Shrouded in mystery and legend, Glastonbury Abbey is a highly atmospheric ruin in Somerset, southern England. The surviving buildings, dating from around 1200, stand on one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain and are fine examples of Norman architecture.
According to legend, the first church at Glastonbury was built by Joseph of Arimathea and the boy Jesus in the 1st century. Joseph was a tin merchant, the legend explains, and he came to Somerset because of its rich tin mines. He was a family friend of the Virgin Mary's so he brought the young Jesus along with him. This legend was particularly popular in the Romantic period and was the inspiration for William Blake's mystical hymn Jerusalem.
This church was enlarged in the 10th century by the Abbot of Glastonbury, St. Dunstan, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 960.
In 1066, the wealth of the abbey could not cushion the Saxon monks from the disruption caused by the foreign invasion and subsequent conquest of England by the Normans.
Skilled Norman craftspeople contributed much to the abbey by adding magnificent buildings to the existing Saxon Church. These were built to the east of the older church and away from the ancient cemetery.
In the 14th century, as the head of the second wealthiest abbey in Britain (behind Westminster Abbey), the Abbot of Glastonbury lived in considerable splendour and wielded tremendous power. The main surviving example of this power and wealth is to be found in the Abbot's Kitchen - part of the magnificent Abbot's house begun by John de Breynton (1334-42).
Privileged pilgrims might once have stayed in the abbey itself; excavations have disclosed a special apartment at the south end of the Abbot's house, erected for a visit from the English King, Henry VII.