Civic History

by Cllr John Brunsdon MBE

Ina, King of the West Saxons, granted Glastonbury a Charter from his capital Town Somerton. This effectively was the start of the Abbey and estate of the twelve hides. The town grew round the Abbey that had special privileges. The Abbot was the supreme Authority, making laws and keeping order, raising taxes etc. This continued until the dissolution of the Monasteries. During this time the Abbey greatly increased its wealth, estates and influence. When king Edward visited with his Queen one Easter, and wished to hold court, he was requested by the Abbot not to do so since this was contrary to the privileges whereby only the Abbot held court within the twelve hides. So the King held court in Street Church instead! From time to time there were clashes with the Bishop of Bath and West over navigation rights versus fisheries on the rivers.

At the dissolution of the Monasteries, the Abbot’s rule ceased and King’s law returned. Local government was by the vestry of St John’s Church and the magistrates. The Assizes dealt with major events as with the Monmouth Rebellion. Even when Queen Anne granted a charter in 1705, the Burgesses had relatively little power. This was changed when the nineteenth century local government act transferred power to elected councillors at Town and County levels. Glastonbury Borough Council had almost unitary authority status with responsibility for Public Health, roads, drains, water, refuse disposal, snow clearance, rate collection etc. Other authorities ran the canals, railways, gasworks and later water supply. This continued until the 1970 Local Government Act created Mendip District Council and reduced the Town Council’s role to that of a Parish Council.

Policing the Town was important in the nineteen century with the headquarters of the Somerset Constabularies in the Town next to the Magistrates Court.

To read more about the history of Glastonbury (and it’s council) from the 1950’s onwards see John Brunsdon’s Personal History of Glastonbury


The Municipal History of Glastonbury by the Rev. Preb. Grant R.D.

A Paper presented to the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society by the Vicar of St Benedict’s in 1904.

I BELIEVE that the foundation of Glastonbury’s great­ness was laid in the Ancient Lake Village discovered by Mr. A. Bulleid in 1892. The number and variety of the objects of beauty and utility prove the people to have been familiar with the arts of advanced civilization. Whether these articles were produced by local manufacture, or whether they were imported, it matters not. They are there, and there they must have been from the period of occupation to which they point. The fact of their being there shows that those who used them had sufficiently cultivated tastes to appreciate them.

The importation is an evidence of commercial intercourse with the outside world. We know that the merchants of the East traded with the isles of the West in gold and iron, lead and tin. There were celebrated explorers long before the nineteenth century. Those ancient mariners, merchants, and travellers, with a laudable desire to know what lay beyond the Casseterides, would sail away round the Land’s End, along the coast of North Devon, until they came to an arm of the sea which flowed towards the east until they came to Iniswytryn, where they found the people ready to receive them, willing to establish friendly relations, and open intercourse with them. Professor Boyd Dawkins has described this settlement as our ‘little Western Venice,’ and Mr. Arthur Evans states that ‘the more luxurious arts of the classical world were already influencing even the extreme west of our island in pre-Roman times.’

When the inhabitants were driven out of their marsh village, they sought refuge on higher ground, and they formed a settle­ment on the site where now stands our modern town nestling so picturesquely at the foot of the Tor. Was Inyswytryn a centre of Druidic culture and influence? It may have been. Some months ago I had a friend staying with me who is a Celtic scholar. In one of our conversations he started the question : ‘What made Glastonbury an attraction to the early Christians?’  My answer was that some authorities say that it was a centre of Druidism, and if so they were just acting in accordance with the principle of the great Missionary St. Paul, who selected chief centres of thought and culture as the basis of his oper­ations.

My friend remarked that in Celtic literature the wise men of the East were called Druids. I turned to the Irish Bible, and there I found ‘Tangadhar draoite o naird soir go Jerusalem,’ which is, in the English version, ‘There came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.’ I then remembered what Pliny says of Druidic teaching— ‘that Britain celebrates it with so many  wonderful ceremonies that she seems to have taught it even to the Persians.’

Julius Caesar has a great deal to say about the Druidic sys­tem. Apart from their religious ideas and practices, his account shows that their sphere of thought was lofty and comprehen­sive. He shows that Britain was the high seat of Druidism; that the people of Gaul sent their sons to Britain to be educated in the principles of Druidism. These boys and young men often spent twenty years in study that they might be perfect in their knowledge of the system. The instruction was im­parted orally, and had to be committed to memory, indicating special care and minuteness. The people who supplied the best teaching must themselves have been highly cultivated. The discoveries at our lake village point to this high cultivation, and show that it is not at all improbable that Inyswytryn may have been one of the chief centres of Druidic influence, where the arts and luxuries of life had developed to a considerable extent.

Passing on to Roman times, Avalonia is given as a town of some importance. It is difficult to trace the history of the rise and growth of municipal corporations. Some think they are due to the influence of Roman occupation ; some say there is a constitutional instinct in the Aryan race, especially the British branch of it, which has a natural tendency to develop municipal institutions rather than any other form of local government. Of the existing municipalities of England only a few occupy the same sites as the Roman municipia or colonies.  Several were swept away at or since the time of Domesday, while others did not arise until the Domesday.

From what our discoveries show us of the powers and capac­ities of the ancient inhabitants of Glastonbury, I think we may assume that they had those inherent qualities which would enable them to organize a form of local or municipal govern­ment. In a charter granted by King Ina in the early part of the eighth century, Glastonbury is called ‘pristina urbs,’ an ancient distinguished town, a chief town of first import­ance. On this Warner writes, we find, that Glastonbury was a borough in the eighth century, placed under the control and protection of the Abbot as its chartered and feudal lord. All authority, both ecclesiastical and civil, centred in the Abbot. He was supreme. Through his officials he exercised magisterial authority over all matters in the town.

In the terrier of Abbot Beere, who died in 1524, there is a paragraph which shows the state of the town and its civil government previous to the dissolution. It is as follows: ‘’In the town of Glastonbury there is a certain hall, lately built by Richard Lord Abbot, for courts and sessions and meetings of the sheriffs and justices of the peace within the liberties of the twelve hides, under which is a gaol, for the confinement of prisoners.’ A sheriff’s court is held once at Hock, a festival held in March and again at Michaelmas. This was to receive reports of the inspection of alehouses and weights and measures, at which all the free tenants within the twelve hides attend. The sheriffs of the twelve hides held their meetings from month to month. There are two coroners elected by writ of the Lord Abbot, and who were removable at his pleasure, who inspected all misdemeanours, received the adjurations of felons, and recorded such things as belonged to the coroner’s office before itinerant justices within the hides.

This extract gives an idea of the Abbot’s judicial authority. The town enjoyed many privileges under the government of the Abbots. In 1319 the Borough received a writ to return two members to Parliament. The writ was issued to William de Grymstede. No answer was returned by the bailiff, and Glastonbury  is  not  mentioned  in any parliamentary return afterwards. When the dissolution came in 1539, Glastonbury lost all its ancient rights and privileges. The town was despoiled of its ecclesiastical dignities and its municipal honours. Its feudal lord was gone; its greatest landowner was gone; the entertainer of strangers, the benefactor of the poor, the chief magistrate, all were gone. The lands passed to other owners, who had enough to do to establish themselves in possession of their newly acquired estates. And the mass of the people were powerless to assert their rights or claim their ancient liberties.

That great catastrophe laid Glastonbury in ruins materially, politically, and civilly. Time passed on, and further troubles came in the revolution of the seventeenth century. When that was well over, Glastonbury began to rouse herself, to re-assert herself, and sought to recover her ancient liberties, which had been so ruthlessly torn from her. The landed pro­prietors had become settled in their estates, and attained to positions of authority and influence. There were the Aplins, the Kings, the Wrentmores, the Blakes, and many others— prosperous people in the commercial world, who were acquiring property, position, and influence. Glastonbury had survived the terrible inundation of 1603; the fearful disastrous fire of 1658; the civil war, the miseries of Monmouth’s rebellion. Several Glastonbury men joined the Duke of Monmouth’s standard, and six of them were hanged by order of Judge Jefferies.

The men of Glastonbury aroused themselves to action and took measures to recover their rights and privileges by peti­tioning for a charter of incorporation. There was a clever rising young barrister, keenly interested, who was ready to help them. Perhaps he shrewdly foresaw steps for possible promotion; events showed that a successful career began in Glastonbury. The petition was framed and presented, and in response the charter was granted in the fourth year of the reign of Queen Anne and in the year of our Lord 1705. It is a very wordy document, with constant repetition of certain phrases. It defines the boundaries of the town. It ordains that the town described as aforesaid should ‘forever after be and remaine a town of peace and liberty to the dread and terror of evil men and the reward, support, and encouragement of good men, and also that our peace and other acts of justice and good gov­ernment may there the better be kept, preserved, and executed Wee do further will . . . and ordain that . . . there . . . shall be one honest and discreet person to be . . -who shall be and be called the Mayor of the Town aforesaid and from henceforth and for ever there shall be three and twenty honest and lawfull men, inhabitants of the said town of Glaston­bury, to be chosen . . . who shall be burgesses of the town aforesaid, seven of whom together with the Mayor shall be called the capital burgesses of the town of Glastonbury, and the other sixteen of the said burgesses shall be and be called the inferior burgesses of the town of Glastonbury. And for the better execution of our will and grant in this behalfe, we have nominated, constituted, and appointed, and by these presents for us, our heires, and successors, do nominate, constitute, and appoint our well-beloved John Aplin, gent., to be first and present Mayor of the said town.,

In a similar manner it states that Peter King was appointed the first Recorder, and William Warman the first Town Clerk. The first eight ‘ capital burgesses’ were John Aplin, Peter King, Robert King, sen., William Vincent, sen., Fitz Wrent-more, Thomas Mores, William Bartlett, and Giles Randell, and the first sixteen ‘inferior burgesses’ were William Porch Thomas Stroud, Timothy Rood, Henry Bytham, Thomas Bartlett, Thomas Browning, Robert King, jun., John Thorpe, William Vincent, jun., Thomas Prew, William Wilcox, John Somerton, Thomas Harris, Silvanus Penny, Samuel Downton, and John Wherrett.

When the Parliamentary Reform Bill was passed in 1832 it was found that municipal corporations in many cases provided the most convenient machinery for corruption in relation to the parliamentary franchise. A Royal Commission of enquiry was appointed to enquire into ‘the existing state of the munici­pal corporations in England and Wales, and to collect infor­mation respecting the defects of their constitution.’ The scope of the enquiry embraced the area, population, and the character or conditions of the town.    The commissioners presented their report to Parliament at the commencement of the session of 1835, and on the 9th of September King William IV. gave the Royal assent to the Municipal Bill. The total number of places to which the enquiry extended was 285, of which Glastonbury was one.

There were then in Glastonbury 553 houses, the population was 2,800, and the number of electors was 24. Under the new act the number of burgesses on the roll was 214. The number of burgesses on the roll in 1878 had increased to 526. The number at the present time is 880. By the new Act of 1835 the Corporation consists of the Mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councillors. The ex-mayor sits with the Mayor as a Justice of the Peace for one year.

I have been trying to find the petition in which the inhabi­tants of Glastonbury pray to be incorporated, but have, so far, been unsuccessful. I shall, however, continue my researches, and shall hope to have something more to say when the bi­centenary of the incorporation is celebrated next June.


The Town Hall

Although a charter was granted to the town in 1705, following a petition citing the lack of local justice which stated “whereof the morall of the inhabitants are corrupt, and cavill and breach of the peace are frequent”, it was not until 1813 when an order was placed with a Mr.Beard of Somerton to draw up plans for a Town Hall. The early Corporation, composed of capital and inferior burgesses, held meetings in the market house which, because of its poor condition made change inevitable. After years of discussion a Mr.Down offered a piece of ground next to the gateway beside the Red Lion one which to build a new market hall on the ground floor and a Town Hall above. The Council Chamber remains there today, above a small meeting room which is part of the whole complex. The first meeting of the Council in the new Town Hall took place in December 1814, but “later adjourned to the White Hart to consider how to find £100”, presumably for further costs. The debt was still not repaid in 1865. Today the building houses the office of the Town Clerk, a large hall with three fine chandeliers widely used for receptions, dances, musical entertainments and meetings. The small hall below the Chamber is also popular for smaller meetings and functions. Three rooms are now licensed for civil weddings, including the Council Chamber where the monthly meetings of the Council take place on the second Tuesday in every month. Meetings are held under the watchful eye of Sir Peter King, Baron Ockham, Speaker of the House of Lords and Lord Chancellor. A barrister with local family connections, Peter King became the first Recorder of the town under the Charter. The Town Hall today is entirely funded by the town and the range of activities it attracts and is adjoined by St.Dunstan’s Car Park, recently acquired by the Council. This park is capable of holding more than 60 cars and coaches and is the starting point for the local bus which regularly takes visitors around the Tor during the summer months