On entering Glastonbury Abbey, one of the first buildings you come to is the charming little St. Patrick’s Chapel. Here is a mural which recalls the last days of the Abbey in 1539.
At the time of the Dissolution programme which began in 1534, Richard Whiting was the gentle and respected bishop of Glastonbury Abbey, the second richest religious institution in England, with around 100 monks. The story is well told by Wikipedia here.
In essence, Whiting was conned in the early years that the programme would only affect smaller institutions. By 1539 Glastonbury was the only remaining abbey in Somerset. On being told to surrender the Abbey, Whiting refused, acting legally correctly. Naturally, the Glastonbury leaders took steps to keep the abbey’s treasures safe. This was then turned round by the church commissioners, and ultimately Thomas Cromwell acting on behalf of King Henry VIII, as evidence of treason. His defiance was simply not acceptable to the all-powerful king. There was no due process. Whiting was convicted in secret, and executed on Glastonbury Tor with two of his team.
The mural shows three gibbets on Glastonbury Tor, where the 3 men were hanged, drawn and quartered. These were savage times, and of course Whiting was not the first religious leader to be so treated.
Whiting is considered a martyr by the Catholic Church which beatified him over 300 years later.
One of the great infamous acts of British history was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries 1536-41. On a recent trip across England we came across three of the great religious houses that were dissolved in this process – those at Glastonbury, Dunstable and Bury St Edmunds. The sheer extent of the ruins and the size of the remaining fragments emphasise the enormity of what happened, in a huge transfer of wealth and power from religious to royal authority. Most of the religious buildings in the abbey complexes were subsequently destroyed. Of course, these are just a small sample from the nearly 900 religious houses involved.
A modern day consolation is the wonderful opportunity for photographs offered by the remaining buildings/ fragments.
On a recent visit to Glastonbury we passed by two one-thousand-year-old oaks, in a lane that runs by the appropriately named Old Oaks campsite. These venerable oaks date from the time of the Norman conquests, a time when wolves and bears were still Britain’s top predators. Even the names Gog and Magog are associated with ancient myths and legends (see eg Wikipedia entry).
Sad to say, although alive when we last saw it, Gog died due to a fire in 2017. How a probably careless act destroyed this ancient being – somehow symbolic of the lack of care many modern people have for nature.
Magog still survives and flourishes, despite the decrepit aspect of parts of its trunk.
A glance through history shows that there are major turning points apparently triggered by key individuals. The establishment of the Church of England, and the wrenching of religious power from the popes in Rome, all at the behest of King Henry VIII, was one such point. Part of this process involved the gradual dissolution of the catholic monasteries, both to remove this alternative source of power to the King, and to gain for Henry the riches accumulated by these institutions over the centuries. Wikipedia tells us that at the start of the dissolution in 1536, there were over 850 monasteries/nunneries/friaries in England; by 1541 there were none.
This was brought to mind as we visited Glastonbury Abbey, which was at that time perhaps the richest and most powerful of all the monasteries. The abbey controlled large tracts of surrounding land and was instrumental in major drainage projects on the Somerset Levels.
Led by Henry’s henchman Thomas Cromwell, the dissolution process had begun with the smaller institutions and gradually extended its scope. In September 1539, Glastonbury Abbey was visited without warning by Cromwell’s commissioners. Investigations proceeded and eventually it was determined that the Abbot Richard Whiting, who had resisted the dissolution, was a traitor – an impartial observer might say this was on trumped up charges. On November 15, Whiting was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called Glastonbury Tor, where he was hanged and quartered – a particularly unpleasant and ghoulish way to die. Thus did the infamous Henry impose his will, through the agency of the equally infamous Cromwell.
Anything of value was removed from the Abbey and its lands went to the Crown or Henry’s favourite nobles. The Abbey remains as a set of evocative ruins. As you walk through them, the sheer size of the edifice becomes apparent – on a par with the major cathedrals of Europe – destroyed on whim. The titanic nature of Henry’s struggles with the pope and his own citizens becomes clear. The ego of the absolute monarch would impose any price to get just what he wanted.
Tyrants since then have followed the same sort of formula, always with willing henchmen such as the hapless Cromwell, who himself soon proved expendable. This is why formal constitutions and the ideal of democracy and the rule of law have proved to be so important. The scary thing about the UK is that it does not have a written constitution, such as in the USA, so the checks and balances are left to an establishment that could, in theory, become dominated by a charismatic individual (there are many examples in history) who decided to do just what the hell he liked.
But then, it remains to be seen whether the US can handle Donald Trump…