At the start of 2022, I was invited to be part of a Glastonbury Town Council committee concerned with the Royal Platinum Jubilee celebrations. I felt from the outset that St Dunstan was of great importance. An Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey and later Archbishop of Canterbury, he had established the template for the modern coronation ceremony when he crowned King Edgar in 973CE. The ruined Abbey once had the Saxon kings Edmund I and Edmund II (known as Ironside) interred there, along with Edgar himself, and hosted many later royal visits, including Edwards I and III, before the final disastrous denouement with Henry VIII.
The history of Glastonbury Abbey cannot be separated from that of the monarchs from Saxon times through to the Dissolution. The fortunes of the institution have been determined by their actions throughout. Charters, gifts of land and precious items to adorn the place, the prestige of royal visits. The status of Glastonbury Abbey and its ability to successfully promulgate its legends and cults of saints are entirely determined by these factors. This is a fundamental foundational historical truth that cannot be ignored if a full understanding of it is sought. This was real history to set alongside its famous contentious associations with King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea. Dunstan was a good means to establish a distinct Glastonbury flavour worthy of celebration.
Dunstan did indeed feature in the Jubilee. I participated in an event in Glastonbury Abbey on his feast day of May 19th with the Rev Dr Mark Hutchinson, an expert on Abbey history. I also gave a separate presentation in the Town Hall that night detailing the bigger picture behind the imminent Jubilee events, which mentioned the era of the Saxon Kings.
Following the death of the Queen and the start of preparations for the coronation of her successor, I felt that Dunstan loomed even larger. In January 2023 the Jubilee committee was reframed as an ongoing Arts Culture Events (ACE) Committee in order to extend its life beyond Jubilee year and enable it to engage with a variety of regular public events ranging from Beltane to Remembrance Sunday in terms of both logistics and inspiration. Current Mayor Jon Cousins was part of the group, as was Deputy Mayor Indra Donfransesco, who would take over from him not long after the Coronation.
At the first ACE meeting I put forward a very simple but, I felt, powerful idea. Would it be possible to present a modest reenactment of Dunstans’s crowning of Edgar in the ruins of the Edgar Chapel itself at the far eastern end of the Abbey? The King had ended up having a lavish chapel constructed to house his remains at the close of the medieval period. It represented the peak of the Abbey’s expansive building projects and in retrospect had an Indian Summer poignancy about it as it endured for only a short time before the Dissolution.
It was a very clear self-contained space. An audience could watch from the Choir and from around outside of it. The minimalist scenario I envisaged would involve someone dressed as Dunstan, placing a crown on the head of another as Edgar, and a third to give a narration. The whole thing would not last very long and was decidedly low impact in terms of the Abbey’s criteria for acceptable events.
A representative of the Abbey was present at the meeting and a request was put in writing which I was very happy to see was soon accepted. The Coronation weekend would have a Bank Holiday on the Monday, May 8th. The Abbey would host a free open day when all manner of things would be occurring. This would be the occasion for Dunstan and Edgar.
Considerable logistics presented themselves to handle. Beyond all of this was the little matter of determining who would play the respective roles in the Edgar Chapel? How would it hang together? What would they wear? What basic stage directions might be required? It had all been my idea and many of the ACE committee were heavily involved with what was shaping up as a very big extended week in Glastonbury. I was most fortunate to have the assistance of the indefatigable Zoe Price. An ACE committee member and Town Councillor used to handling all manner of networking and communication challenges, she had been invaluable during the Jubilee in helping some of my ideas to manifest. We entered a giddying round of meet-ups with people in the Abbey, the sending of innumerable emails, the putting together of the little details. All of this had to be coordinated with the bigger picture of the Coronation Bank Holiday in the Abbey.
The first part of the day would involve steering civic dignitaries, primarily the Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, Mohammed Saddiq, around the grounds to various events. I felt it was fortunate that it seemed obvious that Dunstan-Edgar should begin the day. Some of the town’s volunteer organisations would be present in a big marquee. This was part of a royal directive to acknowledge such groups in a Big Helpout initiative over the coronation weekend. There was also going to be an award ceremony where town stalwarts who did good things for the community would be honoured. This included a ‘Glastonbury Citizen of the Year Award’, ‘Glastonbury’s Exemplary Volunteer’and ‘Longest Serving Volunteer’.
It would be the conclusion of a massive ten days or so in Glastonbury. An increasing number of people have started to visit the town for the Beltane Mayday events. There would be stuff happening on April 30th, when big dragons come out and parade, and May 1st when a Maypole is processed up the High Street and raised in a field with great ceremonial celebrations. This required ever more complex organisation. Official road closures. Marshalls on the street with walkie talkies. All kinds of timing.
ACE had to try and bring together a very diverse combination of events and people, a complex demographic, and see if we could present Glastonbury’s unity in diversity to maximum effect. It was safe to say that plenty of the people in town were not necessarily royalists! We were helped by the King featuring undoubted Green Man iconography in the official coronation invitations.
This was an article advertisement I wrote on behalf of ACE in Glastonbury’s monthly listings publication The Oracle. It is reproduced here to indicate how many plates we had spinning and what my general attitude was —
GLASTONBURY BELTANE CORONATION MAY FESTIVAL
To begin Mary’s month of May, a fifteen-degrees Taurus Coronation has provided the inspiration for the kind of unique unity in diversity that the poetry of the soul writes here in the Avalon of the Heart.
In sight of the eternal beacon that is our hill of vision, amongst the flags, bunting, and garlands, the people of the Beltane, tall hats and druids, priestesses, bright stars on their foreheads, birds in the skyways, making a quest for Avalon, will be processing with the dragons on April 30th, and with the Green Men of the Maypole and the Beltane King and Queen on the 1st. There will be Bards, and music, as the heartbeat of the Earth is drummed forth for the enchantment of this green and pleasant land, so the crops may thrive and the sickness in the body of Albion be transmuted.
The mood will have been set with the ‘Stones of Avalon’ Mayor’s Charity fundraising event in the Town Hall on the 29th where an award-winning film on road protesters will be screened and some Marc Bolan songs might be performed.
Watch out for news on a mid-week epic Beating the Bounds of the Twelve Hides when our Joseph of Arimathea King Arviragus foundation myth will be revitalised.
From 9:00 am to 11:15am on May 6th, the Coronation of King Charles III will be proclaimed by the Town Crier from the Market Cross.
Come together on Sunday May 7th for a High Street Coronation Big Lunch outside St John’s Church. Bring a picnic and, or food to share.
Our Abbey’s greatest superstar, local boy Abbot Saint Dunstan, became Archbishop of Canterbury and created the Coronation ceremony template still in use when he crowned King Edgar, later interred here. On Monday May 8th this event will be simply commemorated as part of the open day pageant in the Abbey. Volunteer organisations will be celebrated and awards will be handed out by the Lord Lieutenant of Somerset.
On May 4th, a special Abbey event on Royal visits here pre and post 1539 will have set the scene for children dressed accordingly to appear on Extravaganza Monday. A dress code including anything from Glastonbury’s entire history is encouraged for everyone. Come as a Celt, Roman, Saxon, Norman, Tudor, Victorian, a Druid or a Monk, whatever you wish.
Opposites will cancel each other out. Tongues of fire will descend. Prophecies will be spoken and fulfilled. Tea and cakies will be consumed. Nowhere else will offer such a mix. Something for everyone. Come out and play. As Mr Powys said, ‘no one Receptacle of Life and no one Fountain of Life poured into that Receptacle can contain or explain what the world offers us’.
The bigger picture of our amazing week could be discussed at far greater length. Many felt that the Mayday event was the best one yet.
The contrast between the look of the High Street on that day with the Coronation Sunday Big Lunch on May 7th was considerable!
The prime purpose of this piece is to discuss the Abbey event though. It’s enough to indicate that we had entered into the dreamtime.
There was no doubt that the casting of the trio of players was very important. The right combination would make all the difference. Various people were considered and approached but either declined or had little enthusiasm. This was a good thing because perfection was waiting to establish itself.
Dr Tim Hopkinson Ball is a mainstay of Glastonbury Antiquarian Society. He was the biographer of Frederick Bligh Bond. Scholarly papers he had produced on the Cults of the Virgin Mary and Edgar at Glastonbury had significantly expanded my understanding. He would be a perfect narrator.
William ‘Bill’ Wych has quite a cv. He was also a member of the Antiquarian Society, a churchwarden at St Johns, and had a considerable theatrical background. In 2005 he had produced a revival of Rutland Boughton’s choral drama Bethlehem in St John’s Church. Before that, he had written and directed medieval-style Miracle Plays in the Abbey grounds. He had even penned a play performed for one of the counties greatest folk tales concerning how in 1240 Jocelin, Bishop of Wells, who was also in charge at Glastonbury for while, sallied forth from his Palace to kill a dragon! The nearby villages of Dinder, Dulcote and North Wootton were having a bad time as a dragon was eating their children, and then, even more problematically they appeared to feel, their livestock. Jocelin took out the beast single-handed but there are no witness accounts. A wonderful folkloric practice sees the dragon-slaying replayed in Dinder every fifty years. Local people make a dragon, parade it, and then stab it. Failure to perform the rite would result in the dragon’s return. The last time this had happened was in 2001 and it was Bill who had overseen it. In more recent years he had been part of the Abbey’s Living History team, leading tours dressed in suitable costumes.
It was quite something to see what kind of items Bill and Tim had in their wardrobes, ecclesiastical vestments and suchlike. When I first saw Bill’s Dunstan costume, I was gobsmacked.
Joel Bunting is a National Trust Ranger who helps look after Glastonbury Tor and the land immediately around it. During the 2022 Jubilee, he had been involved in the setting up of the Tor beacon fire. He looked the part of a Saxon and was definitely pleased to be presented with the opportunity to be Edgar. His stepson Tom was happily on hand to be a perfect Page to hold the crown in readiness. On a personal level, I thought it was great that it had been Joel himself who had removed some swastika graffiti from a National Trust display board in the Tor field immediately adjacent to Dion Fortune’s former home back in March. This was very dreamlike and presented him in a good light to me.
Town Crier David Greenway called everyone to attention with the ringing of his hand bell that is so familiar to everyone in Glastonbury. He spoke words of mine by way of introduction as the trio approached down some stone steps at the far end of the Edgar Chapel.
From the perspective of the audience, in accordance with my very basic stage directions, Dunstan moved to stand to the front left, with Edgar opposite him. Tim positioned himself centrally a little way behind them and began his spellbinding narration.
I had spoken with Tim very broadly about what his narrative might include, suggesting a few things but trusting him to produce something entirely appropriate. He in fact put on a truly stunning performance, delivering an eloquent narrative that evoked exactly the right atmosphere of locale, history, and culture, of solemn but joyful ceremonial, of continuity, of inspiration.
A most excellent postscript was presented that emphasised that Bill provided a link back to the time of Alice Buckton, whose 1922 pageant had been woven into our 2022 Jubilee events. His wife, Kay, had known Buckton when a small child. Her mother had performed in some of Buckton’s plays. A motif would arise that emphasied a heartening Glastonbury continuity. Celia Thomas had been inspired earlier in the year to make a copy of a Grail chalice banner displayed in the 1922 pageant. She made use of it in a Fellowship of Isis event she had put on in the town. I asked if she would be willing to bring it along and and place it in view of our audience as a kind of motif of continuity. She readily agreed and found herself talking to Bill and Kay about their remarkable background.
That’s all I need to say. The video is the main communication here and its context has been established. I felt that the Abbey collective intelligence called The Company of Avalon by Frederick Bligh Bond was happy with how things had played out and probably helped inspire it all in the first place.