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History and legends of Glastonbury Tor

View of the tower on the hill in the distance at Glastobury Tor, Somerset
Distant view of Glastonbury Tor | © National Trust Images / James Dobson

Many wonderous tales have been told about Glastonbury Tor through the ages, partly due to its status as a spiritual magnet for centuries for both Pagans and Christians. Although these tales may have become blended and embellished throughout the years, leaving the truth mostly lost, the legends and structures that exist today can still help us to explore the history of this famous hill.

Legends of the Tor

It's said that beneath the hill there's a hidden cave through which you can pass into the fairy realm of Annwn. There dwells Gwyn ab Nudd, the lord of the Celtic underworld, with the Cauldron of Rebirth.

Later tradition has it that the Holy Grail lies here, brought by Jesus’ uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. The Cauldron and the Grail were both the object of quests for King Arthur and his knights.

Two walkers reach the top of Glastonbury Tor and St Michael's Tower at the top, on a sunny day in Somerset
Reaching St Michael's Tower at Glastonbury Tor | © National Trust Images / Andrew Baskott

The Isle of Avalon

Glastonbury has a long tradition of being ‘The Isle of Avalon’ where King Arthur went after his last battle. The monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found his grave in 1191.

Jesus is said to have come to Glastonbury as a boy, travelling here with Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a tin merchant and had travelled to England's south west for this valuable metal. This legend inspired William Blake to write the famous poem ‘Jerusalem’:

'And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?'

Evening sun setting over the countryside of Glastonbury Tor, Somerset with the tower in the distance
Evening sun at Glastonbury Tor | © National Trust Images / Emma Weston

A lonely tower

It seems odd to think that this tower has not always stood on the Tor. It's all that remains of the 14th-century church of St Michael. It replaced a church destroyed by an earthquake, before that the Romans made use of this hilltop.

Though now only a tower, there are carvings that survive to give some idea of how it was decorated. One of the carvings is of St Bridget milking a cow.

The English Reformation

During the English Reformation, when Glastonbury Abbey was suppressed, the tower was witness to a grisly scene. The last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Richard Whiting, was hung, drawn and quartered here along with two of his monks in 1539.

Hill of mystery

The hill rises 158 metres (518 foot) above the surrounding flat land and rewards those on the top with a fine 360-degree view. The distinctive shape is due to a combination of the unusual geology and the artificial terraces.

The rock mysteriously causes the two nearly adjacent red and white springs below the tor to run with different waters. The origins of these seven terraces are uncertain. Were they built for growing vines or ploughing? Or did they form a sacred labyrinth for pilgrims? On your next visit why not see what you make of them.

Arthurian legend

Legend has it that King Arthur and his knights of the round table visited Glastonbury Tor. Find out what they were looking for and what was found in Glastonbury Abbey in 1191 on your visit.

A view towards Glastonbury Tor on a sunny day

Discover more at Glastonbury

Find out how to get to Glastonbury Tor, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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View up the steps towards the roofless St Michael's Tower at Glastonbury Tor

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