Thursday, January 1, 2009

Glastonbury Thorn

Reading about a new book that is about to be brought out on Jesus in the West country, The Missing Years of Jesus -The Greatest Story Never Told by Dennis Price, my curiosity was aroused so I turned to an old book called The Ruined Abbeys of Britain by Frederick Ross. He wrote about some of the many legends that are woven round the history of Glastonbury, and if one must start anywhere about Jesus being in England we must go to "planted with the standard of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was first sure rootage on the island of Britain."
Here be the Glastonbury Thorn, which is is said to flower on Christmas, though I believe it can be a bit tardy in that direction and flowers much later. The person who brought the original thorn, or at least his staff was of course Joseph of Arimathea. Now before I go on with the story, it is well to know that Frederick Ross was a 19th century American antiquarian therefore brings to his tales a somewhat sceptical approach, but he approaches the subject of Joseph from several sources. Joseph was a rich jew and a disciple of Jesus, offering his own tomb for Jesus to be buried in. He was banished with Phillip, and put in a boat without either sail or oar, and they eventually arrived in Marseilles, and from there to our "obscure and benighted land", Ross thinks they arrived at Bridgewater Bay? to a "country desolate and dreary, covered with dense forests."
They arrived at the court of King Aviragus, a pagan, but he was hospitable and granted to them 12 hides of land, one each for the members of their community. Here Ross goes on to explain the place we know as Glastonbury today, or Ynis-witrin (The Glassy/Glast Island), the Glast of course coming from the woad that was grown round here to produce the colour blue.
It was also called Isle of Avalon for the many apple trees, and in Saxon times, Glasstingabryig. Glastonbury "a long narrow tract of land, which the river Brue traverses lengthwise"
Rising from this marshy land was a hill - The Tor - nearly 500 feet, and Ross goes on to say that it seemed to have been a British Fortress (hillfort), and"moreover is supposed to have been an open air temple of the Sun-God, whose Baal fires were kindled on top", we will lightly skip over that one as pure wishful thinking but take into account the legend that comes from Weary-all Hill, because it is here Joseph finished his journey and took possession of their small portion of territory. Here we see Joseph leaning on his staff and thanking the lord for what they see, and of course the staff springing into life and covered with white blossom.
As I have mentioned before this 'miraculous' thorn is supposed to flower on Christmas day, but of course, as to what happened when the new style of calendar was adopted heaven only knows, but the tree had healing properties, and slips or cuttings were taken and sold for a huge price.
Of course the Puritans had to get in on the act and in the 17th century a soldier cut it down boasting that the age of miracles had come to an end, (Christmas also of course had come to an end as well under Cromwellian rule) but though the parent tree perished its children still flourished....
The story goes on that the brethren built a small church and small huts, and here these twelve lived and that Joseph was buried within the church.

To return to a later period, this is a tale told by William of Malmesbury. In the year 177, Lucius King of the Britons, sent to the then Pope asking him to send teachers to "dispel the darkness" into which the local population were falling. Two missionaries arrived Saints Phanagus and Duravianus, and as the old wattled church of St.Joseph had fallen into decay, they rebuilt the church in stone. Twelve anchorets were given place on the island and Lucius dictated that he took away all powers from the druids and that christianity was the religon of his country. These two saints also built a chapel on top of the Tor which was dedicated to St.Michael, the tower still remains today, above the doorway is a figure of St.Michael weighing the bible against the devil, with a little imp trying to pull the scales down in which his master sat. A fair of two days was held on top of the Tor.
Here we must turn to archaeological evidence for the existence of a probable hermitage up on the Tor in Philip Rahtz and Lorna Watts Glastonbury Myths and Archaeology. Dark age evidence shows fragments of amphorae, which obviously would have been traded from the Meditteranean, and would have contained liquid of some description. There was also two rock-cut graves, the two young male skeletons facing north-south, and Rahtz says that in the 'charter of St.Patrick' in the late 4th century there is mention of two lay brothers Arnulph and Ogmar. There was also a cairn of stones, again probably a 'dark age' date, only an iron ferrule was found.
One of the interesting finds up on this lofty summit, were metalworking hearths using bellows and clay nozzles to direct the air blast. And nearby a 'mask' of bronze, the head is a long 'celtic' face partly obscured by a helmet.
Rahtz speculates that this hillfort was used by a petty king or local chief, dining on fine meat with wine, etc with craftworkers producing specialised ware. The 'Chalice' well at the bottom providing water for this somewhat inaccessible site.


  1. I found this really interesting but have always had my doubts about the origins of the story of the Glastonbury Thorn I'm afraid!

  2. Hi Rowan,

    Yes but its a good story. I expect the monks made it up for revenue from the pilgrims, they did the same for the Arthur/Guinevere bones I believe. Ross says that there is a thorn tree from Syria which would flower around xmas, and perhaps someone brought the haws over and planted.