Abbot Thurstan And The Killing Of His Monks At Glastonbury

As told by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, a certain Norman monk named Thurstan was brought over by William the Conqueror to lead a monastery in Glastonbury, England. Tensions were high—since his invasion in 1066, King William had toppled Anglo-Saxon rule in England, replaced English bishops and abbots with loyal Norman clergymen, took wealth from English monasteries that had been given to them by defeated Anglo-Saxon lords, and he also raised taxes on England’s people. When Thurstan reached his monastery in Glastonbury, he found the monks under his care to be just as bitter and angry about conquest as the rest of England, leading to a hostile relationship between the native monks and their new Norman leader.

Unfortunately, Abbot Thurstan was not one for compromise. He was an opinionated man who wanted to bring Norman-French customs with him to his new home. If the Anglo-Saxon monks did anything different from what he had known in Caen, Abbot Thurstan was determined to put an end to it. The Glastonbury monks resisted the abbot’s reforms, and apparently did so very publicly, causing even more tension. Thurstan eventually started using his connections to the Norman government and army in an attempt to force the Anglo-Saxon monks into submission. In the end, neither side would give up on their struggle. Yet, in such a showdown, Abbot Thurstan had the advantage, for he had the military and local authorities on his side. Tragically for the monks at Glastonbury, Thurstan would misuse his power.

Anger between the abbot and his monks grew to such a level that Thurstan eventually gathered a band of Norman warriors and attacked his own monastery in 1083. The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester described the scene:

“[Thurstan] suddenly broke into the chapter-house at the head of an armed band of men in arms, one day when they least expected it, and pursued the terrified monks, who took refuge in the church, to the foot of the altar. The armed band pierced the crosses and the images and shrines of the saints with darts and arrows, and even speared to death one of the monks as he was clinging to the altar; another was shot by arrows on the altar-steps; the rest, driven by necessity, defended themselves bravely with the benches and candlesticks of the church, and, although severely wounded, drove the soldiers out of the choir” (entry for A.D. 1083).

Abbot Thurstan’s henchmen were not dissuaded when the monks managed to bar the door. Instead, they found other areas and accessways from which they could continue their barrage of arrows. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Normans “went up on the upper floor, and kept shooting downward with arrows towards the sanctuary…they shot cruelly, and others brake down the doors there, and went in, and slew some of the monks to death, and wounded many therein, so that the blood came from the altar upon the steps, and from the steps on the floor” (entry for 1083). The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester reported 2 deaths and 14 wounded, whereas the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the casualties from the attack as 3 deaths and 18 wounded.

A trial or inquiry was held after the bloodbath at Glastonbury, in which Abbot Thurstan was found to have acted improperly. His punishment was light, as he seems to have merely been sent back to Normandy, where he remained until the death of William the Conqueror in 1087. According to the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, the next king of England, William II “Rufus,” gave Thurstan the opportunity to buy back his position as abbot of the Glastonbury monastery for the price of 500 pounds. Whatever Thurstan’s choice, he was said to have died far away from Glastonbury.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (14th century illustration of the Abbey of Vezelay in BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 328v, [Public Domain] via picryl.com and Creative Commons).

 

Sources:

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.
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