The Subterranean Secrets of Glastonbury Abbey

Another world lies beneath Glastonbury Abbey, one few people know of and even fewer have seen. I had no idea it existed until I visited last June.

You see, the abbey has a series of tunnels leading from various points inside to places in the village or surrounding area. No one knows for sure what they were used for. The respectable answer is that they were a way for the monks to travel from place to place in inclement weather or a passageway for noble guests who didn’t want to deal with the crowds at the abbey gates. But knowing human nature, there’s a good possibility they had nefarious purposes as well.

A few of the tunnels have been verified as real and some people even still get to see them today (Sadly, I did not.) Others are merely rumor kept alive by tradition. Here’s a list of where they are and what I, and others, believe they may have been used for:

  1. From the south side of the Lady Chapel to the Great Hall within the Abbey (verified) – Makes sense that this was probably a passage for the monks.
  2. Leading from the Abbey to the River Brue (some say verified, some say rumored) – Could have been used to ferry supplies, but also could have been part of a black market. This one is also thought to have been a place where monks could have met their lovers or others they wished kept out of the public eye.
  3. Leading from the Abbey to the George and Pilgrim Inn (verified) – This tunnel can still be seen the cellar of the inn. The two buildings are just across the road from one another, so it’s possible that it was used by the monks who worked in the inn to for easy access back and forth to facilitate work and prayer schedules or for easy access by pilgrims. It’s also possible that there were some clandestine dealings involved.
  4. Leading from the Abbot’s chambers to a room in the George and Pilgrim Inn (rumored) – This passage way, according to one source, led to a room that was always on reserve for the abbot, who used it for “the purging of his loins.” I’ll let you decide what that means.
  5. Leading from the Abbey to Glastonbury Tor (rumored) – This one is hotly debated. As there was a cathedral on top of the Tor during the abbey’s heyday, it’s not out of the realm of reason that the abbot could need an easy way to pass between the two. However, there is a good amount of distance separating the locations, so the reality of being able to travel that far underground is questionable at best.

A panorama of the south side of the abbey (Source: Wikipedia)

Even if we never know their true purpose, they add to the mystery of an already enchanting location. There are even ghost stories associated with some of them, but that’s a topic for another day.

Sources: Personal conversations with Jamie George and Geoffrey Ashe at Glastonbury Abbey, June 2013 King Arthur’s Avalon by Geoffrey Ash Glastonbury: Maker of Myths by Frances Howard-Gordon British History Online: A History of the County Seat of Somerset, Vol 9: Glastonbury and Street The Tunnels of Glastonbury
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