Glastonbury - Britain's Oldest Glass Town
    By Patrick Lockerby | February 22nd 2014 12:46 AM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Glastonbury - Britain's Oldest Glass Town

    According to Wikipedia and many other online sources the origin of the name Glastonbury is unclear.  On the contrary, it could not be more clear.

    While idly thinking about a long-ago visit to Glastonbury Tor I chanced to reflect on the name Glastonbury.  What, I wondered, was the true etymology of the name.  The 'witrin' in the old Celtic name Ynys Witrin seemed to me to resemble the Latin term for glass.  The modern Welsh equivalent 'ynys gwydr' means 'glass island'.  Could the 'glas' of Glastonbury mean glass?  What then of 'ton', which so often means 'town'.  Surely the name should be Glaston or Glasbury.  Why the apparent redundancy?

    If 'ton' is a variant of 'tone', meaning color, then might 'Glastonbury' mean glass-coloring town?

    A Google search for a link between glass and Glastonbury turned up an interesting item: this abstract from Cambridge Journals supports the idea of 'glass town'.

    The Origin of the Name of Glastonbury
    Louis H. Gray

    Cabadoc of Llancabvan (sic), writing his biography of Gildas about the middle of the twelfth century, endeavors thus to explain the origin of the name of Glastonbury(§§10,14):

    Glastonia, id est Urbs Vitrea, quae nomen sumpsit a vitro, est urbs nomine primitus in Britannico sermone. … Ynisgutrin nominata fuit antiquitus Glastonia et adhuc nominatur a Britannis indigenis; ynis in Britannico sermone insula Latine; gutrin vero vitrea. Sed post adventum Angligenaxum et expulsis Britannis, scilicet Walensibus, revocata est ex ordine primi vocabuli, scilicet glas Anglice vitrum Latine, beria civitas, inde Glastiberia, id est Vitrea Civitas.

    My loose translation of the Latin reads:

    Glastonbury, that is Glass City, which is the name it took from the glass, is a city originally named Ynisgutrin by the indiginous people. It was named Glastonbury in former times and is still thus named by the British; ynis in the British tongue, insula in Latin; gutrin is glass. But after the coming of the Angles and the expulsion of the Britons, that is, the Welsh, English was adopted for the first part of the name, namely, glass, and Latin beria, a city, and thus we have Glastiberia, that is, the glass city.

    Caradoc of Llancarfan makes no mention of the 'ton' part of the name, so my next voyage of scientific discovery was a search for any evidence that ancient Glastonbury might have been a center for the manufacture of colored glass.  A fresh Google search revealed that Glastonbury is Britain's oldest known glass-making site.  And yes - there is at least some supporting evidence to suggest that Glastonbury, or at least Glastonbury Abbey, might once have been known for its colored glass.

    Glastonbury Abbey

    The paper Late Seventh-Century Glassmaking at Glastonbury Abbey  published in the Journal of Glass Studies, vol 55, 2013 reports on carbon dating of finds from the 1950s.

     A number of charcoal samples from within the structures excavated in 1955 were identified, and five of these were selected for radiocarbon dating. Together,they provide a broad date of 605–882, but when the ranges of overlap are considered, a date in the late seventh century, and the 680s in particular, can be assumed.

    This date is particularly significant because it places the operation of the glass furnaces in the earliest phase of known monastic activity at Glastonbury, coinciding with the reign of King Ine of the West Saxons, who founded the monastery sometime shortly after his accession in 688.

    Given this association, it can reasonably be concluded that the glassmaking operation was specifically established to provide window glass for the newly constructed buildings of the abbey, as well as vessel glass for use by the members of the religious community.
    The paper reports finds of blue-green, olive, amber and turquoise glass, also a piece of opaque white and turquoise reticello rod.  Also, "A little more than 200 fragments (92 percent) of the fully formed glass are blue-green, although many fragments have additional colors as surface treatments."

    The evidence for 'color' is quite literally fragmentary.  However, it is known from the writings of the Venerable Bede that glass workers came from France to Britain in the relevant historical period.  The old French word for 'tone' is the same as the modern French - 'ton'.  But it can also mean 'stretch'.  One method of working with glass is to stretch it so as to make rods and strings for, e.g. reticello.  Could this be a long-lost medieval French pun on the coloring and stretching of glass.  Anyone for Glass-pun- bury?


    There is evidence of what was at the time in question quite a large scale of glass making or glass working in Glastonbury.  In the French language, our 'tone' is 'ton'.  It appears, then, that the name 'Glastonbury', far from being obscure, may well mean Glass-coloring-borough.



    Michael Martinez
    According to various sources that publish Old English texts, Glastonbury is derived from Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Glestingabyrig, which breaks down into Glest + inga + byrig ("Glaston" + "people" + "fortified town").  Glaston is presumed to be Celtic in origin.  So the original OE name meant "fortified town of the people of Glaston".
    Welsh glas is a word for "blue" and some sources give ton as a Welsh word for "meadow" (other sources say it is a word for "wave").  Glastonbury Tor is a conical-shaped hill comprised mainly of clay and blue lias, which is a geological layer from about 100 million years ago comprised of limestone and shale.

    So while I am not linguist enough to argue for one explanation over another, the name could possibly be a reference to the (Anglo-Saxon) people who settled near Glastonbury Tor and the fact that blue glass artifacts from the 700s to 1000s have been found there may only be a coincidence with no real connection to the city's name.
    Michael: thank you for a thought-provoking comment - and for not mentioning King Arthur.
    while I am not linguist enough to argue for one explanation over another

    Ditto, or nearly so.  :-)

    The linguistic term 'grue' applies to any language which does not distinguish green from blue, as is the case for Ancient Welsh and Scottish (Think 'Glasgow' = 'green hollow').  Glastonbury tor is certainly green!  As for blue lias, it's a sort of off-white, and nowhere near Joplin Blue.*

    With tongue now planted firmly in cheek, may I recommend to you and my other reader this excellent article on the geology of Glastonbury Tor?

    * Who names those paint colors?
    Michael Martinez
    Well, I am glad I did not pursue the "blue meadow" angle, then.  :)
    I'll meet you halfway - it's blue-green as seen from space, in common with many marshy / reclaimed / flood prone areas, such as the Nile Valley, the Meander graben and the slightly less globally renowned home of my fellow Swampies.
    Might it not simply be a case of Glaston being developed and being granted “byrig” (borough) status by King Alfred or one of his successors?

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Glaston being developed and being granted “byrig” (borough) status by King Alfred

    That's a strong contender for being a fact, Robert.  Note also that Glastonbury was once on the coast, as measured by the highest tides.

    Michael Martinez
    So "Glaston" could also mean "wave" + "meadow" then?  Does Welsh use such compounds?
    ON EDIT:  No, I think I'm confusing myself at this point.  :)

    Maybe we know what Glastonbury refers to ("Glaston") but we don't know what Glaston refers to.
    Glas = glass
    ton = tone, tinge, color
    Glastonbury - a berg or boro noted for its making of colored glass.

    Extensive (for the period) glassworking coincided with the building of the abbey.  Whenever a major new activity occurs in an area you will usually see a town spring up.  That town will often be named for its distinguishing industry or visible feature.  For example, Bluetown on the isle of Sheppey sprang up as a shanty town made from bits of wood from the new dockyard.  Although the wood was lawfully obtained from the dockyard, it is doubtful if the blue paint was.  There was also once a Canning Town near Queenborough.  Strangely, nobody thought to name the place after the glue works.
    Michael Martinez
    According to the various Anglo-Saxon texts I consulted, the name "Glaston" appears to predate Glestingabyrig but they did not specifically state that was the case.  If, however, "Glaston" is older than what evolved into "Glastonbury" and the meaning is as you have reasoned then the glassworking (if not the abbey-based glassworks) may be more ancient than medieval.  I have read that Romano-Briton pottery shards were found in the area.
    I can see why people are confused about all this (regardless of the various Arthurian attachments).  If anyone thought to write down everything necessary for posterity, that must have been lost nearly five hundred years ago, if not earlier.
    glassworking (if not the abbey-based glassworks) may be more ancient than medieval.
    Michael: I have delved a little deeper and here is what I have found using primarily my skills in linguistics.

    From Wikipedia:
    Julius Caesar, who never went near Pictland, mentions the British Celtic custom of body painting in Book V of his Gallic Wars, stating
    "Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu" ("In fact all Britanni stain themselves with vitrum, which produces a dark blue colour, and by this means they are more terrifying to face in battle.")
    Is this a mis-translation of 'vitro' as 'woad', rather than 'glass'.  I do not suggest that the Ancient Brits covered themselves in glass.  Rather that they used glass, or more generally ceramic materials, to decorate (inficiunt) themselves and their weapons.

    Vitruvius, in De Architectura Vol VII records the following regarding fake blue pigment made from chalk and woad:
     item propter inopiam coloris indici cretam selinusiam aut anulariam vitro, quod Graeci isatin appellant, inficientes imitationem faciunt indici coloris.

    The key phrase, in the context of colored glass, is 'vitro, quod Graeci isatin appellant' translates as 'woad, which the Greeks call isatin'.  The plant Isatis tinctoria is more commonly known as woad.

    Glestinga, or glaston means woad.

    So, going back further than the founding of the abbey, it would appear that 'Glastonbury' is more likely derived from the abbreviated  form of ' a stronghold where woad is cultivated'.

    And the score thus far?   Michael - 2 ... Patrick - 0
    Michael Martinez
    I can't take credit for anything here.  Especially when you start quoting Latin.  :)