1 DECEMBER 1973, Page 15


The Glastonbury thorn

Denis Wood, Many legends surround the Glastonbury Thorn which bears flowers in winter and again in summer, legends which began as threads of gold tarnishing a little as the centuries passed, and woven with strands of other colours to make a tapestry which, into whatever light it may be taken, is still enigmatic, mysterious. The tree is Crataegus monogyana praecox or biflora, a Mutation (or 'sport') from the common hawthorn, a native of Britain.

A version of the legend is that in the year 68 Joseph of Arimathea with twelve holy men was sent by St Philip to build a church in Britain in honour of the Mother of Jesus.They travelled by the traders' way, safe in the Pax Romana, from Caesarea to Cyrene, across the sea to Crete, Sicily, Rome, Marseilles, overland to Rocamadour and Limoges, to the mouth of the Loire; then across the sea again to Maranon where there were tin mines and on overland by the lead traders' trackway to the Mendips where they again had to take a boat before they landed at a little quay at the foot of Weary-All Hill on the island of Yniswitrin or Avalon which we now know as Glastonbury. They began to climb the hill but whether from exhaustion or from exasperation at the sullenness of the natives and looking for a sign, Joseph thrust his staff into the ground whereupon it did — where upon it did "... burge and bere grene leaves at Christmas.

As fresh as other in May."

Joseph is said to have brought with him and hidden on Weary All Hill the cup of the Last Supper, the Holy Grail, in which the court of King Arthur was deeply involved. Some of Arthur's knights were said to have been descended from that small company of Jews who came to England with Joseph. There is even a tradition in Cornwall that Jesus himself as a boy came to Britain with his Uncle Joseph who was a tin trader.

However this may be, something was started at Glastonbury which continued for a milennium and a half. The first church was built of wattle and daub. It was known as the Vetusta Ecclesia, and in order to preserve it as centuries went by, was cased first in wood and lead and then in .stone. This old church was described as the "First ground of God ... Here are preserved the human remains of many saints, nor is there any space in the building free from their ashes, so much so that the stone pavement and indeed the sides of the altar• and the altar itself, above and below, is crammed with the multitude of the relics."

The old church became the Lady Chapel at the west end of the great Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul which was built to the east of it. This, together with the old church, was destroyed by fire in 1184; it was rebuilt and afterwards altered and restored in following centuries until the dissolution in 1539 when the sapphire altar, given by St David was stolen, the Abbey pillaged and the last Abbot martyred on Tor Hill.

In Advent a suspension of disbelief comes easily; the curtain between the seen and the unseen becomes to a degree transparent, and may even lift a little. Fact may be stranger than fiction but where as between these does the truth lie?__ ' Certainly the Holy Thorn remains, the original on Weary-All Hill was destroyed but not before a slip of it had been taken and planted in the precincts of the Abbey where it has been continuously renewed. I have seen it there, its flowers glimmering in the dusk of a wet and windy evening in late November as I hurried home from Cornwall.