Archeologists have uncovered up to 60 skeletons at Beckery Chapel near Glastonbury that have recently been dated to the 5th century CE, making it the oldest monastery in the UK. Its age may explain why it has been linked to the real and/or mythical King Arthur as the chapel where he was said to have a vision of Mary and the infant Jesus
“Beckery” means “bee-keeper’s island” in Old English and “Little Ireland” in Irish. While the stories of King Arthur’s vision and a visit from Ireland’s Saint Brigid have been told for centuries, the chapel was only discovered in the 1880s and the cemetery was not excavated until the 1960s when the first 50 or so remains were found. Those skeletons were identified as adult males, except for two young men and a female who may have been a nun.
The preponderance of males reinforces previous beliefs that this was indeed a monastery. The age is a surprise. Iona Abbey in Scotland and Glastonbury Abbey just down the road had been thought to be older, but this new evidence makes Beckery Chapel the oldest monastery in the UK. It appears the first monks were buried there in the 5th century CE and the last in the ninth century when the Vikings arrived.
The remains give hints of life in a small medieval monastery. The skeletons showed signs that the men had engaged in hard physical labor (more than just kneeling) during their lives and one had a fractured arm that never properly healed. Bone analysis showed that some of the men ate more meat and dairy than the others, which may indicate they came from elsewhere.
The generally accepted Arthurian connection to Beckery Chapel is that King Arthur saw the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus during a visit to the chapel. She gave him a crystal equal-armed cross which prompted Arthur to change his coat-of-arms from a Red Dragon to the crystal cross with an image of the Virgin and Child. Variations have Arthur seeing a mysterious old priest, visiting the chapel to prepare for the Battle of Badon or having the vision at the chapel of St. Mary Magdalene instead, causing some confusion about whom he actually saw in the vision. (I know – assuming Arthur himself actually existed.)
The connection to St. Brigid is even more interesting. She shares the name with the pre-Christian Irish goddess Brigid and it’s believed their stories have been merged – her feast day is February 1st which was originally the date of a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring called Imbolc. Fifteenth century writings have the Christian Brigid visiting Beckery Chapel in 488 and leaving relics.
Whether the Arthurian or Brigid connections are true or not, the verification of Beckery Chapel as the UK’s oldest monastery adds another interesting piece to its ancient history