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.
Is it to your knowledge and/or understanding, (similar to the assertion in my copy of the Kolbrin), that the Kolbrin itself was the actual target of the fire at Glastonbury Abbey? I would be very interested to know more about that. Many thanks.
Hello Maureen…well, I’ve researched the Glastonbury fire since the mind 1990’s and have been there many times…to be honest I’ve never come across any reference to the Kolbrin, which according to some, is suspect in and of itself…there are always many ‘theories’ around such events. Personally, I’ve always been convinced that the fire was arson engineered by D’Marcy…Glastonbury at the time was rife with internal political upheaval with him at the center of the discord…further, D’Marcy was basically an ambitious nutter, hated by most of the monks. Not long after the fire (as I recall, within a year) he was found dead in the marsh at the bottom of High St. from suspicious circumstances which were never(supposedly) sorted. If you want to read more about the ‘mystical’ aspects of this event and what followed, you might want to check out Edward Bligh Bond’s two books, ‘The Gate of Remembrance’ and ‘The Company of Avalon’. Thanks for your comments!!
Thank you very much (Gaye)! I am very interested, and very willing to accept your theory about the arsonist. (Just an error you made in the author’s name for the books you mentioned, it is Frederick Bligh Bond, not Edward. I managed to get the Gate of Remembrance, but not yet The Company of Avalon. Thanks again, Maureen.
Hello Maureen, where did the monks live after the great fire of 1184? Does anybody know? Also, when was the cloister completed after the Fire?
Hello Jack….I’ve answered you privately on your question via your email…but now see that you were actually asking the question of Maureen on this thread…and yes, I did erroneously identify Bligh Bond as Edward rather than Frederick whom I’ve written about extensively (and have stayed in his house, btw)….distracted apparently when I answered her question! Best regards, Gaye
As I understand it, the Lady Chapel was built first – taking only two years to be in full use after the fire. Where did you hear that the cloister was worked on quickly?
Hello David…thanks for posting to my blog…I’m not sure where you’re seeing that I posted the cloister being finished or worked on quickly…I believe one of the other comments may have stated this on the thread…yes the lady chapel was built first and there’s a whole reason for that behind the original Vestuta Ecclesia. But I’ll be honest, my work with the Glastonbury story is old over many years and I haven’t looked at the research in years or written about it in a long time. What I can say is that if I’ve said this about the cloisters somewhere I would have had an academic reference citation. The issue with Glastonbury is that so much of it has been garbled with a mix between fantasy and academic fact and yet it still continues to fascinate…