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The Glastonbury Thorn

In England, every year the Mayor of Glastonbury, Somerset and the vicar from the church of St John the Baptist cuts sprays from the world famous Glastonbury Thorn (also known as "The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury"). This is sent to the Queen for the Royal Table on Christmas Day, a continuation of a tradition which began in 1929 when King George V accepted a gift of "Winter Blossoms" from The Thorn.

According to tradition, following the crucifixion of Jesus, St Joseph of Arimathea was driven from his home and began a journey of conversion. He traveled first to Marseilles and then in 63 A.D., at the bidding of St. Philip, to Glastonbury in an attempt to bring Christianity to the Britons. Joseph was the owner of the tomb in which Jesus Christ's body lay from Good Friday till the third day, Easter.

Upon their arrival at Weary-all Hill (also known as Wirrial Hill], and tired from the journey, he and his 12 companions laid down to rest. As he did so, he thrust his staff into the hill. When he woke up, the staff had taken root and begun to grow . It flowers every Christmas and every spring. This became the site of the Glastonbury Abbey.

It is said that the original thorn was cut down by a Puritan soldier in 1653 (who, it is said, deemed it to be an object of superstition) - and was blinded when struck in the eye by a splinter. Numerous other versions of the destruction exist.

However, many cuttings were taken from it before its destruction. The current thorn on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey is said to be a cutting from the original plant which was planted in secret after the original was destroyed.

Another explanation of the origin of the Glastonbury Thorn relates that a piece of the Crown of Thorns, put on Jesus' head before he was killed, was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea and planted, growing into the hawthorn tree. By some accounts, Joseph also brought with him to Glastonbury the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper and the one used by Joseph to catch his blood as he hung on the cross.

Botanically, the Glastonbury Thorn is a hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha), which usually blooms only in the spring (and is therefore sometimes called the "May Tree"). Here, you can see a photograph of the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury (link opens in a new window at an external site, the Cardiff University Pagan Society). A book about the Thorn is titled "The Flowering Hawthorn" by Hugh Ross Williamson (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1962; 102 pages).

 Glastonbury Abbey is also said to be the burial spot of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.

The following entry is from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, December 24):


On Christmas-eve, (new style) 1753, a vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn, but to their great disappointment there was no appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, (old style,) when it blowed as usual.

London Evening Post.

On the same evening, at Quainton, in Buckinghamshire, above two thousand people went, with lanterns and candles, to view a blackthorn in that neighbourhood, and which was remembered to be a slip from the famous Glastonbury thorn, and that it always budded on the 24th, was full blown the next day, and went all off at night. The people finding no appearance of a bud, it was agreed by all, that December 25 (new style) could not be the right Christmas-day, and accordingly refused going 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 them, thought it prudent to give notice, that the Old Christmas-day should be kept holy as before.1


This famous hawthorn, which grew on a hill in the church-yard of Glastonbury abbey, it has been said, sprung from the staff of St. Joseph of Arimathea, who having fixed it in the ground with his own hand on Christmas-day, the staff took root immediately, put forth leaves, and the next day was covered with milk-white blossoms. It has been added, that this thorn continued to blow every Christmas- day during a long series of years, and that slips from the original plant are still preserved, and continue to blow every Christmas-day to the present time.

There certainly was in the abbey churchyard a hawthorn-tree, which blossomed in winter, and was cut down in the time of the civil wars: but that it always blossomed on Christmas-day was a mere tale of the monks, calculated to inspire the vulgar with notions of the sanctity of the place. There are several of this species of thorn in England, raised from haws sent front the east, where it is common. One of our countrymen, the ingenious Mr. Millar, raised many plants from haws brought from Aleppo, and all proved to he what are called Glastonbury thorns. This exotic, or eastern thorn, differs from our common hawthorn in putting out its leaves very early in spring, and flowering twice a year; for in mild seasons it often flowers in November or December, and again at the usual time of the common sort; but the stories that are told of its budding, blossoming, and fading on Christmas-day are ridiculous, arid only monkish legends.2

Notes from Hone:

1.  Gentleman’s Magazine. Return

2.  Communicated by D. B. C. from Boswell's Antiquities of England and Wales. Return

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