The ancient holy site of Glastonbury in southwest England is a pilgrimage destination for Christians, New Age enthusiasts, pagans, and those fascinated by the King Arthur myth.
Glastonbury has likely been a pilgrimage spot for millennia. Located in southwest England, it has been inhabited since Neolithic Times. Its most dramatic natural feature is the Glastonbury Tor, a conical hill that can be seen for many miles from the surrounding countryside.
New Age enthusiasts believe that Glastonbury lies at the intersection of two powerful ley lines (which are said to be electromagnetic lines that connect sacred sites around the world). Whether or not that’s true, this charming town has a magnetism far in excess of its small size, drawing thousands of visitors and pilgrims each year, especially those who follow New Age practices.
In addition to being the site of one of the oldest Christian abbeys in England, Glastonbury is also associated with a set of intertwined myths relating to Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and King Arthur.
According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea (a Biblical figure who took Jesus’ body after the crucifixion and placed it in a tomb) was actually Jesus’ uncle. When Jesus was a boy, it’s said that he traveled with Joseph to this part of England. After the death of Jesus, Joseph came back to Britain with a group of followers, bringing with him the Holy Grail that had been used at the Last Supper. When he arrived at Glastonbury he stuck his staff into the ground (it had been grown from a twig taken from the crown of thorns worn by Jesus before his death). The piece of wood immediately took root and burst into bloom, a sign that this was the place where Joseph should establish England’s first Christian community.
This Christian legend is linked to the Arthurian saga, which was first written down in the early Middle Ages. King Arthur’s knights searched for the Holy Grail said to be hidden at Glastonbury, and Glastonbury Tor is believed to have been part of the Isle of Avalon where Arthur was taken after his death.
While the legends associated with Glastonbury can never be proven, the historical record proves that Glastonbury was the site of one of the earliest churches in England. A religious community existed here by 500 CE, which over the next thousand years grew to become one of England’s wealthiest and most influential abbeys.
In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey found what they believed to be the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. That turned out to be a very good piece of news for the abbey, which gained even wider fame and influence because of the discovery. Thus the abbey played a major role in promoting the Arthurian legend as well as its own fortunes.
When King Henry VIII broke away from Rome in 1539 and established the Church of England, he dissolved the monasteries, including the Benedictine monastery at Glastonbury. The abbey fell into ruin, but pilgrims continued to come to Glastonbury, this town steeped in Arthurian legends and Christian heritage.
Glastonbury Pilgrimage Sites
Glastonbury today is a major tourist destination, especially for those of a mystical bent. The best place to begin your exploration is at the Glastonbury Information Centre in the town center, where the staff can point you to the major sites.
Near the information center is Glastonbury Abbey. The beautiful ruins of the abbey date mostly from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They include the Lady Chapel, the Great Church, and the Abbot’s Kitchen. Nearby, a museum gives an overview of the abbey’s founding and importance. A small restored chapel dedicated to St. Patrick recalls another piece of lore connected with the site, which is that the beloved saint served as abbot here before heading to Ireland.
Just down the street, be sure to visit St. Margaret’s Chapel and Royal Magdalene Almshouses. This is one of my favorite places in Glastonbury, a beautifully restored set of buildings that includes an enclosed garden. The site dates back to the thirteenth century, when it’s believed that the monks of the abbey operated a hospital to serve the many pilgrims and sick people who came here. While the hospital is no longer in existence, its small chapel remains, a serene retreat that’s still a living place of prayer. It’s dedicated to St. Margaret of Scotland.
Sometime in the seventeenth century, two rows of tiny houses for the poor were constructed near the chapel. The alms houses were occupied until the 1950s. Only one row remains today, but the tiny houses give a sense for the lives of those who once lived here, especially in one that is arranged as it was in the years just before World War I. During the summer months, another of the houses is the site of a studio for an iconographer who’s happy to chat with visitors.
To reach Glastonbury Tor, you can either walk for about 30 minutes from the town center or take a shuttle from the information center (parking is very limited around the Tor, so it’s not a good idea to take a car). The hill is topped by a tall tower that is all that remains of St. Michael’s Church, which was built in the fourteenth century. Open to the sky, the tower is a dramatic place from which to view the surrounding Somerset countryside.
Standing on top of the hill, I could see why this place is believed to be a place of mystical power. One strand of legend, for example, says that the Holy Grail is buried underneath the Tor. The mysterious ley lines are said to cross here, too.
The last major holy site in Glastonbury is a short distance from the Tor: the Chalice Well and Gardens. This natural spring is also associated with many legends. It’s said that Joseph of Arimathea hid the Holy Grail in its waters, after which they flowed red. To this day the water has a reddish tinge, though cynics point out it’s because of its high iron content (as far as I’m concerned, when you’re in Glastonbury you may as well believe the legends).
The beautifully landscaped Chalice Well and Gardens are maintained by a charitable trust and include many places to sit and meditate. The gardens include several Holy Thorn trees that are said to be descended from the original Holy Thorn planted by Joseph of Arimathea.
Concerts, retreats, and programs are often held at the Chalice Well and Gardens. Check its website before your visit to see what activities are scheduled.
Glastonbury is also an entertaining place just to stroll around and soak up the vibe. A wonderfully eclectic mix of people are drawn here, some as permanent residents and some as visitors. And if you’re in need of crystals, Goddess statues, incense, dream catchers or other metaphysical tchotchkes, you’ve come to the right place. The stores in the town center will fulfill your every spiritual need. (Be aware that the famed Glastonbury Festival, the largest open air music festival in the world, is actually held in the village of Pilton, which is seven miles to the east.)
One final piece of Glastonbury trivia is that each Christmas, the monarch of England is sent a budded branch from the Glastonbury thorn tree, which is said to be descended from the bush planted by Joseph of Arimathea. The custom began during the reign of James 1 in the seventeenth century and has continued ever since.
More than almost any other place I’ve visited, Glastonbury is a place where myth, legends, and history intertwine.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.