Glastonbury Thorn revisited

Glastonbury Thorn, Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’, flowering on 15th December 2021 in St John’s churchyard, Glastonbury.
© Karen Andrews.

In December 2017, I wrote a guest Advent blog about the Glastonbury Thorn (see link below). It was a legend that I grew up knowing and remember explaining to foreign visitors over the years. The legend speaks of the arrival of a weary Joseph of Arimathea on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury. His staff miraculously turned into the Holy Thorn when planted in the ground. On 15th December 2021, I finally got the opportunity to attend the annual Cutting of the Holy Thorn Ceremony in St John’s churchyard in Glastonbury.

Holy Thorn Ceremony 2021

The Glastonbury Thorn, Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’ in St John’s churchyard, Glastonbury. This tree was planted in the 1930s by George Chislett, Glastonbury’s Head Gardener at the time. Holy Thorns only last for a maximum of around 100 years. They do not reproduce from seed. Instead, local people have kept their heritage going by grafting young shoots onto Common Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna or Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa rootstock. © Karen Andrews.

The ceremony took place in the presence of local dignitaries and excited children from St John’s Infants School and St Benedict’s Junior School. Every year, the eldest child at St John’s is given the honour of cutting a flowering sprig for the Queen. The Queen’s representative was present at the ceremony, along with the High Sheriff of Somerset and the Mayor of Glastonbury among other dignitaries.

Holy Thorn for the Queen

The vicar of St John’s began the proceedings by asking the gathered children what they knew about the Holy Thorn. He stressed that it flowered both at Christmas and at Easter, even adapting to the way that Easter dates change every year. It is understood that the Holy Thorn cutting appears on the Queen’s dining table every Christmas.

Singing, Poetry and Cheers

The children sang their Holy Thorn song in fine voices. A local poet recited his poem. The vicar encouraged everyone to join in with three cheers for the Queen and the town of Glastonbury. He ended the ceremony with a blessing.

Local dignitaries join the children in three cheers for the Queen and the town of Glastonbury.
© Karen Andrews

Century-long Tradition

The mayor and the vicar are responsible for ensuring that the cutting reaches Queen Elizabeth II every year. The first cutting was sent to Queen Mary in 1929, in a custom that was claimed to be the revival of an ancient tradition. Queen Mary even enquired as to its absence one year after there was a change of vicar. Nearly a century later, local parents recall with fondness taking part in the same ceremony when they were children.

Glastonbury Abbey Holy Thorns

After the event, I visited the nearby Glastonbury Abbey. Its grounds host two more Glastonbury Thorns. One is unfortunately dead. The other did not appear to have flowers during my visit, unlike the tree in St John’s churchyard.

Holy Thorn in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. © Karen Andrews

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey claims legendary status as the earliest Christian monastic site in Britain. Until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541), Glastonbury was the wealthiest abbey in England. The monks actively developed the Arthurian legend and promoted the cult of Joseph of Arimathea to draw pilgrims to Glastonbury. There is undoubtedly a strong suspicion that the monks made the tale up to attract wealthy patronage. It was common practice to do so in those times. However, it seems that the full connection between Joseph of Arimathea and his staff turning into the Holy Thorn did not emerge until much later in the 18th century. Despite the historical haziness, the Glastonbury Thorn remains a compelling story taken on faith by Christian believers.

Joseph of Arimathea

There were images of Joseph of Arimathea inside the nearby St Patrick’s Chapel. Joseph of Arimathea was the man who sought Pontius Pilate’s permission to bury Jesus’s body after the Crucifixion and buried it in the tomb that he had intended for himself. The New Testament never mentions him again, but many legends later sprang up about his travels between the 9th century, 14th and 18th centuries. There were tales that he had the Holy Grail in his possession (i.e. the chalice that Christ used at the Last Supper). It was also suggested that he was a wealthy tin merchant. It would therefore be plausible that he could have sailed on a Phoenician ship to Britain, stopping off in southern France, to visit Glastonbury.

Wearyall Hill

After visiting the Abbey, I walked to Wearyall Hill the site of the original, legendary Glastonbury Thorn. Unfortunately, a Holy Thorn no longer grows there. It was vandalised. I was not even able to see a trunk with ribbons as shown in my previous blog. Nevertheless, the narrow ridge of the hill commands great views of the Somerset Levels and across town to Glastonbury Tor. In Joseph of Arimathea’s time, it would have been entirely feasible to arrive by boat up the then tidal River Brue.

View from the ridge of Wearyall Hill over the town and towards Glastonbury Tor where the weary Joseph of Arimathea landed, planted his staff in the ground and saw it turn into the Holy Thorn.
© Karen Andrews.

All above photos © Karen Andrews.

Alastair’s Culham’s Advent Botany Blog Day 4, December 2017, University of Reading:

References and Further Reading

  • Glastonbury Abbey (2021): Myths and Legends.
  • Glastonbury Abbey (?): Welcome. Discover the stories in the stones that remain… (Map leaflet provided on entrance)
  • St John’s Church, Glastonbury (2021): Brief Tour.
  • Stout, Adam (2020): Glastonbury Holy Thorn. Story of a Legend. Green & Pleasant Publishing. Glastonbury.
  • Vaughn, Bill (2015): Hawthorn. The Tree that has Nourished Healed, and Inspired Through the Ages. Yale University Press. USA.

Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close