US filmmakers are preparing, for 2012 release, a £50m production of the so-called Glastonbury Legend - how Joseph of Arimathea arrived at Glastonbury, where he planted what became the Holy Thorn as a token of the foundation of Christianity in Britain. This does not seem to be a conventional Hollywood project in the Mel Gibson/Russell Crowe mould. Galatia Films’s “Glastonbury: Isle Of Light” is being directed by David M. Evans, who tends to specialise in films about children, while scriptwriter and producer Daniel McNicoll is also a director, best-known for a documentary on swordplay in historical film, Reclaiming The Blade, with a background in music as well as film.
View over the Somerset Levels from South Cadbury hillfort (claimed by some to have been Arthur's Dark Ages 'Camelot'), with Glastonbury itself just visible in the haze, 12 miles away.
Location filming is planned for the Isle of Man, Ireland, Wales, and Somerset, using CGI to mask any modern features. Glastonbury at the time of Joseph was a tidal port, with the sea then reaching far inland across the 360 square-mile Somerset Levels. (This is suspected to be the basis of its oldest known name, Ynys Witrin or Isle of Glass, and the effect of light reflecting off the surrounding water may also have inspired the film’s “Isle Of Light” title as a visual metaphor.) What would have existed at Glastonbury itself was a “lake village” familiar elsewhere in Europe in Celtic provinces during the Iron Age, with timber-framed houses, thatched with marsh reeds, set on stilts. A new museum is actually being built locally using this as a harmonious design (story and computer-modelled image here). This may also have been the design of the original wattle-and-daub church in the Abbey grounds where, the legend says, the Apostles built the first above-ground church in Christendom - foundation of the Celtic or Apostolic church of Britain.
This of course is disputed by academically-orthodox English historians, whose determined hardline stance towards this subject area should not be underestimated. (A recent example of this was in Radio 3’s pre-Xmas 3-part series The Romans In Britain, wherein presenter Bettany Hughes claimed the so-called early Celtic church of Britain was really Roman. Of course Rome did not adopt Christianity for several centuries after the AD43 invasion, and often imprisoned early adoptees, burnt them alive, threw them to the lions, and so on. But her view is part and parcel of a pro-Roman authoritarian outlook common among English historians. She calls the Britons 'thuggish barbarians' and even claims that the term “Wealas,” the original of “Wales” and “Welsh,” literally meaning forest-folk and used by the Saxons to refer to the natives as “foreigners,” really meant Romano-Britons. )
The film project is being advertised as “A sweeping epic chronicling the legends of Joseph of Arimathea as he escapes peril in Jerusalem only to find himself on the other side of the globe facing a more extreme enemy. Upon arrival in Britain, which is on the edge of war with Rome, he implores the help of the warrior-prince Caractacus in an effort to defend their sacred customs and ancient ways.” The director has commented that “It seems impossible that no one has made this story before,” and it certainly offers a heady mix of elements. There’s the founding of a new religion (a motif familiar from Hollywood films like Quo Vadis and Ben Hur); the escape by sea from a Holy Land under Roman occupation (more shades of Ben Hur); the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 (not really dramatised onscreen yet); the betrayal (supposedly by a pro-Roman tribal queen) and capture of the British resistance leader Caractacus, who is kept in Rome as a hostage; there he is married to the Emperor Claudius’s daughter Genuissa to bind his loyalty (love interest as well as a captivity narrative).
However there are a few touchy issues inherent in the story situation, which may well provide the underpinning reasons why there have been no previous film dramas. For a start, these days there’s a speculative theory that Caractacus’s sojourn in Rome led to the introduction there of the formative new religion Joseph had brought to Britain a decade before (circa AD37). This theory implies that Christianity went from Britain to Rome, rather than vice versa, turning church history on its head - so is difficult to put into a mainstream film representing a large investment by those most conservative types, the money men. Hollywood Roman-era epics like Quo Vadis and Ben Hur have always been completely reverential, with the prospect of church-organised boycotts and press attacks (as happened with The Da Vinci Code).
The film’s (working?) title “Glastonbury: Isle Of Light” sounds reverential in a New Age Christian sort of way, which is very like Glastonbury today, a mix of New Age belief and modern Church of England style Christianity. This year is a special one for the church, the 400th anniversary of the KJV - the King James version of the Bible. This is the now standard edition which James I commissioned to replace earlier printed (mainly Tyndale’s 1522 version) and older hand-copied monastic codex versions, and this is getting media coverage, especially from the BBC, as a founding work of British culture. (For example, the Queen’s Xmas broadcast this year was from Hampton Court, as it was where James I convened the church conference that led to the KJV, also known as the Authorised Version.) The KJV/AV like other versions does mention Joseph of Arimathea as the wealthy man who claims the body of Jesus, which Pilate agrees to as Joseph is a relative (usually given as uncle). Thus Joseph’s existence cannot be questioned by the orthodox, but there is nothing more there about him in the Bible - certainly nothing about his coming to Britain afterwards with other Apostles and building a church.
Emperor Claudius’s daughter Genuissa appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12C codex Historia Regum Brittaniae, but this is a worthless source in itself, an historical romance done as a pseudo-history, only useful as a pointer to search out more obscure codex sources (which are probably lost). There, the British king Arviragus (not Caratacos – though some argue these are different names for the same man) after his defeat by Claudius’s legions, is given Claudius’s only daughter in marriage to cement the peace treaty - Genuissa. Emperor Claudius’s life and times are splendidly captured in Robert Graves’s 2-volume novel I, Claudius, and he did go to Britain to lead the AD 43 campaign for a time, for which he was accorded a triumph (parade), and his son was later named Britannicus. (In the novel, he claims he almost captured Caractacus during a battle, which does not seem to be historically based, or even likely.)
But you won’t find the Genuissa story there, the novels being based closely on Roman sources, which say that Caratacos (not Arviragus) was betrayed and taken to Rome under house arrest. He saved himself from a gruesome execution via a dignified speech to the Senate, and may well later have got married there to a Roman princess, but the marrying-the-Emperor’s-daughter part doesn’t really hold up. If Genuissa and her treaty marriage were both genuine, she may have been married off not to Caractacus but Arviragus, just as Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Brittaniae says. The argument in favour is that Arviragus as far as we know was never captured, and it would make more sense if he had long eluded capture to make him a son-in-law, ending hostilities by preserving his status as a client king of Rome - a common practice. (A reference in Juvenal implies Arviragus is still astride his chariot in the reign of Vespasian and/or Domitian – which would mean he survived Claudius, and as late as AD 81-96.)
The hawthorn tree in Glastonbury Abbey grounds.
Returning to our present era, the hawthorn tree which the legend has planted by Joseph of Arimathea was vandalised just before Xmas for reasons unknown. This is the one on Wearyall Hill at the edge of town, not the one in the Abbey grounds which is pictured above. (The earlier thorn trees having been cut down by Cromwell’s men, what survives are several offshoots; the vandalised one was planted in 1951 for the Festival of Britain.) The wide coverage of this vandalism in the national (and international) media indicates the veneration of the legend, despite the Church of England (called Anglican abroad) officially slighting it.
The Church is actually quite ambivalent towards the legend. On the one hand, it tolerates it in ways, with a flowering sprig from the Glastonbury Thorn (the one in the Abbey grounds) sent every Xmas to the Queen - who as Head of State is also Head of the CoE as the Established Church. (The Thorn is said to flower at Christmas time, as a proof of its miraculous status.) On the other hand, it dismisses the idea of a pre-CoE, Celtic, Apostolic, Church of Britain, and some of its ministers refuse to allow the song inspired by the legend to be sung in church. (It's often referred to as a hymn, to the annoyance of these clerics, as it isn’t one in either official status or form, and its extra-Biblical content could be seen as somewhat subversive doctrinally.) This is of course the popular communal song Jerusalem, beginning “And did these feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green”, the lyric deriving from a poem by Blake. This refers to the tie-in ‘holy visit’ legend that Jesus as a boy visited Britain with his uncle - which we won’t get into here as [a] it’s quite unlikely the film will dare to incorporate this, and [b] we’ve covered it in earlier posts (cf “And Did These Sandals Walk Upon England’s Mountains Green?").
View from Glastonbury Tor, with the town at right.
Today, an international pilgrimage route has developed following in Joseph’s final footsteps. This includes the path where he wended his way first up Wearyall Hill, where he supposedly planted his staff, which later flowered (a motif you can see in films like Quo Vadis); the Tor whose viewpoint summit [photo, top] is reached by a winding footpath which may be a relic of a Celtic field-strip system for cultivating steep hillsides, but some claim is an ancient ritual maze; the Chalice Well just below; and the Abbey grounds where, the legend says, the Apostles built the first above-ground church in Christendom.
The song also is well travelled, though it’s not clear how many of those who hear it or even sing it understand the allusion to the legend. There was an interesting BBC documentary on Glastonbury a few years ago which begins with what looks like a clip from a silent film showing Joseph traipsing across the hills here. The 2007 docu Jerusalem: An Anthem For England outlines how the song has now been adopted as an anthem by all the major political parties plus other national groups like the Women’s Institute and the Naturist movement (Blake and his wife were nudists). Just this past year, the CoE leadership relented on its opposition, and put out an official advisory to ministers to stop banning the song on grounds it is “too nationalistic.” Considering the diversity of social and political causes the song is sung in support of (covered in the 2007 BBC documentary mentioned), this was always a simplistic approach.
With all the various interest groups around, the filmmakers are going to have more than the Church to worry about if they put a foot wrong in their depiction of the legend, and will have to tread a fine path of their own, overcoming a few insurmountable obstacles along the way, some of which are too complicated to get into here (like the matter of whether Joseph brought relics like the Chalice Cup or Grail with him). For those interested, there is more background on the Glastonbury legend in our previous blog post, “The Thorny Matter Of Glastonbury” , as well as on our earlier illustrated webpage on Glastonbury and the legend, here.