Glastonbury Abbey – a dead secret

Before its destruction by Henry VIII in the dissolution of the monasteries, Glastonbury Abbey was the largest and most influential church in Britain — bigger than Westminster or Canterbury and long believed to be the oldest Christian foundation in the British Isles.  Perhaps because of its wealth and importance, the abbey building was subjected to a greater degree of destruction than any other. In 1539, the Earl of Somerset’s soldiers levelled the buildings, smashed statues and burned the library. The building was razed to the ground with such thoroughness that even its floorplan and overall dimensions became lost. A few written references survived, speaking of the Edgar Chapel, founded to honour the English saint and said to rival St George’s Chapel Windsor in magnificence. There was also an Italian style chapel known as the Loretto Chapel and this too was lost.

In 1907, after several centuries in secular hands, Glastonbury Abbey came onto the market. It was purchased by a wealthy individual and held in trust until the Church of England could raise the money to buy the site and begin a programme of restoration in 1908. The man the church appointed to head the excavations was Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945: pictured above in 1921) an architect responsible for several major public buildings in Wales and the West Country.

The site that Bligh Bond was charged with restoring was not promising. Local people had carted away loose stones over the centuries and all that remained of the original was the 14th century Abbot’s kitchen, parts of a small chapel and a gatehouse. From 1908 for a period of ten years, Bligh Bond and his team of workmen systematically excavated and restored the ground plan of the Abbey. But instead of using the usual trial-and-error methods of archaeology, digging a trench here and a trench there, Bligh Bond earned a reputation for having an uncanny way of marking out unerringly the areas to be excavated next. He uncovered the floor plan of the abbey itself — a huge building nearly 600 feet in length. He also found and excavated the missing Edgar Chapel and Loretto Chapel. The Church of England, and indeed most of Bligh Bond’s contemporaries, were astonished at the speed and accuracy of his excavations, where major discovery followed major discovery with almost routine regularity.

In 1918, Bligh Bond decided to disclose to the world the reason for his extraordinary success in excavating the abbey. He published a book entitled The Gate of Remembrance in which he revealed that he and a friend, whom he named as John Alleyne (actually Captain John Allan Bartlett), had been in contact through automatic writing with the spirit of a deceased monk who had guided the excavations by means of written instructions and diagrams, taken down by Alleyne and other mediums during seances.

Bligh Bond described the first session, which took place just before his official appointment in November 1907 in Bond ’s Bristol office. Almost at once, Alleyne began to write and draw at high speed. Both men were taken aback by the speed and clarity of the messages coming through. It was, Bligh Bond recalled, almost as though the monks had been waiting for centuries for just such a chance to have their say. At first a number of different voices were distinguished, who collectively referred to themselves as The Watchers. But one voice in particular emerged as the group’s spokesman. This voice identified himself as ‘Johannes Bryant’ one of the abbey’s monks.

Johannes said he lived from 1497 to 1533 and he ‘spoke ’ in a mixture of English and schoolboy Latin. Sensitive to criticisms of gullibility or fraud that might in future be levelled at them Bond had independent witnesses present at future sessions and these confirmed that Alleyne wrote at far too high a speed to simply be making it all up. Johannes was immensely knowledgeable about the fabric of the abbey and claimed not merely to have lived there but to have played some part in building work. Under his influence, Alleyne sketched a gargoyle that Johannes claimed to have sculpted himself.

Bond dug as instructed by his spiritual guide and almost at once discovered the foundations for the Abbey’s twin towers followed by the legendary Edgar Chapel. Next he found the main altar, and an unknown side door behind it, as well as finding coloured glass, secret tunnels, water courses and drainage systems. He was able to identify every part of the site, including the herb gardens, the monks’ hospital, dormitories, washrooms, some small cloisters (which were not shown on any historical plans).

In many of the sittings, as well as ‘Johannes’ Alleyne and Bond were also lectured on numerous occasions by Abbot Beere, the last of the great builders responsible for construction of the Abbey. Beere explained that the building embodied sacred geometry and sacred numbers and that he had personally journeyed to Italy to take the exact measurements of the Loretto Chapel so that they could be accurately replicated, perpetuating some great secret.

In 1918 Bond decided to publish the scripts of all the seances held to date, apparently expecting the work to have a decisive influence on public acceptance of paranormal matters, as the seance predictions had been borne out by excavations. In fact, publication of The Gate of Remembrance caused a furore from which Bond never recovered.

The principal churchman responsible for Glastonbury was the Dean of Wells, Joseph Robinson, who had been strongly opposed to Bond’s appointment as archaeologist in the first place. The book angered Robinson who now attacked Bond, calling his work unscientific and accusing him of ‘spiritualism’ – anathema to the established church. He also accused Bond of using Glastonbury, one of Britain’s holiest sites, as nothing more than an experiment.

Bond refused to withdraw his claims, especially when he received the backing of prominent figures like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Price. But his funding was severely cut back by the church, and the Archaeological Society appointed a co-director, Sebastian Evans, to keep an eye on him.

Three years later, in 1921, Bond was sacked by bishop Robinson when he refused to work any more with Evans. The excavation was shut down, 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 to discredit the claims of ‘Johannes’ that the building contained sacred geometry. Perhaps curiously, Bond never really believed that ‘Johannes’ was the spirit of a dead monk. Rather, he believed that he and Alleyne had tapped into what Carl Jung had termed the ‘collective unconscious’, a ‘pool of consciousness’ that was inherited by everyone and into which we can dip under the right conditions to retrieve tribal memories.

After his dismissal, Bligh Bond went to the United States where he embarked on a new career as a lecturer and where he found minds more receptive to his discoveries. He continued to experiment with the paranormal and in 1926 claimed to be the first person to cause a specific image to register on a photographic plate through the process of suggestion to a psychic medium. He also took a number of early Kirlian-type photographs. From this period on he gave up architecture and archaeology and became a full time psychic investigator. From 1921 to 1926 he edited Psychic Science magazine and from 1930 to 1935 was editor of Survival, the Journal of the American Society for Psychical research.

Today, Glastonbury Abbey is one of the most visited ancient sites in Britain but the name of Frederick Bligh Bond has been air-brushed from its history by the church authorities and it exists nowhere on the site. This is a shameful omission that should be rectified by the present authorities.

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