Saturday, 17 March 2012
Saint Patrick of Glastonbury?
There are plenty of legends connecting St Patrick with Glastonbury in Somerset. Some people even think he was born there! According to one well-established legend, the Pope sent him to Ireland as a missionary in the year 425. After converting the Irish to Christianity, he returned to Glastonbury Abbey in 433, where he became Abbot and eventually died in 472. He is reputed to have been buried alongside the altar.
[This isn't something I'm claiming to be true... I'm simply recounting a legend that people used to believe in the past. I'm not making it up -- see the display from the Museum of Somerset shown above!]
During the Middle Ages, Glastonbury was the religious heart of Britain -- a place of pilgrimage comparable to Rome or Jerusalem. What was important in those days wasn’t what was true, but what people believed. And people believed a lot when it came to Glastonbury. Not only Saint Patrick, but countless other saints were supposed to have been buried there. According to the 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury, "...nor is there any space in the building that is free of their ashes. So much so that the stone pavement, and indeed the sides of the altar itself, above and below, is crammed with the multitude of the relics. Rightly, therefore, it is called the heavenly sanctuary on earth, of so large a number of saints it is the repository."
Besides St Patrick, Glastonbury is associated with his successor St Benignus, and the presence of their shrines (or supposed shrines) made the Abbey a popular destination for Irish pilgrims for centuries. Around the year 710, a group of them led by St Indract were massacred by local soldiers, and their remains were added to those already interred in the Abbey.
One of the reasons Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome was that he believed the British church was older and more valid! According to a widely believed legend, the Apostle Philip sent a group of twelve missionaries to Britain in 63 AD. The leader of the twelve was none other than Joseph of Arimathea—the man who, according to the Gospels, had allowed the body of Jesus to be interred in his own tomb. The twelve proto-monks were drawn towards Glastonbury, where a heavenly vision led them to found the Abbey!