Sacred Wonders Of Britain (2013) s01e03 Episode Script

Episode 3

The annual procession through the streets of St Abans in Hertfordshire has all the hallmarks of a modern-day carnival.
But the townsfolk are marking something else - an act of sacrifice that happened here in the Roman town 1,800 years ago.
They are remembering Alban - a Roman centurion, who came from a sophisticated world of mosaic floors and central heating.
And into his own home he took a fugitive priest and gave him shelter and sanctuary there.
And, in fact, was so moved by the man's story that he himself converted to Christianity.
But this new religion was undercover and banned in the Roman Empire.
When the authorities came to take the priest, Alban swapped his clothes with him and offered himself up instead, and for this act of bravery, he paid with his life, becoming Britain's first Christian martyr.
When the Romans departed, their empire threatened, the new religion disappeared from view.
It was only centuries later that Alban became a saint.
And today's great cathedral remains powerful proof that he wasn't forgotten.
He may have been Britain's first Christian martyr, but he certainly wasn't the last.
Many more saints would be created during the complex battle for supremacy between a growing state and a growing church.
In this series, I'm setting out in search of the Sacred Wonders Of Britain.
From the end of the Ice Age through to the Reformation of the 16th century, I'll be discovering how Britain's rich and varied landscape inspired our ancestors to express their beliefs by reshaping the world around them.
My journey so far has revealed the ancient and ever-changing sacred face of Britain, just below the surface of the modern world.
In this film, I'll be seeing how Christianity adapted the beliefs of ancient times, and just as the new religion had a man at its centre, so would a new generation of sacred wonders.
I'll be discovering why the medieval church created its own heroes - the saints and martyrs - and how their shrines became centres of power, great enough to vie with the power of kings themselves .
and inspiring the construction of some of our very greatest buildings.
This was an era that lasted for a thousand years, until one king brought much of it crashing down.
After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, a blanket of darkness fell on these islands.
There's an information blackout.
For two centuries, a jumbled tribal world of pagan gods and druids disappears entirely from view.
But in the 6th century, the light began to shine again.
Something happened in a most unexpected place.
My first sacred wonder is a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland - Iona.
I'm pulled there because something remarkable emerged here that has drawn people ever since.
I've made the crossing from Mull to Iona several times, but there's a feeling I get, both on the crossing and on the island, that I don't get anywhere else in Britain.
It's got a known history going back one and a half millennia, and for the longest time, it seems that it's been special.
When you land on Iona, you immediately sense its ancient history.
The great restored medieval abbey dominates an island only three miles long.
Outside are the mysterious stone crosses that have been standing here for 1,200 years or more, beckoning generations of pilgrims from far and wide.
Inside, among the finely carved corbelling, are the weather-worn remnants of a very stately past.
It was to this place that some 48 early Scottish kings are traditionally said to have been brought for consecrated burial, including Shakespeare's blood-soaked 11th-century king Macbeth and his victim, Duncan.
They were taken over an ancient track - the Road of the Dead - to their final resting places in St Oran's graveyard.
But why here? Why did kings choose to be buried in such a remote location? To find an answer, I'm going further back in time to the Dark Ages and a lonely beach on the wild southwest of the island for one of the most celebrated arrivals in British history.
This is the bay that is known as The Bay Of The Coracles, and it's where, in 563, Columba landed with a party of his fellow monks after a long sea voyage in an open boat - a coracle made from wicker and stretched ox hide - and they had travelled all the way from Northern Ireland.
The legend everybody loves is that St Columba was a pious Christian monk, whose mission was to build a monastery and start the job of converting the violent heathens of Scotland.
But that's not the whole story, it seems most likely that Columba was an Irish prince of the Kingdom Of Dalriada, which in the 6th century took in a vast swathe of territory - Antrim in Northern Ireland, the Western Isles and parts of West Scotland.
Without Columba, you don't get Iona's story.
What was really started here was an interdependence between ruler and church, which would last for a thousand years.
And it all begins within the clan - the 6th-century tribal family.
Next to Iona Abbey is the site of the monastery that Columba built.
I'm meeting Dr Ian Bradley to find out about the royal connections that got him started.
What I believe is actually that he was invited over here by the King of Dalriada.
Columba was very high born.
If he hadn't been a monk, he might well have ended up as the high king of Ireland.
What's in it for the king to import a fire-breathing Christian? A huge amount - he gets legitimation for his rule, he gets the full backing of the church.
The church gets land, it gets endowments It's a wonderful mutual relationship.
And we're gradually seeing in this period a transition from this violent anarchic society to a much more ordered, settled rule of law.
What would Columba's religious settlement have looked like? It would have been very different from anything we see here now.
Now, we the great stone Benedictine Abbey, restored, of course, in the 20th century, so the first thing we've got to do is erase all this wonderful site in front of us.
There was nothing permanent about Columba's early settlement here - a church and communal meeting house, surrounded by perhaps a dozen or so cells for the monks to sleep in.
All this would be enclosed by the monastery's boundary - the vallum.
We're standing, as it were, at the edge of the compound here.
And we can see the vallum, or the ditch.
Now, that was delineating the sacred space.
In the vallum, you can see the continuity with the sacred spaces of older times.
Just like the stone circles and earth embankments of prehistory I've seen, the vallum here would contain elements of the new other world and isolate them from the outside.
The sacred enclosure may even have been laid out before the monastery itself was built.
This was a sacred place where the law of God prevailed rather than the law of man.
So for example, you were completely safe here, and many people would come here for sanctuary.
There would have been the little wooden church, where the monks would have gone five times during the day and three times during the night to chant the psalms.
If you look at the Rule of Columba, it says the measure of your prayer should be till the tears come, the measure of your daily labour should be until you're sweating.
So it's very tough, it's a very tough kind of Christianity, very difficult for us to get into today.
But in the context of people living very short lives, living pretty violent lives, someone who is saying there is a better world, there is Heaven and, in a sense, this is the way you can achieve that world, through living according to these rules, is, I suppose, in a way, very attractive.
Virtually everything that Columba and the first monks built here has vanished.
But as an archaeologist, I've learned to look beneath the surface for clues.
One of the many fascinating details about Iona is the survival in the landscape of Gaelic place names, particularly in the case of sites and locations associated with the monks - The Hermit's Cell, The Bay of the Coracles and according to the map, somewhere just down here that I've always wanted to see called the Bay of the Ruins.
This is an intriguing little spot.
There's various bumps on this quite flat terrace that overlooks the sea.
What we're looking at now, there's no reason why it couldn't be from the time of the early monks' habitation of this island.
And it's by coming to a site like this that you're able to burrow down, away from that Benedictine Abbey and get to the reality of life for those religious fanatics of the 500s and the 600s, men who were looking for the hardest places they could find to enhance their understanding of creation.
The monks were hard-working men.
They would have to be just to survive.
They would farm, they'd be fishing, they'd keep animals, maybe some sheep.
And on these outlying islands, there would be seals, so the monks could go out and harvest that for meat as well, and for the skins and the oil.
We think of monks with those bald spots on the tops of their heads, shaved in, but the monks here had a different style - they shaved their heads from the top to the front and then grew their hair long at the back.
They'd have been very striking.
And they wore robes of un-died wool.
They'd have maybe hoods as well so they could get some sort of protection from the elements.
But then you've got Columba, who's taking austerity to another level almost.
His reputation is for sleeping on stone slabs with a rock for a pillow.
He is Mr Austerity.
They don't come any harder than him.
The incredible thing about the ethos of Columba was that it was formulated not by monks in Ireland, but much farther afield.
Irish monasticism really derives from the desert monasticism of Egypt and Sinai and Palestine in the third and fourth centuries, which is a reaction against the perceived corruption of the Church.
The desert fathers move progressively into the desert with this very acetic, austere lifestyle.
And this is what the Irish monks are really emulating.
It's a truly exotic plant that is moved from the heat of eastern Africa and planted here of all places.
In the Far West.
Yes, it is.
I mean, there are, of course, these extraordinary connections between the Far East of Christianity and the Far West.
We know that Egyptian monks land up in Ireland in the 5th century, so I think one text resonates from the Bible with these Irish monks, which is God's words to Abraham in Genesis - "Go out from your family and your kindred and your land "to a far land which I will show you.
" In the centuries to come, Iona's monks would go far and wide - converting all Scotland.
And Columba would be made into a saint.
His grave became a shrine, a magnet for Scottish kings as a route to Heaven.
We will never know whether all 48 kings were buried here.
But kings like Macbeth, as Shakespeare tells us in his play, knew this island in their own language as Colm Cille, St Columba's Island, when they were drawn here.
And it's a place that continues to draw us all.
If you were a wandering monk in search of some spot from which to contemplate the perfection of creation, well, here you are.
Some of those early Christians had to take the message to the ends of the earth, but if you stumbled across a place like this on your journey, you might well be stopped in your tracksand forever.
On Iona, on an evening like this, you could persuade yourself that you had found everything you'd ever want, everything you'd ever need.
But the saints would soon occupy a place not on the fringes .
but at the very centre of medieval Christian life.
This is Durham Cathedral, the mighty house of God built by the Normans.
And right here, under this canopy, are the bones of its founder, a man who went to the ends of the Earth in death as much as in life.
So important was this man, St Cuthbert, to medieval English Christians, that his banner was flown at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 in hope of success against the Scots.
And this year, one of the world's most hallowed books made its way north from the vaults of the British library to be back in its spiritual home, next to the saint who inspired it.
But the epic story of how Cuthbert and this book came to be linked to this place all begins on Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland.
In its own right, it is regarded as one of the iconic landscapes of Britain, well known for its distinctive castle and treacherous tides that can cut off the unwary traveller.
I'm taking the old pilgrim route, a safe path across the sands at low tide.
The first monk, Aidan, actually came here in 634 AD to convert the Saxons at the invitation of their king.
Now, we don't know for certain whether Aidan came here first of all by boat or by land, but it seems pretty certain that he was looking for a new Iona, because that's where he was from.
And when he caught sight of Lindisfarne from here, he probably thought he was onto something.
And he was.
You can't dispute the windswept beauty of the place.
And the ruins of the Norman Priory still have a romantic, mysterious quality.
But I'm here to find out how, back in the 8th century, Lindisfarne produced one of the medieval world's greatest books and a saint the North would call its own.
Somewhere in the vicinity of these ruins, probably quite close to the parish church, would have been a timber-framed building with a thatched roof - a scriptorium - and I like to think that it was in there that one of the great marvels of medieval literature was created 1,300 years ago.
It's the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Books were rare, magical new inventions, and only the monks had them.
They could tell stories not just in words, but in vivid, exquisite imagery - a combination that held immense missionary power.
The Lindisfarne Gospels are the earliest surviving British collection of the first four books of the New Testament - the story of the life of Jesus.
Even in modern times, there's a copy kept in the parish church.
What do you think books, by definition, would have meant to a population who largely couldn't read? I think they were seen as a treasure house.
And that, in a sense, is the reason you've got all this wonderful decoration.
Here was the Gospel, the great story of Jesus, and even if you couldn't read it, obviously there are some pictures in it.
The saints who wrote it are depicted.
All through the book, there are animals everywhere you look.
This is all to do with the tradition of celebrating creation.
So here we've got St John and his eagle, And then on these pages here, all the borders around the sort of central cross are decorated with these wonderful, fantastical birds and things.
It's all birds - feathered wings, birds' heads and beaks snapping each other's tails, feathers That's right.
Would they have communicated something to people beyond the words? I think probably an expression both of completion and eternity, but always there's a mistake on every page because they all realised that this isn't Heaven, and therefore there had to be a mistake.
Perfection is for God.
But this extraordinary book was also written in memory of a man who is indelibly linked to this island - Cuthbert, the sixth Bishop of Lindisfarne.
His perfect life and journey inspired this epic work.
How long would it take? Given that this is all done by hand.
How many hours and days? It's going to be years because we can see from the script that it is the work of one person.
And it's very much a spiritual discipline.
It's someone engaging in prayer.
And it's something that Cuthbert himself would have understood, that you go away to pray, to be with God and to be fighting for good and for fighting against evil.
That's it, the B has a little curve backwards.
It's not a straight spine.
Under the eye of Dominic James, a modern-day scribe, I'm briefly trying my hand at this kind of devotional meditation.
I think possibly, as you are busy writing, you'll find that you get some sort of feeling of being with the letters.
It's a very therapeutic activity.
What would you do if you're working like this and you're a long way into some illuminated piece, and you make a mistake? Mistakes traditionally happen in the last line.
If you made a mistake, you'd practise a few new words, verbally.
NEIL LAUGHS The best thing is to leave it, give it 24 hours maybe, and then scrape it with a knife.
One monk wrote, "If you do not know how to write, "you will consider it no hardship, "but if you want a detailed account of it, "let me tell you that the work is heavy, "it make the eyes misty, "bows the back, crushes the ribs and belly, "brings pain to the kidneys and makes the body ache all over.
" That's a hangover.
How are you feeling, Neil? THEY LAUGH I've had that, but it wasn't from writing! Cuthbert had risen quickly to become Bishop and head of the monastery that Aidan had founded here on Lindisfarne.
As a young monk, he had been noticed for his intuition and his ability to heal which made him hugely popular with the Saxons he was converting.
But at this time, there were other missionaries coming into England and they were bringing hierarchy and central control from the Pope in Rome.
Cuthbert and his monks had to bow to the new rules.
The Celtic Church in England was slowly dying.
Many of the monks of the Celtic faith retreated to Iona, but Cuthbert remained on Lindisfarne with some of his followers.
Increasingly though, even monastic life felt too crowded for him.
And so he withdrew, first of all to this little islet and eventually to Inner Farne way out there.
It is out here that the intertwined birds and mammals in the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels come to life.
Raw creation is all around you in a great noisy chorus.
How could you ignore it ? This is where Cuthbert spent much of the rest of his life - in solitary prayer, the foundation for his future sainthood.
Cuthbert came here to do battle with demons.
Hermits and anchorites occupied a special and heroic place in medieval Christian life.
Such men and women had given up everything so that they could pray continuously for the good of all mankind.
To them, islands like this were battlegrounds populated by devils and malign spirits.
They weren't drawn here by our modern notions of serenity and romance.
When he died, the monks took their bishop's body back across the sea to Lindisfarne for burial.
But this is the point at which Cuthbert's afterlife as a saint really begins.
It was the custom for holy men like Cuthbert to be buried for only long enough for the flesh of their bodies to dissolve into the soil, and then the bones would be dug up and washed and wrapped in linen for pilgrims to touch and to revere.
But when, 11 years after his death, Cuthbert was exhumed, his body was found to be completely intact, still fleshed, the joints still flexible.
Now, this was interpreted as a sure sign of his perfect holiness, and Lindisfarne was quickly established as a shrine.
A new saint was being born, but the local pilgrims wouldn't have long to enjoy him.
Things were beginning to change for Lindisfarne.
The foothold of Christianity in the north of Britain was always tenuous in the Middle Ages.
In the turbulent years of the 9th century, there were fresh invasions of Britain, and these incomers weren't Saxons, they came from that direction.
They were Vikings from the north, and they brought their own gods.
In the face of sustained attacks, the monks had no option but to leave.
They gathered their most precious possessions - including the Lindisfarne Gospels, and fled the island.
But they also took their revered leader.
Cuthbert's coffin, containing the still uncorrupted body of the saint, was loaded onto a cart.
And then they hit the road, for an incredible seven years.
We don't know exactly know where the monks went on their wanderings from Lindisfarne.
The venerable Bede, writing in the 8th century, has them crossing the Pennines all the way to Workington in Cumbria and then on to the Solway Firth.
but the journey has been remembered in the local place names.
Not far from Holy Island, there is a rocky outcrop called St Cuthbert's Cave, where the monks are said to have sought refuge with their precious cargo.
Look at these lots of little .
hand-made crosses.
So people are still coming in here with something on their minds.
It's tempting to see this cave as a refuge, a temporary resting place, for heavily laden wandering monks, but truth is, we'll never know.
But the folk history of early Church is written into the landscape here, it's in the place names.
There's a another St Cuthbert's cave in the Cheviots.
Down towards Rothbury, there's a lake.
There's always a hill or a well or a glade or a loch that's dedicated to the memory of some monk or saint.
And the places have been sacred for a long time.
They may well have been sacred in their own right even before the monks and saints arrived.
If you consider the various beliefs practised in Britain over 6,000 years or more, you can see that the Christian imprint has been the biggest.
It had the power to transform the landscape.
When the monks reached a place where the cart bearing Cuthbert's coffin refused to move any further, they built a church.
And in time it became the mighty cathedral of Durham.
And St Cuthbert's relics were right at its spiritual heart.
And it was in this way that sacred places were established throughout Europe, through the deeds of, and the memory of, holy men like Cuthbert, who joined the ranks of the Virgin Mary and the apostles as objects of reverence, and just as Christ had healed, so too would the relics of the saints.
In the south-east of England is a revered city that has been the centre of English Christianity for 1,400 years.
Canterbury In medieval times, Canterbury was already the centre of English Catholicism.
But millions of pilgrims would be drawn here, to a man whose story of martyrdom spread all over the Christian world.
I'm here to see how this saint was used as a weapon, and how a new sacred wonder grew up around him.
Canterbury's reputation had grown steadily through the Middle Ages since its first church, St Martin's, the oldest in England, had been converted from a Roman temple and used by the missionary St Augustine when he came here as early as 597 AD.
But six centuries later, that cathedral over there witnessed the climax of a titanic struggle for power and supremacy between two men - one, the Pope's representative in England, Archbishop Thomas Becket, the other, King Henry II.
Its outcome was to catapult Canterbury cathedral into a stratospheric level of fame.
It was here on 29th December 1170 that Thomas Becket was killed, murdered by four of Henry II's knights.
They chased him, then cut him down with a fusillade of blows from their swords.
An eyewitness said, "The ravening wolves threw themselves upon the pious pastor.
"Most pitiless executioners of the Lord's anointed.
" They cut off the consecrated crown of his head with their swords and as he lay on the ground, they smashed his brains across the floor.
It was one of the most famous murders in all of history.
This act was the culmination of years of tension between the King and Beckett, his former friend, as to who would have ultimate control in the affairs of the Church.
But what I'm interested in is how quickly, and why, the Church made Becket into a saint.
Within hours of his death, the monks here had scraped up his blood and he'd been declared a martyr.
I'm with Anne Duggan, an expert on Becket.
It's such a grizzly story to our modern ears.
The idea of collecting the blood, it's so morbid.
At the time I think it was seen as an echo of collecting the blood of Christ.
You have to, I think, understand that in Christianity the blood of Christ was regarded as one of the most powerful redeeming features of his sacrifice.
Becket's blood was looked at in similar ways.
It too could act as a curative and tiny droplets of the blood were put into a bowl of water and that sort of tincture of water and blood was what was offered to the sick people.
That's St Thomas' water.
And that is St Thomas' water.
By being murdered in the way that he was, I suppose Becket himself became the ultimate weapon that the Church could use against the state and the king.
The church certainly propagated the image of Becket as a hero defending right, a hero defending the liberty of the Church, the liberty of the Church against an aggressive king.
So Canterbury quite suddenly became the epicentre for vast numbers of pilgrims, drawn by the extraordinary happenings in the vicinity of Becket's tomb.
Look at these.
These are the stained-glass windows, the miracle windows of the Trinity Chapel, and each of them depicts one of the many, many miracles that were reported at the shrine of Thomas Becket.
One of my favourites is just over here.
The bottom four panels here depict the miracle of the forester.
You can see that he's encountered a band of poachers and he's been shot right through the throat with an arrow.
Up here, he's drinking St Thomas's water, water blessed by proximity to the saint and to the shrine.
He makes a full recovery and here he is in the bottom panel, praying and giving thanks at the shrine of Thomas Becket.
And the green box on top of the shrine is a money box.
All donations gratefully received! Pilgrims came from all over the country and they headed straight down into the crypt to see the tomb of the saint himself.
In the league table of saints.
as it were, where did Becket rank? In England he was number one by a long shot.
He outranked every single saint in England, I think partly because he was a real man and there were enough people who knew him to propagate the image of their kind of Becket.
For example, in 1420, we know that at least a 100,000 people came through Canterbury, praying and saying thanks.
What kind of people would go on that trail at the time? Virtually everybody, it was one of the most inclusive social events that ever happened which is precisely why, when Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, he chose a pilgrimage to Canterbury as an image of English society.
Virtually everybody was on it, from millers, to a prioress, to a married lady and the kings of England who went regularly.
So although Becket was in heaven, his mortal remains were still imbued with a very physical power.
That was what was believed most certainly.
You touch the tomb, you almost touch Becket, touching Becket, you touch the man in heaven.
That man in heaven prayed directly to God.
So he was a source of a direct conduit and that's true, I think, of all relics.
and even the fake relics, for the believer, had the same consequence.
Because underlying it is not the physicality, it's the belief in a supernatural reality.
And these places are gateways to heaven.
Canterbury had created a mega saint and it took full advantage of its creation.
A pilgrim visiting here would be offered just about every kind of amulet or charm, bits of bone with miraculous powers, locks of hair, vials of holy water.
And along with all this, the pilgrims had to be fed and sheltered.
This is the Eastbridge Hospital, one of the original pilgrims' hostels, and this place was for the poor, not those who could afford better lodgings.
Probably been sleeping rough during their journey to get to Canterbury.
They'd hand over fourpence and be allocated space in one of these cubicles in here, maybe two, three to a berth.
And after all their journeying, they could finally lie down on a thick bed of rushes maybe and contemplate all that had happened.
This really is one of relatively few places left where you can get any sense of the surroundings that were experienced by those 12th and 13th century pilgrims.
And this space that I'm in now is fundamentally the space that they were in then.
For 350 years, Canterbury made its living from Chaucer's pilgrims.
The soaring Gothic stonework of the 14th-century Cathedral nave was created with the money from their visits to Beckets shrine.
This was vast economic activity devoted solely to the glory of God and the gateway to Heaven grew ever higher.
I do love the idea that we've done this since the first great stones were raised at Avebury 5,000 years ago, and that the same impulse can be seen today.
Becket's tomb and shrine had been moved in 1220 from the crypt to pride of place in the Trinity chapel.
And his cult grew ever greater.
Surely no commoner ever enjoyed such reverence.
Then along came a king who was prepared to tackle the power of the Church head on, regardless of its armoury of excommunication and hell and damnation.
He declared himself the supreme leader of the Church.
And with his lineage at stake, it was a risk worth taking, and there was also the prospect of untold wealth.
When Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church his first act was the destruction of the saints' shrines and their contents, in order that these powerful weapons of the Church might not become a focal point for rebellion and resistance.
Becket's tomb was smashed to pieces.
Every fragment was destroyed.
Henry VIII's new reformed Church would still have Canterbury as its premier see, and nowadays the cathedral is of course the worldwide centre of the Anglican faith.
But you can't erase the foundation of any sacred place that easily.
There's something that not many people know about.
In a small parish church just yards from the cathedral there's a remnant of what it was that put this place on the map.
'In a side chapel at the Catholic Church of St Thomas the Martyr 'is an altar in which there are two tiny caskets.
'One contains a fragment of Thomas Becket's finger bone.
' Imagine that.
From the very man.
'The other a piece of his burial shroud.
' That's a piece of the cloth he was wearing when he was martyred and buried.
'The story goes that back in 1220, 'when Becket's tomb was being moved from the cathedral crypt, 'two visiting Italian cardinals managed to secure these fragments 'and take them to monasteries in Europe.
'Seven and a half centuries later 'they still exercise their spiritual power.
' What do you think personally when you see these objects, these relics? I see a man of great faith, a man who was prepared to stand for what he believed in.
It gives you a perspective on your own faith as well.
Relics have always been a part of the sacred life of the Church.
Henry VIII's Reformation wrecked the sacred history of medieval Britain.
Churches had their shrines obliterated and their stained-glass windows broken.
Abbeys and monasteries were sacked and stripped of their wealth.
One place was singled out for the most savage treatment of all.
In the west of England there's an ancient town that has lured many of us for generations.
I'm ending my tour of Britain's sacred wonders here in Glastonbury, because it is the symbolic power of the Tor, the hill at its heart, and the tower that sits on it, that brings together the deep strands of belief we've practised through the millennia.
Today this small Somerset town has a welcoming reputation as a centre for people practising all kinds of contemporary spirituality, and not just in a Christian sense.
But during the Reformation Glastonbury was a place of terror and despair.
On the 15th November 1539, Richard Whiting, the pious octogenarian abbot of Glastonbury, was hauled through the streets of that town and then dragged up onto that hill behind me, Glastonbury Tor, for execution.
On the tower of the Church of St Michael he was hanged with two of his monks in a grisly parody of the Crucifixion.
I can't help thinking that the horror of it all was partly inspired by fear and suspicion - fear about the great depth of history here.
Glastonbury had the oldest and most powerful claims of all - that it was the birthplace of Christianity in England, and that its greatest saint was a man who many had come to believe was the great-uncle of Jesus, who had brought with him the Holy Grail, the cup of everlasting life.
The story begins in 1184, when the original Benedictine abbey here burnt down in a disastrous fire, destroying the monks' most precious relics.
When they set about building a new one, help came in the form of a stupendous discovery.
While some of the monks were digging the foundations for a new abbey they came across a tomb.
In fact what they found was a stone, a carved block.
Underneath was a leaden cross, but inscribed on the surface quite clearly was, "Hic iacet inclitus Arturius in Insula Avalonia.
" "Here lies Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.
" A few feet below that, an ancient oak coffin with two skeletons inside, one a man, one a woman.
That would be the sixth-century English king Arthur and his queen, Guinevere.
This was a great PR coup for the monks and their monastery.
For people in the medieval period, Arthur was always real - the original wise king, furious in battle, just in word and deed.
Pilgrims started to flock to Glastonbury.
The place was on the map.
What I love about the story is that around the same time the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury on the other side of the country was also becoming popular with pilgrims.
But there was no stopping the rise of Glastonbury and a few decades later, in 1278, Edward I came here with his queen to witness the reinterment of Arthur's bones, right here.
But that's not all.
The whole basis of the King Arthur story is built on an even older legend, and it's this.
Just two decades after Christ's crucifixion, St Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury from Palestine.
Joseph of Arimathea is a big figure in biblical history.
He was reputedly the great-uncle of Jesus Christ, and the man who donated the tomb in which Christ's body was laid after the Crucifixion.
Joseph was also the keeper of one of the greatest icons in Christian mythology.
With him, he's supposed to have brought the Holy Grail - the cup that was used at the Last Supper and also the vessel used to collect the sweat and blood of Jesus.
He's then said to have buried it for safekeeping somewhere at the base of the Tor.
So out there somewhere.
The upshot of all this is that Glastonbury has been able to claim it's here that Christianity first arrived in England.
All of this would seem to be ludicrously far-fetched, except when you look at Glastonbury in a different way.
All that land down there used to be water.
Glastonbury was once an island in an inland sea.
I'm meeting historian Ronald Hutton, to see if there's any truth at all in the legends.
Are the stories told here the invention of monks seeking validity? They could be, or they could be true, - you take your choice.
In what sense could they possibly be true? 2,000 years ago, this bunch of hills are almost an island.
Every winter the marshes around flood completely and over there is the sea, the Bristol Channel.
We know there's a powerful coasting trade up and down western Europe in the Iron Age which links into the Mediterranean, so it's entirely possible that somebody from Palestine could have got here to Glastonbury around that time.
But there's absolutely no evidence of it.
If the message that is being preached is so strong in its own right, why do the monks there need to augment it with fancy? Because they're in competition.
And in Glastonbury in particular there's a crying need.
It's not until after the great fire in 1184 where we hear about Arthur in connection with Glastonbury, and once you've got Arthur you find you've got to have Joseph, because there is a new bestseller spreading across Europe by Robert de Boron, a French writer, which says that Joseph of Arimathea went to the Isle of Avalon.
Now, the Isle of Avalon's already established as the place to which Arthur was taken, so once you claim to have Arthur, as the monks are now doing, you've got to have Joseph as well.
Is it just about, then, monks creating foundation myths for the satisfaction of their congregation? There's certainly a bit about monks creating myths, to put their abbey on the international map, but also there is faith involved.
Because pilgrims reinforce faith, the belief in your monastery as being a holy site, according to the medieval mentality, actually makes it more holy.
God takes more notice of you and therefore the people around you, so a monastery like a powerhouse of sanctity is in theory good for the whole county around it.
The crops will be better, the people healthier, life better because God is smiling.
I've learnt enough on my journey to realise that legends don't spring from nowhere.
I like to believe there are some essential truths hidden in all of these sacred places.
My favourite is the miraculous tree that's supposed to have appeared when Joseph arrived here.
Joseph landed somewhere down there at the foot of the hill, walked up here and immediately on arrival planted his staff into the ground, and it magically transformed into a thorn bush that flowers at Easter and on Christmas Day and in fact a cutting of the blossom is sent to the Queen to be a table setting for her at Christmas.
The thorns represent the suffering of Jesus Christ and the trees, the bushes, have grown here ever since.
But look.
Someone's taken a chainsaw to this one and its replacement has been vandalised as well.
Fortunately there are other specimens of these rare trees around Glastonbury.
Two of them are outside St John's Parish Church.
I notice the sign says A Glastonbury thorn and not THE Glastonbury thorn.
I take it that's careful and intentional.
Absolutely, cos in Glastonbury anything can be turned into a myth if you're not careful.
Er, one of the thorns This is a graft from the thorn at Wearyall Hill.
Does the thorn bring people who are looking for other elements of the myth, the Arthurian legend? Do you get people here looking for the Grail and all the rest? Yeah, we do.
Only very recently I had somebody in church one Sunday morning who was quite convinced that St John's Church here in Glastonbury had the Holy Grail and they felt that they'd had a calling from a higher being to collect it and so they'd come for it.
I'm glad to say that it very much was a myth on that particular day, that neither he nor I could find it, and he went away in the hope that one day I might send it to him if I happened to find it.
I'm sure it must be the case that here, of all places really in England, must have a gravitational pull for people with an imagination.
Yeah With an imagination, yes, but also with deep spirituality.
The important thing from my point of view is to try and propagate the Gospel and if that means that it's through a symbol of the thorn and what that means or indeed coming into church, then that's what it's about really.
I can see that Joseph's legend has just as powerful a draw on us now as it did 600 years ago.
In an obscure corner of St John's Church there's a rare fragment of medieval glass that shows how they told the Grail story then.
Look at this.
What you've got is a medieval depiction of the two vessels, technically the cruets that were used to gather the blood and the sweat of Christ as he suffered on the cross.
You can see the little tadpole-like droplets.
And they're either side of a cross, but it's no ordinary cross, it's suggestive of a tree, possibly a thorn tree, and it's fascinating that that's a glimpse of what pre-Reformation people were thinking and valuing.
It's a story that has proven endlessly resilient.
According to the legend, when the Grail was buried, and some people say it was buried alongside Joseph himself, its contents, the sweat and blood, were spilled, and ever since then two springs have flowed at the foot of the Tor, and I'm going to see one of them now.
At the bottom of Glastonbury's distinctive hill, the Tor, is the Chalice Well.
This is where the liquid from one of the buried cruets was spilled.
Christ's blood was transformed into a flowing spring, to this day known as the Blood Well.
Oh, yes, very metallic taste.
It's likelike rust.
And that flavour and also the red staining is a result of the water collecting iron from the rocks deep underground as it's rising to the surface.
Comes out of the ground at a steady 25,000 gallons a day and in times gone by, in periods of drought, water from here was the only reliable source for the town, so apart from anything else that makes it special.
The Chalice Well isn't just for Christians.
Anyone can come here, and they do, for healing and inspiration, quiet and contemplation.
And there's no doubt that this feels like a very old place of worship, with its groves of ancient yews and its constant outflow of pure, life-giving water.
We've always revered water - as a place for offerings in the Bronze Age, and as a god for Romans in nearby Bath.
And now I'm finding the symbolism bubbles back in another guise in Glastonbury.
If you like, you can unwrap the story of the Chalice Well still further.
Some Celtic legends allege that the springs were entrances to an other world - a paradise within the Tor, guarded by a fierce god, where the souls of those who had recently died would feast and carouse whilst they awaited rebirth.
So why wouldn't the monks respond, evicting the Celtic deity by transforming the spring into holy water and building their own church on top of the Tor? You could go on and on examining and exploring the lore of Glastonbury, bathing in the feel of it.
The multitude of stories here and the pleasing shape of the landscape, it's easy to be drawn in by it.
Is it logical or is it not? I don't know.
But there's no doubting the need for sacred places and for the stories they encourage us to tell each other there.
They give depth and meaning to us as humans about existence.
On my journey I've learnt that the meanings of these places have evolved as much as our beliefs have developed.
And just by looking around on the top here you can tell we'll always need them.
Ultimately, when you strip everything back, it's about our profound connection with the landscape.
From the Stone Age to the New Age we've revered the hills and lakes, springs and rivers.
The places that sustain life and that nurture our most basic sense of aesthetics.
It's about finding a context for fear and joy, and an explanation.
It's also about a simple need for places where we can gather together as communities.
Places where the world of the human and the world of the divine come together.
One of the most enduring prophecies about this place is that it's possible to find paradise on Earth before Judgement Day.
And if you are looking for a place where that might happen this is a good one.