The Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury

(Written from a talk to the IoW Catholic History Society by Dr. Tim Hopkinson Ball on 14th April, 2015).

Legend says that Joseph of Arimathea came to England and built a wattle Church; true or not, it is still a historical fact that there was a very early Christian settlement here.

When the Saxons reached Glastonbury in AD 658, the “old Church” as it was known, was already standing, and dedicated to Our Lady.The Charter of King Ina refers to the church as the “Ecclesia Vetusta Beatissimae Virginis”, the old Church of the most Blessed Virgin, and described it as “the foremost Church in Britain, the fount and source of all religion”. The earliest reference to its dedication – to “Blessed Mary and Blessed Patrick” – however, is in a royal land grant which dates back possibly to AD681.

A Great Fire destroyed the abbey in 1184. Very soon afterwards, on the same holy ground; a stone Church was built and consecrated in 1186. It was dedicated to Our Lady. Thus the ancient shrine was continued, the old statue was venerated once again.

During the Middle Ages, Glastonbury was an outstanding centre of pilgrimage, the great annual pilgrimage being on the 8th of September, Our Lady’s birthday.

In 1539 the Abbey was dissolved and the statue lost and memory of the ancient Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury seemed to have disappeared for ever from England.

The last abbot, Richard Whiting was hung, drawn and quartered from Glastonbury Tor after a show trial. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895

The similarity of the Glastonbury seal with the depiction of Our Lady on the front of the (Pugin’s) Lady altar in St. Mary’s, Ryde was evident. Both have three panels with Our Lady and the Child Jesus in the central panel, with adoring angels in the outer panels; further evidence that Pugin copied Marian depictions from Medieval seals and his desire to emphasise the historic association of England with Our Blessed Lady.

Nearly 400 after the dissolution, in 1926, a small Church was built and in 1939 the foundations of a new Church were laid. It would be dedicated to Our Lady, and consequently, would be a successor to the ancient Shrine of our Lady of Glastonbury. It stands just across the road from the old Abbey, and it was consecrated two years later by Bishop Lee of Clifton.

In July 1955, a huge crowd of thousands of Catholics witnessed a statue bearing the ancient title, Our Lady St. Mary of Glastonbury, being blessed by the then Apostolic Delegate, Most Rev. Gerald O’Hara, in the presence of Bishop Rudderham of Clifton. So with papal recognition the Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury was canonically restored.

Ten years later the statue was solemnly crowned by the then Apostolic Delegate, Most Rev. Igino Cardinale, and an enormous gathering and Mass was said by Bishop Rudderham in the Abbey ruins. It was an historic moment; and the influence of Our Lady drawing all Christians to worship her Son together marks an epoch in the story of Glastonbury. The statue was designed by Mr. Philip Lindsey Clark, F.R.B.S. from the representation of Our Lady in a 14th century abbey seal. The crowned statue of Our Lady bearing the Holy Child on her left forearm has a flowering bush on her right. This signifies Virgin Motherhood.

The tapestry which is either side of the Statue was woven in 1965 and depicts the three Glastonbury Martyrs (Blessed Richard Whiting, Blessed John Thorne, Blessed Roger James) with St. Dunstan who was born at Baltonsborough, near Glastonbury and was an Abbot there and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Also represented are St. Joseph of Arimathea, St. David, St. Patrick, St Brigid and Blessed Richard Bere.

For centuries, Glastonbury Tor (a hill south east of the ancient abbey) has been one of the most spiritual places in the world. For many Christians, the Tor was a very important place of pilgrimage. People have always flocked here to soak up the history surrounding this special site. There’s evidence that monks were living on the Tor as far back as the 9th century. A stone church was built in the 12th century’replacing an earlier wooden one. After an earthquake in 1275, the church fell down. In its place a much smaller and sturdier building was put up. St Michael’s Tower was added later. This iconic and evocative landmark offers magnificent views of the Somerset Levels, Dorset, Wiltshire and Wales.

There are various myths and legends associated with Glastonbury, such as the Holy Thorn, Joseph of Arithmathea, King Arthur and Avalon. Nice stories but dubious. Often these legends are promoted as truths in order to draw more tourists to Glasonbury.

Let us simply be content that this ancient Marian Shrine furthers emphasises England’s unique position as the Dowry of Mary.

Nearly everyone at the meeting showed interest in a pilgrimage from the Island to Glastonbury in 2015.

The Catholic History Society was pleased to welcome Dr. Hopkinson Ball to the Island for a few days. In addition to speaking to our society on the history of Marian devotion at Glastonbury, he visited by St. Cecilia’s and Quarr Abbey; and the former Dominican Priory at Carisbrooke, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. He also had a guided tour of St. Mary’s, Ryde and visited the private chapel of the foundress of the church, Elizabeth, Countess of Clare. Dr. Hopkinson Ball is an authority on church relics and he was pleased to view the extensive collection of relics at St. Mary’s, belonging to Fr. Anthony Glaysher, parish priest.