Matthew’s Gospel tells us that it was Joseph of Arimathea who requested of Pilate and was given the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. In life, Joseph was a follower of Jesus and a rich man. After receiving Jesus’ body, he buried it in a tomb that had been carved into stone and that he had intended for himself.
In legend, the story goes, Saint Philip the Apostle sent Joseph to Britain to establish Christianity there. When Joseph made his way to Britain, he arrived in southwest England in Somerset near present-day Glastonbury. Some accounts have Joseph bringing with him the chalice used at the last supper (the Holy Grail)—these are the foundations of Arthurian romance—and some have him bearing a vial of Jesus’ blood (and/or sweat). But all the stories include his walking staff. Joseph prayed for a sign that would convince the Britons of the veracity of his message. Upon disembarking, he thrust his staff into the earth, and miraculously it sprouted and grew to become what is now called the Glastonbury Thorn. Under mild winter conditions such as those in Somerset, the Glastonbury Thorn breaks bud and flowers in early winter and then again in spring. It has traditionally represented Christmas.
The Glastonbury Thorn is in the news now because recently it was hacked down by persons unknown. This is not the first time this has happened during the last 2000 years either, if indeed the tree has existed that long. During the English Civil War (1642–1651), it was clear that it was the forces of Oliver Cromwell who cut it down and burned it. Cromwell was a strict Puritan and considered the Thorn a “relic of superstition” and a symbol of Roman Catholicism. It thus served his purposes to destroy it, and while he certainly had no fellow feeling for royals (as is evident from the treatment that Charles I received), he was continuing the work of Henry VIII who had completed the destruction of the abbey where the Thorn then grew. Henry hanged the monks to boot. In any case, whether or not sprigs of the Glastonbury Thorn will grace the Royal table on Christmas Day this year, as traditionally they have for some 400 years, I don’t know.
The Glastonbury Thorn is a form of common or singleseed hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). This is the primary hawthorn species in the British Isles and is found throughout Europe, northwest Africa, and western Asia. It’s long been important to wildlife and humans in Europe. The hedges that are so prominent and that border fields in England and Ireland are largely composed of singleseed hawthorn; these provide nesting sites for birds and shelter for many small mammals as well as food for these creatures, and the flowers are visited by nectar-feeding insects, butterflies in particular. For several thousand years, because of its thorns and dense growth, people grew hawthorn in virtually impenetrable hedges to keep livestock in and enemies out. The hard, fine-grained wood is handsome and durable and has been used to make objects such as combs. Charcoal made from hawthorn burns at a high temperature and for generations melted metal. There are also various herbal medicine preparations made from hawthorn.
Glastonbury Thorn itself is designated as C. monogyna cultivar Biflora because of its unusual habit of flowering in winter as well as spring. Hawthorn in general is a long-lived plant, but it’s unlikely to live as long as the 2000-year-old tree cited in the recent newspaper accounts (250 years is reasonable, though). The first reference to the Glastonbury Thorn is in the early16th century poem Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea; it may well have originated only a generation or two before that. What accounts for the unique winter-flowering characteristic is unclear, but that trait is not maintained in trees grown from Glastonbury Thorn seed. It is only expressed by Glastonbury Thorn cuttings or buds grafted to rootstock. Human intervention did not determine Glastonbury Thorn, but human intervention is required to preserve it.
The British may have lost a national treasure, but that was long ago. In all likelihood, the tree destroyed by Cromwell’s troops was the original one; the recently vandalized one was certainly a clone of that. Since at least the early part of the 18th century, Glastonbury Thorn has been extensively reproduced by means of cuttings and buds (just as is done to maintain desired traits in apple cultivars), and it has been distributed worldwide. Glastonbury Thorn is not in imminent danger of extinction; there are plenty of examples of it, and presumably, apart from the rootstock, they are all identical to the original. It can even be found for sale on internet nursery sites, both in Europe and the USA.
It’s my guess that the tradition will continue. The Queen will get her sprigs of Glastonbury Thorn for Christmas Day. They will not come from the tree at Glastonbury clearly, but did they always anyway?