Glastonbury and Arthurian Legend: Background information when reading The Abbot's Tale

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The Abbot's Tale

by Conn Iggulden

The Abbot's Tale by Conn Iggulden X
The Abbot's Tale by Conn Iggulden
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 480 pages

    Oct 2019, 480 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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Glastonbury and Arthurian Legend

This article relates to The Abbot's Tale

Print Review

Nowadays famous for its music festival, held in nearby Pilton, Glastonbury is a small English town in Somerset, with a population of around 9000 people. In the 10th century, before Dunstan, the character in The Abbot's Tale arrived there and built the first great Glastonbury Abbey, it was little more than a medieval village, but still one with a long history behind it.

Lady Chapel Interior of Glastonbury Abbey With evidence of habitation dating back to the Iron and Bronze Age, the name Glastonbury, and the presence of Benedictine monks living there, appear to date from the 7th century, and are Anglo-Saxon in origin. Glastonbury in the 10th century was an island dominated by a tor, or hill, and although the land has long since been drained, the expanse of flat, low land, with the commanding tor rising up, remains an arresting sight. As Dunstan says in The Abbot's Tale, Glastonbury was already steeped in legend, particularly that of King Arthur.

It is believed that Glastonbury was the island where Arthur died after instructing one of his men to throw his famous sword Excalibur into the waters. As the man throws the sword, a hand is said to have risen up from the water and caught it – possibly the hand of the Lady of the Lake, a magical figure believed to have aided Arthur many times during his reign.

Arthur was a fifth or sixth century king about whom stories were told orally until Geoffrey of Monmouth, an 11th century cleric and one of the first British historians, wrote about Arthur's battle successes in his History of England. In the 12th century, the French poet Chretien de Troyes wrote his Arthurian romances, establishing the stories of Arthur, his queen Guinevere, her lover Lancelot and the search for the Holy Grail. Arthur, real or imagined, was and remains a popular force in the public imagination. Thomas Mallory wrote the comprehensive Le Morte d'Arthur in a prison cell in the 15th century and Alfred, Lord Tennyson celebrated the stories in poetry in the Idylls of the King published between 1859 and 1885.

The history of Glastonbury and King Arthur is equally long-standing. In the 12th century the Abbey, built by Dunstan, as described in The Abbot's Tale, was burned to the ground. Enterprising monks desiring to raise funds, claimed to have discovered the graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in 1191 and encouraged any and all connections between their home and the famous stories. Legend even has it that The Holy Grail may be hidden somewhere at Glastonbury. The grail, a cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, is said to have been brought to Britain by one of Jesus's followers, Joseph of Arithamea.

Today, Glastonbury Abbey is a ruin. In the 14th century, it was one of the richest abbeys in Britain, second only to Westminster Abbey, but the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536 saw the monastic order disbanded and the monastery seized by the crown. Henry, breaking with the Catholic Church over his divorce of Catherine of Aragon and establishing his own Anglican faith, sought to break the power of Rome in England and seized the wealth of the monasteries for the Crown. The site of Glastonbury Abbey is now a popular tourist attraction.

Glastonbury Abbey

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Kate Braithwaite

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Abbot's Tale. It originally ran in June 2018 and has been updated for the October 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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