DOM AELRED WATKIN
IT was the last of more than a thousand Christmas feasts, but there was little to show that this one marked the end of so long a line, for Glastonbury gave the impression of immemorial stability on that Wednesday at the shutting-in of the year 1538. Around it lay the winter landscape : the level moors with their long straight dykes of chill water fringed with pollarded willows and alder-canals that marked the toil of the great farming abbots of past centuries : behind it rose
Dominating the small town which clustered between the marshes and the hills Were the three towers of the abbey church with their peal of twelve bells, and nearby the lesser towers of St. John the Baptist and of St. Ben:gnus down to the bell-cotes of the almshouses of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Patrick.
Glastonbury in 1538 was a town of hells. of cottages, of great roofs, of smoke going up into the December air-smoke, blue from the oak logs brought from Sharpham Park, grey-blue from the peat so richly harvested on the moors and dark from the coal mined in the abbey pit at Mells wood.
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IN the abbey itself all was
movement and bustle. The church had been cleaned and brushed, while the lichen had been scraped from the outside walls, fresh mats had been laid down in the choir, the hell-wheels had been greased and the ringers provided with new ropes. the laundress had washed albs and repaired surplices. special incense had been fetched from Bristol the previous week and the tomb of King Arthur in the centre of the choir with its enamelled and coloured heraldry bad been polished.
All was ready for the festival.
MATTINS of Christmas began at about 10.30 on Christmas Eve with the ringing of the peal in the general tower. As the psalms and responses were sting in the choir, helped by the treble voices of the boys under their singing master, James Renynger, the lights of the many candles, burning by the gift of past benefactors before various altars, would have shown the dim outlines of the building. The church, longer than any building in Europe save for old St. Paul's and the abbey church of Cluny, stretched from the Lady Chapel at the west to the yet unfinished fan vault of the Edgar chapel to the east. This Lady Chapel stood on the site of the wattle-church of immemorial antiquity; beneath it was a dim crypt lit by dozens of lamps burning before the image of St. Joseph of Aramathea, and in it was a statue of Our Lady wearing a rosary of pure gold given by Queen Philippa on her royal visit in the fourteenth century.
Eastwards stretched the nave simply vaulted, terminating under the tower with the choir screen fronted with painted and gilded statues and the royal tombs of Edgar, Edmund the Elder and Edmund Ironside.
Then came the choir with its perpendicular panelling and elaborate vault, so like the choir of Gloucester, ending with Abbot Monyton's vast east window and carved and coloured reredos.
Around the church were the tombs of early Saxon kings ot C'adwalia and of Kentwine the reliquaries filled with bones of Breton and Saxon saints and the little Renaissance chapel of Our Lady ot Loreto put up by Abbot Bere three decades before.
AS Mattins ended Abbot Whiting sang the solemn genealogy of Our Lord from St. Matthew's Gospel, with its own peculiar complex and majestic melody.
Doubtless he wore the great abbatial ring of a cameo surrounded by seven sapphires and seven rubies, and the best mitre, with its jewels and silver plate embroidered with the Crucifixion, Our Lady and SS. Katherine and Margaret.
For the Midnight Mass the vestments were probably the richest set of dark blue silk adorned with gold dragons and trees, with its accompanying four copes and eight albs, while the altar was decked with a gold frontal displaying the Majesty of Our Lord in the centre surrounded by pictures of Adam and Eve in Paradise.
Even when Midnight Mass had been followed by Lauds and Lauds by silence, the church was not long left empty in the December night.
First came the chantry priests, " the clerks of St. Nicholas," secular priests who lived in a house nearby, to say the foundation Masses at the various side-altars; then came the old women from the neighbouring alms-house of St. Patrick, wearing cloaks of black " burnett" embroidered with the arms of St. Joseph of Aramathea, to sing the offices of Our Lady in the Lady Chapel.
I hen the bells began again for the monks to sing Prime and the Dawn Mass, a service which ended in the Chapter-house where the Abbot, sitting about the tombs of generations of his predecessors, gave his usual Christmas sermon.
YET despite the imposing time
lessness of Glastonbury there were signs apparent even on that Christmas Day which would indicate coming changes to an acute observer.
Henry VIII's visitors had been at Glastonbury three years before and had. left behind them a lengthy set of " Injunctions," most of which were valuable aids to discipline but several of which aimed at putting obstacles in the customary working of the monastery.
Many of the younger monks were restless for " learning " and were sceptical about the authenticity of the numerous relics venerated with devotion by their elders.
At a visitation six months later they were to complain that their elders kept them from the library and obtained " the great cut of meat whilst their juniors get the least," and the seniors remarked that the young monks refused to listen to them " when they would give them good counsel." In fact there was a clear division in the community between the juniors-including two of the future martyrs-who wished for all extra devotions to be curtailed for purposes of study. and their elders. who viewed with distrust this lack of enthusiasm for pious practices in which they found their spiritual fulfilment.
THE Abbot, Richard Whiting,
seems to have aged beyond his years and appears to have disliked intensely these disputes. He tended to support the younger brethren, but ineffectively and we hear that the Prior could always talk him around and that " the Prior doth often alter the Abbot's mind touching learning."
Abbot Whiting was, however, little interested in affairs and was accustomed to spend a good deal of his time away from Glastonbury, and even when at home was wont to sit long hours in the sun of the walled herb garden to the south of the monastic buildings.
Here he meditated perhaps his youth in the Mendip uplands near Wriogton or pondered the day, over forty years before, when he was raised to the priesthood by the Bishop of '(epos in the intricate fanvaulted chapel at Wells. which opened off the cloisters there and which was always filled with the splash of falling water from the great springs of St. Andrew nearby. Within a few years both this chapel and Glastonbury would be in ruins.
NEVERTHELESS, save to the most acute and informed observer, Glastonbury at Christmas 1538 appeared as durable as the Doulting stone of which it was built.
Everything went on as usual. The singing boys of the abbey with their clavicords gave their Christmas concert in the Abbot's hall, that hall of oak and gilded angels hung with tapestries showing the arms of the English kings and the exploits of King Arthur, now decked with evergreen for the occasion at the cost of 6s. 8d.
For the community, Thomas Chypper, the cook, and his nine assistants had received 2s. 3d. for garnishing• the boar's head for the Christmas dinner, and the monk responsible for the kitchen had provided calves' feet for soup, sucking pig, raisins and gihger and above all a special dish called a " lyre," whose ingredient included pepper and saffron and which was adorned with elaborate decorations of coloured was.
At the Almonry there was a stream of wayfarers receiving the howls of soup distributed to them on this day by the benefaction of Abbot William of St. Vigor, who had assigned estates for this purpose a few years. after the scaling of Magna Carta; while from the four chimneys of the Abbot's kitchen the smoke showed where the cooks were at work preparing for the table of the Abbot and his guests the oddlymingled boars, capons and salmon which had customarily been presented by the community to the Abbot at Christmas since the days when King Stephen's brother had ruled the monastery.
SO evening came on and the bells which had rung for Nigh Mass and Vespers now sounded for Compline.
With the onset of night the winter landscape faded as the mist gathered over the limitless moor and the sun set over the hills of Wales across the Severn.
Glastonbury's last Christmas was over, Yet. though the hedges stood leafless and the boughs chilled and hare, on Wirral Hill, above the fields where centuries before the Irish had so loved to dwell, the Glastonbury thorn was in full blossom, glowing in the nightfall white as a bride.