While the monks of Glastonbury may have taken a vow of poverty and lived a life of abstinence and poverty, the abbot lived in a vastly different style. He had a magnificent house, as befitted the abbot of the second richest abbey in the country. And his kitchen needed to be able to cater to the many great visitors who came to the abbey. These even included Henry VII, for whom a special apartment was added to the house.
This is considered to be one of the best-preserved medieval kitchens in Europe. It has four great fireplaces, one in each corner, creating an octagonal interior layout. A central chimney is designed to ventilate the kitchen by drawing in fresh air while expelling smoke. Its high ceiling allowed the head chef to stand on a raised gallery to supervise the work of the rest of the cooks and servants as they prepared feasts worthy of their VIP guests.
Each fireplace had a separate function. One was for the roasting of meat on long iron spits; one had huge cauldrons in which to boil liquids; one was where was pastries were baked (there was a separate bakehouse for the large quantities of bread needed at the monastery); and the last had a drainage pit and water supply for washing up.
The monks had their own kitchen and dining room, and their diet was very plain. But the food served at the abbot’s table was far more elaborate. Archaeologists have found large numbers of fish bones here, and those of many birds (including wildfowl and waterfowl like snipe and ducks), plus pigs and sheep. On feast days, special meals and delicacies were cooked for the abbot and his guests. Accounts of 1538 tell us that on Lady Day the cook provided six salted salmon with sugar, pepper and saffron; on Easter Sunday six lambs and Easter eggs; and at Corpus Christi meat pasties, spices and malted barley.
Outside the building is supported by curved buttresses and along the roof’s edge are grotesque gargoyles.
Glastonbury Abbey had been founded in the 7th century on a site previously occupied by both Roman and Saxon settlements. It was enlarged in the 10th century and destroyed by a major fire in 1184, but subsequently rebuilt. By the 14th century, when this kitchen was built, it was one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England, eclipsed only by Westminster.
But like other such places in Britain it was dissolved by Henry VIII and fell into ruin. The kitchen survived in part because it was put to other uses, including as Quaker meeting house.
Of course there is more to the abbey than the kitchen, but none of it is as well-preserved. The ruins of the Great Church still stand tall in places; it is easy to imagine how impressive the building must once have been. In other places there are simply lines of stone in the grass, marking the foundations.
The Lady Chapel near the kitchen is somewhat more intact than the Great Church. Most of its walls still stand and it’s easier to visualise the original structure. Its walls would once have been painted in ochre, red, blue, green and white, with gold leaf details. Some traces of paint still remain around the carved arches. The abbey website says that the paintwork ‘almost certainly dates to 1184-99 – probably to 1184-89’.
Many myths have grown up around this abbey. In medieval times a Christian legend claimed that it had been founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the 1st century. Joseph was a follower of Christ who undertook his burial after his crucifixion. The legends tell how Joseph travelled to Britain, bringing with him the Holy Grail – the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. It is said that he pushed his staff into the ground while he lay down to sleep and it miraculously took root and became a leafy, flowering thorn tree.
Another probable myth is the claim that this is the burial place of King Arthur. True, in the centre of the Great Church a rectangle is marked out, with a sign identify it as the site of King Arthur’s tomb. It reads:
‘In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his queen were said to have been found on the south side of the Lady Chapel. On 19th April 1278 their remains were removed in the presence of king Edward I and Queen Eleanor to a black marble tomb on this site. This tomb survived until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.’
Today the authenticity of this find is disputed, with most historians suggesting that it was a publicity stunt undertaken to raise funds to repair the Abbey, which had been badly damaged by the fire of 1184. Nevertheless, the link with Arthur persists to this day and draws many to visit Glastonbury.
Social historians, however, will be much more attracted to the kitchen with its fascinating past.
When Dr B set a challenge on the theme of Kitchen I know he expected to see the inside of mine – ideally close-up shots of gadgets. But I confess myself uninspired by photographing household appliances and I don’t think my own kitchen is half as interesting as the Abbot’s, so I hope this deviation from the main theme will be accepted. Nevertheless it is with some trepidation that I am linking this post to that challenge as it really is way off-piste!
I last visited Glastonbury Abbey in 2020, when these photos were taken