Introduction

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Victoria County History

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R. W. Dunning (editor), M.C. Siraut, A.T. Thacker, Elizabeth Williamson

Year published

2006

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1-2

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'Introduction', A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 9: Glastonbury and Street (2006), pp. I-II. URL: http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=117171 Date accessed: 24 October 2014.


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INTRODUCTION

The Tower of the chapel of St. Michael on Glastonbury Tor can be seen from great distances across central Somerset, but close at hand it dominates. It symbolises with great accuracy both the power of the religious community which built it and the revolution which brought that power to an end. The legends which associate the Tor with the Dark-Age Melwas, king of the summer country, and St. Patrick were part of a tradition which made the site a place of medieval pilgrimage. (fn. 1) The choice of the Tor as the place of execution of Abbot Whiting and two of his fellow monks was in 1539 a statement of political power; at the end of the 19th century it provided a focus for revived pilgrimage which continues in the 21st.

East, south, and west of the Tor is a landscape which formed the immediate heart of the Glastonbury abbey estate: the moors to the south of the Hartlake river which developed into the rich pastures of Hearty moor and Norwood park; the wooded landscape towards Pennard Hill, including West Bradley and North Wootton; and the Brue valley between Baltonsborough and Butleigh where moors contrast with the wooded ridge sheltering Compton Dundon beyond. Directly west is the broad valley of the Brue, in the Middle Ages dominated by large areas of moor whose value was proclaimed by regular disputes over rights to graze cattle and sheep, to catch fish and fowl, or to dig fuel.


FIG. 2. Glastonbury Tor from Sharpham Park, 1843

Until the dissolution of Glastonbury the surrounding manors provided the abbey with rent, produce, raw materials, and labour. Among specific produce were milk and cheese from several dairies, fish and fowl from the great mere at Meare, and grazing for the evermoving abbey sheep flocks. Raw materials included firewood from Baltonsborough and West Pennard, and stone from Street and possibly Walton. The vineyard at Glastonbury, the park at Pilton, and transport of men and goods all involved many individual labourers from onote idrs The abbey and its estate, giving employment to a significant group of specialist laymen in support of the religious community, created the town around the abbey precinct.


FIG. 3. View from Walton Hill to Dundon Beacon and Compton Dundon, c. 1920

That town, seen for a short time after the Dissolution as a possible cloth-making centre and, incidentally, also as a centre for continental Protestants, suffered from the consequences of the dismemberment of the abbey estate. By the 18th century it had achieved selfgovernment and a manufacturing base but was essentially a small market town dependent on a small and under-producing hinterland. In the 19th century improved communications first by canal and later by rail across the moors from the west improved marketing possibilities for those places along its route. Earlier the firm of C. & J. Clark of Street had harnessed the skills of local tanners and shoemakers beginning a business which in less than a century had international standing. Enlightened attitudes among successive generations of the Clark family combined with commerical acumen turned the village of Street and its adjoining hamlets into a significant town. In the 20th century Glastonbury came to represent heritage in contrast to the commerce of Street.

Footnotes

1 William of Malmesbury, Early History of Glastonbury, ed. J. Scott (1981), 24; John of Glastonbury, Chronicle, ed. J. P. Carley (1985), xxxix, 1, 59, 63–5; G. Ashe, Mythology of the British Isles (1990), 208, 210.