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

A Historical Themed Weekend in Ludlow, Shropshire

As some of you will already know, I’m currently writing a biography on Anthony Woodville, a fifteenth century knight and man of letters, who was the brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and brother-in-law of Edward IV. It should be out sometime next year, when it’s finished that is! This was the inspiration for a weekend away in Ludlow, Shropshire, mainly to go back to the castle there and take photographs of it for the book. Anthony was the head of the household of Edward, Prince of Wales, his nephew, who lived there for ten years until 1483. I have visited before, back in 2018, but it was great to be back in much better weather than before, but also to think about it in terms of what Anthony’s experience there would have been like. I don’t think we could have timed it better as we had the warmest weekend in March since the 1920s! Anyway, as I did a lot of history related things and enjoyed every minute of it, I thought I’d share what we did whilst there.

View of Ludlow Castle from the apartment, Author’s own image

We stayed on the grounds of Ludlow Castle inside what is known as Castle House. This part of the castle is along the entrance, and includes what is now the café, gallery shop, and the apartments where I stayed with my parents and sister. There are three apartments you can stay in, all suitably named after people connected with the castle. Our apartment, named Arthur and Catherine after Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, who honeymooned at the castle after their wedding, had beautiful views looking towards the rest of the castle and out across the Shropshire countryside. I’m not going to deny that the accommodation was expensive, but this visit was a once in a lifetime chance to stay at a place I’m writing and researching about. I’m really glad I did as the apartment was lovely and very spacious. The views and peacefulness, whilst being right in the centre of town and only a walk away from everything, was fantastic as well. If you would like to stay in Ludlow yourself, there are lots of other great options around the town and last time, we did stay in a pub just 15 minutes away, which was also a good place to stay.

The first place we visited was Stokesay Castle, which is owned by English Heritage. I had also previously visited here, but was keen to go back as even though it is a small site, it has a lovely and somewhat homely atmosphere. Stokesay was built at the end of the thirteenth century by Laurence of Ludlow, a local wealthy merchant, said to have been one of the wealthiest men at the time. It’s survival is wonderful and really makes you feel what medieval life would have been like. It also underwent renovations during the Stuart era, so look out for the seventeenth century panelling in the Solar, which would have been the private area of the castle. As someone who loves both the medieval and Stuart periods, I must admit I was a little in my element. Also remember the lovely Stuart era gatehouse, which someone kindly told me that until English Heritage took over the site fully, the lady who granted them part ownership still lived in this part until her death in 1992. This whole place is really so photogenic though, so do make sure you’ve got your camera!

Stokesay Castle Gatehouse, Author’s own image

We also went inside the church next door. It was very small as it once served as the chapel for Stokesay Castle. Despite its size but just wonderfully formed. Despite enduring the English Civil War, the church was not wrecked by the Puritans and is an excellent example of how seventeenth century churches would look, complete with original box pews. Sorry to sound a bit nerdy, but I must admit I got excited by this as it’s the first time I remember ever seeing proper box pews. As well as the pews, there are also wall paintings of the ten commandments, another rarity in English churches. Another thing to keep an eye out for is some of the interesting gravestones and memorials dotted around the churchyard. Make sure you have a read of the ones with coats of arms that are on the side of the church, there’s a wonderful story about an incredibly long marriage for the time.

Of course we also visited Ludlow Castle itself. As we stayed in the apartments, we got free entry, so that was a plus sign. It also meant we didn’t have the worry of how long we would be there for as we only had to walk around the corner back to our apartment. The castle itself dates back to Norman period, when it was founded by the de Lacy family. Due to the age of the site, it’s impossible to go through the entire history of the castle, but the reason I have a particular interest in it was that it was a Yorkist stronghold during the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the father of Edward IV and Richard III, had inherited the castle from his Mortimer family ancestors. He established it as the administrative base for his lands in the region. In 1459, Richard was in the castle, with his forces preparing for the Battle of Ludford Bridge, named after one of the bridges into Ludlow. However, the Yorkists retreated before any serious action, as they feared being outnumbered. When his eldest son, Edward, became King Edward IV, the castle reverted into Royal hands. As mentioned previously, Edward chose the castle as the place to bring up his heir, Prince Edward, under the guidance of his uncle, Anthony Woodville, and others. The castle is perhaps best known as the deathplace of Prince Arthur, the eldest brother of Henry VIII.

Ludlow Castle as viewed from Dinham Bridge, Author’s own image

Ludlow Castle is now a ruin as it was neglected after the Council of the Marches, the administrative body set up to rule Welsh borders, was removed in 1641, around two hundred years after its creation. However, I must admit they are picturesque ruins! If possible, I would recommend talking the footpath that goes round the side of the castle and down to the river. This gives lovely views and also goes down to Dinham Bridge, another ancient bridge. If you walk down to either this bridge or Ludford Bridge, you will walk past lots of historic buildings. I’ve never seen so many blue plaques, which detail the history behind them. Mostly they are a mix of medieval or Tudor, with lots of Georgian ones mixed in. Keep an eye out for the lovely looking Dinham House, which once housed Lucien Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, who was kept under house arrest there.

A short walk away from the castle is the parish church of St Lawrence. This again is a real treat and is such a beautiful place. A church is said to have stood on this site since Saxton times, but most of what you see is a mixture of Norman and Medieval. It is a very impressive church and is famous for the stained glass windows of Richard Duke of York, Edward IV, Prince Edward and Prince Arthur. Prince Arthur’s heart was also buried here after his death, with his body being buried at Worcester Cathedral, just over 30 miles away. Volunteer guides are dotted around to answer any questions you may have, so please make use of their wonderful knowledge.

Some of the stained glass windows at St Laurence’s Church in Ludlow, Author’s own image

Ludlow is also full of lots of lovely places to eat, including pubs, cafes and restaurants. There are definitely so many options to choose from, whatever your tastes are. We ate at a place aptly called Aragon’s, which is close to the marketplace. They serve the most wonderful cooked breakfasts there, but we also enjoyed lunch there too. Some in the party commented on how the sausages served were some of the best they’d ever tasted, so that definitely comes highly recommended! The staff were very friendly too, which was an added bonus. Other places to look out for are Vaughan’s, a sandwich bar that also serves salads and jacket potatoes. Many people have commented on their hot pork sandwiches being the best ever, so again give that a go. We wanted to visit, but didn’t quite have the chance this time, but definitely on the list for next time.

As we visited the weekend of Mother’s Day, I had booked a Sunday Carvery at the Fisherman’s Arms in Docklow, a 20 minute drive away from Ludlow. It is a bit of a fisherman’s retreat as there are ponds and woodland walks. There are also places to stay there, as well as a café too. The country pub/restaurant was where we went. I had heard good reviews about the place, but as a visitor, didn’t really know what to expect. All I can say was that we definitely weren’t disappointed. It was by far the biggest carvery portions I think any of us had ever had. The food quality was excellent and so were the staff. We will definitely be going back too, so definitely make this a place to visit if you can.

A market is held on the market place nearly every day, so be sure not to miss that! Last time we visited, they were holding an antique market, which was good quality and had very interesting items. This time it was the general market, which had stallholders selling food, jewellery, antiques, crafted items and all sorts of things. I came away with some lovely jewellery and photographic prints of the places we’d visited. Another shop I also brought from, not far from Aragon’s café, was Nina and Co, a quirky little antique shop. I saw some lovely sparkly brooches in the window that would look lovely for putting on clothing and bonnets for our Regency dressing up at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, where we will be going back for a second time later this year. Thank you to them for also giving us a few free ones, which were missing a stone, but still useable for that. Again all of these were such lovely experiences.

Nina’s shop where I got the brooches from

All in all, it was probably one of the best trips I’ve been on. The peacefulness was just what was needed after what have been an awful two years. If you ever get the chance to go yourself, I promise you that you will love it. It feels like stepping back into a bygone era. What makes it all the more enjoyable is just how lovely the people of the area are. The memories I’ve made will certainly stay with me forever.

For more about the places mentioned in this post, please visit the following websites:

Ludlow town, https://www.ludlow.org.uk/index.html

Ludlow Castle, https://www.ludlowcastle.com/

St Laurence’s Church, https://stlaurences.org.uk/history-timeline/

Stokesay Castle, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stokesay-castle/

Aragon’s Restaurant, https://www.facebook.com/AragonsLudlow5/

Vaughan’s Sandwich Bar, https://www.facebook.com/Ludlow14KingStreet/

Fisherman’s Arms in Docklow: https://www.thefishermansarms.uk/

Nina and Co: https://www.instagram.com/nina.and.co.ludlow/?hl=en

Bibliography:

Griffiths, Ralph, ‘Wales and the Marches in the Fifteenth Century’, in Chrimes, Stanley; Ross, Charles; Griffiths, Ralph (eds), Fifteenth Century England, 1399–1509: Studies in Politics and Society (Bristol: Sutton Publishing, 1972)

Shropshire Churches Tourism Group, ‘Stokesay, St John the Baptist’, https://www.discovershropshirechurches.co.uk/south-west-shropshire/stokesay/