Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Destruction of the Glastonbury Holy Thorn

Vandals have struck again and destroyed the historic Glastonbury tree whose origins are said to be linked to the arrival of Christianity in Britain nearly 2,000 years ago.

The legendary Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury, Somerset, is regarded as one of the most iconic symbols of Christianity, and claimed to be derived from the original tree that grew from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff that he thrust into the ground after landing in Britain with his twelve companions sometime after the Crucifixion.

At sometime last Thursday, 23rd May, the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill was destroyed through an act of intentional vandalism. The Police have been informed and are trying to establish a motive for the attack; owing to its Christian links a religious motive has not been ruled out.

The Glastonbury Thorn before the attack in 2010
[The Official Page for the Glastonbury Thorn - Facebook]
This tree, said to be derived through cuttings from the lineage of the original, was planted on Wearyall Hill in 1951 to celebrate the Festival of Britain, had its branches cut off in 2010 and reduced to a stump in the early hours of one December morning. The surviving trunk put out some weak shoots that failed to develop, but now the stump of this tree has also been destroyed as someone returned nine years later to finish the job.

The Glastonbury Holy Thorn has refused to grow from seed and direct cuttings and can only be grown by being grafted onto the common hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna. The Holy Thorn is an unusual variety in that it flowers twice a year, spring and winter, known as Crataegus monogyna var, ‘biflora’ (= twice flowering), a variety usually found in the Middle East around the Mediterranean.

Every Christmas a sprig of the winter blossom is cut from the Holy Thorn in St. Johns churchyard and sent to the Queen. This tradition has continued since the Bishop of Bath and Wells first sent a branch to Queen Anne, in the 16th century.

Shortly before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530’s, three Holy Thorn trees were said to be growing on Wearyall Hill. In the 17th century the one surviving tree was cut down by Puritans during the English Civil War (1642 -1651). This Holy Thorn had grown to quite a size for the species and now formed two trunks. One was completely destroyed, axed and burned by one of Cromwell’s Roundheads as a relic of superstition; as it fell, its thorns blinded the axe man in one eye. The other trunk was nearly cut through but survived for another thirty years, parenting many cuttings.

Offspring of the Holy Thorn survived at secret locations around Glastonbury and today their descendants can be seen in specimens growing around the town such as at Glastonbury Abbey, St Johns Church, Chalice Well, the Abbey Barn and in some private gardens.

From this stock, a new Holy Thorn was propagated and planted on Wearyall Hill in 1951, which survived for sixty years until it was vandalised during the night 8-9th December 2010, the very day that the Queen’s blossom was due to be cut from the Holy Thorn at St John’s.

The Pilgrim Reception Centre, Glastonbury, working with the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, collected cuttings from the branches severed in 2010 to propagate and continue the lineage.

In April 2012 a new tree propagated by Kew from these severed branches was planted on Wearyall Hill and surrounded by a metal railings to provide some protection from grazing livestock. Yet, within two weeks the replacement tree had been broken off about a foot from the ground.

Someone seems determined there will not be a Holy Thorn growing on Wearyall Hill.

* * *