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Glastonbury Legend

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The Glastonbury Legend

Summary of the Legend

In summary, the legend is this:

Joseph of Arimatheia was a rich man, a relative of Jesus (and one of his covert disciples), who after the Crucifixion claimed the body of Jesus from Pilate. [1]

He came to Britain with other disciples and founded the first British church at Glastonbury, where he planted his staff. This miraculously flowered into a tree, The Glastonbury Thorn, whose offshoots may still be seen today, flowering every Christmas. (A sprig or cutting is sent to Buckingham Palace every year from this tree, which analysis has shown is a Palestinian variety.) [1]

According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill, which then grew into the original thorn tree.[4][5][6] [2]

Joseph also brought and kept there certain sacred relics, perhaps the Chalice Cup or Grail. He knew Britain from his trips as a tin merchant, and in fact, on one of his trips he had brought his nephew, the boy Jesus. Joseph, and some say the Virgin Mary, is said to be buried there, along with the Grail featured in legends of Arthur – whose official tomb is still to be seen there.[1]

The Glastonbury Thorn

The Glastonbury Thorn is associated with legends about Joseph of Arimathea and the arrival of Christianity in Britain, and has appeared in written texts since the medieval period. [3]

A flowering sprig is sent to the British Monarch every Christmas. The original tree has been propagated several times, with one tree growing at Glastonbury Abbey and another in the churchyard of the Church of St John. The "original" Glastonbury thorn was cut down and burned as a relic of superstition during the English Civil War, and one planted on Wearyall Hill in 1951 to replace it had its branches cut off in 2010.[3]

The Glastonbury thorn is a form of common hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna 'Biflora'[1] (sometimes incorrectly called Crataegus oxyacantha var. praecox), found in and around Glastonbury, Somerset, England. Unlike ordinary hawthorn trees, it flowers twice a year (hence the name "biflora"), the first time in winter and the second time in spring. The trees in the Glastonbury area have been propagated by grafting since ancient times.[1] The tree is also widely called the holy thorn, though this term strictly speaking refers to the original (legendary) [4]

The original Glastonbury thorn itself was cut down and burned as a relic of superstition by Cromwellian troops (or 'Roundheads' by another source) during the English Civil War (1642–1651). [5]

Persons and Profiles affected by the Legend

Joseph of Arimatheia

Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospels

  • Joseph of Arimathea.[1]

Joseph of Arimathea was, according to all four canonical Christian Gospels, the man who assumed responsibility for the burial of Jesus after Jesus' crucifixion. [6]

A number of stories that developed during the Middle Ages connect him with Glastonbury, where the stories said he founded the earliest Christian oratory, and also with the Holy Grail legend. [6]

  • Matthew 27:57 described him simply as a rich man and disciple of Jesus [6]
  • Mark 15:43 Joseph of Arimathea was "a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God"[6]
  • Luke 23:50–56 adds that he "had not consented to their decision and action".[6]
  • John 19:38, Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus who upon hearing of Jesus' death, "asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission." [6]

Joseph immediately purchased a linen shroud (Mark 15:46) and proceeded to Golgotha to take the body of Jesus down from the cross. There, according to John 19:39-40, Joseph and Nicodemus took the body and bound it in linen cloths with the spices that Nicodemus had bought. The disciples then conveyed the prepared corpse to a man-made cave hewn from rock in a garden of his house nearby. The Gospel of Matthew alone suggests that this was Joseph's own tomb (Matthew 27:60). The burial was undertaken speedily, "for the Sabbath was drawing on".[6]

From Isaiah 53:9, which many Christians believe foretold Jesus' death, added inference has been taken that Joseph of Arimatheia was wealthy: He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.[6]

Development of Joseph of Arimathea Legends

Since the 2nd century, a mass of legendary detail has accumulated around the figure of Joseph of Arimathea in addition to the New Testament references. [6]

Joseph is referenced in apocryphal and non-canonical accounts such as the Acts of Pilate, a text often appended to the medieval Gospel of Nicodemus and The Narrative of Joseph, and mentioned in the works of early church historians such as Irenaeus (125–189), Hippolytus (170–236), Tertullian (155–222) and Eusebius (260–340), who added details not found in the canonical accounts. Francis Gigot, writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia, states that "the additional details which are found concerning him in the apocryphal Acta Pilati ("Acts of Pilate"), are unworthy of credence."[7]

Hilary of Poitiers (300–367) enriched the legend, and Saint John Chrysostom (347–407), the Patriarch of Constantinople, was the first to write that Joseph was one of the Seventy Apostles appointed in Luke 10. [8]

During the late 12th century, Joseph became connected with the Arthurian cycle, appearing in them as the first keeper of the Holy Grail. This idea first appears in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain. This theme is elaborated upon in Boron's sequels and in subsequent Arthurian works penned by others. Later retellings of the story contend that Joseph of Arimathea himself travelled to Britain and became the first Christian bishop in the Isles, a claim Gigot charactierizes as a fable. [7][9]

History of the Legend itself

The 'Holy legend' first surfaced in print in the Grail romances of the early Middle Ages. There was a Romance from around 1200 called Joseph Of Arimatheia, depicting him and his followers (not the Church) as Keepers of the Grail, never reaching Britain but founder of a secret Order whose members in the "vale of Avaron" knew the "secret" of the Grail -- the words which will end the "enchantment of Britain." [1]

The High History Of The Holy Grail, alias Perlesvaus, of c1225 AD, and later Romances, even imply a dynasty from Joseph and Christ to Sir Galahad. [1]

Early writers do not connect Joseph to the arrival of Christianity in Britain, and the first literary source to place him in Britain appeared in the ninth century. [10]

The historicity of Joseph's presence in Glastonbury remains controversial, but the thorn is first mentioned in an early sixteenth-century metrical Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea. [3]

The anonymous author notes that the thorn was unusual in that it flowered twice in a year, once as normal on "old wood" in spring, and once on "new wood" (the current season's matured new growth) in the winter. This flowering of the Glastonbury thorn in mild weather just past midwinter was accounted miraculous. [11]

At the time of the adoption of the revised Gregorian calendar in Britain in 1752, the Gentleman's Magazine reported that curious visitors went to see whether the Glastonbury thorn kept to the Julian calendar or the new one: Glastonbury.—A vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn on Christmas-day, new style; but, to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, old style, when it blowed as usual. [12]

Joseph and founding of Christianity in Britaijn

Medieval interest in Joseph centered on two themes, that of Joseph as the founder of British Christianity (even before it had taken hold in Rome), and that of Joseph as the original guardian of the Holy Grail. [6]

Early writers do not connect Joseph to the founding of Christianity in Britain. Tertullian (AD 155–222) wrote in Adversus Judaeos that Britain had already received and accepted the Gospel in his lifetime, writing, "all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons—inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ." Tertullian does not say how the Gospel came to Britain before the year 222. [13]

Eusebius of Caesarea, (AD 260–340), one of the earliest and most comprehensive of church historians, wrote of Christ's disciples in Demonstratio Evangelica, saying that "some have crossed the Ocean and reached the Isles of Britain." [14]

Saint Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300–376) also wrote that the Apostles had built churches and that the Gospel had passed into Britain. [15]

The writings of Pseudo-Hippolytus include a list of the seventy disciples whom Jesus sent forth in Luke 10, one of which is Aristobulus of Romans 16:10, called "bishop of Britain".[16]

In none of these earliest references to Christianity’s arrival in Britain is Joseph of Arimathea mentioned.

William of Malmsbury

William of Malmesbury's De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae ("On the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury", circa 1125) has not survived in its original edition, and the stories involving Joseph of Arimathea are contained in subsequent editions that abound in interpolations placed by the Glastonbury monks "in order to increase the Abbey's prestige – and thus its pilgrim trade and prosperity" [17]

In his Gesta Regum Anglorum (History of The Kings of England, finished in 1125), William of Malmesbury wrote that Glastonbury Abbey was built by preachers sent by Pope Eleuterus to Britain, however also adding: "Moreover there are documents of no small credit, which have been discovered in certain places to the following effect: 'No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ erected the church of Glastonbury';" but here William did not explicitly link Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea, but instead emphasizes the possible role of Philip the Apostle: "if Philip, the Apostle, preached to the Gauls, as Freculphus relates in the fourth chapter of his second book, it may be believed that he also planted the word on this side of the channel also." [18]

Jesus too visits Britain

Sabine Baring-Gould recounted a Cornish story how "Joseph of Arimathea came in a boat to Cornwall, and brought the child Jesus with him, and the latter taught him how to extract the tin and purge it of its wolfram. This story possibly grew out of the fact that the Jews under the Angevin kings farmed the tin of Cornwall." [19] In its most developed version, Joseph, a tin merchant, visited Cornwall, accompanied by his nephew, the boy Jesus.

C.C. Dobson (1879–1960) made a case for the authenticity of the Glastonbury legenda.[20]

The case was argued more recently by Dr Gordon Strachan (1934–2010) [21] and by Dennis Price. [22]

Holy Grail

The legend that Joseph was given the responsibility of keeping the Holy Grail was the product of Robert de Boron, who essentially expanded upon stories from Acts of Pilate. In Boron's Joseph d'Arimathe, Joseph is imprisoned much as in the Acts, but it is the Grail that sustains him during his captivity. Upon his release he founds his company of followers, who take the Grail to Britain, though Joseph himself does not go. The origin of the association between Joseph and Britain is not entirely clear, though in subsequent romances such as Perlesvaus, Joseph himself travels to Britain, bringing relics with him. [6]

In the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, a vast Arthurian composition that took much from Robert, it is not Joseph but his son Josephus who is considered the primary holy man of Britain.[6]

John of Glastonbury assembled a chronicle of the history of Glastonbury Abbey around 1350 and wrote that Joseph, when he came to Britain, brought with him vessels containing the blood and sweat of Christ (without using the word Grail). [23]


This account inspired the future claims of the Grail, including the claim involving the Nanteos Cup on display in the museum in Aberystwyth. There is no reference to this tradition in ancient or medieval text. John of Glastonbury further claims that King Arthur was descended from Joseph, listing the following imaginative pedigree through King Arthur's mother: [23]

  1. Helaius, Nepos Joseph, Genuit Josus,
  2. Josue Genuit Aminadab,
  3. Aminadab Genuit
  4. Filium, qui Genuit
  5. Ygernam, de qua Rex Pen-Dragon, Genuit
  6. Nobilem et Famosum Regum Arthurum, per Quod Patet, Quod Rex Arthurus de Stirpe Joseph descendit.

Medieval interest in genealogy raised claims that Joseph was a relative of Jesus; specifically, Mary's uncle, or according to some genealogies, Joseph's uncle. A genealogy for the family of Joseph of Arimathea and the history of his further adventures in the east provide material for Holy Grail romances Estoire del Saint Graal, Perlesvaus, and the Queste del Saint Graal. [24]

Joseph, Anna, Beli Mawr and Belinos

Early Welsh Genealogies show us that most of the Early British Monarchies claimed descent in one way or another from Beli Mawr (the Great) who can be identified with the Celtic God, Belenos. However, in his mortal form, Beli was said to have been the husband of Anna, the daughter of St. Joseph of Arimathea. [25]

Apocryphal legend tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was the Virgin Mary's paternal uncle. After the resurrection, he left Palestine with Saints Philip, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene & others, and sailed through the Mediterranean to Southern France. Lazarus & Mary stayed in Marseilles, while the others travelled north. At the English Channel, St.Philip sent Joseph, with twelve disciples, to establish Christianity in the most far-flung corner of the Roman Empire. [25]

Joseph had been chosen for such a task, because he knew Britain well already. He was a merchant by trade and had conducted business with the Dumnonian tin-miners and Durotrigian lead-miners of Britain many times before. Some even say that he sometimes brought his nephew, Jesus, with him on these trading missions. Hence the words of Blake's famous hymn, Jerusalem: [25]

And did those feet, in ancient time, Walk upon England's mountains green?

West Country legend has it that Joseph sailed around Land's End and headed for what was to eventually become Glastonbury in Somerset. Here his boat ran ashore and, together with his followers, he climbed a nearby hill to survey the surrounding land. [25]

Having brought with him a staff grown from Christ's Holy Crown of Thorns, he thrust it into the ground and announced that he and his twelve companions were "Weary All". The thorn staff immediately took miraculous root, and it can be seen there still on Wearyall Hill. [25]

Joseph met with the local ruler and soon secured himself twelve hides of land at Glastonbury on which to build the first monastery in Britain. From here he became Britain's evangelist. So it is not surprising that the monarchies of that country wished to establish themselves as St. Joseph's descendants: especially considering the more pagan ancestors already claimed in their pedigrees. [25]

By marrying Joseph's daughter to a pre-Christian deity, the royal genealogists were able to show that Christianity had been victorious over the old pagan ways. But why specifically choose Beli Mawr as Anna's husband? [25]

Chronologically speaking, if Anna married a Briton after her father arrived in this country, then we must assume that she was nearer to Jesus' age than her cousin, Mary (ie. born c. 0). Beli is recorded in the Mabinogion and Welsh Genealogies as having been the father of Caswallon (or Cassivellaunus), the leader of the Celtic tribes who repelled Cæsar's invasions of 55 & 54 bc. He could, therefore, not possibly have married Anna of Arimathea. Moreover, the local ruler whom Joseph received his land gift from, is said to have been Arfyrag (or Arviragus), Beli & Anna's supposed great great grandson. [25]

In fact, here we have another case of pagan gods taking on the guise of Christian saints in order to smooth the path of conversion. For Celtic mythology tells us that Beli (or Belenos) did not marry a lady named Anna, but the great Celtic Goddess named Anu. Anu appears in the Celtic World under several names but they all stem from the same route: Anu, Danu, Dana, Don. She was a Mother-Goddess particularly associated with the founding and prosperity of Ireland. She was especially popular in Munster, though her most lasting memorial is a mountain in County Kerry called the "Breast of Anu" (Dá Chích Anann). St. Anne probably owes her popularity in Brittany to this goddess, as do the names of numerous St. Anne's Wells throughout Britain. [25]

However, the claims of the British Kings cannot be quite so easily dismissed. The Celtic God-King, Bran Fendigaid (the Blessed), who may or may not have been an early King of Siluria, is also often accredited with being the man to have brought Christianity to the British Isles. Unfortunately, this is due to a confusion with the historical Cunobelin (Arfyrag's father) who, though he died prior to the Roman Invasion of AD 43, was thought to have been taken captive to Rome where he became converted to Christianity. He appears to be the same figure as the Ancestral Fisher-King of Arthurian legend, Bron or Brons, said, in late legend, to have been given the Holy Grail by St. Joseph of Arimathea. This was, in reality Bran's magic cauldron of Celtic myth. Brons was also thought to have been a relative of St. Joseph: the husband of his sister, Enygeus. The mythical Bran was Beli Mawr's grandson: just the right age to marry St. Joseph's daughter; and Enygeus is a Latin form of Anna. Could Bran have been her husband? Was he blessed by his father-in-law? [25]

Impacts of Legends

Elizabeth I cited Joseph's missionary work in England when she told Roman Catholic bishops that the Church of England pre-dated the Roman Church in England. [26]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 The Glastonbury Legend - An Introduction Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  2. Salkeld, Luke (9 December 2010). "Vandals have hacked at the heart of Christianity: 2000-year-old Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury is cut down". Daily Mail Online. London. Retrieved 9 December 2010. Cited by Wikipedia. Wikipedia: Glastonbury Thorn Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Wikipedia: Glastonbury Thorn Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  4. "The Holy Thorn". Glastonbury Abbey. Retrieved 2016-01-13. Cited by Wikipedia. Wikipedia: Glastonbury Thorn Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  5. Walters, Cuming (1897). Bygone Somerset. London: William Andrews. pp. 48–52. Cited by Wikipedia. Wikipedia: Glastonbury Thorn Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Joseph of Arimathea". The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1910. Retrieved 13 Dec 2014. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  8. John Chrysostom, Homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of John. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  9. Finally, the story of the translation of the body of Joseph of Arimathea from Jerusalem to Moyenmonstre (Diocese of Toul) originated late and is unreliable." Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  10. Bodleian Library. "Manuscripts". "MS. Laud 108 of the Bodleian". University of Pennsylvania Medieval archive. Cited by Wikipedia: Glastonbury Thorn Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  11. "Part 5. Glastonbury Thorn". Albion Revisited. Archived from the original on 13 October 2008. Retrieved 17 April 2011. Cited by Wikipedia: Glastonbury Thorn Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  12. Gentleman's Magazine January 1753 Cited by Wikipedia: Glastonbury Thorn Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  13. Tertullian.org Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, Chap. VII. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  14. Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica, Book 3 Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  15. Hilary, Tract XIV, Psalm 8 Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  16. "Church Fathers: On the Apostles and Disciples (Pseudo-Hippolytus)". newadvent.org. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  17. Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England II, c. 1307 to the Present, page 399. Routledge, 1996; Reprinted 2000. ISBN 0-415-15125-2. Antonia Grandsen also cited William Wells Newell, "William of Malmesbury on the Antiquity of Glastonbury" in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, xviii (1903), pages 459–512; A. Gransden, "The Growth of the Glastonbury Traditions and Legends in the Twelfth Century" in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, xxvii (1976), page 342. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  18. William of Malmesbury, William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England: From the Earliest Period To The Reign of King Stephen, page 22 (notes and illustrations by J. A. Giles, London: Bell & Daldy, 1866). Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  19. S. Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being An Introduction To Devon and Cornwall (2 Volumes, Methuen Publishing, 1899); A Book of Cornwall, Second Edition 1902, New Edition, 1906, page 57. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  20. Dobson, Did Our Lord Visit Britain as they say in Cornwall and Somerset? (Glastonbury: Avalon Press) 1936. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  21. Gordon Strachan, Jesus The Master Builder: Druid Mysteries and The Dawn of Christianity (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1998). ISBN 9780863152757. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  22. Dennis Price, The Missing Years of Jesus: The Greatest Story Never Told (Hay House Publishing, 2009). ISBN 9781848500334. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  23. 23.0 23.1 Edward Donald Kennedy, "Visions of History: Robert de Boron and English Arthurian Chronicles" in, Norris J. Lacy, editor, The Fortunes of King Arthur, page 39 (D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, 2005). ISBN 1-84384-061-8. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  24. C. Scott Littleton, Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot: a radical reassessment of the legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail (1994) 2000:310. Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 25.6 25.7 25.8 25.9 David Nash Ford A Discussion of Joseph of Arimathea's Legendary Descent Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd
  26. "Elizabeth's 1559 reply to the Catholic bishops". fordham.edu.Cited by Wikipedia: Joseph of Arimathea Accessed May 2, 2018 jhd

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