In the south west of England, Glastonbury Tor is visible for miles all around, rising up like an island out of the surrounding flat and marshy lands of the Somerset Levels. St Michael’s Tower stands on the top of Tor, and on this spot – in 1539 – Henry V111 had the last Abott of Glastonbury Abbey hung, drawn and quartered.
A holy spot since pre-history, the site still draws pilgrims and seekers of all kinds. At Easter, Buddhists were chanting in the shelter of the roofless tower while others played drums and pipes on the exposed and windy top of the Tor.
Legend has it that the Tor is the last resting place of England’s fabled King Arthur and his consort Queen Guinevere. Medieval chronicler Gerald of Wales wrote that:
‘What is now known as Glastonbury was, in ancient times, called the Isle of Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is called Ynys Afallach, which means the Island of Apples and this fruit once grew in great abundance.’
Victorian painters the pre-Raphaelites were much taken with Arthurian legend, which inspired some of the movement’s finest work.This painting by Frank William Warwick Topham shows the mythical journey of Arthur and sorceress Morgan le Fay to the Isle of Avalon.
This voyage was described by Gerald of Wales. ‘After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, later the ruler and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the district had also been called Ynys Gutrin in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name ‘Glastingebury’.
Edward Coley Burne-Jones spent nearly 20 years in the late 19th century working on his epic painting of The Last Sleep of Arthur. The painting became his own personal Isle of Avalon; he wrote ‘I need nothing but my hands and my brain to fashion myself a world to live in that nothing can disturb. In my own land I am king of it.’
The curator of the recent major pre-Raphaelite exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery wrote that ‘Burne-Jones’s world was a world of fairy, a dim, refuge where maidens of a haunting loveliness wander by quiet mill-ponds and dark woods, or sleep, hemmed in by thick briars, with knights slumbering at their feet.’
Scholars credit the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson with inspiring the fascination of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with Arthurian legend. His poem the Lady of Shalott, about a woman who may not look directly at the world but can only view it reflected in a mirror, is the subject of a number of paintings.
This one by John William Waterhouse is one of my favourites.
But when the Lady of Shallot sees the knight Sir Lancelot riding by – she stops her weaving and looks through the window – with disastrous consequences.
Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
- The Lady of Shalott.
She is borne away to her death by the broad stream.
No knights in armour ride there now, no ladies can be glimpsed at their looms through castle windows. But the view from the Tor on a chilly afternoon in late March still has a certain magic.
More on the recent pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain here.
More on Glastonbury Tor here.
Full text of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shallot here.