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Glastonbury Abbey Enigma

Fortean Times | 06.03.2002 10:44

A pioneer of what we now call ‘psychic questing ’,architect and archæologist Frederick Bligh Bond was entrusted with the excavation of Glastonbury Abbey.He was a remarkable man,says Jack Romano, and is overdue for a reassessment.

On 6 June 1907,businessman Ernest Jardine bought the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey for £30,000 at an auction. Jardine held the site until funds were raised by public subscription to purchase it from him in 1908, when ownership was vested in the Bath and Wells Diocesan Trust. But they had no real idea of what they had taken on. The grounds had been in secular hands since the Reformation and there were no clear plans of the area (it had recently been a playing field), little documentation and a jumbled history.

Glastonbury’s importance to the Church cannot be overstated. A massive array of dignitaries,including an archbishop,30 bishops and dozens of priests – 300 clergy in all – attended the ‘Restoration of Glastonbury ’ceremony which took place on 22 June 1909 to mark the official handover. With them came the mayors of seven towns, plus half a dozen dukes and two platoons of yeomanry. Finally, the Prince and Princess of Wales arrived with a detachment of Somerset Light Infantry. Crowds thronged the streets, and the event received widespread coverage. Many believed it was a new era for Glastonbury.

Glastonbury – properly,the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Mary – was once the wealthiest and most powerful abbey in England. By the 12th century, the building housed the tombs of three kings, and a piece of the ‘True Cross’. Henry VIII understood its importance and, at the Dissolution, made it his final target. Bent double with age and infirmity, the last abbot, Whiting, was tortured then hanged
on the Tor in 1539. Earl Somerset ’s troops then levelled the buildings, smashed statues,burned the library and took away anything of value. Local builders, who carted away whatever they could, accelerated the destruction. When the lands reverted to the Church in 1908, all that was left was the 14th-century abbot’s
kitchen with its unusual ‘lantern’ smoke vent, the precariously balanced remnants of various walls, and parts of a chapel and gatehouse.

The excavation of Glastonbury had the potential to be an enormous embarrassment for the church, and it took a while to find the right man to head the project: architect and scholar, Frederick Bligh Bond (1864 –1945,left) (right). He was a member of the Somerset Archæological and Natural History Society, which had been given permission to excavate. Bond was born in Marlborough and educated at Bath College. Captain Bligh of Mutiny fame was a relative, while a cousin, Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, wrote numerous novels and hymns (including ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’), and the encyclopædic Lives of the Saints (1872).

Bond ’s architectural credits included designing parts of Bristol University, two schools and districts of Avonmouth, as well as restoring several churches. His speciality was mediæval woodwork. Highly-respected, Bond was the obvious choice,but he had fatal flaws. He could be irascible, eccentric, difficult to work with, moody and confrontational. Furthermore,he had an interest in psychical matters. But he was undeniably gifted and, in 1908, he was put in charge of the excavations.

At the same time another church architect WD Caroe, was charged with providing a report on the condition of the site and preserving any finds made by Bond. Later, Caroe was to become a constant thorn in Bond ’s side. However,for the meantime,the authorities remained unaware of Bond ’s eccentricities, and Bond, keenly aware of the importance of the site, approached the business cautiously.

The general layout of the site was known,but important details had been effaced,and it was Bond ’s job to relocate them. The Edgar Chapel – dedicated to the English saint and reputed to have been intricately decorated –was his main objective, but no one had any real idea of where it had stood,or what its dimensions had been. In
addition, he was also asked to locate the ‘Loretto ’ chapel, an unusual design built along the lines of the chapel of St Mary in Loretto, Italy. This too, had disappeared without trace. Digging randomly and hoping for success risked damaging the site
further, so he searched for another way. Bond believed that the imagination could be trained systematically and applied to archæological research. The Glastonbury project was an ideal subject to put this idea into practice.

Accordingly, he arranged to meet a friend, a natural medium with a gift for automatic writing, the first of five mediums he used to explore Glastonbury psychically. He was Captain John Allan Bartlett and used the pen name ‘John Alleyne’ (which he took from a mediæval tomb in St John ’s Parish Church, Glastonbury). At 4.30pm on 7 November 1907 – just before his official appointment – the pair met in Bond ’s Bristol office in a somewhat self-conscious
attempt to see if Alleyne could glean any information regarding the impending excavations.

After a brief conversation, ‘communication ’ came through suddenly and Alleyne started to write and draw furiously. The speed and clarity of the information took them aback; it seemed as though the long-dead monks from Glastonbury couldn ’t express themselves quickly enough. Calling themselves ‘The Watchers’, numerous voices broke in, but one – claiming to be ‘Johannes Bryant’, a monk – emerged as their spokesman. When he spoke for others he used the first person, but when talking about himself, he habitually used the third person. Thus we find Johannes speaking on behalf of ‘Johannes ’ as if he were someone else. This is something that assumed importance when Bond later reflected on the nature of the communications.

Johannes said he lived from 1497 to 1533 and, as the sittings went on, he developed into a rounded, likeable character, full of colourful language, some of it highly emotive, and showing a tremendous zest for life. Johannes was sometimes impatient when Alleyne and Bond failed to grasp his meaning or struggled with outdated phraseology. He ‘spoke ’ in a mixture of English and childish Latin, and when ‘experts’ examined the scripts, cynics noted that this was just the kind of garbled mix that two middle-aged men would cobble together using their modicum of Latin, and a rudimentary knowledge of ‘Olde English’. Yet Bond, alert to potential criticism, ensured that independent witnesses were present at sittings and all agreed that Alleyne wrote at breakneck speed allowing no time to invent or construct anything.

Alleyne tapped into a fountain of pent-up emotions; it was evident that the monks had been waiting for someone to make contact. But things had to progress at a sensible pace. Johannes told Bond to have faith and follow instructions: “Stand ye and be as waxe in our hands.”

Johannes claimed to have sculpted this gargolye

On his appointment, Bond began to dig as instructed. Within weeks, the foundations for the Abbey ’s twin towers were revealed, followed by an outline of the legendary Edgar Chapel. Things continued apace for a decade until, in 1919, Bond rediscovered the foundations of the Loretto Chapel (though it was a year before this was conclusively proved). Before this he located the main altar, found an unsuspected small side door behind the altar, discovered pieces of coloured glass, traced secret tunnels, found water courses and drainage systems, unearthed painted stones, statuettes, medallions, carved pieces and other artifacts. He managed to identify every part of the site, including the herb gardens, various tombs, the monks' hospital, dormitories, washrooms, some small cloisters (which were not shown on any plans), as well as everyday items, medallions and tools. He was also privy to information about the decoration of the Abbey, something the monks were inordinately proud of.

They described panels, coloured tiles, painted spandrels, huge vaulted ceilings, carved stonework, and much more. Hollows in the interior were gilded in order to reflect and magnify candlelight. “In very truth,” said Johannes, “it was a goodly church.” He may have been right; in terms of decoration, it was possibly the finest England has ever seen. The Watchers also revealed that there was more than one Abbey. In its thousand-year history, there had been several versions of the Abbey, each incorporating features from its predecessor. It was completely rebuilt in 1184 after a fire and there were constant, ongoing modifications. “What would ye,” the monks asked Bond: “Saxon,Norman or English Native?” Doubtless there were even earlier remains buried deeper under the grass.

The monks literally bought the past to life. They spoke about nature, fishing trips, eating and drinking, and about their everyday problems – friction within the brotherhood, harsh routines imposed by various abbots, personal dislikes, trouble with local yeomanry, pests which invaded the gardens, worries about political affairs, and their rivalry with the nearby abbey at Wells.

It was an extraordinary insight into everyday mediæval life, and its honesty and simplicity gave it a naïve authenticity. The channelled communications regarding the Abbey and church were painstakingly accurate, and it wasn ’t pedantry. As many walls were over 3ft (90cm) thick, the monks were at pains to explain whether a measurement was from an inner wall, or from the outside stonework. This was important because the buildings’ dimensions encoded a secret; something that had long been forgotten but would be vital in a coming time of tribulation. Johannes called the Abbey a “book in stone.”

To ensure that Bond understood the all-important measurements and the richness of decoration, Abbot Beere, the last of the great builders,spoke up in numerous sittings. Apart from its graceful internal appearance, the Abbey must have had a striking physical presence, and it turned out to be significantly larger than anyone had imagined. The monks told Bond that the key to the ‘secret’ had been engraved in gold and lead on a marble floor in the Loretto Chapel, where a life-size statue of the Virgin was surrounded by a Zodiac.

On a trip to Italy, Beere had personally measured the original, and thus inadvertently repeated the dimensions and symbols that comprised the secret.But the truth had long been forgotten and Beere was unaware of its true meaning. Frustratingly, the monks felt unable to describe it, because “The Destroyer” had smashed it and they could no longer visualise it. They also told Bond that a great treasure was hidden somewhere about the site.

St Joesph's Glastonbury, c1862 by George Gilberne

The more Bond discovered,the greater was his curiosity. The monks insisted that “A son of Glaston from over the water” was already watching and waiting for the time to return, whereupon “Glaston ’s glory shall find a mighty place.” This time wasn’t too far away. Christianity was about to face a stern test; but help was at hand, if mankind knew where to look. “We cannot hasten the time,” they told him, “but it is sure and not delayed.”

“The great church of Glaston was not bounded by ye mind, and that thought must live and prevail,” said Johannes, indicating that the ‘new’ Glastonbury could well be metaphysical, as well as a resurrection of the Abbey buildings.

The idea of material destruction and spiritual reconstruction looms over the sittings, hinting that Glastonbury was a sacred site whose true function would be revealed in time. While new findings poured forth, no one could question Bond ’s method; but some noticed that it was haphazard and not quite in line with acknowledged archæological practice.

When it was alleged that records weren ’t being kept, or that Bond’s explanations of how things came to be found were vague, he became hostile. Typically, instead of considering his reply, he went on the offensive. One evening in 1916, a select audience was treated to a highly eccentric lecture. Bond told bemused listeners that he had secret information,and that he believed Glastonbury Abbey was built to a specific geometric pattern. It was science, he insisted, but not the type they were used to. Didn’t his success bear this out?

The Dean of Wells, Joseph Robinson, was bitterly opposed to Bond ’s appointment at Glastonbury. A clever, acid man, his brusque manner was heightened by illness, and he rarely minced words. Like the audience, he remained unimpressed and from then on, the two were at loggerheads. Bond began to suspect ‘plots’ whenever things didn’t go his way and became secretive, and critical of anyone offering advice. However, one of his talents was an ability to write powerfully; legal threats alternated with begging
letters, justifications and pleas for sympathy.

Only Alleyne was aware of the séances, but the presence of dowsers employed by Bond gave critics further ammunition. The Society sent him a letter spelling out his responsibilities, adding that he did not have a free hand to do whatever he liked with the site. Then Bond ’s focus shifted. Using information from the Watchers, he delved into Glastonbury ’s past, searching for the original circular chapel allegedly erected by Joseph of Arimathea. Finding it would prove that Glastonbury should rank alongside Rome as a major centre for Christianity.

So he decided to publish the scripts of all the séances held to date. It could have been a work of real import but Bond went public without due consideration for the backlash it might cause. The Gate of Remembrance appeared in 1918 and its effect was electric. If he ’d limited himself to writing about archæology, The Gate could have restored Bond ’s reputation. But he openly discussed Alleyne ’s automatic writing and added comments about the spiritual nature of man. It served only to annoy the authorities further, establishing him as an eccentric. He compounded the damage with another provocative book, The Hill of Vision, which gave details of other predictions by the monks, including the ‘Great War’ (WW1).

As a calculated risk,the books failed,and the Dean of Wells was roused to a fury. It wasn ’t science, and it wasn ’t worthy of investigation, he said.They had seen it all before and it was called ‘Spiritualism’. It was expressly forbidden in the Bible, and was dragging the Church into disrepute. As an archæological technique it had no foundation; Glastonbury was not an area for experimenting with.

Bond refused to back down,especially when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Price gave him every encouragement. The Church cut back his funding, and the Archæological Society appointed a co-director, warning Bond to stick to archæological matters. The co-director, Sebastian Evans,tried hard to work with him, but Bond became possessive of the site. He regarded Evans as an upstart and provoked daily arguments. Like his private life, the site was now a shambles, with holes and rubble where once he would have tidied things up.

While friction with Evans and Caroe wore Bond down,his aim of locating the two chapels and providing an outline of the site was successful. His official work effectively done, he began spending more time considering the nature of the secrets to which the monks had alluded, believing that somehow the cryptic matrix hidden in the layout of the whole Glastonbury complex was a key to some long-forgotten ancient learning and that this ‘Sacred Geometry’ governed the dimensions of all the important edifices. He pored over plans, looking for a pattern that would provide the clue to Johannes’ “cipher in stone.”

Bond also pondered the nature of the communications from the monks, postulating that it was a mixture of imagination plus
memories which, somehow, were inherited by everyone. Time, he surmised, might not be linear or progressive; instead, it may be in a state of flux, and properly trained we can tap into its huge reservoir of communal knowledge and racial memory. He never believed he was communicating with the dead; rather that he ’d somehow located a “pool of consciousness.”

Bond was sacked in 1921 when he refused to work further with Evans. The project was closed, and the site remained untouched for six years. Bond alleged that some discoveries – especially an apse, which finished off the Edgar Chapel – were purposely obliterated. Bond in turn was accused of ‘placing’ stones. But Bond knew the apse existed; moreover, without it, the Abbey’s measurements didn’t – as he so badly wanted – fit the pattern of ‘Sacred Geometry’.

For his part,Bond pointed out that he ’d made no secret of his activities,and that records had been consistently lodged with the Society. He maintained that the Church ’s reaction stemmed from fear of what he might find, and the matter of the ‘treasure ’. Having investigated the site better than anyone else,Bond had a good idea of where it might lie. Some years later, using the
‘treasure’ as a pretext, he convinced a group of Americans to fund further excavations. The Church gave permission for this, but on discovering Bond’s involvement, it was rescinded.

Today, there is no mention of Bond at the Abbey’s visitors’ centre, and the authorities still stubbornly ignore his work. There was however one belated victory. Years later, when Glastonbury was virtually forgotten, they grudgingly conceded that Bond had indeed found a polygonal apse which ‘rounded off’ the Edgar Chapel.

Following his dismissal, Bond embarked on a new career lecturing in America, where he found things to his liking and stayed on. In 1926, his standing in psychical circles was considerably enhanced by a claim that, under controlled conditions, he was the first person to cause a specific image to register on a photographic plate by mental suggestion to a medium. He took numerous Kirlian-type photographs and was involved in many ouija sittings. From here on Bond dedicated himself to psychical research, and never again practiced as an architect.

Between 1921 and 1926,he edited Psychic Science magazine, leaving after a disagreement with the board. Then from 1930 to 1935, he edited Survival, the journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. At some point he joined a sect called The Old Catholic Church of America and was ordained as a priest by their Vicar-General, but Glastonbury haunted him and he could never shake off its associations.

Bond heard of two Connecticut women who had visited Glastonbury Abbey; they were most disconcerted when one of them, Mrs Stevens, had begun writing spontaneously. In 1933,he organised a sitting with Mrs Stevens and, to his delight, none other than 'Johannes’ came through. After greeting Bond most affectionately, the old Glastonbury monk complained that he had long walked beside him for the last 26 years, unable to communicate. He went on to give him a number of important snippets: firstly, ‘John Alleyne’ had died and was now with ‘The Company’; secondly, the hidden ‘treasure’ referred to earlier, was in fact the Holy Grail.

Johannes (left) chided Bond for leaving Glastonbury: “The window was opened that all might see: Thou hast not finished thy onerous task.” Bond explained the reasons why, but the monks felt keenly that work should continue. In subsequent sittings, Johannes drew a cartoon of himself, then recounted his life story. He also claimed that the Reformation was orchestrated, not by Henry VIII, but by Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. In 1936, Bond returned to England, eventually settling in Dolgellau, Wales. His first act was to donate his library and archives to the Somerset Archæological Society.

In advancing years, Bond remained convinced that his work would
soon be understood and that he would be invited back to Glastonbury. However, recognition for psychical research in the field of archæology was not to come in his lifetime. Bond died in March 1945, aged 81. Today, Bond is receiving some acclaim, but his main adherents are New Age mystics who, by emphasising Glastonbury’s reputed magical and ‘telluric’ forces, are causing more harm to his reputation than the Church ever could.

Bond, by training and education was a professional, and would turn in his grave at some of the things that are now attributed to him. For many, he remains a misunderstood genius,a pioneer who bought the past to life using methods that may, one day, be better understood. But no one can accuse Bond of unprofessionalism: his insistence on the truth cost him two lucrative posts and wrecked his architectural career. His books are exquisitely detailed and The Gate of Remembrance remains a classic.

“We Western folks think it unpractical to cultivate this gift,” Bond wrote of ‘channelling’. “We have no system for training it, and our bourgeois habit of mind despises it. In our slipshod way, we say of anything not founded on fact ‘It is all imagination’.” All of us have the gift,he insisted; but only a handful of us take it seriously and even fewer know how to use it properly. Perhaps this belief, even more than his archæological work at Glastonbury, is his true legacy.

Article Info
'Glastonbury Enigma' by Jack Romano

February 2001

FT 143

The Gate of Remembrance
(Oxford, 1918)
Frederick Bligh Bond

New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury
(Gothic Image, 1990)
John Michell

Glastonbury Official Site

All Pics: Fortean Picture Library, except George Gilberne, courtesy Paul Sieveking

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  1. Chalice Well — dh