PETROC OF GLASTONBURY
A novel of the Celtic Church in the seventh century
A5 Paperback, 256 pages.
Illustrated with drawings by Miranda Montgomery.
Published June 2017
Special price for copies bought from this website: £9.00
Petroc of Glastonbury: Review
The flame of the Celtic Church burnt brightly in Somerset between the sixth and seventh centuries. It is within this timeframe that Bruce Garrard has set his second of four books on the River Brue; an elegiac novel about a Glastonbury Monk, Petroc ap Belin.
Under the sorrowful watch of his Mother, Gwenifer, young Petroc leaves his family farmstead high on the Poldens and makes his way to the little monastic school in Glastonbury, fulfilling a solemn promise his father had made eight years earlier. The year is 647. He flourishes under the guidance of his teacher Myghal and makes good progress with the skills and knowledge he would need as a member of the brotherhood: Latin, scripture, draughtsmanship and the arts of carpentry, growing plants and bee-keeping. The intoxicating atmosphere of the Abbey’s Old Church illuminates Petroc’s pilgrim soul and fires the zeal of his heart.
Beyond the Abbey’s enclosure, the Brue is ever present, weaving its way through his growth and spiritual development, rising and falling with the seasons. The descriptions of the Brue regularly inundating the Levels and the journeys of the Monks across it are beautifully observed. They are the fruit of the author’s pre-dawn pilgrimages to the Brue to quietly note the changing seasons, skies, morning mists, herons, seagulls, starlings, butterflies and wild flowers. He draws us into the slow dimming of the Celtic Church, post the Synod of Whitby in 664, and the shock arrival of the Saxons.
Petroc’s deep desire to follow the path of the peregrinus and become a wandering saint, whose destination is to reach the dwelling place of God, echoes the hero’s journey. The nine months he spends in isolated retreat on the island of Martinsey are crucial to his spiritual development. The day he finally casts off in his coracle down the Brue and onto the choppy waters of the Severn Sea is reminiscent of St Columba, cast from the Derry coast into the perilous currents of the Atlantic Ocean.
Underpinning Bruce’s ambitious project is the Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s ‘Four Point Plan’ to people who, understanding the concept of Spiritual Ecology, want to know ‘What can I do?’ in a world where environmental destruction is so wanton. Llewellyn offers a plan of: Witnessing, Grief, Prayer, Action. The first is the power of witnessing; to open our eyes to the changes around us. His writings on the River Brue are being shaped by this four point plan. ‘Witnessing’ was beautifully reflected in his first book ‘The River’ – a tightly observed, nettle strewn pilgrimage from its source to its mouth.
To explore the second stage of grief takes courage and Bruce found it a creative challenge to move from the comfort zone of non-fiction and place himself in the shoes of Petroc. Writing Petroc became a personal catharsis to heal the lost years of his own childhood when he was sent to boarding school at the age of eight – the same age Petroc arrived at the monastic school in Glastonbury. Eschewing the temptation to draw parallels with his own life, Bruce surrendered to the inevitable and wrote Petroc’s story ‘unfettered from by interruptions from mine’.
To return to Llewelyn Vaughan-Lee, whose teachings have inspired Bruce so deeply: ‘Our heart knows what our mind has forgotten — it knows the sacred that is within all that exists, and through a depth of feeling we can once again experience this connection, this belonging.’
Perhaps one of the best places to read this book and thoroughly immerse yourself in Petroc’s story would be to find a quiet spot in the Abbey’s grounds and allow your creative imagination to drift back in time to the Old Church with its simple cluster of wattled buildings and the candles, incense, chants and prayers of the monastic community.
Petroc of Glastonbury – a novel of the Celtic Church in the seventh century
Petroc was ‘given away to God’ at the age of eight. He grew up in the monastic school at Glastonbury, and then as a young novice monk in the monastery.
He was nearly twenty when the Saxons of Wessex invaded Somerset, and twenty-five when the Synod of Whitby began the gradual absorption of the native British Church into Roman Catholicism.
It was during these turbulent times that he would set out as a peregrinus, as one of the wandering Celtic saints who had placed their lives entirely in the hands of God. At the same time his earthly life still continued, and his past was to catch up with him in ways that were sometimes surprising, even shocking.
This is Bruce Garrard’s first novel. It tells the story of his character Petroc and the brotherhood of Glastonbury monks, as they struggle to maintain their culture and their spiritual traditions in a world that is radically changing. It also explores the early, Celtic period of the monastery’s history.
Bruce, who has lived in Glastonbury since 1985, is known mostly for his writing on aspects of local history. In 2016 he received the Tim Sebastian award for his contribution to the local community through the written word. He describes himself as ‘not a religious person’ although ‘I like to think of myself as spiritual’. Writing this book has been a way to understand better what that might really mean.
The Historian of the Britons
Petroc ap Belin, Brother Petroc, returned to the ancient monastery at Glastonbury fully seventy years after his first arrival there as an eight year old boy. That first arrival had been long before the new stone church was built and dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It had been long before King Ine had attained the throne of Wessex and such conspicuous additions to the monastery had ever been considered. It had been before, even, any king of Wessex had held dominion over this place, and had given its name the strange Saxon mis-spelling and mis-pronunciation, Glaestingaburg.
Petroc arrived, this time, on a gentle pony, being now too long in years to travel far on foot, and having come the entire distance from the furthest reach of Kernow in the southwest. He brought with him his lightness of heart, for in spite of the many deep sorrows and harsh disappointments of his life he was unashamedly joyful. He carried a letter of invitation from Abbot Ealdberht, the fourth Saxon Abbot of Glastonbury, with whom he had corresponded during these last several years. Also with him was a copy of his book, the second in all that he had composed, hand-written in Latin using his distinctive uncial script; it chronicled the Dumnonian kings and the history of West Wales since the ending of Roman imperial power in the land.
He owned nothing else, except the clothes that he was wearing and the love that he carried in his heart, and he wished for nothing else, being deeply satisfied with these few things he had been given during a life that had now lasted nigh on four score years.
He had travelled slowly, with ease, as if every mile of his journey was a meditative prayer. He dismounted before reaching the monastery gate and he led the horse the last few yards, so that his first step over the threshold would be his own.
He had returned for three good reasons – and these things always seemed best counted in threes – first, to meet Abbot Ealdberht face to face, for his was a mind he had grown to respect from afar and he wished to make his connection human and close; second, to deliver his book to the shelves of Glastonbury’s library, to join its brother that had already been there half a lifetime or more; and third, to die within touching distance of his beloved Ecclesia Vetusta, the Old Church, the one place on earth that could always call him back wherever he may have wandered, however far.
When he had achieved these last three ambitions, his body was committed to the holiest ground that was known, the cemetery beside the venerable church, and the words that marked his place of rest read ‘Petroc ap Belin, Historian of the Britons’.