Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

St David - and the Great Sapphire of Glastonbury

Today is the feast of St David, the patron saint of Wales.

There is a good account of his life and the traditions about him in the Wikipedia article. His life reveals something of the vitality of the British church during the sixth century, and the site of his monastery became a place of continuing pilgrimage and the site of the cathedral that bears his name.

Although he is the patron saint of Wales he has associations with places in what is now England, but which only became so during his later years as the Anglo-Saxons moved westwards. Until the battle of Dyrham in 577 there was a land link through north Somerset linking the British in Wales and those of the south-western peninsula. One of the places St David is associated with is Glastonbury, and I have adapted the piece which follows from the website of the shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury:

Born at the beginning of the sixth century in South Wales, St. David belonged to an age of well known Celtic Saints: Teilo, Gildas, Finnian, Brendan, Brigid, Ciaran, Columbanus, Columcille. It is claimed that the Irish form of the Mass was drawn up by Gildas, David and a mysterious Docus. (1)

David became a priest and retired for several years to the island monastery of the Welsh St. Paulinus. Later, because of his eloquence, learning and miracles, but against his will, he was elected Archbishop, transferring his See from Caerleon to Menevia, now called St. David's.

Glastonbury is not a very great distance from south Wales across the Bristol Channel, and so there is good reason to believe that St. David would have visited a `monastery which was becoming famous in the Celtic world'.

William of Malmesbury tells us that St. David came over to Glastonbury with seven bishops of whom he was the primate, to dedicate the Old Church to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but Our Lord appeared to him in a vision on the night before the day appointed for the ceremony, and told him gently that He Himself had already done so, and David must not. As a sign that the vision was a true one St. David would have a sore upon his hand until he said Mass next morning; and it was so. But lest they should seem to have come for naught he immediately set about building another church, a sort of chancel to the east of the Old Church. This was on the site of the present `Galilee', and he consecrated that before he left. (2)

It is recorded that he presented a great sapphire to Our Lady's Altar which was a source of wonder and admiration for a thousand years. We know little about the furnishings of the Lady Chapel, rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1184, which destroyed the 'Old Church', just prior to its desecration.

Interior of Lady Chapel

The interior of the Lady Chapel of Glastonbury Abbey today

Image: Glastonbury Abbey

In the midst stood the casket with the supposed relic of St. Patrick. St. David's great sapphire was incorporated into a "super-altare". The precious gem had been hidden possibly from fear of the Danes, and was lost for generations. But it was rediscovered by Abbot Henry of Blois, nephew of King Henry I, "who had it magnificently set in gold and silver, surrounded by precious stones, as it is now seen". Thus did William of Malmesbury describe it. On l5th May 1539, according to Dugdale, there was delivered unto the King's majesty a "super-altare" garnished with silver and gilt and part gold, called the Great Sapphire of Glastonbury. Its subsequent fate is unknown. (3)

St. David died about 589. In common with most saints of that time his place of burial is uncertain. William of Malmesbury tells us that some years after David's death his successors failed to find his body. And he goes on to say that, `in the reign of King Edgar the relics of St. David were translated with great solemnity from the vale of Ross to Glastonbury'. This was probably the monks' edition of William of Malmesbury's history, as Glastonbury has never really boasted of being the last resting place of St. David.

(1) G. H. Doble The Saints of Cornwall, Part 4, p.108.

(2) De Antiguitate, trans by Lomax as The Antiquities of Glastonbury, p.28.

(3) H M. Gillett. Shrines of Our Lady in England and Wales, 1957, p .151.

I wonder if the "Great Sapphire" was actually a portable altar made out of lapis lazuli, and like that found in the coffin of St Cuthbert, and dating fron a century later, rather than a precious stone in the usual sense of the phrase. According to the OED a "superaltar" would mean a portable altar in the sixteenth century: only in 1848 is the word used to mean a reredos. What made it precious to the depradators of the sixteenth century was the gold mounting and precious stones decorating rather than the stone itself.

In the church of St John the Baptist in Glastonbury is a nineteenth century stained glass window with afigure of St David holding the "Great Sapphire", but I have not so far found a photograph of it.


Anonymous said...

Has it dawned on anyone that this great place could be restored to its former glory i am a roofer and could put a roof on it anyone else to offer services the good lord will reward you

Anonymous said...

Is there anyone in somerset who would like to see the abbey restored i need local blessing for this its your town as well the urge to do something has been nagging me since my last visit a few years ago lets start it again and the whole world would be envious of our great church

Anonymous said...

Is there anybody in somerset who would like to prove that greedy king henry wrong and restore the abbey to what it was like before he got his unworthy hands on it costly for sure but we could get donations and do collections and other stuff

White Eagle Star said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
White Eagle Star said...

I believe half the world want Glastonbury Abbey rebuilt. With the Church of England making twenty million UK pounds a year from the tourists visiting the site, they can easily afford it! I will work with anyone happily to achieve this long over due aim and return it back to the Yeshua's true faith and teachings of the Nazarean Essene Order of Mount Carmel. Rev. Sister Rosemary. Contact: livingwaterstruthcentre@gmail.com

DanDelioness said...

that would be amazing

Anonymous said...

Restoration should not be acceptable due to the leyline crossways of St Michael and Mary which shouldn't be tampered with, I feel that the energy is sleeping "King Arthur" as St Michael line and Gueneveir as the Mary Line .....there is a precise place that the Kristos Energy merges as the portal so any disturbance could corrupt that energy. Queen Elizabeth2nd erected a cross close to that spot in 1965. It feels like excalibur and she is claiming that energy for herself. The Sapphire is intriging as we do not know its travel from source where St David got it from in the first place....The resting place as probable links in Queen Elizabeths Crown at the back of the crown jewels is a Sapphire. They tells us goes as far back as James the 2nd. I would like to find out more before James the 2nd and if the St David Sapphire is one of the same

Anonymous said...

Has anyone considered the "vague" history of the "Stuart" sapphire? Is it not very likely this is the sapphire taken when Henry VIII ransacked the monasteries, Et. al.?