The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Glastonbury Thorn

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, pp. 275-76

Collinson, speaking of Glastonbury, says: "Southwest from the town is Wearyall Hill, an eminence so-called (if we will believe the monkish writers) from St. Joseph and his companions sitting down here, all weary with their journey. Here St. Joseph struck his stick into the earth, which, although a dry hawthorn stick, thenceforth grew, and constantly budded on Christmas-Day. It had two trunks or bodies till the time of Queen Elizabeth, when a Puritan exterminated one, and left the other, which was the size of a common man, to be viewed in wonder by strangers; and the blossoms thereof were esteemed such curiosities by people of all nations, that the Bristol merchants made a traffick of them, and exported them into foreign parts. In the Great Rebellion, during the time of King Charles I., the remaining trunk of this tree was also cut down: but other trees from its branches are still growing in many gardens of Glastonbury and in the different nurseries of this kingdom. It is probable that the monks of Glastonbury procured this tree from Palestine, where abundance of the same sort grew, and flower about the same time. Where this thorn grew is said to have been a nunnery dedicated to St. Peter, without the Pale of Weriel Park, belonging to the Abbey, it is strange to say how much this tree was sought after by the credulous; and though a common thorn, Queen Anne, King James, and many of the nobility of the realm, even when the times of monkish superstition had ceased, gave large sums of money for small cuttings from the original." Somersetshire, ii., 265.

I have no doubt but that the early blossoming of the Glastonbury Thorn was owing to a natural cause. It is mentioned by Gerard and Parkinson in their herbals. Camden also notices it. Ashmole tells us that he had often heard it spoken of, "and by some who have seen it whilst it flourished at Glastonbury." He adds: "Upon St. Stephen’s Day, Anno 1672, Mr. Stainsby (an ingenious enquirer after things worthy memorial) brought me a branch of hawthorne having green leaves, faire buds, and full flowers, all thick and very beautiful, and (which is more notable) many of the hawes and berries upon it red and plump, some of which branch is yet preserved in the plant booke of my collection. This he had from a hawthorne tree now growing at Sir Lancelote Lake’s house, near Edgworth (Edgeware) in Middlesex, concerning which, falling after into the company of the said knight 7 July, 1673, he told me that the tree, whence this branch was plucked, grew from a slip taken from the Glastonbury Thorn about sixty years since, which is now a bigg tree, and flowers every winter about Christmas." Appendix to Hearne’s Antiquities of Glastonbury, p. 303. Sir Thomas Browne remarks: " Certainly many precocious trees, and such as spring in the winter, may be found in England. Most trees sprout in the fall of the leaf or autumn, and if not kept back by cold and outward causes, would leaf about the solstice. Now if it happen that any be so strongly constituted as to make this good against the power of winter, they may produce their leaves or blossoms at that season, and perform that in some singles which is observable in whole kinds: as in ivy, which blossoms and bears at least twice a year, and once in the winter: as also in Furze, which flowereth in that season." "This tree," says Worlidge, "flourished many years in Wilton Garden, near Salisbury, and, I suppose, is there yet; but is not altogether so exact to a day as its original from whence it came was reported to be; it’s probable the faith of our ancestors might contribute much towards its certainty of time. For imagination doth operate on inanimate things, as some have observed." Systema Horticultura, 1677, p. 88.

In the metrical life of Joseph of Arimathea, probably written in the reign of Henry VII., three hawthorns are mentioned

"Thre hawthornes also that groweth in werall
Do burge and bere grene leaves at Christmas
As fresshe as other in May whan ye nightyngale
Wrestes out her notes musicall as pure as glas
Of al wodes and forestes she is ye chefe chauntres
In wynter to synge yf it were her nature
In werall she might haue a playne place
On those hawthornes to shewe her notes clere."

Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea, 1520, sig. B 2. Dr. Leighton, writing to Cromwell about 1537, says : "Pleesith it your worship to understand that yester night we came from Glastonbury to Bnistow? I here send you for relicks two flowers wrapped up in black sarcenet, that on Christmas even will spring and burgen, and bear flowers." Manningham, in his Diary, May 2, 1602, records, apparently as something of which he had heard, that "At Glastenbury there are certaine bushes which beare May flowers at Christmas and in January."

A writer in the "World" has the following irony on the alteration of the stile in 1752: "It is well known that the correction of the Calendar was enacted by Pope Gregory the thirteenth, and that the Reformed Churches have, with a proper spirit of opposition, adhered to the old calculation of the Emperor Julius Cæsar, who was by no means a Papist. Nearly two years ago the Popish Calendar was brought in (I hope by persons well affected). Certain it is that the Glastonbury Thorn has preserved its inflexibility, and observed its old anniversary. Many thousand spectators visited it on the parliamentary Christmas Day — not a bud was to be seen! — on the true nativity it was covered with blossome. One must be an infidel indeed to spurn at such anthority." Paper of March 5, 1753.

The following account was communicated to the "Gentleman’s Magazine" for January, 1753, by a correspondent at Quainton, in Buckinghamshire: "Above two thousand people came here this night with lanthorns and candles, to view a black thorn which grows in this neighbourhood, and which was remembered (this year only) to be a slip from the famous Glastonbury Thorn that 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 Dec. 25th, N.S. 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 the people, thought it prudent to give notice, that the old Christmas Day should be kept holy as before. A vast concourse of people attended the noted thorns at Glastonbury on Christmas Eve, new style; 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.’’

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