Glastonbury Thorn

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Glastonbury Thorn

The tale of the Glastonbury Thorn has woven itself around some of the most romantic legends ever to have emerged from the British Isles. The thorn takes its name from Glastonbury, England, a location that has hosted many legendary characters and mystical events over the centuries. In the Middle Ages monks from Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered King Arthur's remains buried in their cemetery. Indeed, Celtic mythology identifies Glastonbury as "Avalon," the enchanted island from which came Arthur's famous sword, Excalibur, and to which the fatally wounded king was carried by fairy queens. Moreover, Christian legends proclaim that Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury in the first century tales, Joseph brought with him the Holy Grail, a sacred relic sought by many of King Arthur's knights centuries later. Subsequent stories add that Joseph established the Glastonbury Thorn, a mysterious bush that blooms when most others are barren - at Christmas time.

Life and Legends of Joseph of Arimathea

The Gospels identify Joseph of Arimathea as a "good and upright man," a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court) who disagreed with their decision to turn Jesus over to the Roman authorities (Luke 23:50-52). After Jesus' death, Joseph asked Pilate for permission to remove the body for burial. With Pilate's consent, Joseph took Jesus' body from the cross, wrapped it in linen, and sealed it in the tomb.

Later legends added to this sparse biblical account of Joseph's deeds. By the Middle Ages Joseph had become both an important saint and an acclaimed hero. Legends declared that Joseph of Arimathea was the first keeper of the Holy Grail, the vessel Jesus used in the Last Supper. The tales added that Joseph used the chalice to collect the blood that dripped from Christ's wounds.

Years after Jesus' death Joseph journeyed to Britain as a Christian missionary, bringing the Grail with him (many legends give 63 as the year of his arrival). A few tales also state that Joseph carried a staff made of hawthorn wood from the Holy Land. Some say it was Christmas Eve when Joseph's ship finally pulled in to the harbor at Glastonbury. Joseph and his companions disembarked and began the climb up steep Wearyall Hill. Finally, cold and tired, the old man thrust his staff into the ground in despair. To his amazement it not only rooted itself, but burst into leaf and bloom. Joseph perceived this miracle as divine confirmation of his faith and his mission of evangelization. Thereafter, the hawthorn bush bloomed every year at Christmas, distinguishing itself from native English hawthorns. Joseph's miraculous tree became known as the Glastonbury Thorn.

Although no solid historical evidence exists to support this tale of Joseph's journey to England, a winter-blooming hawthorn tree did flourish in Glastonbury for many years. Descendants of this plant have been identified as Crataegus mongyna biflora, a species of hawthorn native to the Middle East.

The History of the Glastonbury Thorn

The earliest appearance of the Glastonbury Thorn in written records dates back to an account of the life of Joseph of Arimathea written in the early 1500s. By the early 1600s firsthand descriptions of Glastonbury's hawthorn noted that the plant was suffering from the many carvings made in its trunk and the many cuttings taken from its branches. One Sir William Brereton, after carving his initials in the tree and collecting several branches for his own keeping, thought fit to criticize the people of Glastonbury for neglecting to care for the tree! The Glastonbury thorn reached its yearly peak of popularity around Christmas time, when crowds assembled to witness the tree's miraculous blooming.

Many believed that the buds and flowers had healing powers. These beliefs and customs eventually aroused the ire of the increasingly vocal Puritans, who scorned what they saw as evidence of popular belief in magic and superstition. It is said that during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the tree met its fate at the hands of an irate Puritan who assaulted it with an axe. After he had destroyed half of the enormous tree, a splinter flew into his eye, blinding him in some versions of the tale and killing him in others. Having avenged itself, the tree lingered another thirty years before finally succumbing to this fatal attack. Other accounts of the tree's demise differ. One simply states that the tree was demolished in 1653 during England's Civil War.

Nevertheless, by this time a number of cuttings from the original plant flourished in Glastonbury and other locations. They continued to bloom on or around Christmas until the calendar reform of 1752, when Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar (see also Old Christmas Day). As a consequence the nation leaped forward eleven days overnight. Many ordinary people resisted this change. In fact, some explained their allegiance to the old calendar by pointing to the unchanged blooming habits of the Glastonbury Thorn. Two clippings from a 1753 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine illustrate this sentiment:

Quainton in Buckinghamshire, December 24, 1752. Above 2,000 people came here last night, with lanthorns and candles, to view a black thorn which grows in the neighbourhood, and which was remembered (this year only) to be a slip from the famous Glastonbury Thorne, that it always budded on the 24th, was full blown the next day, and went all off at night; but the people, finding no appearance of a bud, 'twas agreed by all, that 25 December, N.S. [new style], could not be the right Christmas Day, and accordingly, refused to go to Church and treating their friends on that day, as usual; at length the affair became so serious that the ministers of the neighbouring villages, in order to appease the people, thought it prudent to give notice that the old Christmas Day should be kept in as holy as before [Muir, 1977, 102-3].

Glastonbury. A vast concourse of people attended the noted thorns on Christmas Eve, New Stile; but, to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly on the 5th of Jan., the Christmas Day, Old Style, which it blow'd as usual [Coffin, 1973, 58].

The Glastonbury Thorn in the United States

At the turn of the twentieth century, the once-renowned abbey at Glastonbury lay in ruins (see also Mincemeat Pie). Stanley Austin, son of England's reigning poet laureate, owned the abbey property. (The abbey has since passed into the hands of the Church of England.) In 1901, when Austin heard of the plans to build the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., he sent a clipping of the Glastonbury Thorn to the bishop of Washington, the Right Rev. Henry Yates Satterlee. He also sent a sufficient quantity of stones from the ruined abbey to build a bishop's chair in the new American cathedral. Bishop Satterlee saw the English plant established on the Cathedral grounds, where it does occasionally bloom on Christmas Day.

Christmas at Glastonbury

A descendent of the old tree lives on in Glastonbury today. Each year on Old Christmas Eve, January 5, the keepers of Holy Thorn clip a branch of the tree and send it to the reigning monarch. The sprig serves both as a symbol of respect and as a public affirmation of the town's Christian heritage. This custom dates back about four hundred years.

Further Reading

Coffin, Tristram P. The Book of Christmas Folklore. New York: Seabury Press, 1973. Foley, Daniel J. The Christmas Tree. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Company, 1960. Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Howard, Alexander. Endless Cavalcade. London, England: Arthur Baker, 1964. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1983. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Web Site

A site sponsored by Britannia Internet Magazine, contains an article by historian Geoffrey Ashe, "Magical Glastonbury": history/glaston1.html
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