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Saints, Mermaids & Phoenicians Contents

Cornish  Legends

Saints, Mermaids & Phoenicians


The Legend

The great uncle of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea was  a "noble decurion"  in charge of mines and metal-trading who traded for metal around the known world. He owned several ships and following the stoning of Stephen he brought together a small band of his friends which included Martha, the three Mary's, Salome, Lazarus, Zachaeus, the twelve disciples and his family and servants. It was agreed that the time had come to leave Judea. They made their preparations and cast off from shore,  sailing along the coast of the Mediterranean until they came to Marseilles. Here Lazarus chose to remain and was its first missionary and later, Bishop; his name is perpetuated in one of the churches there. Mary said that she wanted to go onto the land of her mother with Joseph and so the party moved on towards Brittany   Their journey took them along the Rhone valley, the trade route familiar to Joseph, his party dwindling as one and then another chose a town or village where they would live as missionaries. The last to break off was Zachaeus who stopped at Rocamadour and took up his residence on the slopes of its rocky height because, it is said, the place reminded him of a loved spot in the homeland of Palestine. Joseph and his household continued on their way to Morlaix in Brittany, there to wait for suitable weather conditions to cross to Britain—four days’ sail away. Their  arrival point in Cornwall was on the holy island of Lammana close to the town of East Looe where Joseph and his party were welcomed by the tinners and after a few days they crossed over to the north coast to the Camel estuary where they drank water from the Well which had been found by Jesus and which is still known today as the Jesus Well. 

The group again took ship sailing to Caerleon where they stayed at the court of King Caradoc, the son of Joseph’s old friend King Cunobelinus with whom he had traded for many years. The Chief Druid approached the King to ask that Joseph and the other disciples be given the same privileges as other teachers (Bards). This was agreed and they were given 12 hides of land on and around the site of the little wattle hut which Jesus had built and which the Druids had maintained on the assumption that he would return. 

Each evening they would sit outside the hut and tell stories of Jesus who during his second visit to this site had been loved as a teacher and friend. As the winter came the people set to work and built a larger building over the top of the original little hut, which Jesus had built. In this building, which was to become the first Christian church, the stories of Jesus were mingled with those of the old religion and so the Celtic Christian church was born.

The photo is  of a reconstruction of
an early Irish Celtic Monastery. 

The Evidence.

The above is one of a number of  legends linking Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury. These have been passed down over the centuries and include others such as the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn and the legend of the Holy Grail and Arthur. 

Who was Joseph of Arimathea

All that is known for certain concerning Joseph of Arimathea is derived from the canonical Gospels. Luke, c24, v51, tells us that he was born at Arimathea -- hence his surname -- "a city of Judea"  which is very likely identical with Ramatha, the birthplace of the Prophet Samuel, although several scholars prefer to identify it with the town of Ramleh.

Following the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea who had provided the tomb in which Jesus was laid, is not mentioned in the events which immediately succeeded the resurrection. At first there was no persecution of the followers of the “New Way”. Eusebius, the historian, writes in his book. 2, at chapter. 2 of Tiberius Caesar as the Emperor under whom the name of Christ was spread abroad  Tiberius threatened death to any persecutors of the new Faith. The. reign of Tiberius had only three and a half years to run until his death in A.D. 37, having reigned twenty-three years. The daughter of his third wife Julia, by a previous marriage, became the wife of Pontius Pilate; it was she who, according to Matthew. c27, v19, during the trial ‘of our Lord, sent the message to her husband, “Have thou nothing to do with that just man’. No doubt this incident deeply impressed Tiberius when he came to hear of it, and caused the Emperor to have a measure of sympathy with the followers of “that Just Man”.

The brief reign of his successor, Caligula, four years, was not marked by any hostility towards the Christians. Caligula died in A.D. 41 and was succeeded by Claudius who reigned for thirteen years. The early years of this reign were marked by increasing hostility from the Palestinian Jews towards the followers of “The New Way”. A document in the Bodleon Library. "The Life of Mary Magdalen by Rabanus, (776A.D. - 856A.D.) tells us that "after the stoning of Stephen many Christians’ fled to the great port of Caesarea prepared to go forth to another land in search of peace and freedom of worship." 

But are these legends credible?  

There are a number of written references to the early church which can be quoted. The earliest comes from Sabellius, (the Roman Catholic prelate and theologian who was excommunicated by Pope Calixtus in 220 AD) writing in 250 AD he said -

. "Christianity was privately confessed elsewhere, but the first nation that produced it as their religion and called it Christian, after the name of Christ, was Britain."

Over a thousand years later the learned Catholic Archbishop Ussher, (1550 - 1613) writing in his Brittannicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates said -

"The British National Church was founded AD 36, 160 years before heathen Rome confessed Christianity."

So who founded it?

 Maelgwyn of Llandaff, Lord of Anglesey and Snowdonia, (AD 450) tells us that:

"Joseph of Arimathea, the noble decurion, entered his perpetual sleep with his XI companions in the Isle of Avalon."

and the eminent historian of the Roman Catholic church, Cardinal Baronius, (1538 - 1607) who became Curator of the Vatican Library in 1597, wrote in his Ecclesiastical Annals-

"In that year [i.e. AD 36, the year of the great persecution in Jerusalem, and the dispersion that followed] the party of Joseph of Arimathea and those who went with him into exile, was put out to sea in a vesse1 without sail or oars. This vessel drifted, and finally reached Massilia [Marseilles] where they were saved. From Massilia Joseph and his company passed into Britain and after preaching the Gospel there, died. "

Historians William of Malmesbury and Polydore Vergil also place Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. Even the Church councils held at Pisa 1409, Constance 1417, Sienna 1424 and Basle 1434, ruled that "the Churches of France and Spain must yield in points of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the passion of Christ."

But what of the Druids.

The legend claims that the refugee missionaries proceeded with the full consent of the King and the Druidic hierarchy to introduce the Gospel of Christ. So why did the Druids not  see the teachings of Jesus as a threat?

The Celtic Arch Druid and Prince Bard known as Taliesin, 500 - 540 AD. wrote the following:

"Christ the Word from the Beginning, was from the first our Teacher, and we never lost His teachings. Christianity was a new thing in Asia, but there never was a time when the Druids of Britain held not its doctrines."

Such a statement, when placed alongside another, by Julius Caesar himself, BC54, Injects a whole new dimension of thought , He said -

"They [i.e. the British, and in particular the Druids] make the immortality of the soul the basis of all their teaching, holding it to be the principal incentive and reason for a virtuous life. Believing in the immortality of the soul they were careless of death."

But what of the King?

 Tacitus the Roman chronicler tells us in his "Annals 12, 37", that King Caradoc had been taken prisoner by the Romans and taken before the Senate and Emperor Claudius. He gave an understanding that he would never take up arms again against the Romans and was allowed to return to Caerleon-on-Usk where the ancient palace of the British Kings was situated.  

 Isabel Hill Elder.states in her "Joseph of Glastonbury" that shortly after his release the Celtic king gave these first Christian missionaries a gracious reception and his protection.  He also gave them each one hide of land. This was equal to one hundred and sixty acres ) With this land grant a document was furnished setting forth the legal aspect of the gift, which gave the recipients many British concessions including right of citizenship and all the privileges accorded the Druidic hierarchy. Every Druid was entitled to one hide of land, free of tax, freedom to pass unmolested from one district to another in time - of war, and many other privileges.

The area surrounding the little hut, which Jesus had built as his home during his stay was to become the site of the Celtic mother church at Glastonbury.  The 12 hides of land which the king gave them is recorded in the Domesday Book as being land that has never been taxed.

Elder states that, "the kings line continued its royal patronage until in 156 A.D. his great grandson King Lucius established Christianity as the national religion of Britain, and into which Druidism gradually merged.    These facts exclude, the claim of the Latin Church to that eminence, having been a “foreign” element in these islands since its first introduction by the monk Augustine in 579 A.D."

What of Lammana?

Turning to the Island at Looe where Joseph and his party first landed after fleeing from Judea and which over the centuries has had many names. On Lily's map of 1546 the island is marked as "Mont Island" and as "St Michaels Isle on Nordens of 1620.  On another map by Tschudi, (1555 -1560), an island is shown which is almost certainly meant to be Looe Island, and bears the unique name of "Benedicte". It has also been known as St Michael of Lammana. To demonstrate the confusion of names associated with the island a lease of 1743 states: " Looe island, otherwise Lamayne Island, or by what other name or names the same hath  been or is called. 

 In 1203, Hasculf de Soleigny, Lord of Porthlo  recognised the sanctity of Lammana and confirmed it in the possession of Glastonbury. This made it the only land belonging to Glastonbury in Cornwall with the tithes were paid to that Abbey.   

Archeologists have found the foundations of  two Celtic chapels, one on the Island and the other on the mainland at Hammafore Point which overlooks the Island.  The Archeologist Croft Andrews, uncovered a collection of Romano-Cornish potshards close to the exterior of the south wall of the Hammafore chapel.and these have been dated to the 3rd century A.D. (Ref ) The Island chapel has always been recognised as the earlier of the two and Hasculf when confirming the grant by previous lords of the manor and their predecessors of the Island of Lammana to Glastonbury appended a curse to the deed in which curse he prays that whosoever nullifies this grant may "have his name blotted out of the book of Life and expiate his sin with the traitor Judus."   

What do others say.

In 1916 Mr H Jenner, F. S. H. Chief Bard of the Gorsedd wrote twice at least to the “Western Morning News” about the "Oral tradition that Joseph visited Cornwall. He also contributed a masterly article on the subject of St. Joseph of Arimathea in the Summer 1916 edition of  “Pax,” the organ of the Benedictines, in which he points out the difficulty of finding an “adequate reason” why Joseph should be singled out in tradition as the Apostle of Britain, “unless it happened to be the literal and actual truth”. He then goes onto tell how a certain “invocation” among tin workers, who say quietly to them­selves “Joseph was in the tin trade,” may afford some ground for the legend. He quotes a Mr. Hamilton, through Mr. Hallam (a master at Harrow), as having heard from the foreman of these workers the following explanation of the invocation. “One of these (traditions of metal workers) is that St. Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man of the Gospels, made his money in the tin trade between Phoenicia and Cornwall." 

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George Pritchard is the author of original work on this site.  I give permission to copy and use this information on the following conditions.
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Revised: September 07, 2006 .