Glastonbury Abbey Medieval Fayre is an annual history festival which takes place over two days each April. The fayre is a mixture of living history, family fun and gentle British eccentricity at its finest, all in the beautiful surroundings of this most venerable and picturesque of ancient sites.
The Abbey is at the heart of Glastonbury, that small Somerset town known to people across the globe as home to the world famous music festival. Few of them know however that the town is a fascinating place to visit in its own right, with a long and varied history which stretches back across the centuries, with its focus, the abbey, once one of the wealthiest and most influential in the country.
A Brief History of Glastonbury Abbey
The abbey dates back to at least the 7th century, although legend has it that it was founded in the 1st century by Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus who arranged his burial. It is also closely tied to the legend of King Arthur, when the monks of the 12th century declared they had found his bones and those of Guinevere buried in the abbey under a stone inscribed, 'Here lies Arthur, king'. The Holy Grail, the object of King Arthur's quest, is said to be buried under Glastonbury Tor, a hill with a stone monument which overlooks the abbey.
The abbey is not just the place of legends as it was also once one of the finest in the country, second only to Westminster. It held vast lands, huge wealth and pilgrims travelled from far and wide to visit, all of which was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.
Glastonbury Abbey today
The abbey grounds are truly beautiful and I think they may be the most picturesque ruins I have ever visited. Its not just the fact that the ruins are quite substantial, even three storeys in places, with the soft yellow stone standing out vividly against the fresh green grass and pale blue sky, it is that they have so much ornate detail left on the brickwork, elevating them beyond crumbling ruins to buildings you can clearly imagine as impressive, functioning hubs of the community.
You can see the ornamentation on the walls, arches and around the windows, the elements still clear even though the stone has mellowed over the years. The ruins of the Lady Chapel, built in the 12th century, have a magnificent doorway carved with sculptures from the Life of the Virgin Mary, intricate and finely detailed biblical scenes which are still obvious. They were described in the 13th century as 'stories of the most beautiful workmanship, omitting no possible ornament' and that still holds true today. The fact that you can still see the skill and detail centuries later is quite remarkable.
There are several buildings left of the ruins, as well as the outline of several more. The Lady Chapel still has its undercroft and crypt, including a holy well which is possibly Roman in origin. There is the Abbot's kitchen, a huge intact building with a fireplace in each corner, a complete 15th century chapel dedicated to St Patrick, a museum packed with information and artefacts, as well as the grave of King Arthur and the Holy Thorn. This is a specific type of hawthorn which unusually flowers twice a year, in Winter and Spring, and which is said to be grafted from the original holy thorn brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea.
The whole site is about 36 acres, filled with meadowland and hundreds of trees. Areas have been left to grow wild creating a profusion of spring growth; white cow parsley, purple bluebells intertwined with cleavers, the odd yellow primrose, the blue and purple of self-seeded lungwort. Even in April, before the trees have yet to burst into leaf, it is a beautiful sight. Narrow paths weave through the undergrowth, openings are cut through the trees where you can find a bench under a weeping willow looking out over a pond or rest in a quiet, shady clearing hidden from view.
Surrounding it all are thick stone walls, themselves Grade II listed. Peeping over the top you can see the roofs of nearby houses and the imposing tower of St John's Church in the town. In the distance are the curves of the Mendip Hills with the enigmatic Glastonbury Tor rising above them.
Glastonbury Abbey Medieval Fayre
This picturesque setting could not be more suitable for a Medieval Fayre, and the people of Glastonbury could not be better participants. Already a town known for their alternative dress sense and lifestyles, they embrace the invitation to dress in medieval costume, mixing their usual flower headdresses and pixie hats with wimples and billowing cloaks. The result is a colourful, joyful feast for the eyes.
The Fayre has a lot on offer. The main events are the performances; jousting, juggling, medieval music, archery displays, theatre shows, jesters and talks. The highlight was definitely the jousting, by the group Steamhorse, professional stunt riders who put on a highly entertaining display of medieval jousting and knight skills. With a funny compere, a slick script and some wonderful costumes and showmanship, they attracted huge crowds for their performances.
A fire-eating juggler kept crowds of kids laughing, a trio of medieval musicians had the audience singing along, and there was a fight between different factions of armoured soldiers which the commentator used as a way to teach people about the development of armour over the centuries, "this new lot in the later armour all sound like shopping trollies".
It's not just entertainment for the youngsters though, as I went to several talks which take place in a quiet tent away from the hubub, many by archaeologists and academics.
One talk I heard was by an archaeologist from the nearby Avalon Marshes, who talked about the famous Sweet Track found in the Somerset Levels, one of the earliest trackways ever found which dates from the Neolithic, a reminder of just how historically important this area of the country is.
There are plenty of activities for people to try, with kids and adults alike queuing up to try axe-throwing, archery skills, leather stamping and medieval croquet. Traders are intermingled across the site selling a huge variety of goods with food, mead, clothing, jewellery, blankets, Lewes Chessmen for your garden, leather goods, even animal skins, which were sold with the wonderful summons, 'Come and get your flat cows here'.
Alongside the activities and spread across the grounds you will find countless living historians. They set up their temporary homes, either pavilion style tents or a canvas shelter on poles, and lay out the tools of their trade. All are dressed in medieval attire to fit with their chosen time - 'medieval' covers many centuries - clothes and customs changed several times over the era and dedicated living historians ensure they are as accurate as possible to both time and place.
Living historians are a dedicated bunch devoting much time and energy to their craft, who like nothing better than imparting their enthusiasm of their subject. The depth of their knowledge is incredible and visitors wandering past will find themselves asking questions and getting stuck in to some really in depth conversations.
These historians form a sort of living tableau on this ancient site. When not talking to visitors they just go about their daily medieval lives; cooking, stitching leather, weaving, spinning, chopping firewood. Their kids run around in medieval dress playing at their mother's feet, learning how to grind flour on millstones or prepare a simple meal. I watched a man being dressed in his knight's armour, his squire helping him to put the clunky outfit on, a ritual that dates back across centuries.
Some of the living historians were sitting alone outside their tents, absorbed in their tasks. One man in a sea of colourful tents was completely focused on his stitching, oblivious to what was around him, another was in a far flung corner of the abbey grounds surrounded by trees, chopping wood with a calm intensity. At one tent was a woman just sitting completely still with a beatific smile on her face. They all gave off a strong sense of meditative purpose, relishing their journey back through time.
One of the most fascinating attractions of the Fayre is the visitors themselves. The locals are a quirky bunch anyway, but add the medieval aspect into the mix and you get a real visual treat. The authentic muted felts, canvas and weaves of the serious historians was enhanced by the dressing-up style outfits from some of the visitors, bright colourful velour gowns and headdresses from the ebay version of 'Ye Olde Englande'.
Mix this with their usual attire of floaty skirts, harem trousers, dreadlocks, clothes that jangle as you walk and top it all off with a flowing cloak, and the audience become just as fascinating as the event itself. By the end of the day I was quite used to being surrounded by people in capes and in fact I almost felt left out to not have my own to billow behind me in the occasional gusts that we had on that sunny day.
Everyone seemed so cheery, with family groups spreading out picnics on the grass, older people in folding chairs or resting on shooting sticks to watch the fun. Teenagers really entered into the spirit of things with lots dressed up, their blue hair, heavy eye make up and leather corsets adding a modern flavour to their smocks and tabards.
Groups of friends hung out chatting under the tall trees, almost hidden by the frothy cow parsley which danced around them, others took endless photos, posing in their outfits against the beautiful backdrop. A ‘priest’ in a habit and a pair of sturdy hi-tech walking boots walked his dog around the site, cloak streaming behind him. A woman in harem trousers and a trilby meditated under a tree in splendid isolation, others lay flat on the grass with eyes closed, faces upturned to the watery April sun. Kids ran around, leaping on and off the foundations or having endless battles with their new weaponry, the crack of wooden sword against wooden shield echoing around the site.
As the day drew on and the shadows grew longer, parents could be heard meeting resistance as they tried enticing their children to leave the fun and head home. I was in private agreement with the kids, it is a lovely place to spend time and I too was reluctant to call it a day.
It is a vibrant, educational and fascinating day out, and one I heartily recommend to anyone.
Visiting Glastonbury Abbey Medieval Fayre
The Fayre takes place over a weekend every April. Keep an eye on their website or sign up to their mailing list to be notified of the dates.
Glastonbury Abbey is open year round to visitors, every day from 10am - 6pm. You can book in advance or buy tickets on the door. Visit the Glastonbury Abbey website for further details >>