Book Review: Broken Angels

The following was my intriguing introduction to Broken Angels, an account of morally dubious happenings at Glastonbury Abbey in the 15th Century.

“Broken Angels is a true story. 

‘True’ in the sense that by the early C15, Glastonbury Abbey, one of the wealthiest and most important monasteries in Britain, had become a hotbed of gossip and rumour. There were tales of internal feuds and lax discipline, illicit sex, and several questionable ‘business’ deals. Even worse, there were numerous complaints about the abbot, John Chinnock.  

At last, King Henry IV and the Church hierarchy decided to act. In September 1408, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, visited Glastonbury with an entourage of influential men to resolve the situation.

The Archbishop’s visitation report still exists, but for the most part, it’s a list of punishments meted out, not the actual crimes. ‘Broken Angels’ uses that report and many of the people mentioned in it to imagine what was going on. Our story will take you back six hundred years to a time that’s often over-spiritualised and romanticised, but in reality was cruel and brutal, especially for the ordinary working people. “

The book is a short novella, written by Beth Webb and Mark Hutchinson, that brings to life the people who lived in, and worked around, Glastonbury Abbey during the late medieval period. It offers an evocative account of the times. 

Told from the point of view of Brother Bernard, an idealistic but still ambitious young Oxford graduate whose new master, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tasks him with seeking out those responsible for the degeneracy at Glastonbury Abbey. Despite personal misgivings, Brother Bernard is ordered to visit taverns and kitchens, to converse with those he encounters. He is to be his master’s spy and report back on findings.

The story brings to the fore the differences in circumstances of those born into privilege and those who struggle to survive. From differences in lighting – wax candles rather than rush lights – to fine food and wine, the abbey is shown to look after its own before serving the wider community. It was a time when tithes were demanded of the local population and the best produce taken. The poor could seek alms but were given the dregs.

“most abbeys – not just this one – are filled with greedy men who like to live comfortably and help themselves to the best of everything”

Brother Bernard is unhappy to discover that many of the monks habitually use women for sex. The offering of such ‘favours’ is necessary for survival, especially when husbands die.

“Most of us are good girls, we don’t want to sin, but what’re we to do? We all got babies and grannies at home, all wailing for food and firewood.” 

Some of these women are treated well by the monks they service; others are taken advantage of and then discarded. 

The abbey hierarchy turns a blind eye, benefiting from the deals that are done alongside the carnal goings on. When someone from within Glastonbury speaks out, leading to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit and investigation, they are more eager to weed out whoever has broken ranks than to put a stop to the iniquitous activity.

It is interesting to note that there were similar visitations to other abbeys. In considering the much vaunted social support that was lost due to the dissolution of the monasteries, it is worth remembering that religious orders are not immune to the corruption of power and desire for personal comforts. 

The writing is styled to appeal to those with an interest in the history of the abbey but who may not wish to dig deep into the canon. The book is aimed at tourists passing through – it will be available to buy in the abbey shop when it reopens – but will also appeal to those seeking accessible chronicles of the place and period. 

Broken Angels offers an interesting story wound around the wider challenges of poverty and a powerful church eager to retain its veneer of moral superiority. It is a reminder of the timeless hypocrisy of those who deign to tell others how they should behave.