Where are the footprints?
of documentary or archaeological evidence, the Joseph of Arimathea tradition finds no support. There's no cup with "Made in Jerusalem" stamped on the bottom. There's no written account of a meeting with the old man - not even an invoice from the local hardware shop. Nor is there ever likely to be. Of course, by the same token, there is never likely to be any evidence which disproves the story, incontrovertibly. All we're left with is tradition.
I don't think that is something to ignore. This is a real tradition, strong and long-lasting. It is arguable that this tradition has had more effect on the affairs of Britain than many a solid, documented fact.
There is some reason to believe that Glastonbury was a haven for Christians from a very early date (personally, I find a second century date more credible than a first century one) and that this Christian focus remained - in one form or another - until the present day. St. Patrick was here, St. Bridget was here, St. Dunstan was here.
There was an old church, built of clay and wattle - it burned down in 1184, causing much consternation amongst the faithful. William of Malmesbury described it before the destruction - showing that it had undergone many enrichments since its humble origin. Some of these enrichments appear in the the tally of treasures seized by Henry VIII at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.
It was the the loss of this ancient building (and the loss of income from pilgrims) which many claim as the motive behind the search of the abbey grounds instituted by Abbot Henry de Sully in 1191 - a search which discovered an oak coffin, containing the bones of man and a woman, with an associated inscription "Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia" or, "Here lies King Arthur in the island of Avalon". It took no imagination at all to identify these two as Arthur and Guinevere.
Few modern scholars credit this discovery, even though the coffin and inscription were on public view until the Reformation. It just seems too good to be true. However, if the coffin were a forgery, it was an extremely good one. Perhaps we should credit Henry de Sully with an imagination and enterprise which has provided the bookshops and tearooms of Glastonbury with a steady income to this day.
In one way or another, Glastonbury Abbey has had a profound effect on this region's welfare.
When the Anglo-Saxons finally broke through the West British defences, defeating them at Penselwood (a few miles South of Frome), the Saxon leader, Kenwalh respected the sanctity of the place (Ken was himself a Christian) - although he did insist on installing a Saxon Abbot.
It was part of the Joseph of Arimethea tradition that the local British king Arviragus had granted Joseph twelve "hides" of land (a hide was a measure of area - about 120 acres - so this was a sizeable estate from the start). Throughout Glastonbury's subsequent history, this claim was respected. Indeed, Glastonbury accumulated more and more lands over the centuries. By the time of the Dissolution (see below), the Abbey controlled an eighth of the territory of Somerset.
Land meant wealth. Not infrequently, wealth meant the envy of others. At the end of the twelfth century, Henry II left the abbacy vacant for ten years, just so he could collect the dues.
But that was nothing compared to the cupidity of Henry VIII, who used the convenience of the Reformation to grab all the wealth of all the monasteries and ecclesiastical establishments - in the grand larceny known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Richard Whiting, Abbot at the time, tried his best to protect the Abbey with a little subtle bribery, but Henry charged him with treason, and Richard was hung, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor. Well, at least he had a nice view to look at while he was hanging around.
At this point, it might be helpful to describe what "hung, drawn and quartered" actually means. Since this is not for those of a sensitive disposition, I will remove this explanation to a separate page: Treason's Fee.
Henry VIII was many things, but he wasn't a religious zealot. But his breach with Rome began a process of struggle for the soul of the English church. In due course, religious zealots of the Reformation caused further damage to Glastonbury. One particularly fanatical Roundhead soldier even chopped down the "Holy Thorn" on Wearyall Hill (supposed to have grown from Joseph's staff). Supporters of Glastonbury's myths relate that this soldier was blinded by chips flying from the stricken tree.
A Holy Thorn still grows on Wearyall, and another in the grounds of the church of St. John - both supposedly grown from cuttings saved by the faithful - and, every Christmas, a sprig from the St. John's tree is sent to the Sovereign, as a token of the Crown's connection with Holy Glastonbury. (There are genealogies which trace the Royal Family's lineage back to the Holy Family - but I won't go into those here; they're daft.)