Previously I talked about Joseph’s journey to Glastonbury on his first arrival in England, but now I want to pose the question, was he buried there as the legend says, or in fact somewhere else completely?
As I said before, Joseph’s presence in England is by no means historical – or rather, it’s not provably historical. What is written by early Christian historians is that some of Jesus’s disciples were sent here, possibly by St Philip, shortly after The Crucifixion. But Joseph was a ‘real’ person, appearing in all four Gospels, and obviously very close to Jesus, so it is possible that he would have been one of the disciples sent to England, possibly even as the leader of the mission.
But let’s assume that he did come here, and made his way to Glastonbury, where he built the first Christian church. We are also assuming for our purposes that he was already here when the Romans invaded: opinion is, as with all other aspects of his story, divided, but either way, he would have been here during the Roman occupation. Now, such a dangerously subversive Christian leader wouldn’t have just settled in Glastonbury and waited for the Romans to arrest him, he would have moved around a lot, trying to convert the local ‘pagan’ leaders who gave him shelter, and possibly even further fermenting anti-Roman sedition among them.
So now we come back to the alternative local legend of Joseph’s death. Most ‘authorities’ have him dying and being buried at Glastonbury – this is, however, almost certainly a legend put around by the monks of Glastonbury to raise money from pilgrims after their monastery burned down in the late 12th Century. But this other story, as reported by Berta Lawrence in her book ‘Somerset Legends’, has him dying on his way back to Glastonbury from Crewkerne, and buried somewhere at Ham Hill hill fort near Montacute, then as now the largest hill fort in the country.
But surely we would have heard of this legend though, you say? Well, maybe not – Joseph’s followers may well have wanted the location of his grave to be a secret, so that the Romans couldn’t destroy it in order to prevent it becoming a rallying point for the early English Christians. On top of this, the monks of Glastonbury and their local successors were/are masters of public relations, and have made sure over the centuries that their town is at the heart of the Joseph of Arimathea legend.
Coincidentally, or not, we also know that St Michael’s Hill, the conical hill that towers above Montacute, has been sacred to the locals for at least a thousand years. When Robert Earl of Mortain, the half brother of William the Conqueror, built a wooden castle on the hill after the Conquest, there was such an uprising against him and his men that William had to send most of his southern forces to quell it. This was in fact the last rebellion of the English in the West, and their bodies are buried in a mass grave in the fields below the Hill known as The Under Warren, as pictured.
The traditional reason why the English rose up was that Mortain was desecrating the hill where a few decades earlier a magnificent cross was found. If you don’t know it, I’ll detail the legend of the Holy Cross of Montacute at another time, but suffice to say that in the mid-eleventh century a huge granite cross was excavated on top of St Michael’s Hill, as well as a book, a bell and a smaller wooden cross that were discovered underneath it. The local landowner, Tofig, standard bearer to King Canute, took the cross away and founded a church around it on his lands at Waltham in Essex, and it became famous as the Waltham Cross. King Harold prayed to it before the Battle of Hastings, and the battle cry of the English soldiers was ‘Holy Cross!’
So, it’s possible that this was the reason the locals, indeed the wider south west, held the hill to be sacred. But by the uprising of 1068, the Cross hadn’t been there for decades. Surely it would have been the Cross that was sacred, not the hill upon which it was buried? Well, maybe not. By the Conquest there was supposedly already a chapel on the hill, around which Mortain built his castle. Yes, this chapel could have been built to commemorate the Cross – but what if it had a deeper local significance? In fact, why would a giant granite cross have been buried at the top of the hill in the first place?
What if the Cross was in fact a grave slab – a very important grave slab. What if someone of great Christian significance was buried underneath it, his identity kept secret except to the locals. What if the reason these locals were prepared to die in their thousands to take back their hill was that the chapel covered the remains of Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus himself.
Yes, I know, this is all getting a bit Holy Blood Holy Grail, but it is, if nothing else, an interesting hypothesis for why, almost nine hundred and fifty years ago, a generation of Wessex men died trying to take back an obscure Somerset hill.