Is Beckery the earliest British monastery?

A series of seven radiocarbon dates from the monastic cemetery at Beckery near Glastonbury are possibly the earliest archaeological evidence for monasticism in the British Isles. They suggest that the cemetery began in the 5th or early 6th centuries AD, probably 100-150 years before the first evidence for a religious function at Glastonbury Abbey. The earliest individual died between 405 and 544 calAD.

Up to 60 individualds were buried on the site and were recorded by the excavations of Philip Rahtz in the 1960s. 37 were identified as adult males, 2 as juveniles (possibly novices) and 1 female, who may have been a visitor or a patron.

The new dating suggests that the cemetery may have continued until the 9th century, when the monastery may have from Viking raiding. Several later medieval chapels were built over the cemetery and damaged many of the graves.

The teeth do not suggest rich food in the diet and the large degree of wear on the molars suggests a coarse diet. One individual had suffered a fractured upper arm that had healed over. Isotope analysis suggests a meat rich diet, except for the latest individual that was dated, who had a more vegtarian diet. This may have been due to a change in the rules about monastic diet.

The early dates may explain why Beckery later became associated with Saint Brigid and King Arthur. Saint Brigid is meant to have visited in 488 AD and to have left behind various relics which later attracted pilgrims to visit the chapel. Brigid was an Irish nun and a link with Ireland is credible, unlike the Arthur connection which appears to be a complex fabrication by the Abbey to boost the pilgrim trade. Imported mediterranean pottery of late 5th to early 6th century date has been found at numerous sites all around the Irish Sea and at three local sites in Glastonbury – the Tor, the Mound (now removed) and the Abbey site. These show the cultural and trading links of that time.

One response to “Is Beckery the earliest British monastery?

  1. Exciting stuff. I have a question though. The second to the last sentence of this posts lists 3 sites where Mediterranean pottery have been found in Glastonbury. I’m familiar with the Tor and the Abbey, but what is “the Mound”? I’m curious as I don’t think I’ve heard that referred to before and I’m intrigued. Thanks much.

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