Sitting above the town of Glastonbury and presiding over the Somerset levels, is a large hill of clay and blue Lias called Glastonbury Tor. It is surreal vision to see this hill appearing in the flatlands and it is no surprise that throughout history it has been a place of both real and mythical importance. In may have been known by the Britons as Ynys yr Afalon and from the Middle Ages it has been associated with the mythical burial place of King Arthur. We know that the hill has long been settled, Bronze Age and Roman artefacts have been recovered on the top of the hill and there is evidence of a Christian church and perhaps a monastery or hermitage on the summit from late Saxon times. In the late Middle Ages the hill was topped with a church dedicated, as many hilltop churches were in this period, to the archangel St Michael. The first stone church on the hill was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275 and a new one built here in the 14th century by Adam of Sodbury, Abbot of Glastonbury. The church was demolished, except for its 15th-century tower after the Abbey of Glastonbury was dissolved in 1539.
The tower is built of a glorious golden stone that glows in the evening sun and its west door rather than admitting the visitor to the church, now frames the sky. On the western face of the tower are a series of images niches, now mostly devoid of their former occupants.
One still contains a figure of St Dunstan, an appropriate choice for a tower built by a Benedictine monastery and a further one the lower part of St Michael. Below on either side of the west door are two small reliefs, one of St Michael weighing souls and the second of St Bridget milking a cow. Through time, iconoclasm and the work of the weather, we now have but vestiges of what must have been a splendid display of late medieval imagery. When first created this grand tower and its images would have reflected the prestige of the Abbey, among the richest and most powerful in England and the seeming permanence of the late medieval Catholic world order.
However, that permanence and assurance was soon to crumble to dust under the reforms of successive Tudor monarchs and the great monastery of Glastonbury in the town below was dissolved. Following the dissolution of the house in November of 1539 and in the shadow of this golden tower, one of the cruellest events of the Reformation took place, the execution of Richard Whiting, Abbot of Glastonbury and two of his monks. Whiting was elderly and infirm and his only real crime was the safeguarding and hiding away of the treasures of his house from the despoiling and pillaging hand of the king’s agents who came to dissolve it. He died alongside two of his monks, his severed head placed over the abbey west gate and his quartered remains displayed in Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. A letter from Richard Pollard to Thomas Cromwell records the death of Abbot Whiting. It was a bloody end, but he died with dignity and patience, asking God and the king for forgiveness:
Pleaseth it your lordship to be advertised, that the same 15th day of November the late abbot of Glastonbury went from Wells to Glastonbury, and there was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called the Torre, where he was put to execution; at which time he asked God mercy and the king for his great offences towards his highness, and also desired my servants then being there present to see the execution done, that they would be meane [communicate] to my lord president and to me that we should desire the king’s highness of his merciful goodness and in the way of charity to forgive him his great offences by him committed and done against his grace, and thereupon took his death very patiently, and his head and body bestowed in like manner as I certified your lordship in my last letter. And likewise the other two monks desired like forgiveness, and took their death very patiently, whose souls God pardon… The late abbot of Glastonbury, afore his execution, was examined upon divers articles and interrogatories to him ministered by me, but he could accuse no man but himself of any offence against the king’s highness, nor he would confess no more gold nor silver nor any other thing more than he did before your lordship in the Tower …
From Wells, the 16th day of November.
Your assured to command,
Rychard Pollard (1)
In the face of such cruelty and barbarism, I hope this golden tower standing as a testimony to the Catholic faith they held, would have given Whiting and his spiritual sons some hope. The last thing they would have seen before their deaths, beside the view over the town and the monastery they loved, can still be seen by us though in decayed form: images of the saints, of the company of heaven, and of St Michael, the guardian and protector of Christian souls.
(1) T. Wright, ed. Letters Relating to the Suppression of Monasteries, (London: Camden Society, 1843), pp. 255-56, 261-262.