REMEMBERING THE GLASTONBURY THORN

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), hawthorn presides from 1-23 May. It celebrates Beltane and the rising strength of the sun. Looking forward to that time, I think particularly of a specific tree, the Glastonbury thorn at Wearyall Hill, to represent that period. But the tree is gone, and is now unlikely to return, though ever-living in my heart and imagination..

It was a variety of common hawthorn (crataegus monogyna biflora) that flowered twice a year – first around Christmas and then in spring. I took the photograph in a misty Imbolc moment in 2007, between flowerings. It is the only one I will ever have, and for that reason I treasure it. The much revered tree was vandalised in 2010. New shoots appearing from March 2011 mysteriously disappeared. A new sapling, grafted from a descendent or the original tree, was planted in 2012 and consecrated – only to be snapped in half and irreparably damaged 16 days later. In May 2019, after some years of hesitation, the tree was entirely removed by the landowner in a final acceptance that the tree was lost. Sacred thorn trees, said to be descended from the same original, can still be found in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and at the Church of St. John.

I particularly liked the Wearyall Hill tree, because it was physically removed from the bustle of Glastonbury as a twenty-first century spiritual centre. The hill just seemed quietly natural – pagan, if you wanted to think of it that way, or Christian, if you wanted to link it to the story of Joseph of Arimathea’s staff, and how it came to life and flowered when planted in a new land. I was shocked by the violence against the tree and against other people’s love for it.

An ancestor of thee thorn (the individual plants do not last forever) had been cut down before, probably in 1647 by a Parliamentary soldier in England’s civil war. For the thorn was strongly linked to royal patronage, the miracle of a Christmas flowering, and a link between sacred land and sacred kingship. The kind of Royalism represented by this constellation of ideas and images was strong in Somerset at that time, but so was religious Puritanism, allied to a wish for constitutional change. The war was bitterly fought within the county. The legend of the thorn, cultivated by one group of people, made it vulnerable to another group of people identified with different loyalties.

The modern destruction of the thorn also seems not to have been casual, or it wouldn’t have been repeated so systematically. But I am not sure of the motivation. I find myself understanding a seventeenth century act of violence better than the modern one. Was this venerated tree the victim of a current human culture war? Are there potential lessons for Avalonians? Whatever the case, I am still in mourning.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/