Glastonbury: Abbey

A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 9, Glastonbury and Street. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2006.

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M C Siraut. A T Thacker. Elizabeth Williamson, 'Glastonbury: Abbey', A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 9, Glastonbury and Street, (London, 2006), pp. 11-16. British History Online [accessed 24 June 2024].

M C Siraut. A T Thacker. Elizabeth Williamson. "Glastonbury: Abbey", in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 9, Glastonbury and Street, (London, 2006) 11-16. British History Online, accessed June 24, 2024,

Siraut, M C. Thacker, A T. Williamson, Elizabeth. "Glastonbury: Abbey", A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 9, Glastonbury and Street, (London, 2006). 11-16. British History Online. Web. 24 June 2024,

In this section


Glastonbury Abbey is 'identified with the earliest days of monasticism' in England, (fn. 1) closely associated with the West Saxon royal house and with the monastic reform of the 10th century, and at the Conquest was probably the richest ecclesiastical community in the realm. Three kings, Edmund I (d. 946), Edgar I (d. 975), and Edmund II Ironside (d. 1016) were buried within its walls, and in the later 12th century the discovery of bones identified as those of King Arthur added a fourth royal connection. To an exhaustive collection of relics was also added the claim to the body of St. Dunstan and, at the beginning of the 15th century, the confident promise to discover the grave of St. Joseph of Arimathea, whose cult was popular in the early 16th century. The community numbered just over 80 in the earlier 14th century and from the later years of that century until the Dissolution numbered consistently over 50 and was still recruiting in the later 1530s when with Westminster it shared the distinction of being one of the two richest houses in the country. (fn. 2)

Physically, the abbey lies at the heart of the modern town, and its medieval predecessor was defined by the abbey precinct, in relation to which the principal streets lay north, north-west, and west. To the south-east, also just beyond the precinct, were the farm buildings of Glastonbury manor, including a barn which still survives. (fn. 3) The buildings around the abbey church and convent are assumed to have included storage places for food, fuel, and materials either brought from the abbey's distant estates or bought in from elsewhere; and probably the sites of workshops.


Before 1184

Excavations on the site between 1904 and the 1990s and documentary sources including the written traditions of the abbey (fn. 4) postulate a British religious foundation before 650 centred on a church, traditionally built of wattles and later known as the Old Church, and a cemetery, the whole surrounded by a ditch. Further buildings were added over the next three centuries. To the east of the first church, probably reconstructed in timber, King Ine (d. 726) built a stone church of Kentish type dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul which was extended eastwards and later, probably by 760, was joined to the first church by means of an atrium. The first cloister, on the model of St. Gallen, was probably begun by St. Dunstan (abbot 940–57+). Dunstan further extended the abbey church by adding porticus and building a tower over its east end as well as an aisled eastern arm. His church was described as a basilica. (fn. 5) Also during the 10th century a chapel or shrine, later called St. Dunstan's chapel, was established west of the Old Church. (fn. 6) Thurstan (abbot c. 1077/8–1096+) evidently began building a new cruciform church, starting at the east end, but Herluin (abbot 1100–18) embarked on a rebuilding of the whole monastery except the Old Church which he retained. His work was continued by Henry of Blois (abbot 1126–71) and a building laid out on the lines of St. Albans abbey church was completed c. 1140. All the monastic buildings were destroyed by fire in 1184 with the exception of a chamber and its chapel built by Robert of Winchester (abbot 1171–8) and the bell-tower built by Henry of Blois, which may have survived into the 14th century. (fn. 7)

Post-Fire Church

The formal development of the abbey church was influenced by the veneration of its relics and by the monastic community's efforts to cultivate their abbey as a major pilgrimage site. (fn. 8) The early cemetery contained timber oratories and two hypogea, one of which was incorporated into the east end of the first stone church. The relics of Patrick and Indracht, the latter probably an Irish abbot, (fn. 9) were translated to the Lady chapel in 1186 from where they had lain between two 'pyramids', probably 10th-century cross shafts bearing the names of the abbey's early patrons. (fn. 10) The bones of St. Dunstan were claimed to have been re-discovered after the fire and were housed in a feretory embellished or remade in the 14th century; its location in the church is unknown and it may have been portable. (fn. 11) The reputed bones of King Arthur and his queen, exhumed c. 1191 from the south side of the Lady chapel, were reburied before the high altar in the sanctuary of the church in 1278, flanked by the tombs of Edmund I and Edmund Ironside. In the mid 14th century St. Joseph of Arimathea was established as one of the founders, and a chapel in the cemetery was dedicated to him in 1382. His cult had become a major draw by 1500, and the Lady chapel was later known as St. Joseph's chapel. (fn. 12) In the late 15th or early 16th century the remains of King Edgar were reburied in an almost detached eastern chapel beyond the choir. (fn. 13)

The Lady chapel was the first part of the abbey to be rebuilt after the fire in 1184 and was dedicated in 1186. It was a detached building on the site of the Old Church, designed with its tall angle turrets and highly decorated and, originally, painted surfaces not only to evoke the previous timber church but also the character of contemporary metalwork reliquaries. Romanesque forms and rich chevron ornament of the type used by Henry of Blois in St. Cross, Winchester, and so possibly elsewhere in the abbey, appear prolifically amongst otherwise progressive French-influenced motifs. Notable are the pointed rib-vaults, blue lias wall-shafts, crocket capitals and naturalistic carvings on the portals, where the Life of the Virgin appears on the north side and the Creation to the Fall on the south. The design, perhaps deliberately anachronistic to emphasise the chapel's direct descent from the Old Church, influenced other shrines and the Lady chapels of other monastic churches. (fn. 14)

FIG. 8. Ground Plan of Glastonbury Abbey

Rebuilding work on the rest of the abbey church began at the east end and proceeded westward reaching the crossing and central tower and the eastern part of the nave by c. 1320. The nine-bayed aisled nave was completed in or before 1334. The main elements of the Lady chapel, foliage capitals, chevron archivolts, and pointed vault arches, were repeated but the proportion of Gothic features is greater, with Decorated elements introduced in the nave. (fn. 15) In the mid 13th century the chapel west of the Lady chapel (the so-called St. Dunstan's chapel) appears to have been rebuilt. (fn. 16) After 1342 the east end was remodelled by Abbot Monington. He added an eastern aisle or retrochoir with five eastern chapels, refaced the whole of the triforium and clerestory of the choir with tiers of panelling, and revaulted the choir. The east end had a large window, and buttresses and a strainer arch were added to support the destabilized east wall. (fn. 17) Monington also provided a link between church and Lady chapel in the form of a galilee which opened into the nave by means of a tall shafted arch. Its construction brought all the major relics into a continuous space with the sanctuary of the Lady chapel, which itself lay close to the main public entrance through the north porch and was probably enclosed only by a screen. About 1500 an undercroft was created under the Lady chapel and galilee, apparently to create a circulatory route associated with the cult of St. Joseph past a well that may have predated the Old Church and which had been enclosed by an arch of 12th-century fragments. The crypt was later used as a burial vault. (fn. 18) At about the same time the Edgar chapel and a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Loretto were built.

FIG. 9. Glastonbury abbey nave, the earlier churches exposed, 1928

Remains of Church

The church stands close to the northern boundary of the precinct and was originally approached from the north. Most intact are the roofless Lady chapel of c. 1184–6, the 14th-century galilee, and the undercroft beneath them both. Of the rest, only three bays of the south wall of the south nave aisle, the eastern side of the crossing, part of the eastern sides of the transepts, one bay of the north wall of the west end of the choir, and four and a half bays of the south wall stand to almost full height. The foundations of the rest are exposed in the turf, including those of the Edgar chapel and the large northern porch and, to the west, St. Dunstan's chapel. From the 14th century the approach to the Lady chapel and later to the undercroft was from the west gatehouse.

Post-Fire Conventual Buildings

FIG. 10. North doorway, Glastonbury abbey Lady chapel, 1993

The completion of the chapter house, and the rebuilding of the cloister, dormitory, and refectory are all ascribed to Abbot John Chinnock (1376–1420). (fn. 19) The cloister was laid out on a conventional Benedictine plan with the chapter house, the dormitory, and the three vaulted rooms of its undercroft on the east, and the refectory and its service undercroft on the south. The reredorter lay south of the dormitory and the detached monks' kitchen west of the refectory. The abbot's kitchen formed part of the abbot's quarters which extended west of the south cloister range. The footings of the conventual buildings are exposed but the only standing fragments are the base of the reredorter and remains of buildings associated with the abbot's household. The site of the abbot's lodging is marked by a cobbled surface that belonged to the house into which it was converted after the Dissolution. One corner of the abbot's hall, which was still in the mid 17th century 80 ft. high, (fn. 20) survives and to its south the abbot's kitchen, the only complete monastic building on the site, probably of the later 14th century. The kitchen was formerly attached to the hall, which was built on the same site after the fire of 1184. (fn. 21) The kitchen is square externally, but corner fireplaces make its interior octagonal beneath a stone pyramidal roof and tiered lantern. Conventual buildings, probably west of the cloister by the Dissolution, provided lodgings, offices, and chapels for monastic officials and named visitors including the king, the bishop, and the abbey steward, and included the almonry, an armoury, and stables. (fn. 22) A lodging by the great chamber, called the King's Lodging in the Gallery, was the work of Abbot Richard Bere (1493–1525). (fn. 23) By the 1330s there was an orchard, vineyard, herb garden, and pasture. (fn. 24)

Post-Dissolution Developments

A three-storeyed house, which in 1712 had a long range between cross wings, and an additional two-storeyed northern bay ending in a crenellated hexagonal tower, occupied the site of the abbot's lodging. Its walled garden was linked to the town by a formal avenue of trees which crossed the site of the nave. To judge from its storeyed form and mullioned windows of 3 to 7 arched lights it appears to have been built in the earlier 16th century and may have been converted from the abbot's lodging; its gabled ends were decorated with coats of arms or badges resembling those at Sharpham. The tower was apparently added after c. 1600 (fn. 25) and the earl of Devonshire's lessee, Thomas Brooke, was living there in 1635. (fn. 26) The house was demolished c. 1720 by Thomas Prew, a 'rank presbyterian', and its materials were used to build a house in Magdalene Street. (fn. 27) Other remains were destroyed when the abbey site was levelled for pasturage in the 1720s and again in 1792–4. (fn. 28) In 1799 the 'vast quantity of stone in the ruin' was specifically offered for sale. (fn. 29) Vegetation continued to damage the fabric in the 19th century but interest was shown in the remains of the Lady chapel from 1825, earth was cleared from the undercroft and the structure was reinforced in 1826, (fn. 30) and access for visitors was regular by the later 19th century. Consolidation and interpretation of the standing remains was undertaken from 1909 onwards. (fn. 31) From 1993 the abbey trustees catered for pilgrims and other visitors by building a visitors' centre designed by R. J. Chambers of Beech, Tyldesley and Partners. (fn. 32)

FIG. 11. West entrance to Glastonbury abbey looking west through the Galilee to the Lady chapel, 1993

The Tudor-style stone house to the east of the abbey ruins was designed by John Buckler for J. F. Reeves in 1825. Known as The Abbey and later as Abbey House, it has an E-plan main range of five bays and two storeys with attics above cellars with an asymmetrical garden front overlooking the abbey, a symmetrical east entrance front, and a north service wing and stable court. Fragments of medieval carvings are to be found in the cellars and in the precinct wall which forms its east boundary. The gateway, contemporary with the house, contains medieval carved panels. The house was occupied by Reeves' son Thomas Porch Porch until 1852. (fn. 33) From 1930 it has been used for religious retreats and conferences, its role in 2000. (fn. 34)

FIG. 12. Glastonbury abbey ruins from the south, 1723


In the 7th century the limit of the precinct was defined by a bank and ditch, and parts of its eastern and northern lines are known. It appears to have had an entrance at its north-eastern corner near the western end of the present Silver Street. (fn. 35) The northern boundary was modified partly when the whole precinct, later formed with a stone wall, was extended eastwards along the line of Silver Street. At the western end, the wall probably marked the southern boundary of the market place. The wall was originally c. 10 ft. high and contains a considerable amount of medieval masonry along its northern parts as well as evidence of lean-to buildings.

Entry into the precinct by the 13th century was through a 'great gate' mentioned c. 1255 (fn. 36) and described as in High Street. (fn. 37) By 1322 there were two gates, known as the outer and the lower. (fn. 38) The gate in High Street, known in 1448 and 1530 as Ivysgate and in the 1580s as Yve gate, had a chamber over and a tenement on its north side, (fn. 39) suggesting that it stood near the present Assembly Rooms where an entrance survives. There had been a west gate long before 1313; (fn. 40) a new gate was built, perhaps the lower gate mentioned in 1322, (fn. 41) and in 1517 was the main gate, (fn. 42) in the 18th century known as the Magdalene gate. (fn. 43) Now the principal entrance to the abbey, it comprises a large stone arch, with a smaller entry for pedestrians on its north side, dating from the 14th century with 16th-century alterations. By the later 18th century the main gateway had become one of the principal rooms of the Red Lion inn; its crenellated and turretted top was taken down in 1810. (fn. 44) To the north of the pedestrian entrance is a one-bay range, perhaps representing a porter's house and in 1640 held of the abbey lessee by a Mr. Winterhay, (fn. 45) which has a 10-light splayed bay window dated 1639 with the initials T.B. and rising through two storeys. Inside is a moulded plaster ceiling of the late 16th century. Chaingate, mentioned in 1656, (fn. 46) was built over the road at the southern end of Magdalene Street; it still stood in 1723 and comprised a 'great gate' and a 'lesser portal' beside it. (fn. 47)


  • 1. L. Abrams, Anglo Saxon Glastonbury: Church and Endowment (1996), 1.
  • 2. V.C.H. Som. ii. 82–99; J. A. Robinson, Two Glastonbury Legends: King Arthur and St. Joseph of Arimathea (1926); J. P. Carley, 'A Grave Event: Henry V, Glastonbury Abbey, and Joseph of Arimathea's Bones' in Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, ed. J. P. Carley (2001), 285–302; R. Dunning, Somerset Monasteries (2001), 145.
  • 3. Below, parish, manors and other estates.
  • 4. M. Aston and R. Leech, Historic Towns in Som. (1977), 59, 63.
  • 5. C. A. R. Radford, 'Glastonbury Abbey before 1184' in Medieval Art and Architecture at Wells and Glastonbury (Brit. Arch. Assoc. Conference Trans. 1978), 110–34.
  • 6. Proc. Som. Arch. Soc. lix. 60.
  • 7. V.C.H. Som. ii. 91.
  • 8. Ibid. 83–94; Radford, 'Glastonbury Abbey before 1184'.
  • 9. M. Lapidge, 'The cult of St. Indracht at Glastonbury', in Ireland in early medieval Europe, ed. D. Whitelock, R. McKitterick, and D. Dumville (1982), 179–212.
  • 10. R. Cramp, 'Pre-Conquest sculptures of Glastonbury monastery: New offerings, ancient treasures', in Studies in medieval art for George Henderson, ed. P. Binski and W. Noel (2001), 154.
  • 11. Ant. Jnl. lxxxii. 104–24. For the re-discovery see John of Glastonbury, Chron. ed. J. Carley (1985), 181.
  • 12. Proc. Som. Arch. Soc. lix. 60.
  • 13. Edgar's remains had been translated to a shrine above the high altar from his original grave 'in the chapter near the entrance to the church': Wm. of Malmesbury, Hist. Glastonbury, ed. Scott, 131, 135.
  • 14. Ant. Jnl. lxxxv. 107–70.
  • 15. N. Pevsner, S. and W. Somerset (1958), 173–6; R. Willis, The Architecture of Glastonbury Abbey (1866), 37–8, 42–5.
  • 16. Proc. Som. Arch. Soc. lix. 58–61.
  • 17. Cambridge, Trinity coll. Western MS. R5.16, f. 5b; Leland, Itin., ed. Toulmin Smith, i. 288.
  • 18. Rahtz, Book of Glastonbury, 85–6; W. Stukeley, Itinerarium Curiosum (1776), i. 153.
  • 19. Leland, Itin., ed. Toulmin Smith, i. 289.
  • 20. Dugdale, Mon. (1655), pl. drawn by R. Newcourt engraved by W. Hollar.
  • 21. Glastonbury Abbey, Abbey Trust MSS., unpubl. excavations by W. J. Wedlake.
  • 22. R. Warner, Hist. of the Abbey of Glaston: and of the Town of Glastonbury (1826), lxxxv–vi.
  • 23. Leland, Itin., ed. Toulmin Smith, i. 289.
  • 24. Rahtz, Book of Glastonbury, 97.
  • 25. Dugdale, Mon., pl. by Newcourt.
  • 26. William Senior's Survey, ed. D. V. Fowkes and G. R. Potter (Derbys. Rec. Soc. 1988), 193; S.D.N.Q. xix. 80–2.
  • 27. Stukeley, Itin. Curiosum, i. 152 and pl. 37; S.R.O., DD/SAS (C/1193) 4, p. 208.
  • 28. Stukeley, Itin. Curiosum, i. 152; Avalonian Guide (1810), 31–2.
  • 29. S.R.O., DD/MY 35.
  • 30. S.D.N.Q. xx. 230–2; Willis, Glastonbury Abbey, 61–71.
  • 31. Dates on repairs at crossing; J. Freeman, W. D. Caröe RstO FSA: his architectural achievement (1990), 156; A. Caröe, Old Churches and Modern Craftsmanship (1947), 86–7.
  • 32. Inscription on building.
  • 33. Burke, Commoners, ii. 694–5; S.R.O., A/BJE 1, p. 16.
  • 34. Glastonbury Abbey, Abbey Trust MSS.
  • 35. Proc. Som. Arch. Soc. cxxvi. 17–25.
  • 36. S.R.S. lxiii, pp. 269, 272.
  • 37. Longleat Ho., Longleat MS. 10587, f. 47.
  • 38. S.R.S. xxxix. 27.
  • 39. Longleat Ho., Longleat MSS. 10729, 10757; B.L. Eg. MS. 3034, f. 17; P.R.O., LR 2/225, f. 118.
  • 40. S.R.S. lxiii, p. 258.
  • 41. Ibid. xxxix. 27.
  • 42. B.L. Eg. MS. 3034, f. 37v.
  • 43. S.R.O., DD/SAS (C/1193) 4, p. 208.
  • 44. Taunton, Som. Arch. Soc., Tite colln., drawing by J. Carter dated 1784; Avalonian Guide, 21.
  • 45. P.R.O., E 134/16 Chas. I. Mich./2.
  • 46. S.R.O., DD/WY, box 177 (survey).
  • 47. Stukeley, Itin. Curiosum, i. 153; S.R.O., DD/TB 20/3.