I will now endeavor to shew that it was also the Lady chapel of the Abbey church.
The common assertion that the Lady chapel of Glastonbury was on the north side of the choir of the great church is founded upon a sentence of Leland, who, after transcribing and noting in order the monuments and inscriptions in the transepts, choir, presbytery, and nave, concludes with, "In Capella S. Mariae, a Boreali parte Chori in Sacello, Joannes Biconel Miles et Elizabeth. Gul. Semar Miles in eadem Volta;1" that is to say, " In the chapel of St. Mary, on the north part of the choir, in a small chapel," are buried the persons indicated.
Now the "choir" in question has been assumed to mean the choir of the great church; consequently, the sentence would place the Lady chapel on the north part of the great church. But the word "choir" may mean the choir of the Lady chapel itself in which case, the persons indicated would be buried in a small sepulchral or chantry chapel on the north side of the choir of the Lady chapel, which I venture to say is the true interpretation, for it will appear as we proceed to be perfectly consistent with other evidence.2
The most complete testimony to the identity of this Norman chapel with the wicker church and the Lady chapel of the abbey, is obtained by comparing the narrative of William of Worcester's visit in 1480 with the tradition of the burial of Joseph of Arimathea here, which had gradually acquired such immense importance at the time of the Reformation, as I will first shew.
In Malmsbury's Chronicle the name of Joseph occurs but once, at the beginning, when he tells us that "St. Philip sent twelve disciples, over whom, as it is reported (ut ferunt), his dearest friend, Joseph of Arimathea, the same who buried our Lord, presided." Not another allusion is made to him, not even in the charter of St. Patrick, which contains a summary of the history of the mission; or in the list of the "various relics deposited at Glastonbury,"3 although that list begins with the "twelve disciples of St. Philip." Evidently Malmsbury attached no credence to the legend of Joseph, and it was not at that time put forth as one of the great glories of the abbey that Joseph was buried there. Adam de Domerham, the next chronicler, is equally silent on this subject, and we are thus carried to the end of the thirteenth century.
The belief that Joseph of Arimathea was really buried in the cemetery appears in the fourteenth century; when in 1345 J. Blome obtained a royal license "to seek within the boundary of the monastery of Glastonia for the body of Joseph of Arimathea," in consequence, as he asserts, of a divine injunction and revelation made to him. The license, dated June 10, 1345, permits him to dig within the precinct of the monastery for this purpose, provided that it be done without endangering the church and buildings, and also with consent of the abbot and convent. 4 This is the only record left of the project, but the chronicle of R. de Boston (p. 137), under the year 1367, states that the bodies of Joseph of Arimathea and his companions were found in this year at Glaston;5 a probable mistake for sought. These are at least indications of the growing tendency to encourage the belief in a tradition to which, as I have shewn, the earlier chronicles of the monastery attached but small credence. On the contrary, John of Glaston, their last historian, writing at the beginning of the fifteenth century, dwells upon this tradition and spares no pains to establish it.
The authority which John Glaston quotes in support of the actual burial of Joseph in the cemetery is an ancient British historian, named Melkin, who lived before Merlin, and wrote concerning the mission of St. Philip's disciples; that they died in succession, and were buried in the cemetery. " Amongst them Joseph of Marmore, named of Arimathea, receives perpetual sleep. And he lies in linea bifurcata near the south corner of the oratory, which is built of hurdles."6
It is worth remarking here that when Leland visited Glastonbury, about 1540, Abbot Whiting admitted him to the library of the monastery, in which be found a fragment of Melkin's history, Historiolam de rebus Britannicis: an author, as he tells us, entirely unknown to him. He read this fragment with great interest and pleasure, and found in it the very narrative quoted above. Doubtless the manuscript was the identical one employed by John of Glaston, whose chronicle was unknown to Leland. Melkin was placed by Leland in his catalogue of British writers7, and figures accordingly in the works of his copyists, Tanner, Gale, Pits, and others.
Leland gathered from the manuscript that the author was a Welshman and a Bard, and that he flourished about the year 550 A. D. ; that is to say, about five hundred years after the alleged burial of Joseph. He cannot therefore be considered as an authority in that matter, yet John of Glaston accepts his account unhesitatingly, and interpolates Joseph in the sentences which he copies from Malmsbury. To the list of the saints buried at Glastonbury he adds not only Joseph of Arimathea but also his son Josephes.8
This tradition not only brought a great accession of devotees and pilgrims to the abbey, but gave rise to an intense desire in all ranks of the people to be buried in or near the holy ground that was the resting-place of so many saints, for which privilege they gave immense gifts.
Church of the Blessed Mary at the end of the west door of the nave of the church
Now William of Worcester visited Glastonbury about 1478, and, according to his practice, gives us the particulars and measures of the whole church and its appendages. After surveying the choir and the nave he comes to the Lady chapel, which he describes in the following sentence:
"The length of the chapel of the Blessed Mary, which is conterminous with the west part of the door of the nave of the church, is 34 yards and its width is 8 yards, and on both sides there are large windows. And opposite the second window on the south there are in the cemetery two stone crosses hollowed, where the bones of King Arthur were buried, and where in linea bifurcata lies Joseph of Arimathea ".9
phrase, identical with that of Melkin and John of Glaston10
identifies the Lady chapel in which Worcester was standing with the traditional
site of the wicker church, while his exact description of the position
Lady chapel attached to the west end of the church,shews
that it was identical with the present chapel of St Joseph; and if more
evidence be required,
the coincidence of the dimensions will supply it. For Worcest er's measure gives 102 feet long by
24 broad, and the interior is actually 109 by 24 mean.
The length being measured from one end to the other also shews that when Worcester measured it, it was thrown into one apartment as at present.
After the Reformation, the ruins and history of Glastonbury occupy many writers. Camden, in his Britannia (1607), amongst other things, quotes from Giraldus the finding of King Arthur's tomb, but not a word of the state of the ruins, or of St. Joseph. But Hollar, in the first edition of the Monasticon, 1655, engraves views and a plan of the ruins, in which the western chapel is lettered Josephi sacellum. Mr .Ray, in his Itinerary, 1662, rode to Glastonbury, and "saw Joseph of Arimathea's Tomb and Chapel at the End of the Church, &c." p. 261.
Hearne gives an excellent anonymous History of Glastonbury, known however to have been written by Mr. Eyton, 1716, a Roman Catholic. He tells us that "St. Joseph's chapel was so called, not that it was dedicated to him, but because St. Joseph built it." p. 24.
Stukeley, in his Itinerary, p. 153, gives 'drawings and a plan, dated on the plate 17th Aug. 1723, and simply terms the chapel in question, "the chapel of Joseph of Arimathea, the patron and asserted founder of the whole. This they say was the first Christian church in Britain. The present work is about the third building, on the spot." It appears probable from this series of writers that the name of Joseph's chapel had been popularly fixed upon the Lady chapel even before the Reformation, and it has retained it to the present time, as a most curious record of the permanency of local superstition. But the memoranda of Leland and Worcester shew that the monks themselves termed it the chapel of St. Mary; and from all existing documents, it is manifest that the epithet "Saint" was not prefixed at Glastonbury to the name of Joseph of Arimathea until the 18th century. It first occurs in Mr. Eyton's history, as above, and is now always employed in the name of this remarkable building11.
In Spelman's Concilia, Vol. I. page 20, there is given the impression of an inscribed brass plate, which, as he relates, was dug up at Glastonbury, and came into his possession. The shape of the plate is an irregular octagon with a prolongation below, and from each side a little ear projects, with a hole through it, by means of which the plate was anciently riveted to a stone pillar, as the inscription testifies. The plate is covered by a Latin inscription in black letter, not later than the 14th century; and Spelman has printed this inscription from the plate itself, by using it as an engraver's plate. But as this reverses the letters of the inscription, he has also given a transfer from the impression on the opposite page, by which the inscription is presented as it appeared on the plate itself.
The inscription recites at length the visit of the first missionaries, with Joseph of Arimathea at their head, the miraculous dedication of the first church to the Virgin as revealed by the dream of St. David, and the addition which he made to the first church, which is said to have been like a chancel projecting eastward. It then proceeds as follows: " Lest the place and magnitude of the first church should by such augmentations be forgotten, this column was erected on a line passing through the two eastern angles of that church, and protracted southward, thus cutting off the aforesaid chancel. And the length of the church was 6o feet westward from that line. Its breadth 26 feet; and the distance from the centre of this column, to the middle point between the two said angles, is 48 feet." These dimensions are very nearly those of the Norman chapel itself. Its length inside is 55 feet, outside 64 feet, supposing its east wall standing. Its breadth inside is 24 feet 6 inches, and outside 32 feet 6 inches.
Evidently the plate was fixed to a stone pillar in the old cemetery of the monks, on the south of St. Joseph's chapel12, and was possibly a second edition of an older one that was perishing by age. The plate is now, I presume, lost.13 I describe it simply as offering an example of the care with which the monks fostered the traditions of their church, and presented them to the multitude.
The pillar is alluded to in the preface added to John Glaston's chronicle by a greatly subsequent writer14 , in which the early legends are summed up. The writer, after relating the addition of a chancel by St. David, adds,15 "And that the point where this chancel joined the church might be always known, a certain pyramid outside on the south, and a certain interior step within, on the same meridian line, marked the division between them. Near this line, according to certain ancient writers, lies St. Joseph with a great multitude of saints." This writer appears to confound the meridian line with the linea bifurcata.