Most people with an interest in mythology know of the legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain after the crucifixion and built the country’s first church at Glastonbury, but not so many know the alternative beginnings and ends to the story.
No-one really knows how the legend started, and Joseph wasn’t mentioned in the early Christian writings – Tertullian, writing in the late second century, merely says that the Gospel had reached Britain, while others, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, say that the Gospel was taken to Britain by Christ’s disciples. Joseph is mentioned in William of Malmesbury’s ‘On the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury’, but it is likely that he was inserted in later editions by the monks that carried on William’s work, and wasn’t in the original. Leland, and later Bale and Pitts, all claim to have seen fragments of an ancient British book by ‘Melkinus Avalonius’, or Melkin as he’s known today, supposed author of the infamous ‘Prophecy of Melkin’. This may be the same ancient British book that Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions in his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’.
But all this aside, the legend persists, especially down here in the West Country. But even the ‘facts’ of the legend can’t be agreed upon. Most times it has Joseph and his eleven followers landing at Berrow Bay in Somerset, in the Bristol Channel next to Burnham on Sea. They then walked what is now known as The Pilgrims’ Way, which roughly follows the modern A39, before arriving at Glastonbury.
But another local legend, documented by Berta Lawrence in her book ‘Somerset Legends’, has them landing somewhere on the Dorset coast, perhaps Bridport, or Abbotsbury, and then proceeding to Glastonbury, preaching the Gospel as they went. Each of Joseph’s followers had brought a small wooden cross, and at each settlement at which they stopped, they left one of these crosses.
The settlements they stopped in would almost certainly have been the great hill forts. Most of the British tribes had abandoned their hill forts centuries before, but, possibly uniquely, the Durotriges didn’t, and had to be burned out of them by the Romans. But one theory has Joseph arriving only a few years after the crucifixion, and therefore before the invasion of AD44. So if Joseph and his followers were wending their way towards Glastonbury from Abbotsbury via the main settlements, the route shown in the picture is more than possible.
This is an alternative beginning to the story – I’ll get to the alternative ending next time.