It explores the legend behind the lines in Blake’s 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?
In the Middle-Ages it was widely believed Jesus came to England with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea (who took his body from the cross).
Cornwall had been trading in tin for 2,000 years before Christ. In the story, Joseph was a wealthy merchant who came to buy tin. Jesus accompanied him on trips to Cornwall, Somerset and Wiltshire during the years not mentioned in the Gospels; those between Jesus visiting to the Temple aged 11 and beginning his ministry around the age of 30.
There are places named after Jesus in Cornwall, like Jesus Well. Jesus is also mentioned in local songs and stories, such as he taught miners how to smelt tin from ore. According to one tradition Jesus lived in the Mendip village of Priddy. In another, he built a wooden church where Glastonbury Abbey now stands. The same tradition has it Joseph of Arimathea and his followers fled to this church after the crucifixion.
Other tales claim Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary, was the daughter of a British chieftain. This is a variation of the legend told about Constantine the Great’s mother. (He was the 1st Christian Emperor.) Arthurian legend has it Arthur was related to Joseph and thus to the Virgin Mary and Jesus, as Joseph was Mary’s uncle.
More recent stories claim a link between the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish sect from the Dead Sea, and the British Druids. They add Jesus came to Britain to study under them. This view seems based on Julius Caesar’s book the Gallic War where he says Britain was the centre of the druid religion and French druids came here to complete their education.
Place-names and folktales are hard to date. Historians believe the story of Jesus’ visits is later than the medieval legend of Joseph of Arimathea coming to Britain.
According to legend, when Joseph arrived on Wearyall Hill in sight of Glastonbury Tor, he stuck his walking staff in the ground and it sprouted becoming a hawthorn tree that flowered on Christmas Day. These trees still exist in Glastonbury and they do indeed flower around Christmas. Some claim this hawthorn originates from the Holy Land, but scientists have shown it is an ordinary native hawthorn, some of which flower twice a year.
In the legend the British High-king, Arviragus, was so impressed he gave Joseph twelve hides of land encompassing the Abbey grounds and the Tor. Some folklorists claim a letter from St Augustine (who brought Christianity to the Anglo Saxons in Kent around 600 AD) to Pope Gregory states there is an ancient church in Glastonbury built by Joseph of Arimathea. Unfortunately I can find no evidence of such a letter.
Joseph is said to have brought the Holy Grail and phials of Jesus’ blood and sweat. The cup used by Christ during the Last Supper also caught his blood when the centurion Longinus pierced his side with a lance during the crucifixion. The history of Longinus’ ‘Spear of Destiny’ is also fascinating; not least because Adolph Hitler was believed to possess it. Hitler was obsessed with the occult.
Joseph hid the Holy Grail either on Chalice Hill or in the Chalice Well, which runs between Chalice Hill and the Glastonbury Tor, causing the waters to run red like blood. The legend continues the Chalice Well’s water has the three properties of blood: it is red, it is warm, and it coagulates. The colour is due to the high percentage of dissolved iron oxide in the thermal chalybeate spring, which also accounts for the stains, like dried blood. Its waters are reputed to have healing properties.
The Chalice Well was sacred before the time of Christ. Neolithic arrowheads, called elf shot, were found in addition to the Roman and Medieval remains. Beneath the wellhead archaeologists discovered a chamber where ancient human sacrifice was performed, by locking in victims and letting them drown in the rising flood water.
Scholars believe the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend is a folk memory of the wonder-cauldrons of Celtic myth. According to the early Welsh poem the ‘Spoils of Annwn’, another magical cauldron belonging to the Lord of Annwn – the Cauldron of Inspiration – was kept on Glastonbury Tor. The pearl edged cauldron, which was gently warmed by the breath of nine maidens, bestowed the gifts of poetry and knowledge. King Arthur and his knights came to Glastonbury Tor to steal it. It is believed this story directly gave rise to the idea of the Holy Grail being located at Glastonbury.
The modern view is the monks of Glastonbury Abbey invented the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, along with King Arthur’s tomb, to generate income from pilgrims.