Gaye Mack’s Blog

GLASTONBURY ABBEY’S GREAT FIRE OF 1184–WAS PETER D’MARCY AN ARSONIST?

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work Leave a comment

The Great Fire of 1184, which all but destroyed Britain’s oldest site of Christianity, Glastonbury Abbey,  is legendary.  For 900 years, myth and speculation have flourished as to the cause of this catastrophic event.  The majority speculation put forth by historians is that unusual winds on the morning of May 25, 1184 were responsible, causing an entry curtain to the ‘Holy of Holies’ in the ‘Ecclesia Vestuta’ (old church) to catch fire from burning candles.  Regardless of the cause, the initial sparks of flame combined with the high winds took the famous abbey to the ground in a matter of hours; it’s precious documents destroyed along with its treasures melted by heat and countless graves of monks, abbots and saints.

 However, when I was researching this event for my historical mystery, “A Conspiracy of Ravens”, I discovered Adam of Damerham.  Adam was a 12th century monk who wrote a history of the abbey and where the Glastonbury fire is concerned, Adam had an entirely different theory as to its cause.   Following the death of the beloved Abbot Robert in 1178, King Henry II assigned the position of ‘Custodian’ to Peter D’Marcy, a Cluniac monk who had some kind of relationship to Henry.  Despite the desires of the Glastonbury monks for Henry to name a proper abbot, the king stalled.  With no abbot in place it gave the wily monarch direct access to Glastonbury’s wealthy treasury, a resource which Henry needed to finance his wars with the French. Thus, as a compromise, he named D’Marcy to oversee the Glastonbury community.

 Unfortunately Peter proved to be very unpopular for a variety of reasons.  He nearly drove the abbey into the ground financially, was relentlessly diabolical in his scheming to manipulate his way to the abbot’s chair, not to mention the  suspicion that Peter  ‘compressed’ (as in eliminated) certain monks who were obstacles to achieving this goal. As an interim solution and effort to appease the monks, Henry then appointed Hugh of Avalon (who would later become Hugh of Lincoln, the most revered saint after Becket) to ‘supervise’ D’Marcy.  Things did not go well with this arrangement either.

 By December of 1183, the hatred of D’Marcy was beyond rampant.  In one final scheme to endear the monks to his cause of obtaining the ‘abbot’s chair’, D’Marcy, his mental state now suspect, planned a ‘faux mass’ on Christmas Eve in the ‘Ecclesia Vestuta.’  This blasphemous act was the last straw with the Glastonbury community and one can only imagine how the monks reacted.   Adam of Damerham speculates that in retaliation,  D’Marcy set fire to the abbey.  Interestingly, historians note that while he survived the fire, shortly afterwards D’Marcy died from ‘unknown causes.’

“A Conspiracy of Ravens” is the second of my planned six book historical mystery series, “Flight Through Time”, which is in production.


GLASTONBURY-ONCE ENGLAND’S WEALTHIEST ABBEY REMAINS POWERFULLY MYSTICAL 800 YEARS AFTER THE GREAT FIRE OF 1184

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain Leave a comment

Glastonbury and its once powerful Abbey are arguably among the most enigmatic and mystical sites in England.  The place simply exudes legends, mysteries and improbable lore.  One cannot speak about Glastonbury without the mystical King Arthur immediately coming to mind as well as speculative stories about the Holy Grail, Joseph of Arimathea and of course, the Goddess and Avalon.  It happens to be one of my most favorite sacred sites in Great Britain, one I have visited more times than I can count over the years.  As such, it is no accident that Glastonbury is the chosen location of my historical thriller which is presently making the rounds of literary agent review…time will tell regarding this book’s  future.  In the meantime, no question Glastonbury will be one of the  subjects under my ‘Ancient Legends’ postings as this blog goes forward, for it hosts a wealth of legendary myths and historical facts.  One such historical event  mixed with legend  is that of  ‘The Great Fire of 1184.’

 In a nutshell, for several years before the fire, Glastonbury had been without an Abbot following the death of Robert of Winchester in about 1178(exact dates vary slightly depending on historical source!)  With the absence of a strong Abbot at the helm of this mighty abbey, nefarious machinations for political power and personal gain infiltrated the community.  Additional speculation by royal watchers was that King Henry II was reluctant to name a candidate for the Abbot’s chair as to do so would cut off his direct access to the treasury which he needed for his war with France.  However after much pressure by the monks, he did name a ‘Custodian’ by the name of Peter De Marcy who for various reasons was vehemently hated by the Community.

On May 25th, 1184  fire broke out in the most sacred of the Abbey’s buildings, the Ecclesia Vestuta, or ‘old church’ which  housed the ‘Holy of Holies’,  or foundation remnants  from Joseph of Arimathea’s beehive church dating a thousand years previous; it was also the professed burial site of Mary, mother of Jesus.  The fire happened about nine in the morning, just before the prayer office of Terce.  One historical speculation is that within the Ecclesia Vestuta, the curtain or tapestry hanging over the  entrance to Holy of Holies caught fire from a candle .    From the previous night, the May winds had been unusually high, vigorously fueling the flames.  Regardless of the cause, to the horror of Glastonbury’s monks, their beloved great Abbey and nearly all of its buildings were brought to ground within a matter of hours.  

More than 800 years later, the cause behind this event still intrigues.  In addition to the ‘curtain’ theory, legend speculates it might have been a result of  jealous arson or the intervening hand of spirit ; after all, fire does purify.  If you are planning a visit to England and love the mysterious and sacred mystical, be sure to add Glastonbury to your list of ‘must see’s’.  In addition to the Abbey ruins there is the Chalice Well, the enigmatic Tor and numerous other intrigues within Glastonbury’s legends.  Located in Southwest England, the town of Glastonbury is approximately 12 miles to the south of Wells…site of a very famous cathedral!  

Photo©2011 Gaye F. Mack