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Ynys Witrin

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 Ynys Witrin

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In mediaeval times the monasteries discovered the benefits of pilgrims as a source of income and many old tales and legends were bent to fit various locations, a practice still followed today in many places to attract tourists. Much of the writing which has come down to us as histories of the time were originally prepared, and later amended, under the auspices of the establishments concerned. William of malmesbury and john of Glastonbury both wrote under commission of the abbey of Glastonbury, The claim that Glastonbury was once known as Ynys Witrin is at best nebulous. 



The Gift of Ynys Witrin to Glastonbury


In his book "Lucerna" H. P. R. Finberg discusses the account given by William of Malmesbury concerning the charter of 601 AD granting Ynys Witrin to the Abbot of Glastonbury. This charter granted 5 Hides (cassates) of land to the old church. William goes on to add that "Ynys Witrin ..... is the name the British use for Glastonbury." The charter itself is almost certainly a genuine grant of land but was most probably written circa 700 AD during the reign of Ine, King of West Sussex, ( 688 - 726). This is the earliest known linking of the names of Glastonbury and Ynys Witrin and while it states that Ynys Witrin is the British name for Glastonbury it raises the question why was Glastonbury given to Glastonbury.

Or is Ynys Witrin somewhere else?

The charter informs us that the grant of Ynys Witrin was made by an unnamed British king of Dumnonia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for 658 AD tell us- "Cenwealh fought against the British at Peonnan (um) and put them to flight as far as the River Parrot (Pedridan)." It was at this time that Glastonbury passed into West Saxon hands.

If we accept the very convincing arguments for redating the charter by 75 to 100 years put forward by Finberg and others, then, by this time Glastonbury was no longer part of the British Kingdom of Dumnonia. This kingdom did, however, cover all of Cornwall and most, if not all, of Devon.

The idea of a British King giving land to an Anglo-Saxon monastery is supported by a charter of 710 AD when Geraint of Dumnonia grants land at "----------------" to the Abbey of Sherbourne. However the King of Dumnonia could only dispose of land within his own territory; placing Ynys Witrin somewhere in Devon or Cornwall.

In the earliest manuscript of the life of Gildas, written by Caradoc of Llanfern for Glastonbury Abbey (the only biography in which Gildas is brought to Glastonbury) the text reads

 "Glastonbury, means City of Glass, and was originally named in the British tongue--------." - 

"Glastonia, id est urbs vitrea, quae nomen sumsit a vitro est urbs nomine primitus in Britannico sermone." 

The next word has been erased and the first four words of the next sentence written over it. At the end of this "Life" of Gildas, between an amen and a verse colophon proclaiming the authorship of Carados, is a postscript, stating that "Glastonbury was of old called Ynysgutrin and is still called so by native Britons." 

Whether or not this is a later insertion and whether or not the earlier deletion gives a different name or not, many scholars regard this whole "Life" as false.

"This utterly unhistorical "Vita" is a part of that campaign of propaganda on behalf of the ancient renown and the early British associations of this enterprising British house (Glastonbury Abbey) which continued with such success through the twelfth century." J. S. P. Tatlock.

That Glastonbury Abbey had a sizeable ownership of lands in Devon during the 7th century is well documented. In 670 AD King Cynewulf granted land at Culmstock in Devon to Glastonbury Abbey, King Ine gave an estate between the Tamar and Lynher on the Devon / Cornwall border to the abbey after his defeat of Geraint of Cornwall, around 729 Glastonbury was given a large estate (? hides) in the Torridge valley (N. Devon), King Egbert gave Braunton (N. Devon) to Glastonbury. The identification of Ynys Witrin with Lundy would certainly not seem to be contradicted by these other grants.

and to Glastonbury;-

1 King Cynewulf gave land at Culmstock, Devon c.670.

2 After his victory over Geraint of Cornwall, King Ine gave an estate between the Tamar and the Lynher.

3 729 (about) a large estate in the Torridge valley.

4 King Egbert gave Braunton (Around 855)

By 1086 Braunton > crown

Culmstock > Bishop of Exeter.

Glast. abbey had Uplyme in Devon, nothing in Cornwall.

King Cenwealh granted land at Meare in 671.

lost Brent Knoll - given by Arthur.

After Ine defeated Cornwall and Devon he gave 10 hides at Brent, 1? hide(s) at Sowy, 1 hide at Bleadon.

Ine's Charter (probable forgery)

Brent 10 hides, Sowy 10 hides, Pilton 20 hides, Dulting 20 hides, Bleadon 1 hide, also Meare and Beakery. also Pennard 6 hides and Poholt 60 hides. (725)

Glastonbury owned Brent Marsh c.1150.


The Charter of St. Patrick

The Charter of St. Patrick, believed to have been forged about 1220 with official sanction of the Abbey at Glastonbury, gives a fabricated first hand account of St. Patrick finding a Christian community at the Tor. While St. Philip and St. James, the Apostles to Gaul and Spain, are mentioned as introducing Christianity to Britain, the name of Joseph of Arimathea is conspicuously absent.

"...The brothers showed me writing of St. Phagan and St. Deruvian, wherein it was contained that twelve disciples of St. Philip and St. James had built that old church in honor of our Patroness aforesaid [the Virgin Mary], instructed thereto by the blessed archangel Gabriel." - "Charter of St. Patrick"

"Since the legend of Joseph of Arimathea "was a continental product and was totally unknown to the monks of the abbey...we may imagine the surprise and bewilderment of these tonsured worthies when, say about 1240, a manuscript of the Estoire Del Saint Graal came into their hands, and they read an elaborately detailed rival account of the evangelisation of Britain, which failed to give credit to St. Philip and St. James, mentioned neither Ynys wytrin [Glass Isle] nor Avalon, and which silenced all skepticism by the claim to be a faithful transcript of a work written by Christ's own hand and delivered by him to the author!" The result was "the insertion into a copy of William of Malmebury's book on Glastonbury of a passage about the evangelists sent to Ynys wytrin by St. Philip, which contains the statement that 'over them he [St. Philip] appointed, it is said, his dearest friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who buried the Lord'. Soon after, a scribe made bold to write in the margin:

'That Joseph of Arimathea, the noble counselor, with his son Josephes and many others, came to Greater Britain (which is now called Anglia) and there ended his life is attested by the book of The Deeds of the Famous King Arthur'

- a plain reference to the Estoire del Saint Graal. Thus began the process of interweaving the two variant versions, insular and continental, of the first mission to Britain. But many decades were to pass before the officials of the abbey began to take Joseph's coming to the Isle of Avalon seriously." - Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail, From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol

Other Glastonbury traditions which appear to be of relatively recent invention include:

The miraculous thorn trees which blossomed at Christmas time: The first reference is a crude poem - c.1520

 The first testimony that Joseph planted the tree - 1677

The Chalice Well where Joseph buried the Grail: The legend appears to be unknown until the early 1800's


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