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.
Tor is a local word of Celtic origin meaning 'conical 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 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 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 by the Britons, and it is believed to be the Avalon of Arthurian legend.
The slopes of the Tor appear to be quite regularly terraced. Some believe that this formation is the remains of an ancient, perhaps Neolithic, sacred labyrinth.
Others attribute the terraces to natural ruts formed everywhere on grassy slopes by generations of grazing animals, which are slow to disappear if the grass cover is left undisturbed. The generally accepted explanation is terracing for farming, possibly by medieval monks. Even after the wetlands were drained by the Monks of Glastonbury Abbey via their vast network of drainage canals, the risk of flooding on the plain meant that farm land was at a premium for anything other than grazing cattle.
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 burials oriented north-south (thus unlikely to be Christian), fragments of 6th century Mediterranean amphorae (for wine or oil), and a worn hollow bronze head which may have topped a Saxon staff.
The Celtic name of the Tor was "Ynys Witrin," 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's, an earthquake was recorded on 11 September 1275 which was felt in London, Canterbury and Wales and this quake was what destroyed the church of St. Michael, Glastonbury Tor.
The quake is reported to have destroyed many houses and churches in England. It is suggested that the quake had a magnitude of well over 7 MSK and it is possible that the epicentre of the quake was in the area around Portsmouth or Chichester, South England.
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 Whyting 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.
The site of the fair held at the foot of the Tor is embodied in the traditional name of "Fair Field" given to an agricultural enclosure, the enclosures in the local landscape dating from the 18th century.
The Tor has been associated with the name Avalon, and identified, since the alleged discovery of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere's neatly labelled coffins in 1191, with the legendary hero King Arthur. Modern archaeology has revealed a fort, dated to the 5th century.
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.
A persistent myth of more modern origin is that of the Glastonbury Zodiac, an astrological zodiac of gargantuan proportions said to have been carved into the land along ancient hedgerows and trackways. 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. The vast majority of the land said to be covered by the zodiac was, at the proposed time of its construction, under several feet of water.
Christopher Hodapp asserts in his book The Templar Code For Dummies that Glastonbury Tor is one of the possible locations of the Holy Grail. This is because it is the location of the monastery that housed the Nanteos Cup.
Another speculation is that the Tor was reshaped into a spiral maze for use in religious ritual, incorporating the myth that the Tor was the location of the underworld king's spiral castle.
The seven deep, roughly symmetrical terraces are one of the Tor's enduring mysteries. A number of possible explanations for them have been put forward:
- Agriculture — many cultures, not least the British farmers of the Middle Ages have terraced hills to make ploughing for crops easier. Mann, however, observes that 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, however it may be seen that the terraces are equally deep on the north, where there would be 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.
- Cattle grazing — over long periods of time, cattle grazing can cause terraces to develop, but these are usually of a much smaller size than those observed at Glastonbury and also tend to run parallel to the contours of the hill. In some places, the terraces of Glastonbury are quite steep and it is difficult to point to other hills with comparable patterns of livestock-induced erosion.
- Defensive ramparts — Other Iron Age hill forts in the area show evidence of extensive fortification of the slopes of hills, (for example, South Cadbury Castle). However, the normal form of these ramparts is that of a bank and ditch and on the Tor, there is no evidence of this arrangement. Additionally, South Cadbury, as one of the most extensively fortified places in early Britain had three concentric rings of banks and ditches supporting an 18 hectare enclosure. By contrast, the Tor has seven rings and very little space on top for the safekeeping of a community, making it a strange thing indeed to have spent so much effort to have gained so little.
- Labyrinth — Professor Rahtz felt that the theory that the Tor terraces formed the remains of a three dimensional labyrinth was "well worth consideration" (in Mann, 1993). The theory, first put forward by Geoffrey Russell in 1968, 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 one 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 (Rahtz, in Mann, 1993), but given the amount of occupation since then, there may have been substantial modifications by farmer and/or monks and conclusive excavations have not been carried out.
The Tor consists of layers of clay and blue lias
strata (Jurassic sandstone) with a cap of hard midford sandstone
, whose resistance to erosion compared to the lower layers is responsible for its height. The iron
-rich waters of Chalice Well
, a spring
, have been flowing out as an artesian well for millions of years, impregnating the sandstone round it with iron oxides
that have reinforced it. 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 oxidized Iron (III) "ferric" iron
drops out as insoluble "rusty" oxides that bind to the surrounding stone, hardening it. As the surrounding soft sandstone has eroded away, Glastonbury Tor has slowly been revealed.
Glastonbury Tor has been used in various fictional works. Some examples are given below:
- In the science fiction television series Stargate SG-1, hidden beneath Glastonbury Tor is a secret chamber of King Arthur and Merlin; Merlin, according to the show, was actually a member of a race known as the Ancients (or the Alterans) ("Avalon").
- In Camelot 3000 Arthur is buried (and resurrected) in a tomb found in the tower. In a later issue, the knights revisit the place to claim the Holy Grail from the Fisher King
- Conquests of Camelot, a 1989 computer game released by Sierra On-Line based on the Arthurian Legends about the Holy Grail, features Glastonbury Tor as one of the possible locations of the Grail.
- In the science fiction novel series Area 51, this is the site of the Hall of Records for the Watchers, who monitor the war between the Arlia.
- The third instalment of the Broken Sword series of computer games sees Glastonbury Tor as the centre of the Earth's ley lines and site of the emergence of an evil power. It is also the scene for the end battle between George and a dragon.
- In the second and third deliveries of the trilogy by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Lady of Avalon and The Mists of Avalon, Glastonbury of the Monks is the area where the Isle of Avalon is located, separated from the real world by magical mists, and governed by priestesses that descend from a royal line of ancients. In Avalon, instead of a church, at the top of the Tor there is an ancient stone circle, probably similar to the one in Avebury or Stanton Drew.
- It was featured on the 2005 TV programme Seven Natural Wonders as one of the wonders of the West Country.
- In Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy, Glastonbury Tor (called Ynys Wydryn) is the home and fortress of the Druid Merlin. The protagonist, Derfel Cadarn, was raised on the Tor. In The Winter King the Tor is raided and sacked by Gundleus, the warlord of Siluria, while Merlin is away.
- In the popular teenage fiction series Ally's World by author Karen McCombie, the titular character's younger brother is named Tor after Glastonbury Tor, where his parents visited whilst his mum was pregnant.
- "Glastonbury: Alternative Histories", in Ronald Hutton, Witches, Druids and King Arthur
- 'Glastonbury Tor — A guide to the history and legends', Mann, Nicholas R., 1993, Triskele publications, Butleigh, Somerset. ISBN 0-9510682-1-0
- 'Glastonbury', Philip Rahtz, English Heritage/Batsford 1993, ISBN 0-7134-68661