William of Malmesbury’s History of Glastonbury

This in preparation for a post on the significance of St Mary’s Chapel in early Christianity and in particular the small round wattle-and-daub building with an intricate pavement, contemporaneous with the Westminster Abbey sanctuary pavement but of a design and a date unknown. Important but often speculative twentieth Century sources are Bligh Bond, John Michell and Keith Critchlow, whilst the earliest historian to record its history was William of Malmesbury.

William’s history of Glastonbury was significantly changed in the century after it was written, to suit the Abbey’s pilgrimage business. Fortunately, the main body of that history lived on unaltered in William’s revision of his History of the Kings of England. The notes below were made using The Glastonbury Legends pages 26-41, by Professor (of History) R.F. Treharne (1901 – 1967), Aberystwyth University.


William of Malmesbury wrote a large-scale history of England (Kings of England) by 1125. In it he stated that Glastonbury Abbey had been founded , on the advice of St. Aldhelm, by Ine, King of Wessex (688-726), a statement which he repeated in his Ecclesiastical History also finished in 1125. Later, when writing a Life of St. Dunstan (undated) he realised Glastonbury was much older than that since “Glastonbury had already passed under ecclesiastical authority long before the time of St Patrick, who had died in A.D. 472”. So, impressed by what he had seen and heard at Glastonbury, he wrote a separate monograph on the antiquity of that great abbey, completed by 1135.

Figure 1 Frederick Bligh Bond’s vision of the first church at Glastonbury, based upon the story of Joseph of Arimethea added to William’s History in the century after it was written, as explained below.

In the next century, the monks of Glastonbury added many tales which have become well known such as that Joseph of Arimethia built the original church, the small round church built of wattle and still extant in William’s day, and the story of the thornbush from Jerusalem. Whilst these stories were new and of unknown origin, their appearance in the monograph is countered by William’s revised Kings of England into which he placed a significant extract of the monograph’s 12th century text, before this was altered (by the abbey monks) in William’s Glastonbury monograph.

It is therefore important to gather the elements of Glastonbury history actually known to William of Malmesbury or at least thought credible by him.

William’s History of Glastonbury’s Church and Abbey

  1. Lucius, King of the Britons, begged the thirteenth Pope (174-189) to send the Christian teaching to Britain.
  2. The Pope sent missionaries who built the old church of St. Mary of Glastonbury.
  3. Glastonbury was a pre-eminent centre of the Celtic world before the English came.
  4. St. Patrick became a monk and then abbot after his conversion of the Irish, until 472.
  5. St.David, Gildas, Benignus, Indraht and Bridget visited the abbey.
  6. William saw the jealously protected little ‘church of boughs’, the old church of wattle and daub and alluded to its pavement design.

Therefore, for William of Malmesbury, the story of Glastonbury’s old church and abbey began in the late 2nd century with Pope Eleutherius response to Lucius who would be credited with calling for the missionaries, even if if they had just turned up during his reign. Over the next century, the Abbey extended and embellished William’s Glastonbury. Those changes can fortunately  be seen because a significant portion of the Glastonbury History was transmitted unaltered within William’s revised Kings of England.

Deviations from William’s History in the later Glastonbury text

  1. The Christian community and old church at Glastonbury was established as early as 63 AD by St Joseph of Arimathea, leader of an special mission.
  2. The old church was claimed to have not been built by human hands but by Christ himself.
  3. Falling somehow into disuse, the site was under the special care of Jesus’ mother Mary, anachronistically referencing the 12th-13th century cult of the Virgin.

Much of the present-day legend were still missing notably Wearyall Hill, whose “rooted staff” became the Glastonbury Thorn. Since Joseph was not mentioned by William, he was aware of the first century claim at the abbey, of a mission by St Phillip from Gaul. Treharne therefore dates Joseph’s recruitment at some date between 1140 and 1240, the earliest extant copy of “his” history of Glastonbury Abbey.