It is possible to walk right past one of the treasures of Glastonbury and barely realise it is there. St Margaret’s Chapel and the Magdalene Almshouses have a modest entrance off Magdalene St, in Magdalene Close, barely a few hundred metres away from the Abbey.
Entering into this secluded sacred space is to step outside of time and into the atmosphere of another age.
Around the time of the Norman Conquest, a great woman was Queen of Scotland. Margaret was a Princess of Wessex who had been born in exile and married Malcolm III of Scotland. She was renowned for her piety and good works. Glastonbury was already a major pilgrimage site and she paid for the establishment of a hospital with an adjacent chapel near the Abbey. She did likewise near other monastic sites in England. After her death she was canonised. The establishment continued with funding from the Abbey itself.
Hospitals of the time were also almshouses, places where poor and elderly people were housed. They were associated with the fascinating figure of Mary Magdalene, who among many other attributes was patron saint of lepers. She was clearly considered important in early medieval Glastonbury as the road on which the Abbey and almshouses are situated bears her name.
In recent years she has become the subject of increasing speculation. Bible stories tell us that she was the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection in the tomb provided for him by Joseph of Arimathea. Other works of the time portray her as a leading disciple. Controversial modern books such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code even suggest that she was married to Jesus. Her July 22nd feast day is commemorated by many enthusiasts of the divine feminine in Glastonbury.
In the 16th century two rows of men’s housing replaced the older buildings. They endured until one was demolished as recently as the 1960s. The whole site is now administered by a charity. Significant repairs have been undertaken. Some of the features in the chapel date back to the time of the Abbey. One almshouse building has been restored to recreate how it would have looked in the 16th century.
A pleasant garden provides a fine space for relaxation and contemplation.
The atmosphere in the chapel can be very powerful and inspiring.
There are icons on display. Margaret is honoured as founder and Mary as the saint of the spirit of the institution down through the ages.
It is a fine place to begin a tour of Glastonbury.