The mystery of Glastonbury Abbey: Messages from the other side?


Chris French
Chris French is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. He frequently appears on radio and television casting a sceptical eye over paranormal claims. He writes for the Guardian and The Skeptic magazine and is a former Editor of the latter. His most recent book is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience.

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Back in 2008, I was one of the contributors to a Channel 4 documentary hosted by Tony Robinson titled, The Ghosts of Glastonbury. The programme told the fascinating story of Frederick Bligh Bond and, in particular, his remarkable claim that he had been aided in his successful excavations of Glastonbury Abbey by the spirits of dead monks whom, he claimed, had communicated with him via automatic writing.

I will here provide a summary of his story, and in the second and third parts of this article, I will describe a couple of relevant psychological studies that, in my opinion, offer a more plausible explanation for his successful excavations. Readers wishing to learn more about the strange life of this archaeologist and psychical researcher (not to mention architect and illustrator) could do no better than to read Tim Hopkinson-Ball’s excellent and comprehensive biography, The Rediscovery of Glastonbury: Frederick Bligh Bond, Architect of the New Age.

Bligh Bond, commonly referred to simply as Bligh, was born in Wiltshire on 30 June 1864, the son of the Rev. Frederick Hookey Bond. From 1888, he worked as an architect in Bristol, designing many notable buildings. He was appointed as director of excavations at Glastonbury Abbey by the Church of England in 1908, resulting in the rediscovery of a number of buildings at the site.

Perhaps inevitably, controversy followed the publication, in 1919, of his book, The Gates of Remembrance, in which he claimed that he had been guided in his excavations by information received via the practice of automatic writing with the assistance of medium and retired navy Captain John Allan Bartlett (also known as John Alleyne). This information was allegedly provided by dead monks and the builder of Edgar Chapel at Glastonbury.

Bligh’s work provides one of the first documented examples of so-called psychic archaeology. His employers, strong opponents of spiritualism as they were, were less than impressed. He was dismissed from his post in 1921.

Bligh’s entry in Wikipedia provides a nice summary of some of the criticisms directed at his claims:

Joseph McCabe suggested that Alleyne and Bond had “steeped themselves, all through the year 1907, in the literature of the subject. They read all that was known about Glastonbury, and lived for months in the medieval atmosphere.”

In 1922 Rev. H. J. Wilkins published a detailed criticism of Bond’s psychical claims. Wilkins concluded “there is absolutely nothing supermundane in the whole of the script… All that is true in the script could be gathered from historical data or reasonably conjectured by intelligent observation of existing facts and conditions.”

Archaeologist Kenneth Feder commented that the “tall church towers, whose existence and locations we are to believe were provided by spirits, actually were recorded and located in a historical document Bond almost surely had already seen.

Beyond this, an early drawing of the abbey, and even structural remains visible on the surface, provided clues as to the location of these towers.”

Automatic writing has long been used by spiritualists in the belief that it is a valid means for spirits to communicate with the living. Typically, it is produced by the writer resting a pen or pencil on a piece of paper which is out of sight and deliberately focussing their attention elsewhere. At the end of a successful session, the sheet of paper may be filled with scribbles, doodles, letters, random words, or, if things go well, coherent sentences. Most automatic writers claim that they had no conscious awareness whatsoever of what was being written or even that they were writing anything at all.

While mediums and their followers believe that automatic writing is produced by spirits of the deceased somehow taking control of the individual’s writing hand, many sceptics believe that it is an example of the operation of the so-called ideomotor effect. Under certain circumstances, muscular movements can occur without any conscious awareness as a result of suggestion or implicit expectations. The effect appears to be at the root of a number of phenomena which are often interpreted as involving paranormal forces including not only automatic writing but also table-tilting and Ouija boards.

Dowsers are divided upon the issue of whether or not they believe all forms of dowsing involve paranormal forces. Some believe that when dowsing rods, a hazel twig, or a pendulum is used in an attempt to locate underground water or minerals, any movement of the dowsing instrument is probably due to some as yet unexplained physical force.

Other claims relating to the use of dowsing could only be explained in terms of the paranormal. For example, some paranormal investigators claim that dowsing allows a means to communicate with spirits. Some believe that dowsing can be used to locate objects remotely by using the dowsing instrument over a map of the area where the missing is thought to be.

Regardless of such debates, given the failure of dowsers in numerous tests carried out under properly controlled conditions, sceptics believe that any apparent successes of this technique are actually due to the ideomotor effect. When the dowser knows the target location in advance or can make an educated guess based upon available cues, dowsing often appears to work – but not when tested under double-blind conditions.

The criticisms of Bligh’s claims noted above all seem perfectly reasonable to me. Having said that, even if they are true they do not allow us to distinguish between two alternative possibilities. Was Bligh a deliberate hoaxer, knowingly making up a sensationalist claim in the hope that this would help with the sales of his book? Or did he genuinely believe that the information he used in his successful excavations was unknown to him until it was provided by helpful dead monks? Psychological evidence would suggest that the latter alternative is at least plausible.

In the second and third parts of this article, I will describe a couple of interesting psychological studies that provide support for this claim.

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