Glastonbury Tor is a hill near
Glastonbury in the English county of
Somerset, topped by the roofless St Michael's Tower, a Grade I listed
building. The whole site is managed by the National Trust, and has
been designated a scheduled monument.
The conical hill of clay and
Blue Lias rises from the
It was formed when surrounding softer deposits were eroded, leaving
the hard cap of sandstone exposed. The slopes of the hill are
terraced, but the method by which they were formed remains
unexplained. Artefacts from human visitation have been found, dating
Iron Age to Roman eras.
Several buildings were constructed on the summit during the Saxon and
early medieval periods; they have been interpreted as an early church
and monks' hermitage. The head of a wheel cross dating from the 10th
or 11th century has been recovered. The original wooden church was
destroyed by an earthquake in 1275, and the stone Church of St Michael
built on the site in the 14th century. Its tower remains, although it
has been restored and partially rebuilt several times. Archaeological
excavations during the 20th century sought to clarify the background
of the monument and church, but some aspects of their history remain
unexplained. The Tor is mentioned in Celtic mythology, particularly in
myths linked to King Arthur, and has a number of other enduring
mythological and spiritual associations.
2 Location and landscape
3.2 Christian settlement
4 Mythology and spirituality
5 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
The origin of the name "Glastonbury" is unclear, but when the
settlement was first recorded in the late 7th and early 8th centuries
it was called Glestingaburg. Of the latter name, Glestinga is
obscure, and may derive from an
Old English word or Celtic personal
name. It may derive from a person or kindred group named
Glast. The second half of the name, -burg, is Anglo-Saxon in origin
and could refer to either a fortified place such as a burh or, more
likely, a monastic enclosure.
Tor is an English word referring to a high rock or a hill, deriving
Old English torr.[note 1] The Celtic name of the Tor was
Ynys Wydryn, or sometimes Ynys Gutrin, meaning "Isle of Glass". At
this time the plain was flooded, the isle becoming a peninsula at low
Location and landscape
Glastonbury Tor viewed, above the mist, from Walton Hill
The Tor is in the middle of the Summerland Meadows, part of the
Somerset Levels, rising to an elevation of 518 feet
(158 m). The plain is reclaimed fen above which the Tor is
clearly visible for miles around. It has been described as an island
but actually sits at the western end of a peninsula washed on three
sides by the River Brue.
The Tor is formed from rocks dating from the early
namely varied layers of
Lias Group strata. The uppermost of these,
forming the Tor itself, are a succession of rocks assigned to the
Bridport Sand Formation. These rocks sit upon strata forming the
broader hill on which the Tor stands; the various layers of the Beacon
Limestone Formation and the Dyrham Formation. The Bridport
Sands have acted as a caprock protecting the lower layers from
erosion. The iron-rich waters of Chalice Well, a spring at the base of
the Tor, flow out as an artesian well impregnating the sandstone
around it with iron oxides that have reinforced it to produce the
caprock. Iron-rich but oxygen-poor water in the aquifer carries
dissolved iron (II) "ferrous" iron, but as the water surfaces and its
oxygen content rises, the oxidised iron (III) "ferric" iron drops out
as insoluble "rusty" oxides that bind to the surrounding stone,
The low-lying damp ground can produce a visual effect known as a Fata
Morgana when the Tor appears to rise out of the mist. This optical
phenomenon occurs because rays of light are strongly bent when they
pass through air layers of different temperatures in a steep thermal
inversion where an atmospheric duct has formed. The Italian term
Fata Morgana is derived from the name of Morgan le Fay, a powerful
sorceress in Arthurian legend.
Terraces on the Tor
The sides of the Tor have seven deep, roughly symmetrical terraces, or
lynchets. Their formation remains a mystery with many possible
explanations. They may have been formed as a result of natural
differentiation of the layers of Lias stone and clay used by farmers
Middle Ages as terraced hills to make ploughing for crops
easier. Author Nicholas Mann questions this theory. If agriculture
had been the reason for the creation of the terraces, it would be
expected that the effort would be concentrated on the south side,
where the sunny conditions would provide a good yield, but the
terraces are equally deep on the northern side, which would provide
little benefit. Additionally, none of the other slopes of the island
have been terraced, even though the more sheltered locations would
provide a greater return on the labour involved. Alternatively,
the flattened paths may have been created by the hooves of grazing
The last few yards of the walk up the Tor. The concrete path
encourages visitors to avoid the steeper, more direct, routes, and
thus minimises the possibility of erosion.
Other explanations have been suggested for the terraces, including the
construction of defensive ramparts.
Iron Age hill forts including
the nearby Cadbury Castle in
Somerset show evidence of extensive
fortification of their slopes. The normal form of ramparts is a bank
and ditch, but there is no evidence of this arrangement on the Tor.
South Cadbury, one of the most extensively fortified places in early
Britain, had three concentric rings of banks and ditches supporting an
18-hectare (44-acre) enclosure. By contrast, the Tor has seven rings
and very little space on top for the safekeeping of a community.
It has been suggested that a defensive function may have been linked
with Ponter's Ball Dyke, a linear earthwork about 1 kilometre
(0.62 mi) east of the Tor. It consists of an embankment
with a ditch on the east side. The purpose and provenance of the
dyke are unclear. It is possible that it was part of a longer
defensive barrier associated with New Ditch, three miles to the
south-west, which is built in a similar manner. It has been suggested
Ralegh Radford that it is part of a great Celtic sanctuary,
probably 3rd century BC, while others, including Philip Rahtz, date it
to the post-Roman period and link it to the Dark Age occupation on
Glastonbury Tor. The 1970 excavation suggests the 12th century or
later. The historian
Ronald Hutton also mentions the alternative
possibility that the terraces are the remains of a medieval "spiral
walkway" created for pilgrims to reach the church on the summit,
similar to that at Whitby Abbey.
Another suggestion is that the terraces are the remains of a
three-dimensional labyrinth, first proposed by Geoffrey Russell in
1968. He states that the classical labyrinth (Caerdroia), a design
found all over the
Neolithic world, can be easily transposed onto the
Tor, so that by walking around the terraces a person eventually
reaches the top in the same pattern. Evaluating this
hypothesis is not easy. A labyrinth would very likely place the
terraces in the
Neolithic era, but given the amount of occupation
since then, there may have been substantial modifications by farmers
and/or monks and conclusive excavations have not been carried out.
In a more recent book, Hutton writes that "the labyrinth does not seem
to be an ancient sacred structure".
Neolithic flint tools recovered from the top of the Tor show that
the site has been visited, perhaps with lasting occupation, since
prehistory. The nearby remains of
Glastonbury Lake Village were
identified at the site in 1892, which confirmed that there was an Iron
Age settlement in about 300–200 BC on what was an easily
defended island in the fens. There is no evidence of permanent
occupation of the Tor, but finds, including Roman pottery, do suggest
that it was visited on a regular basis.
Glastonbury Tor, undertaken by a team led by Philip
Rahtz between 1964 and 1966, revealed evidence of Dark Age
occupation during the 5th to 7th centuries around the later
medieval church of St. Michael. Finds included postholes, two hearths
including a metalworker's forge, two burials oriented north-south
(thus unlikely to be Christian), fragments of 6th century
Mediterranean amphorae (vases for wine or cooking oil), and a worn
hollow bronze head which may have topped a Saxon staff.
Ruin of St Michael's Church
This plate is fitted to the wall inside the Ruin of St Michael's
During the late Saxon and early medieval period there were at least
four buildings on the summit. The base of a stone cross demonstrates
Christian use of the site during this period and it may have been a
hermitage. The broken head of a wheel cross dated to the 10th or
11th centuries was found part way down the hill and may have been the
head of the cross that stood on the summit. The head of
the cross is now in the Museum of
Somerset in Taunton.
The earliest timber church, which was dedicated to St Michael, is
believed to have been constructed in the 11th or 12th century from
which post holes have since been identified. Associated monk
cells have also been identified.
St Michael's Church was destroyed by an earthquake on 11 September
1275. According to the British Geological Survey, the earthquake
was felt in London, Canterbury and Wales, and was reported to have
destroyed many houses and churches in England. The intensity of
shaking was greater than 7 MSK, with its epicentre in the area
Portsmouth or Chichester, South England.
A second church, also dedicated to St Michael, was built of local
sandstone in the 14th century by the Abbot Adam of Sodbury,
incorporating the foundations of the previous building. It included
stained glass and decorated floor tiles. There was also a portable
altar of Purbeck Marble; it is likely that the Monastery of St
Michael on the Tor was a daughter house of
Glastonbury Abbey. In 1243
Henry III granted a charter for a six-day fair at the site.
St Michael's Church survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries
in 1539 when, except for the tower, it was demolished. The Tor was
the place of execution where Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of
Glastonbury Abbey, was hanged, drawn and quartered along with two of
his monks, John Thorne and Roger James. The three-storey tower of
St Michael's Church survives. It has corner buttresses and
perpendicular bell openings. There is a sculptured tablet with an
image of an eagle below the parapet.
Interior of St Michael's Tower
In 1786, Richard Colt Hoare of
Stourhead bought the Tor and funded
repair of the tower in 1804, including the rebuilding of the
north-east corner. It was then passed on through several
generations to the Reverend George Neville and included in the
Butleigh Manor until the 20th century. It was then bought as a
memorial to a former Dean of Wells, Thomas Jex-Blake, who died in
National Trust took control of the Tor in 1933, but repairs were
delayed until after the Second World War. During the 1960s,
excavations identified cracks in the rock, suggesting the ground had
moved in the past. This, combined with wind erosion, started to expose
the footings of the tower, which were repaired with concrete. Erosion
caused by the feet of the increasing number of visitors was also a
problem and paths were laid to enable them to reach the summit without
damaging the terraces. After 2000, enhancements to the access and
repairs to the tower, including rebuilding of the parapet, were
carried out. These included the replacement of some of the masonry
damaged by earlier repairs with new stone from the Hadspen Quarry.
A model vaguely based on
Glastonbury Tor (albeit with a tree instead
of the tower) was incorporated into the opening ceremony of the 2012
Summer Olympics in London. As the athletes entered the stadium, their
flags were displayed on the terraces of the model.
Mythology and spirituality
The Tor seems to have been called Ynys yr Afalon (meaning "The Isle of
Avalon") by the Britons and is believed by some, including the 12th
and 13th century writer Gerald of Wales, to be the
Avalon of Arthurian
legend. The Tor has been associated with the name Avalon, and
identified with King Arthur, since the alleged discovery of his and
Queen Guinevere's neatly labelled coffins in 1191, recounted by Gerald
of Wales. Author
Christopher L. Hodapp asserts in his book The
Templar Code for Dummies that
Glastonbury Tor is one of the possible
locations of the Holy Grail, because it is close to the monastery that
housed the Nanteos Cup.
With the 19th century resurgence of interest in Celtic mythology, the
Tor became associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, the first Lord of the
Otherworld (Annwn) and later King of the Fairies. The Tor came
to be represented as an entrance to
Annwn or to Avalon, the land of
the fairies. The tor is supposedly a gateway into "The Land Of The
A persistent myth of more recent origin is that of the Glastonbury
Zodiac, a purported astrological zodiac of gargantuan proportions
said to have been carved into the land along ancient hedgerows and
trackways, in which the Tor forms part of the figure representing
Aquarius. The theory was first put forward in 1927 by Katherine
Maltwood, an artist with an interest in the occult, who
thought the zodiac was constructed approximately 5,000 years ago.
But the vast majority of the land said by Maltwood to be covered by
the zodiac was under several feet of water at the proposed time of its
construction, and many of the features such as field boundaries
and roads are recent.
The tor and other sites in
Glastonbury have also been significant in
Goddess worship, with the flow from the
Chalice Well representing
menstrual flow and the tor being seen as either a breast or the whole
figure of the Goddess. This has been celebrated with an effigy of the
Goddess leading an annual procession up the Tor.
List of hill forts and ancient settlements in Somerset
National Trust properties in Somerset
^ Tor is often considered to have a Celtic etymology, but the Oxford
English Dictionary lists no match in Cornish or Breton; the nearest
Celtic word is the Welsh tẁr, from the
Old Welsh tẁrr. The Old
English torr is likely cognate with the
Scottish Gaelic tòrr.
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