Image: Tunic Cross from St. Hillary, Cornwall
Lettering: The Making of the Lamb
Lettering: A Novel by Robert Harley Bear
Lettering: A Novel by Robert Harley Bear

Legend Trails of Glastonbury

View over the legendary mists from St. Michael's Tower atop the Glastonbury Tor

The legendary mists of Avalon at sunrise through St. Michael's Tower arches atop the Glastonbury Tor.

There are several legends connecting Saint Joseph of Arimathea with Britain and early Christianity. In addition to the Missing Years legend of how Joseph of Arimathea brought young Jesus to Britain as an adolescent, there is also the legend of how Joseph of Arimathea founded what became the great Monastery of Glastonbury shortly after Christ’s death and resurrection, bringing Christianity to the British Isles. If you ever wondered why the Knights of the Round Table went searching all over Britain, of all places, in their quest for the Holy Grail, the Arimathean is at the heart of that legend, too, for the Tale of Camelot holds that St. Joseph brought the Holy Grail with him to Britain to be found.

So far, this page discusses the connection between the legends and the trade in Cornish tin that stretches back to the Bronze Age. It also presents material about the lives of the Late Iron Age British Celts that Jesus would have encountered. More material will be coming soon about the sites in Britain connected to the Arimathean legends. Several non-fiction books have been written about these legends. The leading ones are The Traditions of Glastonbury: The Biblical Missing Year of Christ: Answered (1983, revised 1987, 2005 ISBN 978-0934666107) by E. Raymond Capt, and Missing Years of Jesus (2010 ISBN 978-1848500426) by Dennis Price.

Follow the Tin

Ruin of tin mine on North Cornwall Coast

Ruin of 19th century tin mine on Cornwall coast between St. Agnes and Porthtowan. Photo by N. H. Rhodes.

One aspect of the legend that is solidly grounded in fact is the importance of British tin to the ancient Mediterranean World. Bronze is an alloy of approximately 90% copper and 10% tin. The combination of these two relatively soft metals into the hard alloy fueled the advance of mankind from the crude implements of the Stone Age. From the start of the Bronze Age in roughly 2500 B.C. until the advent of iron about 700 B.C., bronze was the hardest substance known. It could carry a sharp edge needed for both plows and weapons. It made possible the agricultural surplus required for the great cities of the ancient world.

Both copper and tin are essential to bronze. Although copper is found in many places around Europe, there was only one place for the ancient people of Europe and the Middle East to get tin, and that was Cornwall in Britain.  Herodotus, writing in the 5th Century B.C., makes reference to the metal trade with the “Isles of the West,” calling them the “Cassiterides” or Tin Isles. Others who wrote of the tin trade with Britain include Diodorus Siculus (a Roman historian of the 1st century B.C.), Pytheas (353-323 B.C.), and Polybeus (160 B.C.).  The Royal Museum at Truro displays the St. Mawes Tin Ingot that possibly dates from pre-historic times.

The legends connect St. Joseph of Arimathea to the British tin trade, but it is probably an over-simplification to assume that this trade continued unabated through Jesus’s time. The Atlantic trade zone was greatly disrupted by Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul that occurred about fifty years before Jesus’s birth.  Trade with Britain continued on, but to the Roman way of thinking it made more sense to cross the English Channel where it is narrowest near Dover.  This is worked into the story of the Making of the Lamb. Joseph of Arimathea, the merchant of Jesus’s family, is portrayed as something of a contrarian who takes risks to reopen the “ancient” trade route direct to Cornwall.

Tin mining continued in Cornwall through the early twentieth century. The plight of the Cornish tin miners is discussed in Bernard Walke’s autobiography, Twenty Years at St. Hilary (1935, 2002), as the miners suffered deplorable working conditions and then lost their livelihood as the industry succumbed to the Great Depression, the effect of competition from Third World discoveries, and the depletion of the Cornish lodes. The ruins of tin mines still dot the Cornish landscape, and some have been preserved as museums.

Celtic Life in the Iron Age

Celtic helmet

Iron age Celtic helmet on display in the British Museum

Jesus would have been a teenager more than fifty years after Julius Caesar raided Britain, but the island was not conquered by the Romans until AD 43, some ten years after his death and resurrection. Had he traveled to Britain, Jesus would have encountered late iron-age Celts and druids. Although it suited the Romans to portray these people as barbaric, the culture was remarkably sophisticated.

Stone Runins of iron age village at Carn Euny, Cornwall

The Celtic roundhouses typically featured a thatched roof over a low circular or oblong wall. To the right are the ruins of Carn Euny, a small iron age village near Penzance in Cornwall. The stone walls of the roundhouses were integrated into the surrounding wall of the village. Carn Euny features a mysterious fogou, an underground passage about sixty-five feet long that may have served for storage, ritual or shelter from danger. Wattle and daub was the other major type of construction in southern iron age Britain.

Wattle construction Prior to its closing in 2009, the Peat Moors Centre, where these pictures were taken, was located on the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury. The Center displayed reconstructions of iron age roundhouses and exhibits on Celtic life. The wattle shown to the left consisted of a basket-like weaving of small branches around upright posts.

Sign demonstrating the unpleasant nature of daub work.The daub was the mud-like plaster that had to be worked into the wattle by hand, not a pleasant task. The art of watttle and daub building continued into the Middle Ages, and it was featured in one of the episodes of the Worst Jobs in History series. The wattle and daub segment begins at 11:38. Click here to view the episode on YouTube.

Reconstructed Celtic iron age roundhouse A finished roundhouse. Pagan talismans and other decorations would have been sculpted into the walls or hung about the interior.

Reconstructed Celtic roundhouse interior with loom

A loom such as the one shown would have been typical of the handicrafts carried on in the community.

Battersea shield from the Iron Age

The Iron Age Celts were master metal workers. The Battersea Shield on display in the British Museum demonstrates their handiwork.

Iron age brass mirror Several gold torcs

Metals were not only for weapons and farm implements. The Celts enjoyed some luxury items such as the brass mirror and gold torcs. These items are on display at the British Museum in London.

A Celtic family of the British Iron Age

Life among the Britsh Celts of the Iron Age would have been hard, but remarkably sophistocated compared to the popular image of prehistoric people. The picture of the Celtic family of this time was taken of an exhibit at the Jewry Museum in Leicester. The Celts had domesticated animals, soap, sundials, trade networks, and a strong division of labor. Compared to life in Colonial America, the Celts lacked gunpowder and writing. But by the time of Jesus's lifetime some of the British Celts influenced by the Romans began minting coins with Greek letters.

Check back for more about the legends of Christ and St. Joseph of Arimathea in Britain.