Glastonbury Abbey was the richest abbey in Somerset. Pilgrims came to see the graves of King Arthur and Guinevere and to hear the story of the Holy Grail, Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury thorn. So, the Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, didn’t initially have anything to fear when Cromwell started the process of dissolving the minor monasteries. Gradually the reformation gathered pace and the elderly abbot must have prayed for guidance. In 1537 monks, implicated in the Pilgrimage of Grace, were executed – amongst their number the Abbots of Sawley, Jervaulx and of Fountains.
Two years later on 15 November 1539 the last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, an old man in his seventies, followed his brothers when he lost his life on Tor Hill following two trials and having spent some time in the Tower of London.
Richard Whiting had been a young man when the Tudors came to power. He’d been a student in Cambridge at the time of the Battle of Bosworth and was ordained at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Wolsey nominated him when the position of abbot fell vacant noting his upright character. John Leland, Whiting’s friend, described him as “truly upright”.
His life might have passed peacefully had it not been for Henry VIII’s desire for a son and his determination to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Unlike Sir Thomas More, Whiting signed the 1534 Act of Supremacy along with the monks of Glastonbury. The following year Cromwell sent his commissioners around every monastic house in the country. The Valor Ecclesiasticus was an inventory of monastic wealth as well as a monastic fault-finding tour. At Glastonbury the monks were kept upon the straight and narrow by their abbot – the commissioner Richard Layton found nothing to fault (he apologised to Cromwell for his error in a later letter.)
In 1539 the act was passed suppressing all the remaining monasteries in the country by then Glastonbury was the last remaining abbey in Somerset. The National Archives houses a positive flurry of letters sent from the abbot and his supporters to Cromwell. Ink, paper, fair words – none of them mattered a jot. Cromwell had plans for Glastonbury. The commissioners returned. They found a copy of the life of Thomas Becket and a book in support of Catherine of Aragon in the abbot’s quarters. It was enough to send him to the Tower.
While the elderly abbot languished in a dungeon, Cromwell’s men got to work. They uncovered financial irregularities and further evidence of Whiting’s treasonable opinions – which have conveniently been lost in the following centuries. Letters to Cromwell quoted in the Victoria County History of Somerset reported that three hundred pounds of cash was uncovered along with a gold chalice and parcels of plate which the “we think he ought to make his hand by this untruth to his King’s Majesty.” Their discovery would see the abbey’s treasurer share his abbot’s fate.
Whiting was tried in London, on evidence that was never made public, and found guilty. Then he was shipped back to Wells where he was tried for a second time in the Palace of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. His judges included men who had, in former times, written on his behalf to Cromwell. It was a show trial with a catalogue of people coming forward to testify against him. The abbot was not permitted to defend himself or question his accusers.
It was a show execution as well. The elderly man, nearly eighty by some reckoning, was forced to walk barefoot from Wells to Glastonbury – a distance of some seven miles. He was then tied to a hurdle and dragged through the town, by the gateway of his abbey and up onto the tor where a gibbet awaited him and two other of his brothers. They each faced a traitor’s death. Whiting’s head ended on a spike looking out over his own gateway.