Custom demised: Observing the holy thorn

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A thorny subject

Just before Christmas in 2010 vandals inexplicably chopped down the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury and a nation was shocked. Whatever the reason for this destruction it prevented anyone witnessing this tree blooming according to tradition. However, despite this being the most iconic and well known holy thorn, it was only one of a considerable number across the country which originates from the original tree which stood before the Parish church before being cut down by Cromwellian troops in the English civil war, the axe wielder is said to have lost an eye as a result which James Howell of odona’s grove noted:

“He was well serv’d for his blinde Zeale, who going to cut doune an ancient white Hauthorne-tree, which, because she budded before the others, might be an occasion of superstition had some of the prickles flew into his eye and made him Monoculor”

However this tree is not the holy thorn, not even in Glastonbury for its progeny is found in the churchyard and Abbey grounds. Records of other holy thorns occur not surprisingly at West Buckland, Woolmingston and Whitestaunton also in Somerset, Sutton Poyntz Dorset, but also at Houghton Le Spring, Durham, Brickendon, Hertfordshire and Shenley Church End and Quainton, Buckinghamshire. Herefordshire curiously had and has a number of examples. These listed by folklorist Leather included Wormsley, Rowlstone, Dorstone, Colwall, Stoke Edith, King’s Thorn, Tyberton with one at Bredwardine in Herefordshire. Palmer notes Alfrick, Hampton, Newland, Ripple and Tardebigge in Worcestershire.

A blossoming story

Despite being such a well known story, the thorn is only first mentioned in a 1520 work by Richard Pynson Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea where the blooming in winter and spring are first recorded. Indeed, Joseph himself only appears in legend in the 9th century. What is interesting is that the plant, Crataegus monogyna biflora is not a native species. DNA of all known descendents match and experts in Kew have identified it from Levantine Palestine hawthorn…so there may be evidence.
To these trees it was customary for the devout to visit these bushes on Christmas Eve to see them bloom. In the 17th century Bishop Goodman of Gloucester noted:

“The white thorn of Glastonbury which usually blossoms on Christmas and Easter.”

The flowers were thought to bloom exactly on midnight, the hour Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, and then drop off an hour later. For example an account in the East Anglia Miscellany notes a thorn:

“near Parham Hall (Norfolk) is a white thorn bush which blossoms by Christmas Day, and the people of the neighbourhood flock to it in great companies upon Christmas Eve..”

Although the author does note that:

“I had some of the buds just blooming brought to me on Sunday, the 2nd of December, 1734”

But wait a minute this is January’s blog!

Yes and the date of the above account is significant, for only 22 years later it may not have bloomed. Why because in 1752, the calendar changed. Indeed, the blooming of the holy thorns was used by those critical of the date change as evidence that the new calendar was wrong. For when the calendar did change, these disbelievers of the new Calendar, waited to see when the tree would blossom the 25th December or the 6th January? The Gentleman’s magazine reported in 1753 in January:

“A Vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn on Christmas-day, new stile, but to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing,which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, old stile, when it blowed as usual.”

Such begun a January tradition For example on the 7th January 1878, the author Kilvert visited a farm at Dolfach where the blossoming was witnessed by a group of fifteen people and he was given a spray of blossom by the farmer’s daughter. Kilvert notes that he grafted this cutting onto his tree and reported that on the same date the next year it bloomed despite the severe frost. Attendance to see the thorns was still current in Sutton Poyntz Dorset until 1844, Woolmingston Somerset 1898 and Wormsley at least until 1908 when folklorist Ella Mary Leather recorded it in her Folklore of Herefordshire. She also noted one of the reasons for the popularity of the custom and its demise:

“A piece of thorn gathered at this hour brings luck, if kept for the rest of the year. Formerly crowds of people went to see the thorn blossom at this time. I myself went to Wormesely in 1908; about forty people were there, and as it was quite dark and the blossom could only be seen by candle light, it was probably the warmth of the candles which made some of the little white buds seem to expand. The tree had really been in bloom for several days, the season being extremely mild. Mr Powell of Peterchurch told me he could remember that on old Christmas Eve, people came for miles round to Kingstone Grange, where a holy thorn grew in the garden; they were liberally supplied with cake and cider.”

Blooming cheek – an unpopular custom

Leather noted that such rather impromptu perhaps gatherings were not always popular she notes:

“At Cleohanger, years ago a man was very much annoyed at the damage done to his garden by those coming to see the thorn blossom which grew there, so he began to cut it down. But blood flowed from the trunk of the tree and this so alarmed him he left off at once!”
Similarly at Acton Beauchamp, the local farmer so annoyed by the concourse of people who crossed his field to see the flowering, that he destroyed the thorn but so the story says he broke both arm and legs and his farm house burnt down!”

Nipped in the bud

Not always were the crowds able to witness a show. A 100 assembled in 1934 failed to see the Cleohanger thorn bloom. Yet in 1949, it was reported by the Times that the Orcop Thorn at the Stars Little Hill in the village was to be filmed by the BBC put there was nowhere to plug in their lamps! Indeed memory of visiting the thorns is still current if a correspondent to WW2 People’s War website is anything to judge:

“I used to visit my Grandparents over Christmas and there was a thorn tree that used to flower. They had a ladder to pick the bloom..If you picked the flower when it flowered, the next morning it would have died. Young men used to pick the flowers for their girl friends. There were lots of flowers in the tree-it used to be in full bloom. Everyone got excited about it-the adults would be chattering.”

Sadly this thorn was lost in a storm of 1980. However, the third reason for the decline had already had a significant effect. The predations of the pickers which came in coach loads had their impact and weakened it. Of the other holy thorns, I am unclear of what survives or still blooms and it would be useful to do further research. Many other sacred thorns lie forgotten and unheralded. Some have died such as that of Orcop above, Shenley Church End, and Quainton Buckinghamshire and Houghton Le spring (although a cutting survives) others survive such as that of Brickenden, Hertfordshire and Glastonbury of course, but whether they can escape the joint perils of ignorance and vandalism is yet to be seen.

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