Discover the secrets of Britain’s churches
Britain is full of historic churches, abbeys and cathedrals, many of which have seen more than 1000 years of history. It’s no wonder that a rich variety of colourful myths and legends have sprung up around some of them, ranging from supernatural knights testing the living to mischievous...
Some say Glastonbury Abbey is the location of the fabled Isle of Avalon, final resting place of King Arthur, while others believe that Joseph of Arimathea came here from the Holy Land, bringing with him the Holy Grail and founding Britain’s first church. Monks here even claimed that they’d unearthed the remains of King Arthur and Guinevere back in the 12th century.
Today the abbey is a romantic ruin of high gothic arches set in beautiful parkland at the heart of Glastonbury itself. You can find out all about its long history and many legends on one of its guided tours. They’re no ordinary tours: the guides dress in medieval costume, some as monks, and some as King Arthur himself!
Not a church as you’d usually understand it, Lud’s Church is a deep rocky gorge in the dramatic Staffordshire Moors said to have been sacred to the early Britons. It’s also famously associated with the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval poem about a green-skinned, occasionally headless horseman who challenges one of King Arthur’s knights to a deadly test of courage.
Deep in a part of the Peak District known as Black Forest, Lud’s Church is certainly a spooky place, not least because the gorge bottom is only touched by sunlight on Midsummer’s Day. Despite this, it’s one of the region’s most popular walking spots, surrounded by atmospheric woodland and some gorgeous views over the Peak District National Park.
Made famous by the Da Vinci Code, the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel has long been steeped in mystery. Step inside and you’ll see that every inch of the walls and ceiling are covered in elaborate carvings with such an array of unusual symbols that some believe they are a secret coded message.
A number of legends have grown up around Rosslyn and some claim it’s the hiding place for the treasure of the Knights Templar, a once powerful society of crusaders, or that it was the final resting place of the legendary Holy Grail.
Whatever you believe, its stone ‘green men’, geometric-patterned cubes and the famous carved Apprentice Pillar are all remarkable sights worth seeing: perhaps you’ll unravel a hidden meaning there too.
Above the altar in Lincoln’s magnificent gothic cathedral — the tallest building in the world at the start of the 14th century — you’ll see a small stone goblin. The story goes that the devil sent two of these imps to Lincoln to stir up trouble and, reaching the cathedral, they knocked over chairs, upended tables, tripped the bishop over, and caused all kinds of trouble.
An angel soon appeared to repel them, causing one imp to flee in fear. The braver of the two imps climbed high above the altar and threw rocks at the angel, who retaliated by turning him to stone. To this day, the stone imp stands frozen in place.
Whether you believe the tale or not, Lincoln Cathedral is one of Britain’s finest medieval buildings. It’s full of intricate and amusing carvings, and if you like music, you’ll enjoy the atmosphere at one of the choral evensongs here.
Canterbury Cathedral’s most famous tale is no myth, but a grisly truth. In 1170, acting on a comment made by an enraged Henry II, a group of knights murdered the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in front of his congregation.
The event sent a wave of shock through medieval Europe. Henry II even did penance for the crime by walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while a group of monks whipped him.
Today you can see the very spot where the crime happened and visit the tomb of Saint Thomas — for centuries a site of pilgrimage — while you admire one of England’s oldest and most famous cathedrals. Beware however: it’s said to be haunted by a number of ghosts including the spirit of another Archbishop murdered in 1381 and the ghost of murdered servant, Nell Cook.