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Glastonbury in 1841

Glastonbury is in the hundred of Glaston-twelve-hides, 127 miles west by south from London by Amesbury, Frome, and Shepton Mallet, and 22 miles east-north-east from Taunton.

The eminence on which the town stands is nearly insulated by the surrounding marshy flats, and was called by the Britons 'Ynswytryn,' or 'Ynys-wytryn, the glassy island,' afterwards ‘Avalon' ; the meaning of the latter name is disputed, as well as the reason for which the former was given. Monkish legends ascribed the foundation of a Christian church on this spot, said to be the first in England, to Joseph of Arimathea, the supposed apostle of the British Islands ; and a species of thorn, still existing in the neighbourhood, which blossoms in the winter, was long believed to have sprung from his walking-staff which he stuck in the earth. A monastery or abbey was certainly established here at an early period, in the precincts of which the semi-fabulous British chieftain Arthur was said to be buried. A leaden cross, bearing the following Latin inscription, 'Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avallonia,' was found under a stone seven feet beneath the surface ; and nine feet below this an oaken coffin, inclosing dust and bones, was discovered. Of this discovery, which took place in the time of Henry II, and is recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis, who was an eye-witness, there can be no doubt, though the genuineness of the remains has been questioned. Upon the establishment of the Saxons, the spot obtained a new designation, Glaestingbyrig, the list part of which appears to be the Saxon equivalent for its British name 'Wytryn.' The monastery, which had fallen into decay, was rebuilt with great spIendour by Ina, king of Wessex (about A.D. 708), and the establishment enriched by the liberality of successive princes, flourished till the period of the Danish incursions, under Ethelred I, and Alfred the Great, the West Saxon princes. Under the abbacy of the famous Dunstan (Saint Dunstan) and by the munificence of the Anglo-Saxon kings Edmund I, and Edgar, it regained its former prosperity, and was conformed to the rule of the Benedictines. At the Conquest, the abbot of Glastonbury was a personage of importance in the Anglo-Saxon state ; but the jealousy of William, who deposed the abbot and substituted a Norman in his room, and stripped the abbey of many of its lands, depressed the establishment for awhile ; but it was restored by the carefulness and influence of subsequent abbots. The buildings were in great part rebuilt in the reigns of Stephen and Henry II, and were subsequently repaired or enlarged. It became soon after this time a mitred abbey, and was for a short period annexed to the bishopric of Wells, which was during this interval called the bishopric of Glastonbury. At the time of the suppression, Richard Whiting, the abbot, who resisted the measures of Henry VIII, was, upon a charge of embezzling the conventual plate, tried, and hanged on the adjacent eminence of the Tor Hill in 1539. The yearly revenue at the dissolution was £3,508, 13 shillings and 4¾ pence gross, or £3,311, 7 shillings and 4½ pence clear. Some idea of the extent and magnificence of the abbey may be formed from the statements given in Dugdale's ‘Monasticon’ (last edition) of the abbot’s munificence, and from an enumeration, at the time of the suppression, of nearly eighty apartments, offices, &c., contained in the precincts, which included a space of sixty acres. The reputation of Glastonbury for sanctity did not cease at the Reformation. As late as 1750 and 1751, a number of invalids, to the number in one month (May, 1751) of ten thousand, flocked to Glastonbury in consequence of the account of a wonderful, not to say miraculous, cure wrought by drinking the water of a spring near the town. We are not told how long the delusion lasted.

The town consists of several streets, four of these inclose a quadrangular space, in which the ruins of the abbey are comprehended ; and from the corners of this quadrangle other streets extend. The houses are generally low, and many of them have been built with the stones taken from the ruins of the abbey.

The remains of this splendid structure consist of some fragments of the church, the chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, and what is called the abbot’s kitchen. The ruins of the church, which was cruciform, comprehend two of the pillars which supported the central tower, some portions of the walls of the choir, and a fragment of the wall of the nave. The architecture belongs to the period of transition from the Norman to Early English, with some portions of later date. The whole length of the church was 380 feet, the breadth of the choir and its aisles, 70.

St. Joseph’s chapel is in better preservation than the church, at the west end of which it is placed, and with which it communicates by an ante-chapel, of somewhat later date ; both however belong to the same transition period as the church, but are of a more enriched character : the length of the chapel and ante-chapel together is 110 feet, the breadth 25 feet. The abbot's kitchen is a small building, square externally, but octagonal within : it is in a very perfect state, and belongs to the late perpendicular period. The roof is surmounted by a double lantern.

Glastonbury has two parish churches, St. John and St. Benedict, both elegant structures in the perpendicular style, with graceful towers ; and in the town are several buildings which were formerly dependencies of the abbey : the George Inn, one of these, offers a good specimen of late perpendicular.

On a hill near the town is what is called 'the Tor,' a tower, which is the only remain of a chapel dedicated to St. Benedict. It is of the decorated English character, of beautiful though simple composition, and very perfect in its details. There are places of worship for Independents, Baptists, Wesleyans, and Quakers.

The area of the parishes, and their population in 1831, were as follows :-

St. John : 6,107½ acres ; population 2,501
St. Benedict : 1,109 acres ; population 483

Some hosiery and coarse gloves are manufactured. The market is on Saturday, and there are four yearly fairs.

The municipal borough comprehends nearly the whole of the two parishes ; but it is proposed to contract the limits. The town was incorporated in the reign of Anne, from whom it received its only charter. The Municipal Reform Act assigns to it 4 aldermen and 12 councillors ; it is not to have a commission of the peace, except on petition and grant. Glastonbury is not a parliamentary borough.

The living of St. John is a perpetual curacy, to which the chapelry of St. Benedict is united : their joint yearly value is £195, with a glebe-house : they are in the diocese of Bath and Wells, and, with several adjacent parishes, constitute the peculiar jurisdiction of Glaston.

There were in the two parishes in 1833, one infant school, with 39 boys and 31 girls ; nine boarding or day schools (three of them partially supported by endowment or subscription), with 89 boys, 51 girls, and 85 children of sex not stated ; and three Sunday-schools, with 148 boys and 150 girls.