St. Bride’s Mound: Oldest Monastic Ruins in England Exposed
The village of Glastonbury in Somerset, southwestern England, plans to open a tourism complex at the St. Bride's Mound historical site, discovered to contain the oldest Christian monastic ruins ever found in England. The ruins date back more than 1,500 years to the fifth century AD.
Also known as St. Brigid’s Chapel and Field, the monastery was constructed by monks promoting the teachings of an influential religious leader known as Brigid (later to become St. Brigid and also known as Saint Bride), who was busy spreading the word of the Gospel in her Irish homeland at that time.
Despite the incredible history associated with this first millennium religious site, it remains lightly visited by tourists. This is in part because of a lack of publicity, but also because the 33-acre site where the ruins of the monastery were unearthed hasn’t been developed in any way that would encourage tourism.
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That will all be changing, however, thanks to a $30 million (£23.6 million) grant given to the town council in Glastonbury from the United Kingdom government's Town Deal local development fund. This government program is meant to encourage economic development in Britain’s small towns, and in this case will do so by helping Glastonbury develop an ancient religious site that helped popularize Christian worship in a region where Celtic or Druidic theology had previously reigned supreme.
“The aim is to bring this ancient pilgrimage place to life, telling its stories, enhancing its wildlife and creating an oasis of well-being,” a spokesperson for the Glastonbury Town Deal committee told the BBC. It isn’t known how long the development project will take to be complete, but when it is finished it will bring overdue attention to a long overlooked Scheduled Ancient Monument site.
Saint Brigid in a painting by Patrick Joseph Tuohy. Believed to have been born in the same century that St. Bride’s Mound was constructed, it is clear that St. Brigid’s influence spread beyond her native land. (Public domain)
Bridging the Gap from Celtic Culture and Christianity
The new tourism complex at St. Bride’s Mound will feature a visitor’s center known as the Roundhouse, where guides will be available to help interpret the history and architecture of the site for tourists. Local stone will be used to mark out the exact outline of the old Beckery Chapel and Priest’s House, which were constructed more than 1,500 years ago to honor the work of St. Brigid, a woman who along with other several other nuns founded her own abbey at Kildare in Ireland in the mid-to-late fifth century.
Fascinatingly, the woman who was anointed St. Brigid after her death began her religious life as a high priest in a Druidic temple dedicated to the Celtic triple goddess Bride, Brigit and Brighde. In fact the woman adopted the name of Brigid in honor of this revered goddess (she was Celtic by birth and heritage), and kept the name after she converted to Christianity sometime in the mid-to-late fifth century.
Given that St. Brigid is believed to have been born in 453 AD, or in the same century that St. Bride’s Mound was constructed, it is clear that her influence spread rapidly beyond the borders of her native land.
Like many celebrated religious figures, she is alleged to have performed supernatural feats or been in the vicinity when miracles occurred. While the truth of such reports has been questioned, no one disputes that she was the first woman to open an all-female monastic order in Ireland (her abbey at Kildare). Brigid is recognized as the patroness saint of Ireland, and soon she will assume the unofficial title of the patroness saint of local tourism in the small town of Glastonbury, England.
Aerial view of the St. Bride’s Mound excavations. (Google Earth)
The Truth Was in the Bones at St Bride’s Mound
Up until a few years ago, nobody had any idea that the ruins at Glastonbury in Somerset were the oldest monastic foundations still existing in the UK. In the 1960s, an archaeologist named Philip Rahtz led excavations at the site that unearthed the skeletal remains of 35 individuals buried in the monastery cemetery.
Radiocarbon dating tests on the bones determined they’d been entombed in the seventh or eighth century, which was presumed to be when the site was first occupied. This conclusion was based on the fact that the cemetery was used to bury men almost exclusively, suggesting that it had been a monastery burial site reserved for deceased monks who’d served and resided at St. Bride’s Mound.
However, in 2016 archaeologist Richard Brunning from England’s Southwest Heritage Trust organized new excavations that uncovered more skeletons at the site. Since radiocarbon dating testing has been further refined and is more accurate than it was in the 1960s, he wanted to see if any bodies had been buried at St. Bride’s Mound before the seventh century.
As it turned out, they had been. The new dating tests pushed the age of the skeletons back more than 200 years, to the second half of the fifth century. This meant St. Bride’s Mound was older than the Iona Abbey in Scotland, which was built in the late 500s and had previously been recognized as the oldest existing monastic site in the UK.
Excavations of Bride’s Mound in Glastonbury. (The Friends of Bride’s Mound)
Did St. Brigid Really Visit Glastonbury?
In texts published in the years 1135 and around 1400 respectively, the religious historians William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury wrote that St. Brigid actually visited Glastonbury and the local monastery that bore the name of the Celtic goddess she’d once worshipped in 488.
The goddess called Bride, who was associated with both water and fire, was simply too popular among the Celtic people to be forgotten or suppressed. So the early Roman Catholic Church did the next best thing, which was to redirect the people’s love for her into the burgeoning cult of the woman who would one day be known as St. Brigid.
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These writers claimed that St. Brigid left behind some relics, including a spindle and a bell, which would have been displayed in the chapel. John of Glastonbury wrote that the chapel also featured a special opening in one wall that would heal those who passed through.
As might be imagined, many historians are skeptical of reports like these, which may have been invented as marketing tools to help the monastery at Glastonbury attract visitors. If so this strategy seems to have worked, as thousands of pilgrims from Ireland made the southward journey to St. Bride’s Mound during the Middle Ages, to pay their respects to their patroness saint.
Now, starting in the not-too-distant future, visitors will once again be flocking to the site of the ancient monastery in southwestern England, to learn more about its history and its connection to a 1,500-year-old religious movement that hastened the conversion of the British Isles to Christianity.
Top image: Artistic representation of the future roundhouse set to be built at St. Bride’s Mound in Glastonbury. Source: Friends of St. Bride's Mound
By Nathan Falde