One of the things that historians like to boast about is their devotion to evidence. Facts without corroboration are merely assertions. Good stories without witness statements or documentary support are just that: good stories. The further back in time one goes the harder it is to prove anything really, so legend and history often battle it out. And legend often has a firmer grip on the imagination than the hard reality of historical fact.
That’s certainly the case for the story of the Glastonbury Thorn. There, fact and fiction clash nicely, with historical truth being a lot less romantic than the accretions of good storytelling, so maybe we should just read into it whatever we like and wish that it was true…. which we’re used to doing at this time of year anyway!
Where to start? In 1993 Glastonbury Myth and Archaeology by Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts [supported by English Heritage] tried to establish an evidence-based groundwork of facts about Glastonbury and its legends. They were clear that Glastonbury “is indeed a place of the greatest historical importance and rich in archaeological evidence.. but its popular fame..depends on its legendary associations with the earliest Christianity in Britain; and on the massive accretion of its supposed association with King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea and other well-known characters……” Of course the Glastonbury or Holy Thorn falls into that category too.
The story [or rather the legend] of the Thorn starts with the arrival in Somerset of Joseph of Arimathea, perhaps the Virgin Mary’s uncle, and the man who is supposed to have taken Jesus’ body from the cross and placed it in the tomb. Quite why he should have chosen to visit Glastonbury might seem at first sight a bit of a mystery but there is of course an explanation. Joseph was actually a tin merchant who had made trading voyages to Britain and once even brought his great-nephew young Jesus with him.
This story was popularised by the antiquarian clergyman Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, in his Book of Cornwall of 1899, where he says that Jesus taught Joseph “how to extract the tin and purge it of its wolfram”. This story possibly grew out of the fact that the Jews under the Angevin kings farmed the tin of Cornwall. When tin is flashed, then the tinner shouts, “Joseph was in the tin trade,” which is probably a corruption of “St. Joseph to the tinner’s aid!”
This bit of the story was picked up and “adapted” by the local vicar the Rev Lionel Smithett Lewis in 1922. He translated the ‘Joseph the tin merchant’ story, from Cornwall to Glastonbury and embellished it rather liberally before writing it up as a short pamphlet St. Joseph of Arimathea or the Apostolic Church of Britain. His arguments were based on a whole heap of documentary sources, all of which he interpreted liberally to make his point. He developed his argument into a full length book which sold well and was still in print in the 1980s. By then he argued that not only was Glastonbury the site of Joseph’s Holy Thorn but it had probably been visited by St Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother, and it may also be where Mary herself is buried. The Rev Lewis would have made a good mediaeval hagiographer, and was proof that legends can be created quite quickly!
Nonetheless it’s a good yarn. Whatever the reason for Joseph’s arrival across the Somerset levels by boat, once he’d landed on Christmas Day he is supposed to have rammed his staff into the ground on the side of Wearyall Hill above the town. It immediately took root and developed into the first of the Glastonbury Thorns.
The first potential “fact” is that the Thorn is not a native British hawthorn but one that originates in the middle east. Crataegus monogyna var. biflora is extraordinary – indeed unique. Unlike ordinary hawthorns, it bears flowers and berries at the same time, and flowers at Christmas time as well as in the spring, although the winter blossoms are usually much smaller than the May ones and do not produce haws or berries. Unlike other trees with religious associations such as yews, it is relatively short-lived at around a century under good conditions. Thus the tree that grew from Joseph’s staff would have perished nearly 2000 years ago, and the current thorns are actually just the latest descendant of countless earlier descendants.
The Thorn can only be propagated by grafting, and does not take from cuttings or come true from seed which leads to an alternative, less romantic possible truth: that the Glastonbury Thorn is not from the eastern Mediterranean after all but merely a rare but naturally occurring sport of our native hawthorn. There are definitely others around the country, most of which are known to be grafts from one of the Glastonbury trees, but Richard Mabey reports one which was not, on Saltwell Nature reserve in the West Midlands in the 1990s.
Whatever its botanical origin when does the Thorn make its first appearance as a special Holy Tree?
The answer is surprisingly late in the day.
No archaeological evidence has been found of Christian life around Glastonbury until a monastery was established in 670AD. After that, as in many other monasteries, the monks were keen to attract pilgrims and benefactions until eventually in the 1130s the mediaeval chronicler William of Malmesbury consolidates the abbey’s reputation in His De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae (‘Enquiry into the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury’). William claimed the abbey was the oldest church in England, having been built by direct disciples of Jesus. More monastic exaggerations followed as later monks copying William added extra passages explaining how it was Joseph of Arimathea who had led these disciples to Britain in AD 63 and bought the Holy Grail with him.
By the 15thc St Joseph as he had now become was fully integrated into the other great Glastonbury myth: the legend of Arthur [who was also said to be buried there]. The stories merge as Joseph was now claimed to be the ancestor of Lancelot and Galahad. It was around the same time that the story of Jesus visiting Britain was introduced, a twist that was to lead in due course to William Blake ‘s poem and did those feet that in turn became the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ .
Finally a shrine was established in St Joseph’s honour, together with an account of all the miracles he performed and its only around then that the Thorn gets mentioned in a poem published in 1520.
Thre hawthornes also, that groweth in Werall,
Do burge and bere grene leaves at Christmas
As freshe as other in May….
Of course less than 20 years later the whole edifice of the abbey and its story came crashing down – both literally and metaphorically. Glastonbury was one of the richest monasteries in the country and when Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution and seized church property, its abbot was hanged in 1539 for refusing to hand over its treasures. At this point there were already said to be several Glastonbury Thorns growing there around the town.
Then the story goes cold until the early 18thc and, as far as I can tell, it is only then that the Glastonbury Thorn is first associated with Joseph in printed sources.
An antiquarian visitor, Charles Eyston, wrote an account in 1722 of “A Little Monument to the once famous Abbey and Borough of Glastonbury… with an account of the Miraculous Thorn which still blows on Christmas Day etc.”
Eyston, like a good historian, wanted to see if there was any documentary evidence for any of this story about the Thorn, and set off to investigate. He reports back later in the text that unfortunately “whether it sprang from St Joseph’s dry staff… I cannot find, but beyond all dispute it sprang up miraculously.”
Eyston then recounts the later history of the Thorn. One was hacked about during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, although part survived and was “stolen away.” While another fell foul of “a military saint” (ie one of Cromwell’s troops) as an object of superstition. It too was cut down but clearly its guardian spirit wasn’t best pleased and a thorn blinded the culprit in one eye [or killing him depending on which story you read] as a branch fell.
Despite its destruction the great traveller Celia Fiennes was still able to spot “the Holly Thorn” in 1698 which ” the superstitious covet much and have gott some of it for their gardens and soe have almost spoiled it.” That’s unsurprising because Eynston also notes that the tree was by then being propagated commercially.
By the mid-18thc the legend was well and truly flourishing, but it was about to face its first real test of veracity. England and Wales switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar which advanced the date by 11 days: Wednesday 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14 September 1752.
Would the Thorn still flower at Christmas – and if so which one? The Gregorian Christmas on the new December 25th, or the old Julian Christmas now put back 11 days into January. Thanks to the ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ for January 1753 we know that the Thorn was a conservative plant that did not like change. It celebrated Old Christmas.
From then on the Thorn was constantly being tested by sceptics and it has to be said that the Thorn is fickle. In mild years it can flower as early as November and during severe winters it can be as late as March.
But despite the Thorn’s fickleness and doubts about the veracity of the legend there were regular newspaper articles repeating the story, often with little variations, suggesting more modern authors could be as creative as mediaeval monks.
There are reports of the Thorn being replanted several more times on Wearyall Hill, most notably, in 1863 to commemorate the marriage of the future Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
And so to the modern era. Yet another new tree was planted in 1951 to celebrate the Festival of Britain. It died and was replaced the following year, but that tree in its turned suffered the same fate as the 16th and 17thc ones, although more secretively and effectively. It was chainsawed down in 2o10.
But help was soon at hand in the shape of a replacement tree grafted at Kew Gardens. That too was vandalised and in 2012 yet another took its place this time from stock of one in the grounds of the abbey via Oxford Botanic Garden and a Devon nursery. That met the same fate in 2013. Now, instead of replanting on the hill, it looks as if the town has decided to rely on the large number of other specimens growing in local gardens and other more protected sites in the town, and on those now spread out across the whole country.
And I hope the Queen is reading this because, assuming the tree performs as it should, she will just have received a [flowering?] branch from the Thorn in St. John’s churchyard. This will have been cut by the oldest child at St John’s School.
This was a custom started by James Montague, the bishop of Bath and Wells, in the early 17thc who sent one to James I’s wife Anne of Denmark, and which was revived in the 1920s.
So at the end of the day, the Thorn manages to suspend disbelief. It mixes our vision of the romantic past with conventional religion and the “new age”, and yet is so modern that it even has its own Facebook page. So I hope the Queen enjoys her sprig of Crataegus monogyna biflora but remembers that:
“A historian must record when people believed what, and if possible why; but not confuse the myth with what actually happened.”