This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Blake, and there are various ‘Blake At 250’ academic conferences, commemorative walks, and so on. It remains to be seen whether there will be any explanation of the greatest mystery of his career: what was the inspiration for his poem beginning, “And did these feet in ancient time /Walk upon England’s mountains green….?” This allusion to what is known as England’s ‘Holy Legend’ – that Christ visited England – has never been adequately explained. Where did he get this from? He doesn’t seem to be making it up, simply alluding in passing to an event he has evidently heard about, and asking if it could really be true. How much he expected readers or listeners to grasp of the allusion is impossible to answer. Blake’s work is famously esoteric (I recall some four decades ago carrying around a paperback of his poetry for months, hoping to make sense of it by dint of perseverance.) It’s been said before that millions sing these words as part of England’s ‘alternative national anthem’ Jerusalem without even understanding the allusion to the Holy Legend. But where does this incredible legend actually come from?
Some years ago I came across a 1989 article by A.W. Smith in the Folklore Society Journal which tried to trace the legend back to its source, and couldn’t. There were plenty of local ‘holy visit’ legends around the southwest coast, maintained by Cornish tin miners, but none could be dated back very far. The writer concluded it was all an invention … of the British Israelite Movement. Certainly a proponent of this theory, that the British were descended from a lost tribe of Israelites, was a vicar of Glastonbury who wrote a book on the Holy Legend. But this was in the 20th century.The British Israelite Movement is thought to date back to around Blake’s time, or even to the 17C Puritans, but did the Puritans really just invent it?
There are some aspects of the mediaeval Glastonbury Abbey legends of the founding of Christianity in Britain which suggest it goes right back to the Dark Ages. Representatives of the mediaeval British Church sought precedence over that of Rome (which sounds dangerous) on the grounds their church was established by Christ’s disciples, in the last years of the reign of Tiberius – which would put it within five years of the Crucifixion. The reliable mediaeval historian William Of Malmesbury, though he could not get any details, refers to the discovery of "documents of no small credit, which have been discovered in certain places to the following effect: ‘No other hands than those of the disciples of Christ created the church of Glastonbury.’ "The idea Christ’s disciples came to England (presumably fleeing the Romans, who had not invaded Britain) of course does not mean Jesus did too. The tin-miner’s version of the legend have Jesus visiting with his ‘uncle’, Joseph of Aramatheia, who became a major figure in the Arthurian Romances as keeper of the Grail. The rationale is that Joseph knew Britain from his trips as a tin merchant, and on one of his trips he had brought his nephew, the boy Jesus, but there seems no way of ever documenting this. The Bible says nothing about Jesus ‘s life between ages 12 and 30. The Vulgate Bible gives Joseph as nobilis decurio and a decurion was a term often used for an official in charge of mines. (Cornish tin-miners folklore had a saying and song that "Joseph Was A Tin-Man and the miners loved him well.")
There have been claims Blake was a kind of honorary Druid who was indoctrinated into an esoteric, i.e. secret oral tradition. But this is not only unprovable, the poem ‘outs’ the supposed secret in a way that implies others would grasp the allusion. The legend is so radical it may be there is reluctance to tackle it. But it would be something if for Blake’s 250th someone could produce, if not new evidence, at least a coherent explanation.