Proto-Celtic: *Ynys Wydryn
|Location||Glastonbury, Somerset, England|
|Governing body||National Trust|
|Official name: St Michael's Church, monastic remains, and other settlement remains on Glastonbury Tor|
|Designated||24 April 1954|
|Official name: St Michael's Church Tower|
|Designated||21 June 1950|
Glastonbury Tor is a hill at Glastonbury in the English county of Somerset, topped by the roofless St Michael's Tower which is a Grade I listed building. The whole site is managed by the National Trust and has been designated as a Scheduled monument.
The conical hill of clay and Blue Lias rises from the surrounding Somerset Levels. It was formed when surrounding softer deposits were eroded, leaving the hard cap of sandstone exposed. The slopes of the hill are terraced; however the method by which they were formed remains unexplained. Artifacts from human visitation have been found dating from the Iron Age to Roman eras.
During the Saxon and early medieval periods, several buildings were constructed on the summit. These have been interpreted as an early church, and monks' hermitage. The head of a wheel cross has been recovered dating from the 10th or 11th centuries. The original wooden church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. In the 14th century the stone Church of St Michael was built on the site. Its tower remains, although it has been restored and partially rebuilt several times. Several archaeological excavations during the 20th century sought evidence to clarify the history of the monument and church, but several aspects of its history remain unexplained. The Tor is mentioned in Celtic mythology, particularly in myths linked to King Arthur.
The origin of the name "Glastonbury" is unclear but when the settlement was first recorded in the late-7th and early 8th century, it was called Glestingaburg. Of the latter name, "Glestinga" is obscure, and may derive from an Old English word or Celtic personal name. The second half of the name, "burg", is Anglo-Saxon in origin and could refer to either a fortified place such as a burh or, more likely, a monastic enclosure. It may derive from a person or kindred group named Glast. Tor is a Celtic word meaning "rock outcropping" or "hill". The Celtic name of the Tor was Ynys Wydryn, or sometimes Ynys Gutrin, meaning "Isle of Glass". At this time the plain was flooded, the isle becoming a peninsula at low tide.
Location and landscape
The Tor is located in the middle of the Summerland Meadows, which are part of the Somerset Levels, rising to an elevation of 158 metres (518 ft). The plain is reclaimed fen above which the Tor is clearly visible for miles around. It has been described as an island but actually sits at the western end of a peninsula washed on three sides by the River Brue.
The Tor consists of layers of various Lias Group strata of early Jurassic age, the uppermost of which are the rocks assigned to the Bridport Sand Formation and which overlie strata of the Beacon Limestone Formation and Dyrham Formation, The Bridport Sands have acted as a caprock protecting the lower layers from erosion. The iron-rich waters of Chalice Well, a spring, flow out as an artesian well impregnating the sandstone round it with iron oxides that have reinforced it. Iron-rich but oxygen-poor water in the aquifer carries dissolved Iron (II) "ferrous" iron, but as the water surfaces and its oxygen content rises, the oxidized Iron (III) "ferric" iron drops out as insoluble "rusty" oxides that bind to the surrounding stone, hardening it.
The low lying damp ground can produce a visual effect known as a Fata Morgana when the Tor appears to rise out of the mist. This optical phenomenon occurs because rays of light which are strongly bent when they pass through air layers of different temperatures in a steep thermal inversion where an atmospheric duct has formed. The Italian term Fata Morgana is derived from the name of Morgan le Fay, a powerful sorceress in the Arthurian legend.
The sides of the Tor have seven deep, roughly symmetrical terraces. Their formation remains a mystery with many possible explanations. They may have been formed as a result of natural differentiation of the layers of lias stone and clay which were used by farmers during the Middle Ages as terraced hills to make ploughing for crops easier. Author Nicholas Mann questions this theory. If agriculture had been the reason for the creation of the terraces, it would be expected that the effort would be concentrated on the south side, where the sunny conditions would provide a good yield. However, the terraces are equally deep on the north, which would provide little benefit. Additionally, none of the other slopes of the island have been terraced, even though the more sheltered locations would provide a greater return on the labour involved. Alternatively the flattened paths may have been produced by the hoofs of grazing cattle.
Alternative explanations have been suggested for the terraces, including the construction of defensive ramparts. Other Iron Age hill forts including the nearby Cadbury Castle in Somerset show evidence of extensive fortification of their slopes. However, the normal form of ramparts are a bank and ditch, however there is no evidence of this arrangement on the Tor. Additionally, South Cadbury, as one of the most extensively fortified places in early Britain had three concentric rings of banks and ditches supporting an 18 hectare enclosure. By contrast, the Tor has seven rings and very little space on top for the safekeeping of a community. It has been suggested that a defensive function may have been linked with Ponter's Ball Dyke, a linear earthwork approximately 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) east of the Tor. It consists of an embankment with a ditch on the east side. Interpretation of the dyke is not clear. It is possible that it was part of a longer defensive barrier associated with New Ditch three miles to the south-west which is built in a similar manner. It has been suggested by Ralegh Radford that it is part of a great Celtic sanctuary, probably 3rd century B.C., while others, including Philip Rahtz, date it to the post-Roman period and connect it with the Dark Age occupation on Glastonbury Tor. The 1970 excavation suggests the 12th century or later. Hutton suggests that the terraces are the remains of a medieval "spiral walkway" created for pilgrims to reach the church on the summit in a similar form to those at Whitby Abbey.
Another theory is that the terraces are the remains of a three dimensional labyrinth. The theory, first put forward by Geoffrey Russell in 1968, states that the classical labyrinth (Caerdroia), a design found all over the Neolithic world, can be easily transposed onto the Tor so that by walking around the terraces a person eventually reaches the top in the same pattern. Evaluating this hypothesis is not easy. A labyrinth would very likely place the terraces in the Neolithic era, but given the amount of occupation since then, there may have been substantial modifications by farmers and/or monks and conclusive excavations have not been carried out.
Some Neolithic flint tools recovered from the top of the Tor show that the site has been visited and perhaps occupied throughout human prehistory. The nearby remains of Glastonbury Lake Village were identified at the site in 1892, which confirmed that there was an Iron Age settlement in about 300–200 BC on what was an easily defended island in the fens. There is no evidence of permanent occupation of the Tor, however the finds including Roman pottery suggest it was visited on a regular basis.
Excavations on Glastonbury Tor, undertaken by a team led by Philip Rahtz between 1964 and 1966, revealed evidence of Dark Age occupation during the 5th to 7th centuries, around the later medieval church of St. Michael: postholes, two hearths including a metalworker's forge, two burials oriented north-south (thus unlikely to be Christian), fragments of 6th century Mediterranean amphorae (vases for wine or cooking oil), and a worn hollow bronze head which may have topped a Saxon staff.
During the late Saxon and early medieval period there were at least four buildings on the summit. The base of a stone cross demonstrates Christian use of the site during this period and it may have been a hermitage. The broken head of wheel cross dated to the 10th or 11th centuries was found part way down the hill and may have been the head of the cross which stood on the summit. The head of the cross is now in the Museum of Somerset in Taunton.
The earliest timber church, which was dedicated to St Michael, is believed to have been constructed in the 11th or 12th century from which post holes have since been identified. Associated monk cells have also been identified.
St. Michael's church remained until 11 September 1275, when it was destroyed by an earthquake. According to the British Geological Survey, the earthquake was felt in London, Canterbury and Wales, and was reported to have destroyed many houses and churches in England. The force was greater than 7 MSK and an epicentre in the area around Portsmouth or Chichester, South England.
A second church, also dedicated to St Michael, was built of local sandstone in the 14th century by the Abbot Adam of Sodbury and incorporated the foundations of the previous building. It included stained glass and decorated floor tiles. There was also a portable altar of Purbeck Marble. It is likely that the Monastery of St Michael on the Tor was a daughter house of Glastonbury Abbey and in 1243 Henry III granted a charter for a six day fair at the site.
St Michael's church survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when, apart from the tower, it was demolished. The Tor was the place of execution where Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, was hanged, drawn and quartered along with two of his monks, John Thorne and Roger James. The three-storey tower of St Michael's church survives. It has corner buttresses and perpendicular bell openings. There is a sculptured tablet with an image of an eagle below the parapet.
In 1786 Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead bought the Tor and funded repair of the tower in 1804, including the rebuilding of the north east corner. It was then passed on through several generations to the Reverend George Neville and included in the Butleigh Manor until the 20th century. In was then bought as a memorial to a former Dean of Wells, Thomas Jex-Blake who died in 1915.
The National Trust took control of the Tor in 1933, however repairs were delayed until after World War II. During the 1960s excavations identified cracks in the rock suggesting the ground had moved in the past. This combined with wind erosion started to expose the footings of the tower which was repaired with concrete. Erosion by the feet of the increasing number of visitors was also a problem and paths were laid to enable them to reach the summit without damaging the terraces. After 2000 enhancements to the access and repairs to the tower, including rebuilding of the parapet, was carried out. This included the replacement of some of the stone which had been damaged by earlier repairs with new stone from the Hadspen Quarry.
A model of Glastonbury Tor was incorporated into the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. As the athletes entered the stadium, their flags were displayed on the terraces of the model.
The Tor seems to have been called Ynys yr Afalon (meaning "The Isle of Avalon") by the Britons and is believed by some, including Gerald of Wales writing in the 12th and 13th centuries to be the Avalon of Arthurian legend. The Tor has been associated with the name Avalon, and identified with King Arthur, since the alleged discovery of his and Queen Guinevere's neatly labelled coffins in 1191, recounted by Gerald of Wales. Modern archaeology has revealed several sub-Roman structures.
With the 19th century resurgence of interest in Celtic mythology, the Tor became associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, who was the first Lord of the Underworld (Annwn), and later King of the Fairies. The Tor came to be represented as an entrance to Annwn or to Avalon, the land of the fairies.
A persistent myth of more modern origin is that of the Glastonbury Zodiac, an astrological zodiac of gargantuan proportions said to have been carved into the land along ancient hedgerows and trackways. The theory was first put forward in 1927 by Katherine Maltwood, an artist with an interest in the occult, who thought the zodiac was constructed approximately 5,000 years ago. However, the vast majority of the land said by Maltwood to be covered by the zodiac was under several feet of water at the proposed time of its construction, and many of the features such as field boundaries and roads are recent.
Author Christopher L. Hodapp asserts in his book The Templar Code For Dummies that Glastonbury Tor is one of the possible locations of the Holy Grail. This is because it is close to the location of the monastery that housed the Nanteos Cup. Another speculation is that the Tor was reshaped into a spiral maze for use in religious ritual, incorporating the myth that the Tor was the location of the underworld king's spiral castle.
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