Crumbling monasteries: ‘A prospect of the ruine of Glastonbury Abbey’

This engraving, based on a sketch made by the antiquary William Stukeley dated 1723, depicts the crumbling, ivy-encrusted ruins of the former Benedictine Abbey at Glastonbury in Somerset. A victim of the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries, in 1539 it was stripped of its valuables and its abbot, Richard Whiting, hanged, drawn and quartered on the nearby Tor. The buildings steadily decayed, but the site had persisting cultural significance because of its links with the legends of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea, who was credited by Protestants with planting the Christian faith in England in the second century. The hollow shells of redundant religious houses evoked complex memories. For some the sight of them provoked pride at the demise of ‘popish superstition’, but in others it aroused feelings of nostalgia, pity, and loss. Their destruction was regarded as a ‘barbarous’ crime of sacrilege and providential tales about the punishments that befell families who had purchased former ecclesiastical lands and buildings were often recounted. Stukeley lamented the ‘profane’ use of St Mary’s Chapel, shown at letter G, as a stable. Increasingly the subject of antiquarian curiosity and fascination, by the middle of the eighteenth century ruined monasteries were absorbed into a new culture of the sublime and picturesque. Their presence in the landscape was a source of melancholic and aesthetic pleasure to spectators. AW

William Stukeley, Itinerarium curiosum. Or an account of the antiquitys and remarkable curiositys in nature or art, observ’d in travels thro’ Great Britain (London: for the author, 1724), plate between pp. 152–3.

CUL: S474.a.77.2

Further Reading

James P. Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous (Woodbridge, 1988), ch. 9, esp. pp. 172–3.

D. B. Haycock, William Stukeley: Science, Religion and Archaeology in Eighteenth-Century England (2002), pp. 110–13.

Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2011), ch. 4, esp. pp. 273–96.

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