Glastonbury Encounters – Brigid, Bridie, Brigantia

The site of St Brigid’s chapel with a glimpse of Glastonbury Tor at the top right of the photo.

Following my two “sightings” of Brigid –  first on the west face of St Michael’s tower at the top of the Tor (see here) and then almost under the ground at the White Spring below the hill (and here) – I did learn more about her over the next few days via the internet and books at home, and what emerged through information, from the esoteric to the mundane, was what an enduring phenomena she was – or is.

A Celtic triple goddess, honoured at Imbolc (the point in the year between the winter solstice and the spring equinox), guardian of sacred springs, keeper of the hearth fire, and a much venerated Christian saint.  Her attributes were very similar to the Roman goddess Juno who was also honoured at this time of year. Perceived to be a bridging and balancing energy and a unifying principle, she represents the impulse of the beginning of new life, hence the celebrating of her at this time of the year when the first green shoots appear.

There’s an interesting post about Brigid (she is known by many names including Bride, Bridey, Brigantia) in this blog Clas Merdin: Tales from the Enchanted Island – Essays on Legendary History, Celtic Mythology & Matters Arthurian which includes an explanation of her relationship to Glastonbury

“Today Imbolc is also known as St Brigid’s Day, an Irish festival heralding the beginning of spring. Brigid is associated with milk and is often depicted with a cow and milking stool, perhaps suggesting an ancient tradition now lost to us that linked milk at this time of year with a purification ritual.”

“Brigid holds a special association with Glastonbury and is depicted on Saint Michael’s tower on the Tor milking a cow. Brigid also appears on the north door of the Lady Chapel in the Abbey ruins in a carved figure and has traditional connections with the Somerset town. According to Giraldus Cambrensis and John of Glastonbury, She visited Patrick at Glastonbury during the 5th century. William of Malmesbury claimed that Brigid stayed at Beckery on the western side of Glastonbury where she founded a small chapel. Near the foot of Wearyall Hill, made famous by Joseph of Arimathea and the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, is a small hillock known as Bride’s Mound. On this mound was a spring known as Saint Bride’s Well. Relics, claimed to be Brigid’s, including a spindle and a bell, were left at Bride’s Mound where the adjacent fields are called “The Brides.”

The north door of the Lady Chapel among the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Brigid milking a cow is said to be depicted in the carvings, but I have yet to find her!

There’s more about the archaeology and history of the chapel, also thought to have been a monastic site, here – with the figures of both Patrick and Brigid featuring so strongly in legends, it’s interesting to note that Beckery is translated as Little Ireland, and the most recent excavations there (carried out in 2016), date the  archaeology as  5th and early 6th century AD, that corresponds with the time Brigid was reported (by William of Malmesbury in the 12th Century) to have stayed there in 488 AD.

There are numerous churches, chapels and shrines dedicated to Brigid across the Celtic fringe – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the south west of England and Brittany but also wells, springs and landscape features that bear names related to the various versions of Brigid (such as Bride, Bridey, Brigantia); not far from Glastonbury near the coast are Brean Down and Brent Knoll, both high points in the low lying landscape (and visible from Glastonbury Tor). According to Elizabeth Rees in “Celtic Saints in their Landscape”, (Sutton Publishing 2001) Brean and Brent are names thought to be derived from the Celtic word Bríga.

“In a settlement below [Brent Knoll], one of a line of springs was formerly known as ‘Our Lady’s well’: this title often refers to Brigid. Her cult is one of the clearest examples of the fusion of a Christian saint with the elements of earlier religious belief” 

The distant hill seen across the flooded moors from Glastonbury Tor is Brent Knoll, near the Somerset coast, the name possibly derived from Bríga.

I went to find the site of her chapel in August 2019, eighteen months after first becoming aware of this compelling character. I climbed the Tor first (hard not to on such a lovely summer’s day!) and spent a delectable time in the Avalon orchard in the company of several dragonflies and with glimpses of the Tor through the apple-laden boughs of the trees.

An old sheep dip pond below the Tor

The Tor from the Avalon Orchard

I’d found the location of the chapel site at Beckery on the west side of the town by looking at OS maps and Google maps, but finding the access to it on the ground was tricky – it’s behind the old Morelands sheepskin factory mentioned in a previous post, a few of the old buildings remain although many have been replaced with brittle and anonymous commercial ‘units’, but round the back the path to the chapel site passes a contrasting enclave of “alternative lifestyle” dwellers and epic recyclers – old hippies in vans and inventive shacks with flowery patches of garden and odd sculptures.

Seen from the Tor, the site of the ancient chapel at Beckery is to the right of Wearyall Hill in the centre of the photo.

I had to ask a couple of these friendly natives where the path went after this, as it wasn’t clear but they directed me to a gate by a stream that led into a field and from there I could see rising ground ahead. Walking across rough grassland with its late summer flowers I reached what I took to be the Mound which bore the damaged remains of what was probably an interpretation board, no longer legible. From this spot I could see fields to one side and in the other direction above some trees the top of St Michael’s tower on the Tor, but I couldn’t sense anything particular about the place at that time. I don’t know what I hoped for or expected but I felt a little disappointed. I didn’t come across a detailed plan of the site until recently and then I realised I missed the pool from where there is a view to the Tor, and the site of Bride’s well – maybe that would have provided a fuller experience.

Morelands ex-sheepskin factory in Beckery, once the 19thC industrial heart of Glastonbury

Some recycling sculpture between the Premiere Inn and the 6thC chapel site

The site has been tended for some years by a group called the Friends of Bride’s Mound who I think planted the avenue of Rowan trees leading to the Mound; the most pleasing memory I took from here was that the trees were bearing fronds of fat orange berries, some of which were dropping on the ground. Just a few weeks before this my first grandchild had been born, a little boy named Rowan, so I picked up some of the berries to take home and plant for him.

A particularly good source of information I found about Brigid is here and covers many aspects of her from Celtic Goddess to Christian saint with a balanced approach, and also has the plan of the chapel site which I wish I’d found before my visit!

One discovery I made during this research is that on Brigid’s feast day, February 1st, especially in Ireland where she is considered a most important saint, children often make a cross of rushes which is placed over doorways to protect the house from fire – a rather non-Christian practice that suggests the ritual is very much older. Although the crosses are usually four-armed, historically there were three-armed versions and that would tie in with the Celtic triple-aspect goddess. I found some rushes in a boggy part of the fields near our house and a YouTube video for guidance and made one of my own; it was a very pleasing thing to do sitting by the fire on a cold night on the last day of January, and I’m sure that more stories about Brigid, Bríga or Brigantia will come my way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s