“One generation passes unto another; but the earth abides forever, and the sun also rises.”–Glastonbury: The Novel of Christian England (from Ecclesiastes 1:4)
How about a sweeping history of the English church, in a captivating novel? I just re-read one of my favorite books, Donna Fletcher Crow’s Glastonbury (Verity Press).
Meticulously researched, this novel gives a story from each phase of the church in England’s history, up until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s (an event referred to in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey). While the novel doesn’t continue up to Jane Austen’s time, I love hearing the background that led up to the church in Austen’s England. Donna Fletcher Crow weaves together legends and facts in ways might have happened in history. She says her “goal has been to tell the story in the most historically accurate way possible.”
The story centers around Glastonbury Abbey, which is now a ruined abbey like those Catherine Morland dreamt of. I’ve just added Glastonbury Abbey to my travel wishlist. The Abbey is between Bath and Exeter, about thirty miles southwest of Bath.
The sections of the book gives us a thumbnail sketch of British history. Each part is told as a story, with characters who come alive for us and struggle to survive the challenges of their times. (Glastonbury is one long book, with each “book” a major section.)
Prologue: English druids see the star of Bethlehem and speculate on its meaning.
Book One: The Coming of the Light: Celtic Britain
Joseph of Arimathea (who provided a tomb for Jesus) brings the gospel to England. He starts the first church in England on the hill of Ynis Wittrin, “the Isle of Glass,” which was later known as Avalon. His son falls in love with a local woman, who is one of the first to be baptized. Some Druids resist, while others convert, believing Christianity to be a fulfillment of their own religion. The Romans invade and take some Britons captive to Rome, but some return to Britain.
Book Two: The Unfurling of the Banner: Roman Britain
In Part One we meet an engineer building Hadrian’s Wall (117-138 AD) to keep out the Angles, Saxons, and Picts. We also meet King Lucius, who declared Britain to be Christian in 156 AD.
In Part Two, Georgus, a Roman soldier and a Christian, kills a giant snake (a “dragon”) at Ynis Wittrin, then faces persecution and is martyred (303 AD) by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Georgus thus defeats Satan, “the great dragon.” He is, of course, the basis of the legend of St. George (patron saint of England) and the Dragon. Roman rule in Britain ended in 410 AD, though of course many Britons of Roman heritage still lived there and attempted to keep Roman culture alive.
In Part Three, the wealthy Patricius is captured by Irish raiders and his family is killed. His friend Lucullus escapes, but bands together with other Roman Britons to resist the raiders. Patricius comes to faith as a slave in Ireland. He escapes and returns to Britain, to the Roman town of Aqua Sulis (now Bath). After years of study, he goes again to Ireland, this time bringing the Christian faith. He was the first abbot of Glastonbury Abbey (about 455 AD). We know him today as St. Patrick.
Book Three: The Anointing of the King: Arthurian Britain
King Arthur arises as leader of the Roman Britons and tries to stop the flood of Angles and Saxons into England. He allows some to settle there peacefully. He makes treaties and fights battles. Arthur defeats the Saxons around 530 AD. His holy knight Galaad goes with St. Columba to found a monastery in Iona in Scotland, attempting to bring the faith to their enemies. A Christian, Arthur dreams of a peaceful country, but in the end he is defeated and dies. All that is left is a memory of a time of truth and light, which many hope will return. It is said that he was buried at Glastonbury Abbey, but his tomb was destroyed in 1539.
Book Four: The Raising of the Stone: Anglo-Saxon England
Part One: Pope Gregory meets an Anglo-Saxon slave, Aelfric, in Rome, and determines to send Augustine to evangelize England (597 AD). (This is a different Augustine than the earlier St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived in North Africa in the 300s AD.) Aelfric returns to England with Augustine, who becomes the first Archbishop of Cantwaraburg (Canterbury). Tensions erupt between the Celtic Christians, with different monastic practices, and the Roman Christians, and they follow separate paths. Aelfric builds a new life for himself among his former enemies.
Part Two: Ulfric, King Ines’ respresentative, supervises the building of a great church at Glastingaburg (Glastonbury). (King Ines reigned from 688-725 AD.) Ulfric’s family, though, is struggling to survive. The king frees the church of all taxes, and frees Ulfric to return to his family.
Part Three: King Alfred (871-899 AD) makes peace with Viking invaders, and they convert to Christianity.
Part Four: Abbot Dunstan (from 943 AD) brings the morality and strictness of the Benedictine Rule to the Glastonbury monastery community.
Book Five: The Flowering of the Legend: Norman England.
Part One: Fire destroys Glastonbury Abbey in 1184. A young monk named Bors manages to save a few of the treasures. He goes on to unravel mysteries in his family and his past. The tombs of King Arthur and St. George are rediscovered at the monastery (1190 AD). Richard the Lionhearted leads the Third Crusade from 1190-1192 AD. He swears to rebuild Glastonbury Abbey, which is rebuilt in 1250 AD.
Part Two: As King Edward brings Wales under his authority, a noble family is split apart.
Book Six: The Testing of the Faith: Tudor England
The Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, a man of integrity, struggles to deal with Henry VIII’s changing decrees. Henry VIII leaves the Catholic Church and founds the Church of England. Henry covets the lands and riches of the monasteries. In 1539, the Abbot has to relinquish Glastonbury to Thomas Cromwell. The Abbot is falsely accused of plotting against the government and is killed.
Giles Lacey, former messenger of the king, wonders at the destruction, looting, and death, and cries out, “Is it all worth it? All that men have struggled for through the ages—to come to this? Will God yet bring good of it? And if so, does it require so much blood and suffering to bring it about—like a woman’s birth pains? Or is this merely the best that poor, fallen man can do in following God’s will?” A scrap of Scripture rescued from the fire brings him hope. He reads, “Ancient ruins shall be rebuilt and sites long desolate restored; they shall repair the ruined cities and restore what has long lain desolate. And everlasting joy shall be theirs.” The former monks scatter and seek new lives.
Glastonbury Abbey today is an example of the picturesque ruins which Catherine Morland longed for in Northanger Abbey. You can visit the Abbey ruins and also see a model of the abbey as it was in 1539.
Next week we’ll look at some highlights of Roger E. Moore’s nonfiction book, Jane Austen and the Reformation. We’ll consider what happened when the monasteries were dissolved and afterwards.
Over the ages, the Christian church has experienced persecution, expansion, conflicts, wars, and divisions, yet still finds hope for the future by trusting God. For you personally, when you experience hard times, where do you find hope and the ability to keep going?