It is a very old legend that St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, came back to Britain in his old age, collected together some hermits he found near Glastonbury and became their first Abbot there. While there is no sound evidence, documentary or archaeological, that the Apostle of Ireland either lived or died at Glastonbury, the following will be of interest.
The first life of St. Dunstan (died A.D.988) was written about twelve years after his death by a Saxon priest of whom we know only the initial, “B”. The author had gathered much information from Dunstan's own mouth, as well as from Dunstan's pupils.
“B” makes it plain that Dunstan received an excellent education at Glastonbury. To account for this he states that, “pilgrims of Irish race, like many others of the faithful, frequented Glastonbury with great devotion, especially in honour of blessed Patrick, who is said to have ended his life happily 'there in the Lord”. 1
In a document found in William of Malmesbury's book, On the Antiquity of Glastonbury (A.D.1130), St. Patrick himself is made to relate the following: “After converting the Irish and establishing them solidly in the Catholic faith he returned to his native land, and was led by guidance from on high to Glastonbury. There he came upon certain holy men living the life of hermits. Finding themselves all of one mind with Patrick they decided to form a community, and elected him as their superior. Later, two of their members resided on the Tor to serve its Chapel.” Many history scholars believe that this statement was not written by William, but was later inserted by well meaning monks of the Abbey.
In his day (died A.D.1143) William of Malmesbury would have seen the reputed burial place of St. Patrick, now adorned with gold and silver. 2 He evidently accepted the account which he was given, that St. Patrick died at Glastonbury, and was buried in the Old Wattle Chapel, and was succeeded by his disciple Benignus as Abbot.
Let us see very briefly what is known in Ireland concerning the Apostle of Ireland. A beautiful document which St. Patrick wrote is called the “Confession”. It is a Confession, not in our usual sense, but in the sense of the Scripture text which recommends us to “confess”, that is, proclaim God's works; it is a public acknowledgment with praise and thanksgiving for God's mercies to him. In it he states: “Even if I wished to go to Britain... I am bound by the Spirit who gives evidence against me if I do this, telling me that I shall be guilty; and I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun - nay, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come here and stay with them for the rest of my life”.
Is it reasonable to suppose that a man of such calibre would have changed his mind on such an important issue? One well-known contributor to the history of St. Patrick 3 thinks “it is possible that Patrick, tired and ill at the end of his arduous mission felt released from his vow not to leave Ireland, and returned to the monastery from which he had come, which might have been Glastonbury”.
The writings and deepest traditions in Ireland tell us that Patrick came there as bishop in A.D.432, when he was about 47 years old. He spent the last years of his life at Armagh, and died there at the age of 75, about the year 461. The place of his burial seems to have been kept secret in accordance with his wishes. The Book of Armagh 4 simply says, “Where his bones are no one knows”. Perhaps he was buried at Armagh itself, or at Downpatrick, or at Saul where he founded his first Church. As early as the 7th century his feast was observed on 17th March.
But whatever the weight of evidence either way, St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, will always have a place of honour among the Saints of Glastonbury.
1 See H. P. R. Finberg. I.E.R. June 1967.
2 Ademi de Domerham Historia de Rebus Gestis Glastoniensibus, ed. T. Hearne, Oxford, 1727, see:- Glastonbury Library.
3 J. Carney, The Problem of St. Patrick, Dublin 1961, p.121.
4 A manuscript dating from about A.D.800.