Glastonbury and its Connections to the Hymn Jerusalem

First of all, Happy Easter, whether you celebrate Easter as a Christian festival like I do, or not. In honour of the season, I thought I would share the Christian legend connected to the hymn, Jerusalem. The hymn has become an unofficial national anthem of England and is seen as something very patriotic, having been sung at all sorts of events, including the London Olympics, royal weddings and the last night of the proms. It is perhaps also well known for being the anthem of the Women’s Institute, which adopted it in 1924.[1] Since then, the hymn has come to represent an idyllic England. It is within this patriotic context that the song, composed by Charles Hubert Parry, has been understood for over a hundred years since it was first debuted in March 1916, but have you ever stopped to think about what the words really mean?

The lyrics mainly come from Milton, an epic poem William Blake wrote in the early 1800s, especially the famous line “dark satanic mills”. Since the patriotic connotations became associated with the hymn, the dark satanic mills in particular has come to represent Britain’s Industrial Revolution, but in Blake’s format, it was really intended to be an allegory for Satan himself, who was a miller who ground souls.[2] Another famous line, “did those feet in ancient times”, is steeped in centuries old legend that Joseph of Arimathea, the man who gave his tomb up to hold the body of Jesus following the crucifixion, came to England and established the country’s oldest church at Glastonbury in Somerset.

View of the Abbot’s Kitchen Glastonbury, Somersetshire dated March 16 1761 from the King’s Topographical Collection at the British Library

During the medieval period, Glastonbury was a huge place of pilgrimage because of its abbey. The abbey not only had connections to Joseph of Arimathea, but in 1184, a fire hit. It was during restoration work following the fire that the graves of the legendary King Arthur and Queen Guinivere were found. Both of these links brought fame and drew on beliefs at the time. Whilst the theme of Arthurian legends and the belief of Glastonbury as being Avalon, where Arthur was buried, are interesting in their own right, there isn’t time to delve into those in this blog post, so I’ll just stick the Joseph connection. However, if you are interested in that, do feel free to research that for yourself.

According to legend, Joseph came either with a younger Jesus, or following his death and brought the Holy Grail with him, to set up a church, which later developed into what became the abbey.[3] If we follow the legend of the Holy Grail, Joseph buried the Grail at what is now known as Chalice Well. It is there that the water runs red, the colour of blood, linked with the blood of Christ. Whilst this colour is also created by the iron that runs through the water, it is clear to see why people in the past would have believed this.

Chalice Well, Glastonbury (2005), John Vigar, Wikimedia Commons

The other legend connected to Joseph is the Glastonbury Thorn Tree. It is said that on a hill just outside of the town called Wearyall Hill, Joseph’s staff turned into a thorn tree, which is a variety found in the Holy Lands.[4] What makes this tree miraculous is that it flowers twice a year: at Easter and Christmas, even though Easter changes its date ever year. Before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries from 1536, there were known to have been three trees on Wearyall, but by the 1600s, there was only one left. When the English Civil Wars were raging, the Parliamentarian forces, who were mainly Puritans that followed strict doctrines, destroyed the Glastonbury Thorn. Luckily, local residents had taken cuttings and a replacements descended from the original were later planted, but many have either died or tragically been vandalised. There are many around the town, including one in the abbey grounds, but there is also one main one at Glastonbury’s parish church. Most monarchs since the seventeenth century, other than when the Parliamentarians ruled following the Civil War, have been gifted a cutting at Christmas to use for decoration, a tradition started when Anne of Demark, wife of James I, was gifted one.[5]

These legends originate from the fact that there was a large Jewish community in the West of England in the time following on from the crucifixion, many believed to have been tin miners in the region.[6] Whilst this may be the case, is there any truth to these tales? They cannot be totally proved or disproved with the passing of time and as there is faith behind them, I believe it is only fair to leave it up to individuals to make up their mind on this. However, an article written in 2018 about archaeological explorations made by the University of Reading at Glastonbury Abbey holds an interesting take on this. The origins of the Abbey were originally thought to date back to around 700 AD. In their excavations, they found the remnants of a pre-Saxon timber building on the outskirts of the later abbey complex. Within this they found fragments of later Roman pottery, showing links with the Mediterranean, and much earlier burials than expected.[7] These excavations have now dated the origins of the site to around 450 AD, nearly 300 years earlier than previously thought.[8]

A Holy Thorn beneath up the tower of St John the Baptist parish church (2009), geography.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst this may not prove the Joseph of Arimathea legends, it does show that perhaps there was a much more ancient place of Christian worship than was previously thought. It showed that William of Malmesbury, an historian writing in the 1100s, was right when he noted an early church on the site at Glastonbury, which he said was the oldest he had ever witnessed himself.[9] Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no denying that Glastonbury does hold some sense of spirituality and mysticism to it, something which I can promise you can still feel today if you visit. As the hymn Jerusalem says, ‘did those feet in ancient times’, i.e. the feet of Joseph, come to England, bring Christ or Christianity with him, who knows, but hopefully this post has made you think a bit differently about that famous song.


[1] Whittaker, Jason, ‘Almost Everything You Knew about the Hymn Jerusalem is Wrong’, Prospect, 26 December 2019, https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/arts-and-books/almost-everything-you-know-about-the-hymn-jerusalem-is-wrong

[2] Ibid

[3]  ‘Myths and Legends’, Glastonbury Abbey, https://www.glastonburyabbey.com/myths-and-legends.php

[4] Ibid; Johnson, Ben, ‘Glastonbury, Somerset’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Glastonbury/#:~:text=The%20legend%20of%20the%20Holy,the%20site%20of%20Glastonbury%20Cathedral.

[5] ‘Myths and Legends’, Glastonbury Abbey, https://www.glastonburyabbey.com/myths-and-legends.php

[6] Ross, David, ‘Legends of Glastonbury- Joseph of Arimathea’, Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/Myths/Glastonbury.htm

[7] Gilchrist, Roberta, ‘Glastonbury: Archaeology is Revealing New Truths about the Origins of British Christianity’, The Conversation, 23 March 2018, https://theconversation.com/glastonbury-archaeology-is-revealing-new-truths-about-the-origins-of-british-christianity-93805

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid