Skip to main content

Glastonbury Abbey and the Tor - History and Legends of old

If you do not see Phyllis on HubPages she is off wandering the pages of history looking for a notable person or event to write about.

Glastonbury, Somerset

Early sketch of Glastonbury area, showing the Tor in the background. Sketch by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607 - 1677)

Early sketch of Glastonbury area, showing the Tor in the background. Sketch by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607 - 1677)

Glastonbury in Somerset, England

When it comes to learning about Glastonbury in Somerset, England, there are so many legends and mysteries shrouded in the mists of time that fiction and lore are often intermingled with historical facts. It is difficult at times to distinguish between what is real and what belongs to the mythical. Many are the legends of old about Glastonbury, the Tor, and the ancient Glastonbury Abbey.

Glastonbury Abbey Ruins

View from the former location of the North transept in East direction to the choir.

View from the former location of the North transept in East direction to the choir.

The Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey had its beginnings in the early 7th century as a monastery. It was founded by Britons as a community for British monks.

In 658 Cenwalh of Wessex led the Saxon army in the Battle of Peonnum and they gained control of Somerset, as well as the abbey. The British Bregored, was allowed to remain abbot of Glastonbury Abbey till his death in 669. Berhtwald, an Anglo-Saxon, was then appointed as abbot.

Under the reign of the Saxon King Ine of Wessex, the abbey gained another building in 712, a stone church, and the British monks who had stayed saw an improvement with the generous endowment Ine bestowed upon their community. Foundations of a stone church built by Ine's orders can still be seen on the west end of the nave.

In the 9th century, the Danes attacked and severely damaged Glastonbury. In the tenth century the abbot of Glastonbury, Saint Dunstan, became Archbishop of Glastonbury and instituted the Benedictine Rule in 960.

The Benedictine rule, called the Horarium, was based on the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia from the 6th century. It was a strict daily timetable established to prevent idleness in the life of the monks. Benedict believed that idleness is the enemy of the soul. Dunstan established that each day was divided into three activities: communal prayer, spiritual reading, and labor, which left no time for idleness.

Dunstan wasted no time and recreated the monastic life. He built new cloisters and focused on rebuilding the abbey.

There is a legend that Dunstan was asked by the Devil to re-shoe his horse. Instead, Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devil's hoof. It was so painful for the Devil, but Dunstan told him it would be taken off if the Devil promised to never enter a place where a horseshoe is over a door. The Devil has kept his promise to this day.

Saint Dunstan

Stained glass of Saint Dunstan, Monastic Chapel 1920, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York

Stained glass of Saint Dunstan, Monastic Chapel 1920, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York

The Abbot's Kitchen

The Abbot's Kitchen is a very well preserved structure of medieval kitchens, one of the best in Europe. To the south of the Abbey, the building sits off by itself in isolation. It is the only monastic building of the Abbey to survive intact.

It is a very well planned building, square with curved buttresses on each side and gargoyles up on the cornices. Inside, in each of four corners, stands a huge fireplace with smoke outlets in the ceiling above. It is the only building within the monastic grounds that has survived intact. Some artifacts and furnishings from other buildings of the abbey have been moved to the Abbot's kitchen.

Abbots Kitchen

Abbot's Kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey

Abbot's Kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Tor

In ancient times, Glastonbury Tor was an island, the sea caressing the gentle slopes of the cluster of hills below the Tor. In time the sea pulled back and left a vast lake and marshy wetlands. When up close to the Tor, the gradual ascent to the top is rather subtle. Yet from a distance this is an amazing sight that has inspired feelings of spiritual possibilities, legends, and much speculation on its history.

Terraces on the Tor

Glastonbury Tor from north east showing terraces

Glastonbury Tor from north east showing terraces

Unusual Terracing

Unusual terracing around the Tor has lead to many theories as to the purpose of it. One thought is that the terracing is actually the work of ancient people who created the maze for ritualistic reasons, for the design of the maze is that of an ancient pattern symbolic of magic rituals. The maze was formed about 5000 years ago. This would put the creation of the maze in the same time period as when Stonehenge was created.

The terracing is not typical of that done for agricultural purposes. Terracing for this reason would have been done on the south side only of the hill, to take full advantage of the most amount of sunshine. The north side is terraced as much as the south is, in fact, the terracing goes all around the Tor. For agricultural purposes, this would be of little benefit. It is interesting to note that none of the other hills around the Tor were terraced. What is unusual about the terracing is that it spirals up from bottom to top, rather than in concentric circles in equal height on the sides and width, as is usual for agriculture. The terracing is also not seen as defensive ramparts, which would be a bank and ditch formation.

During the reign of King Henry VIII, the abbey was suppressed with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Richard Whiting, the last abbot of the abbey, was hanged at the top of the tor in 1539. The King had Whiting executed for treason because Whiting remained loyal to Rome.

Scroll to Continue

During the Saxon and early medieval periods, several buildings were constructed at the top of the Tor. The only remaining one is the tower of the stone Church of St. Michael, from the 14th century.

The Tor still dominates the flat marshy lowlands that surround it in Glastonbury. It was referred to as Ynis-witrin in ancient times. Ynis-witrin, an old British name, means Isle of Glass. In Celtic lore, the Tor was called Avalon, the Isle of Apples.

Morgan le Fay at Avalon

Morgan le Fay by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1864)

Morgan le Fay by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1864)


Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legends was the High Priestess of Avalon and the half sister of King Arthur. Many believe it is here where Morgan le Fay dwells in the sanctuary of the faery, hidden from those who know not the way through the mist. Beyond the mists is revealed the heart of Avalon. Tis here that King Arthur was taken to be healed and nevermore seen.

Morgan le Fay was always in love with Lancelot, Arthur's closest companion. However, Lancelot was in love with Guinevere, Arthur's wife and queen. It is noted in some legends that Lancelot sought sanctuary for penance in Glastonbury Abbey after the death of King Arthur.

Even though the Tor can be physically seen, Avalon cannot. The land of the fae is in another dimension that is accessible only when the magical mists appear and only Morgan le Fay can part those mists. Avalon is the Isle of Enchantment.

The spiraling of the terracing is very indicative of a labyrinth. But for what purpose? Since many believe that the Glastonbury Tor once stood above Avalon, it is just as easy to believe that the spiral to the top was made by the faery folk of Morgan le Fay's realm for ritualistic reasons -- maybe to carry out ceremonial rituals on the highest point of Avalon. Or was the spiral path originally made for the spiral castle of Avallach, Lord of the Underworld? This is another possibility that many believe.

What of King Arthur and his existence? Did he live on within Avalon, with Morgan le Fay and the faery? The enchanted isle disappeared from the world when Christianity became dominant over the old Pagan religion. Is Arthur still alive in another realm?

Last Sleep of Arthur

"The last sleep of Arthur" by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, 1898

"The last sleep of Arthur" by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, 1898

Discovery of the Tomb of King Arthur

On the grounds of the old abbey there is a grave with an inscription on a plague that claims it is the tomb of King Arthur. According to one account, written by the historian Gerald of Wales, Queen Guinevere also is in the same grave.

There is a story that in the year 1191, monks of the Abbey dug up the grave just south of the Lady Chapel of the Abbey Church. Apparently, the site of the grave was told to the monks by King Henry II, who had consulted a soothsayer or an elderly Welsh bard of the location. Within the grave the monks found the remains of a man who would have been about seven feet tall in life. A petite woman was lying next to him. She had long golden hair which crumbled and vanished when it was touched by a monk.

King Arthur

The Tomb of King Arthur was Found on the South Side of the Lady Chapel

Image taken around 1900, showing the unrestored interior of the Lady Chapel

Image taken around 1900, showing the unrestored interior of the Lady Chapel

Unusual Grave

It was an unusual grave the monks found 16 feet underground. There was a stone slab on top of a hollowed out log. Under the slab was a lead cross that had an inscription on it, identifying the remains as Arthur and Guinevere. In the year 1278, the remains in the grave were transferred to a shrine in the new monastic church, where it can be seen today.

It is difficult to believe that the grave is actually that of King Arthur, for there are several different accounts of the story. Two accounts written by Gerald of Wales, supposedly an eyewitness to the discovery and the contents of the grave, are very believable. The first account written by Gerald, from "Liber de Principis instructione" c.1193, states in the second paragraph:

Liber de Principis instructione, c.1193

"In our own lifetime Arthur's body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot. The body was hidden deep in the earth in a hollowed-out oak bole and between two stone pyramids which had been set up long ago in the churchyard there. They carried it into the church with every mark of honour and buried it decently there in

— Gerald of Wales

Tomb Found by Chance

Ralph of Coggeshall, sixth abbot of Coggeshall from 1207 - 1218, stated in a later writing than Gerald's account, that the tomb was found by chance when a grave was being dug for a monk who had wished to be buried at that spot. Another account that came out that the remains of King Arthur had been found, but were lost during the Reformation - this is not substantiated by any records.

It has been believed by many, since the discovery of the tomb, that the whole story was made up to lay claim to the antiquity of the abbey foundation and also to increase the desire of tourists to visit and donate money to the financially suffering abbey.

Sometimes, history is better left in the past in order to let the more enduring legends grow. This legend of the discovery of King Arthur's final resting place is a devastating claim to the people of Wales who believe that their beloved King Arthur will one day return from behind the mists of Avalon and make right the wrongs that were done to the Welsh by the oppression from England.

Grave of King Arthur and Guinevere

Monks found the grave by chance just to the south of Lady Chapel.

Monks found the grave by chance just to the south of Lady Chapel.

The Glastonbury Thorn and Chalice Well

One of the most enduring legends is the Sacred Glastonbury Thorn and the Chalice Well. The legend tells that during the first century, Joseph of Arimathea came to Somerset with the boy Jesus. It is believed that Joseph was an uncle of the Virgin Mary's family.

Joseph and Jesus built the first church at Glastonbury, which was of wattle and daub. Many years later, after the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph brought the Holy Grail to Avalon and buried it below the Tor, at the entrance to the underworld, where sacred water began to flow from a spring. This spring is now called the Chalice Well. It offers eternal youth to those who drink from it.

Cover of the Chalice Well

Glastonbury Thorn

A distance away, when Joseph stopped to rest for the night, he stuck his staff into the ground. In the morning, he found the staff had taken root and had become a thorn bush.

Sadly, the Glastonbury Thorn, over 2000 years old, was destroyed by an act of vandalism in December of 2010.

The Holy Thorn

The Holy Thorn, shown in summer of 1984

The Holy Thorn, shown in summer of 1984

Isle of Avalon

Note From Author

In regards to the inscription in the purported grave of King Arthur at Glastonbury Abbey: I have read, over many years, just about every book on Arthurian legends and I find that most scholars and authors, including me, believe that King Arthur had only one wife, Guinevere. Arthur was very young when he married Guinevere and was still married to her when Mordred and Arthur killed each other. Guinevere spent the rest of her life in a monastery for Nuns.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on August 12, 2020:

Very interesting, Cosmic John.

COSMIC JOHN on August 12, 2020:


Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 24, 2016:

Hi Laurie. Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your reading and commenting - so glad you like the hub so much. I love ancient history and Glastonbury is a very interesting place. Thanks again for the visit and the book information.

LaurieNunley517 from Deep South on January 23, 2016:

Fascinating hub! I've always had an interest in Arthurian Legend so your article really held my attention! I loved the history of the Abby too. As a matter of fact I recently read a book set in Glastonbury and featuring the Abby and Tor. You might like it: Deborah Crombie's, A Finer End. Thanks for the great article!

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on February 07, 2015:

Hi Peachy. Thank you very much.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on February 07, 2015:

wow, these pictures are really beautiful, i wish we had learn more of western history.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 13, 2015:

Kitty, I believe you were visiting the Tor in its Avalon dimension. It is obvious to me that you have strong connections to Avalon and the Tor. The way you describe it seems to me like a past life recall. I have often seen myself in Avalon, so I do not find it unusual what you say. Thank you so much for your visit and comment.

Kitty Fields from Summerland on January 13, 2015:

Phyllis - I'm not sure if I've told you this before, but before I ever knew what the Tor was I had dreamed of it. I dreamed of walking up a hill in a spiral pattern...there was a pathway that wound it's way up this hill. There were other people going up and down this hill and it seemed magical in a way...almost surreal in that there were wispy trees and plants on either side of the path going up the hill. For some reason that dream has stuck with me for years...later I'd come to find a picture of the Tor and wonder if it wasn't this same hill that I dreamed of...or perhaps I was visiting it in its Avalonian dimension?

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 08, 2015:

Hi Phoenix. It would be great to see it in person - hope you get to do that. Thanks for the visit and comment.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on January 08, 2015:

This was a fascinating read. I would love to see this in person. I'll suggest this when we start planning our summer holiday this year.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 08, 2015:

Thank you so much, Chitrangada, for the very nice comment. I was engrossed, too, with the history and beauty of the Abbey, so it took me a long time to write the hub as I read everything I could find on it.

I really appreciate your visit and vote. Thanks for stopping by.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 08, 2015:

This is truly very interesting and educative hub!

I was engrossed in the well presented and well researched information. The pictures are so beautiful and really a treasure. The horseshoe information is interesting as well.

Voted up as interesting!

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 06, 2015:

Hi Jo. Thank you very much for reading and commenting. I have a whole set of Joseph Campbell lectures on Arthurian legends and love to listen to them. All those legends have been of great interest to me since I was quite young.

I think I read about the blacksmith and the devil, it seems familiar. Thanks again, Jo, for your very nice comment.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on January 06, 2015:

An informative and very interesting read. I've been to Summerset but haven't visited Glastonbury, not even for one of the pop festivals. I love reading about Arthur, Guinevere and of course Camelot, real or ficticious they do capture our imagination.

I was reading an article recently about why the horse shoe became a sign of good luck placed above the doorway, and the story of the wise blacksmith who got the better of the devil, fascinating indeed. Comprehensive and very well done, a great read.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 04, 2015:

Hi Nell. So glad you enjoyed this hub. I do tend to believe that the grave found at the abbey was Arthur's. There are so many differing stories and theories, but this one makes the most sense. I love Arthurian legends. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Nell Rose from England on January 04, 2015:

Fascinating read Phyllis, I have been there a couple of times when I was small, but then I didn't really appreciate it, I will have to go back. We love our Arthur stories and myths and legends, sometimes the truth is more basic, I do think they have found the bones etc, but we will never know, loved it!

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 03, 2015:

My gosh - thank you so much, Venkatachari. That is very kind of you and I appreciate your comment, votes and sharing. Thank you.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on January 03, 2015:

Very interesting and marvellous work. It is exciting to know about these stories. I had heard of hanging the horseshoe over doors to prevent devils from entering the houses. Now I come to know the reason. The facts about Arthur are very interesting. The whole article is full of much unknown information which is very exciting to read.

Thanks for sharing it. Voted up, awesome and interesting. Sharing to G+ and facebook also.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 02, 2015:

Happy New Year, Catherine. Thank you for such a very nice comment. I am so glad you liked the hub. Thanks for the votes and share, too. I really appreciate it.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on January 02, 2015:

Fascinating information about the intermingling of myth and history. I did not know most of this. You explained it so well with beautiful pictures too. I'm giving it H+ and voting up and more.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 01, 2015:

You are awesome, Frank - thank you so much. Happy New Year.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on January 01, 2015:

educational, informative and a delight to read these types of hub when you publish them.. voted awesome and shared :)

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on January 01, 2015:

You are welcome, Jodah. Glad you liked the hub. Glastonbury Abbey has always intrigued me since I first became interested in the Arthurian legends so many years ago. I appreciate your visit, comment and vote. Thank you very much.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on January 01, 2015:

A very interesting and educational hu Phyllis. I have heard of Glastonbury Abbey and some of the Arthurian legend and speculation as to where he was buried etc but your hub was so in-depth that I am much wiser than I wa before. Thank you for all the hour of research and the amazing images and video as well. Voted up.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on December 31, 2014:

Hi MizB. Arthurian legends have always held great interest for me, too. Those spiral terraces seem to have created a huge mystery for the archeological studies. My thought is based on a very simple function - that the ancients made the spiral terraces to make it easier to journey up to the top and also to carry or drag needed items / stones with them. The Tor was formed upon a succession of rocks and clay dating back to the Jurassic period. A lot of artifacts have been found by archaeologists. The Tor can create that famed mystery of the mists of Avalon when fog is lying in the low levels and does not rise up to warmer levels - this creates a "Fata Morgana" making it look like the Tor is disconnected from the land and rising up from the mists.

I think the legends about that whole area are very romantic Please forgive my rambling - I can get carried away with the history and legends.. Thanks, MizB, for your visit and comment. I really appreciate it. Happy New Year to you and MrB

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on December 31, 2014:

Phyllis, this is wonderful. I have loved the Arthurian legends since I saw my first movie about him when I was eight or nine years old. The terraces spiral, you say. My first thought was, could there be a pyramid buried underneath, and have they looked. however, I've heard of step pyramids, but never spiral pyramids, so I guess I'll scratch that thought. Legends are that the mists and the other dimensions were left over from the days of Atlantis. It's so romantic to think that. Voted up.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on December 31, 2014:

Ok. Thanks for the link. I appreciate that.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on December 31, 2014:

The one that is on What It Was Like Living in Camelot would fit with you and I did add your link. It was already in that category.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on December 31, 2014:

You are welcome, Debbie. But, if your hub is mainly on King Arthur, Guinevere, and Camelot, I believe there is a specific topic for it. You probably have the hub in the right category already. If I remember right, there is a sub-sub category under mythology for Arthurian legends.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on December 31, 2014:

Thanks for the information. I may go have a look and change mine to that category too, if it isn't already. I am going to add you hub to the links in my Living in Camelot hub.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on December 31, 2014:

Hi Debbie. Thank you so much for the visit and comment. Maybe your hubs and this one are in different topic categories. Because the main subject is the Abbey and the Tor, I put this hub in Education and Science>History>Ancient History. I believe King Arthur and Guinevere were real people and the legends / myths grew up around them.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on December 31, 2014:

Hi Ann. Yes, it would be great to discover the truths. I just find it all fascinating, whether myth or truth. Thanks, Ann, for reading and for your very kind comment.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on December 31, 2014:

Oh wow I just loved reading this. I have some hubs about these legendary people and so do believe they did exist. I do not know why they are not included in the related links. HP confusing the he** out of me.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on December 31, 2014:

Hi Devika. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Happy New Year to you.

Phyllis Doyle Burns (author) from High desert of Nevada. on December 31, 2014:

Happy New Year, Alastar. I am anxious to hear your info about King Arthur - don't forget now. :) . Glastonbury Abbey and the Tor really fascinate me. It would be wonderful to take a stroll throughout the grounds and linger awhile in the past of it. I am so glad you like the hub. Thank you for reading and commenting, I always appreciate your thoughts on what I write about. Don't party tooooo hard tonight, but enjoy bringing in the New Year.

Ann Carr from SW England on December 31, 2014:

Interesting hub on this wonderful topic. I live only a few miles from Glastonbury and have always found the Arthurian Legends fascinating. Thanks for including my hub at the end too.

Wouldn't it be great to find out the real truth behind it all? Then again, myths and legends are probably much more exciting and the conversation around them is perhaps more engaging.

Great hub and your research is extensive which makes it such a good read.


Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 31, 2014:

A wonderful and so educational hub! Voted up, interesting and useful.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on December 31, 2014:

Thought I knew a good bit about Glastonbury Abbey and Tor, well, I knew more about the Tor anyway, until reading this excellent article, Phyllis. Liked that legend about not shoeing the Devil's horse, for just one thing told here about the Abbey. Phyllis, I've got some very interesting info concerning King Arthur I'll share with you soon. This will be great one to share on the social medias and I'll be in e-mail correspondence with you about that soon.

Related Articles