Tintagel and Glastonbury

The southwest of England is a place where history and legend mingle to create stories that fascinate and delight us all. There comes a time when the line dividing history and legend blurs to the point that it is difficult to distinguish the two.


We selected the two sites most connected with Arthur. Tintagel, pronounced tin-ta-jel, is a reputed to be his birthplace. Glastonbury, a town in Somerset, as well known for its annual rock festival as for its Christian heritage, is the famed Isle of Avalon. This is where Arthur is said to have gone to die, and was buried within the abbey located in the centre of town.

It is difficult to distinguish the truth of King Arthur from the legend, because so many stories have been created about this great man. The most famous account is from Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain, in the 12th century. Unfortunately, most of his sources were fabricated, and the story is more fiction than fact. There is no doubt that there lived, in the 5th or 6th century in Briton, a man named Arthur, who was a mighty warrior. Archeological evidence does show that the Britons fought the invasion of the Saxons late in the 5th century, and this is when the historic figure of Arthur lived. But we have no documentary evidence of the real man, just stories. The acts attributed to Arthur spanned an impossible length of time, and an incredible expanse of land. Most of the stories of this great king have a more ancient, Celtic origin. There are no less than seven places which claim to be the birthplace of King Arthur. Tintagel is located on the north coast of Cornwall. When we arrived in the town, it was already bustling with activity. It was market day so the vendors were set up hocking their wares. We found a parking space, within site of the castle, and we could see that yesterday’s theme “Climb a Hill, Look at a Rock” was going to continue. The headlands of Tintagel are incredibly beautiful, but exude a sense of mystery and sadness. This amazing castle was once an important strongehold, and yet today it is a few rocks and a million questions. Who built this castle, why here?

Most of the remains are from a medieval castle. The evidence points clearly to Earl Richard, brother of Henry III, who was also connected to Rostermel Castle, which we visited early in the week. One exciting thing about all the places we visit is that eventually the lives of those involved become intricately woven as in a tapestry. There is no evidence of a pre-historic community in Tintagel, but the Romans had a settlement, as did the Britons (Arthur’s time).

We walked from the village, down a tiny road. From there you can see the cove, Merlin’s cave, and some of the castle. There is an island, connected to the mainland by a very narrow stretch of land. The castle is built both on the island and the mainland. I imagine in days long past, these parts of the castle were connected by a suspension bridge. We weren’t so lucky as to have such an easy way to get there. The tiny uphill pathway to the island is a steep cliffside stairway, with uneven steps and a sheer drop to the ocean. At the top we were rewarded with incredible views of the Cornish coastline, with its jagged rocks, nearly hidden caves, and its crystal clear waters. We wandered through the remains of the rooms and tried to imagine what it may have been like in the days of Earl Richard.

It was a very warm day, sun shining brightly. When we finished on the island, we made out way down the cliffside stairway, and then stood looking in awe at the stairway to the second half of the castle. At the top of this stairway, we knew there were more rocks, but we found the energy to make it to the top. After a quick look around, and a chat with the guy in ticket booth, we headed for an ancient church which was connected to Tintagel Castle in the days days of Earl Richard.

This church sits on a high, flat, coastal headland, overlooking the treacherous sea. The fields were filled with wildflowers of every hue. The churchyard has gravestones from generations long past. Some of the markers were Celtic crosses (although none were ancient crosses), a reminder of how important tradition and history are to the people of Cornwall. The church was built late in the 11th century, although the history of the site goes into Celtic days, and it is likely that there has been continual Christian worship there for 1400 years. There are several mounds in the churchyard, which when investigated, revealed very early Christian burial sites. The Parish Church of St. Materiana, Tintagel as it is called, is a lovely church, a delight to explore. Inside is a Norman font, crudely carved out of stone, and patched where years of use has chipped the edges. The windows date from Norman times, although the stained glass is much more modern, as the reformers managed to destroy the Medieval glass in their quest to remove idolotry from the churches. The church is filled with interesting bits of history, including a stone from Roman times, which until recently was used as a coffin rest and sharpener of reap-hooks. One day someone noticed letters engraved on the stone, and they discovered it was the name of one the rival emperors of Constantine, who was put to death. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel was of special interest to me, because local tradition claims it to have been an anchorite’s cell. An anchorite is a person who retires in seclusion for religious reasons. The most famous of these anchorites is Julian of Norwich, a woman greatly admired for her spirituality and wisdom. I found it a great blessing to spend a moment in prayer in a place where such a woman may have spent her final days.

The church is dedicated to St. Materiana, who has been identified with St. Madryn, a princess of Gwent. According to tradition, she spent her time evangelizing around Cornwall, circa 500 AD. We could have spent many hours roaming the fields, castle and church, but we had so much more to accomplish this day, so we started walking back to the town. Along the way, we chatted with a friendly English bloke and his dog, a funny puppy who so enjoyed the attention he was receiving from the children. We thought we were pretty slick, seeing the church last, because it sat at the same level as the town. I thought finally we would avoid a hill. I was wrong. Before we arrived in the town, we came across a small glen. Back in town, we stopped at a few shops, bought some postcards and reference books and then went to the most delightful bakery for my final requisite before leaving Cornwall. I just had to have a pasty. My mum made wonderful pasty, and I continue that tradition. But I had a great desire to eat a real Cornish Pasty, my by the hands of a real Cornish pasty maker. For those of you who are not familiar with this delightful epicurean delight, it is a pastry filled with meat, potatoes and vegetables. In the days of the tin mines, this was the meal packed for the minors for lunch. For them, part of the pasty was even filled with jam, so they had a full meal all in one package. Mining is dirty work, so the pastry was a convenient meal which could be handled easily with dirty hands in the middle of an exhasting day. The pasty we bought was huge, made a meal for both Bruce and I. And it was delicious.

The shop where we purchased our pasty had a delightful selection of flavors, including vegetarian, sweet, kidney, and many more. We selected the traditional pasty, and enjoyed every bite, all for only £2! We moved on to our next adventure, driving a lovely coastal highway. We passed the most incredible little harbour called Boscastle, tucked away in a little gorge, safely secluded from the world. The road was only two lanes, and traffic was heavier than we anticipated, but we enjoyed watching the countryside go by, trying to spy a rock or other thing of historical significance. Several hours later, we arrived in Glastonbury, ready to take on the legends of this mysterious place.


We traveled eastward toward Glastonbury and, much to our relief, the hills of Cornwall disappeared behind us. The landscape of Somerset is level, with the occasional rolling hill to give interest to the horizon. But as we neared Glastonbury, a hill of great proportion appeared before us, and the sigh of distress was audible in the car.
  “Are we going to have to climb that hill, Mom?”
  “If there is something exciting to see, we will climb that hill.” I could already see that there was a tower at the top of the hill.

It was getting late in the day, and we still had more than an hour of driving time to reach our final destination in Wales. We followed the signs to the Abbey, found a parking lot, and then went to investigate this mysterious city.

Glastonbury is known for its annual rock concert, an event similar to Woodstock, lasting an entire weekend. This event is always accompanied by rain. Always. OK, so it always rains in England, but the weathermen can count on being right on this one weekend a year. I think Glastonbury must mean mud. Ok, so this was all an exaggeration, but the Glastonbury Festival is known for its mud. A laundry detergent manufacturer even uses this event as a perfect reason to buy their product. It goes something like this: A mum is sitting on the settee reading a magazine, when the teenage boy comes in and plops beside her. She asks how it was, and uses some teenage phrase that means, “I had a delightful time, Mother.” He pulls his clothes out of the bag and they are filthy. She says, “Of course, things were different in my day.” The kid shakes his head sarcastically with a “Yeah, right Mum.” Mum says, “We didn’t wear any clothes.”

We stopped in the Visitor Information Centre, a stop we try to make in every town we visit, just to get some reference materials and postcards. This was located inside a building called the Glastonbury Tribunal, which means Court House, although this name is based on mistake made by a surveyor in the 18th century. In fact, it was built as a merchants home and was likely at some point an Inn or Hospice. This building is made of stone and was built in the 15th century. The façade has been patched through the ages, and it is likely that some of the stone is from the abbey, taken after the dissolution.

Glastonbury has a somewhat ‘mystical’ atmosphere. Every other store on the street was some sort of New Age shop. I’ve even heard that you can “buy the Holy Ghost” in one of the shops. We went straight for the Abbey, hoping that we would have enough time to see it all, as it was late in the day.

Glastonbury has a complicated history that is filled with truth and legend. It was a seaside community two thousand years ago, as the ocean reached so far inland. As such, it was known as the Isle of Avalon, now connected with the legend of King Arthur. It is said he went there to die, and in 1191, monks claimed to have identified the remains of a 6th century leader as King Arthur, buried with Guinevere. A leaden cross that bears the name Arthur was found near the remains. They enshrined his tomb but the shrine was lost in the dissolution. The burial site was discovered during excavation in 1934, and is marked with a simple sign today. The basis for Avalon being Arthur’s final resting place comes from Celtic myth that Avalon (named for the demi-God Avalloc, the ruler of the underworld), a place where sea meets land, was the meeting place of the dead.

The Celts founded a village nearby in the 3rd century BC. This place was always considered a place of spirituality and mystical forces, and is still considered so today.

Near the town of Glastonbury is the hill I described. It is called the Tor. We did not have time to visit this ancient mound, but its importance in the history of Glastonbury makes it worth a mention. Many people believe it to be a place of magic, and from above, it appears as though it was an ancient three dimensional maze. The terraces are actually evidence of an ancient field system, created out of necessity, since the flat land of Somerset was flooded and unusable for agriculture. Some even believe that there is a secret entrance to the underworld located on the hill. Archeology has shown remnants of something, such as a monastery or stronghold that was located on the hill. In Medieval times, the Church of St. Michael was located on the top of the Tor. Today, all that exists is a tower, which stands alone at the top of this great mystery.


The Tor can be seen from the Abbey grounds and its use was directly connected to the Abbey. The Abbey itself has a long history, having been the site of what is believed to be the first Christian church in England. Celtic legend and Christian legend became woven together until the tales of a miraculous grail became tales of the Cup from Christ’s Last Supper. It is said that after Jesus’ death, Joseph of Arimathea and eleven other disciples moved to England to preach the Gospel, and brought with them the cup, and it was buried near the Tor. The disciples built a Christian community, with a waddle and daub church, where they worshipped and taught and spread the gospel.

Some legend even places Jesus of Nazareth in England during his missing years. It is said that Joseph of Arimathea was Jesus’ uncle and brought Jesus the boy to England on his journeys as a tin merchant. Later, Jesus came back and lived in Glastonbury, teaching the Celts about God, and preparing his heart for his ministry and ultimate death. The evidence I’ve read supporting this claim is based on inference and assumption, and documents far removed from the actual event. The earliest documentary evidence is from the 6th century, and if you’ve studied American folklore at all, you realize that even in a couple of decades, stories can be stretched past the point of credibility. More trustworthy sources place the foundation of the first church in the 2nd century, by a group of missionaries accompanying the British ruler King Lucious. By the time St. Augustine, the great missionary who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived in England in 597, the Christian church was already established.

It appears the monks of Glastonbury were very good at taking advantage of legends surrounding the original church. Among the claims of Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea, they also claimed that St. Patrick was the first Abbot, and there is a chapel dedicated to him on the grounds. The chapel is still in use today. An abbot in 1500 built a crypt below the Lady Chapel, in which developed a cult in honour of Joseph of Arimathea. There is still a chapel in this spot, together with an ancient well named for Joseph, which is used for worship during pilgrimages to Glastonbury.

All that remains of the church today are a few walls, as most of the stone would have been used for building around the town after the dissolution. The Abbots kitchen still stands and has exhibits which help you see the domestic life of the abbey.

The Lady Chapel is the most complete structure left of the church. Above the doorway which is located on the south side of the building is an incredible arch, carved with intricate figures from the life of Christ. Some of the figures have been beheaded, most notably the ones of the blessed Virgin. The Marian Cult, a group of people who worshipped Mary, had its British roots in Glastonbury, circa 500. The Reformers focused much of their destruction on the idols to Mary, beheading her wherever possible.

The kids had a delightful time following the markings where walls once stood, pretending they were following an ancient labyrinth. We took time to pray in St. Joseph’s Chapel and in St. Patrick’s Chapel, as well as look around the exhibition describing the history and construction of the Abbey. Throughout the exhibit one particular statement was repeated, which I found rather amusing. It said, “Grandly Constructed to Entice the Dullest Minds to Prayer.” An interesting statement, and one that could be used about many of our churches today. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

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