Early History 80-81.

[19] Carley Chronicle 44-45.

[20] Carley Chronicle 174-175.

[21] For a concise overview of Arthur’s association with Glastonbury Abbey, see James P. Carley’s ‘Arthur in English History’ in Barron, W.R.J. (ed.) The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval English Life and Literature (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001) 47-57.

[22] Griscom, A. Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1929) 438.

[23] Carley Chronicle 76-77.

[24] Rubin, Miri Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 164-212.

[25] Carley Chronicle 44-45.

[26] Carley Chronicle 44-45.

[27] Carley Chronicle 260-261.

[28] Watkin, Aelred (ed.) The Glastonbury Chartulary Vol. III (Somerset Record Society) Vol. 64, 1956, ccxliii-ccxliv & 724-726.

[29] Although James Carley identified John of Glastonbury with John Seen and his hypothesis has been generally accepted, not all scholars agree. See Gransden, Antonia ‘The Date and Authorship of John of Glastonbury’s Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie’ in Gransden, Antonia Legends, Traditions and History in Medieval England (London: The Hambledon Press, 1992) 289-298.

[30] Carley Chronicle 2-3.

[31] Carley Chronicle xxx.

[32] Carley Chronicle 4-5.

[33] Carley Chronicle 28-29 & Scott Early History 82-83.

[34] Carley Chronicle 146-147.

[35] Carley Chronicle 44-45.

[36] Luxford, Julian The Art and Architecture of English Benedictine Monasteries, 1300-1540 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005) 156.

[37] After Stafford’s execution at Bridgwater in 1469, he was buried in the sixth bay of the nave of the great church, slightly to the north of the south aisle. Presumably the earl’s ignominious end prompted this move, rather than more exclusive interment in the Lady Chapel. See Weaver, F.W. (ed.) Somerset Medieval Wills (1383-1500) Vol. 16 (SRS, 1901) 196.

[38] Carley Chronicle 260-261.

[39] See Hopkinson-Ball, Timothy ‘The Cultus of Our Lady at Glastonbury Abbey: 1184-1539’ in Downside Review, No. 485, January 2012, 4-13.

[40] Skeat, Walter W. (ed.) Joseph of Arimathie Otherwise Called the Romance of the Seint Graal or Holy Grail (London: Early English Text Society, 1871).

[41] Skeat Joseph of Arimathie 43.

[42] Skeat Joseph of Arimathie 43.

[43] From the Greek αχειροποίητα ‘not handmade’.

[44] The most renowned of these images in the medieval west was the acheiropoietos icon of Christ in the papal oratory of the Sancta Sanctorum in Rome, which was believed to have been begun by St Luke and finished by angels. See Kirstin, Noreen ‘Revealing the Sacred: The Icon of Christ in the Sancta Sanctorum, Rome’ in Word & Image (London: Taylor & Francis, 2006) Vol. 22, No. 3, 2006, 228-237.

[45] See Flower, C.T. ‘Obedientiars’ Accounts of Glastonbury and Other Religious Houses’ in Transactions of the St. Paul’s Ecclesiological Society Vol. 7, XCMXI-MCMXV, 56.

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