At its peak in the 14th century, the great religious centre of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset was second only to Westminster Abbey in London in terms of wealth and importance. A church had existed on this site since at least the early seventh century, some say since the first century, though the ruins visible today date from the end of the 12th century, after the previous structures were destroyed by fire.
In common with over 800 other monastic institutions, Glastonbury Abbey became disused in 1539 after Henry VIII's campaign against the Catholic Church, and much of the fabric was removed over the following two centuries, for use in other buildings. What remains is perhaps a little below average in terms of completeness, compared with other major abbey ruins, but the surviving segments are still large and striking, made more evocative by the large gaps that separate them, and the contrast between the aged, yellowish masonry and the surrounding green grass.
The original abbey was one of the largest in England, over 500 feet long. The remaining sections are most of the lady chapel at the west end, part of the wall of the nave, tall walls either side of the north and south transepts, and one wall of the presbytery. The church is surrounded by a sizeable area of parkland that includes a few other low walls along the site of the cloisters and other outbuildings, but most of these have completely disappeared, the one exception being the abbot's kitchen, an octagonal building from the 14th century, as this is complete. The whole site is enclosed by a wall and accessed only through the abbey visitor centre; the ruins are privately owned, having been purchased by auction in 1907, and are managed by a Church of England charity. In addition to protecting the ruins, this organisation promotes awareness of the abbey's historical significance, and stages religious services on the site.
The abbey and its extensive grounds (over 30 acres) lie just south of Glastonbury city centre, and are accessed, on the west side, from Magdalene Street. Visitors may either park along here, or in a pay-area which adjoins the entrance, through the visitor centre/museum/gift shop. Prices are typical for similar places under government ownership such as Tintern Abbey, at £6.90 per adult. The site is open all year except Christmas Day. Once out of the entrance building, the first view is of the lady chapel, from which the rest of the church extends eastwards, while the abbot's kitchen is a short distance south. These are the main historic parts of the grounds, but other paths lead past the site of the cloisters and the outbuildings, and through parkland, which includes two ponds, a herb garden, an apple orchard and plenty of other large trees.
The Lady Chapel
The closest building to the site entrance is the lady chapel which adjoins the smaller Saint Dunstan's Chapel on the west side and the Galilee Chapel to the east, this latter a more recent addition, connecting to the end of the church nave. The lady chapel sits above a now mostly roofless crypt, which can be entered through its original door, while the chapel itself is accessed at floor level via wooden walkways. The two main chapels are joined by a great arch, though this is not original, instead a 1909 replacement. Of note is the northwest door to the lady chapel, lined by four rows of original stone carvings from the late 12th century. The opposite side has a similar door, with fewer surviving carvings. Each corner of the chapel building is flanked with square towers, today only one of which rises above the main walls. The east end of the Galilee chapel adjoins a great arched doorway to the church, enclosed by a small amount of very thick walls, but beyond this nearly all of the nave and transepts are missing, their positions indicated only by lines across the grass.
The only remaining part of the nave is a hundred foot section of the south wall, comprising four bays. Beyond here is the most prominent and iconic part of the ruin; two tall walls that once supported the main tower between the north and south transepts, some sections of which also survive. Arches and windows can be inspected, plus a few stretches of inaccessible walkways, high above the ground. The south transept connects with the south wall of the presbytery that includes five windows; the only other fragments are much lower walls on the east side of the presbytery. The other principal components of the original complex, included the cloisters, south of the nave, with the refectory and monk's kitchen further south, and the chapterhouse to the east, connecting with a corridor leading to the dormitory, but for most of these the only sign are shallow ditches along the course of the walls. Two further buildings, originally connected but separate from the remainder are the abbot's great hall and the abbot's kitchen. The hall is now gone apart from one corner and part of an arch, but the kitchen with its four fireplaces is complete, and is filled with reproduction furnishings.
Legends relate to the existence of a church on the site of Glastonbury since the first century, perhaps supported by recent discoveries of Roman artefacts here, but the earliest definite occupation was by the Ancient Britons in the early seventh century. The place soon passed to the Saxons, who built a stone church, which was enlarged in the 10th century (including by addition of the cloisters) by Abbot Saint Dunstan, later Archbishop of Canterbury, then further augmented about a hundred years later following the Norman conquest, by which time the monastery was, according to the Doomesday Book, the richest in England. The 1184 fire destroyed most of the structures but rebuilding was swift, helped by the wealth of the monastery; construction started in the west with the lady chapel, then proceeded with the great church, and all was probably completed by about 1214. The popularity and prestige of the abbey was enhanced by the supposed discovery (in 1191) of the tomb of the fabled King Arthur, and wife Guinevere, on the south side of the lady chapel. The bodies were reburied under the high altar of the church in 1278, in the presence of Edward I, and although the tomb was lost soon after the dissolution in 1539, a sign still indicates the approximate location. After the late 13th century, further expansion at the abbey was limited to the outbuildings, including the abbot's hall and kitchen. The kitchen was subsequently used as a Quaker meeting house and hence has survived intact, unlike the other buildings which were gradually degraded over the next few centuries. Not until the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1887 was the site preserved from any further decay.