Holy Thorn

Quick Reference

There is a variety of hawthorn which blooms twice a year, at midwinter as well as in May. A poem about the miracles of Glastonbury, written in 1502, mentions two ‘great marvels’ to be seen there. One is a walnut tree near Arthur's grave in the cemetery, which never bears leaves before St Barnabas's Day (11 June), but then suddenly becomes fully leaved. The other is a group of three hawthorns growing ‘in Werrall’ which produce buds and green leaves at Christmas ‘as fresh as others in May’.

‘Werrall’ is a hill south of the town, now called Weary-All Hill; the poem says nothing about how the trees came to be there. By the time of Elizabeth I there was apparently only one, but it had two trunks. Its Christmas blossoms were treasured as holy; it is said that an Elizabethan Puritan took offence at this and chopped one trunk down, but was miraculously punished when he cut his own leg, and a chip from the tree blinded him in one eye. In 1639 Peter Mundy found it ‘standing Neglected by the highe waies side, Now ready to Fall downe for age’; he was willing to believe that it bloomed at midwinter, ‘Butt that, as some say, it should have No appearance off anything att all on Christmas Eave and that on Christmas day in the Morning itt shall bee Full off leaves and blossomes requires to bee prooved’ (Travels, iv, p. xxxi).

A Roundhead destroyed what was left of this tree, but many cuttings had been taken; in 1645 people were still visiting a Glastonbury Thorn and taking twigs as souvenirs, believing that it was from a tree of this type that Christ's crown of thorns was made—or even that this particular tree had grown from a single thorn from Christ's crown, planted by Joseph of Arimathea.

What is now the best-known legend first appeared in 1722; it had been recently collected orally from a Glastonbury innkeeper. He used to tell how Joseph and his travelling companions halted on the hill. ‘Friends, we are weary all!’ cried Joseph, driving his staff into the ground, where it took root and became the first Holy Thorn. Thus the hill got its name, in a clever but rather frivolous pun, typical of placename legends. Other versions say Joseph's staff blossomed in answer to prayer, as a miracle to convert local heathens.

On Christmas Eve in 1752 hundreds of people gathered at Glastonbury, and in other places where descendants of the original thorn were growing, to see if they would bloom as usual; they did not, but on the night of 5/6 January 1753 they did. This was held to prove that the calendar change of 1752 was invalid, and 25 December no longer the ‘real’ Christmas Day (The Gentleman's Magazine (1753), 49, 578–9).

Every Christmas sprigs from a holy thorn in the churchyard of St John's Church, Glastonbury, are sent to the Queen and the Queen Mother; this custom began in 1929, when the then vicar sent one to Queen Mary. He was recalling an incident in Stuart times, when the Bishop of Bath and Wells sent twigs from both the walnut and the hawthorn to Queen Anne, wife of James I.


Reference entries