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Joseph of Arimathea

William Blake's dramatic poem 'Jerusalem' familiar nowadays as an inspirational hymn, draws on the myth that Christ himself may have visited Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea and 'walked on England's mountains green'.

The Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy follower of Christ who buried Christ's body in his own tomb after the Crucifixion.

In the Middle Ages Joseph became connected with the Arthurian romances of Britain. He first features in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, written in the twelfth century, as the Keeper of the Holy Grail. He receives the Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper) from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain.

Later Arthurian legends elaborated this story and introduced the idea that Joseph himself travelled to Britain, bringing the Holy Grail with him and then burying it in a secret place, said to have been just below the Tor at the entrance to the underworld. The spring at what is known as Chalice Well is believed to flow from there. In their quests King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table searched for the Grail.

Various strands of the myth are set around Glastonbury Abbey. When Joseph arrived in Britain he is said to have landed on the island of Avalon and climbed up to Wearyall Hill (sometimes called Wirral Hill). Exhausted, he thrust his staff into the ground and rested. By morning his staff had taken root (see the Holy Thorn). With his twelve followers he established the first monastery at Glastonbury and built the first wattle church; in one version of the story Christ himself travelled with Joseph from the Holy Land and helped in the building work. Finally it was believed that Joseph had been buried somewhere at the abbey.

In the later Middle Ages the story of the abbey's foundation by Joseph was of great significance as this was the basis of its claim to be the oldest religious community and abbey in the country. Abbot Chinnock (1375-1420) did much to promote the cult and from his time Joseph seems to have become a major object of pilgrimage.

To accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims, a great crypt was excavated below the Lady Chapel and Galilee in the time of Abbot Bere (abbot from 1495-1525). This incorporated the older well which stood on the south side of the Lady Chapel and provided an entire new church below the old Lady Chapel where pilgrims could worship and where prestigious people could be buried. In the vault ribs of the crypt can still be seen numerous holes which probably held the votive offerings made by the pilgrims to the altar of St Joseph.

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