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Glastonbury Tor is a hill at Glastonbury, Somerset, England, which features the roofless St. Michael’s Tower. The site is managed by the National Trust. It has been designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Tor is a local word of Celtic origin meaning ‘rock outcropping’ or ‘hill’. The Tor has a striking location in the middle of a plain called the Summerland Meadows, part of the Somerset Levels. The plain is actually reclaimed fenland out of which the Tor once rose like an island, but now, with the surrounding flats, is a peninsula washed on three sides by the River Brue. The remains of Glastonbury Lake Village nearby were identified in 1892, showing that there was an Iron Age settlement about 300–200 BC on what was an easily defended island in the fens. Earthworks and Roman remains prove later occupation. The spot seems to have been called Ynys yr Afalon (meaning “The Isle of Avalon”) by the Britons, and it is believed by some to be the Avalon of Arthurian legend.
Some Neolithic flint tools recovered from the top of the Tor show that the site has been visited and perhaps occupied throughout human prehistory. Excavations on Glastonbury Tor, undertaken by a team led by Philip Rahtz between 1964 and 1966, revealed evidence of Dark Age occupation around the later medieval church of St. Michael: postholes, two hearths including a metalworker’s forge, two burialsoriented 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. 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 tide.
Remains of a 5th century fort have been found on the Tor. This was replaced by the medieval St. Michael’s church that remained until 1275. According to the British Geological Survey, an earthquake was recorded on 11 September 1275, which was felt in London, Canterbury and Wales and this quake destroyed the church. The quake was also reported to have destroyed many houses and churches in England, suggesting intensities greater than 7 MSK and an epicentre in the area around Portsmouth or Chichester, South England. It is possible that the shape of the tor led to a local amplification of the seismic waves where the church was situated.
A second church, built in the 1360s, survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when 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. The remains of St. Michael’s Tower were restored in modern times. It is a grade I listed building and is managed by the National Trust.
Mythology of Glastonbury Tor
The Tor has been associated with the name Avalon, and identified with King Arthur, since the alleged discovery of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s neatly labelled coffins in 1191, recounted by Gerald of Wales. Modern archaeology has revealed several sub-Roman structures.
With the 19th-century resurgence of interest in Celtic mythology, the Tor became associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, who was first Lord of the Underworld, and later King of the Fairies. The Tor came to be represented as an entrance to Annwn or Avalon, the land of the fairies.
The Legend of King Arthur – Locations & Activities