The Glastonbury Thorn, Somerset
Glastonbury was an important religious site long before Christianity came to these shores. The imposing sight of Glastonbury Tor rising above the surrounding land provided a meeting point and a symbol of religious power to early Britons. It has been suggested that a labyrinth was built on the Tor in prehistoric times, the focal point of some ancient religious procession. And near the Tor are the druidic oaks gog and magog, remnants it is said of an oak glade of great significance.
Such is the importance of Glastonbury that it is reputed to be the burial site of Arthur and Guinevere, laid to rest in Avalon, but awaiting the day when the legendary king's power would be needed to aid England in her darkest hour.
But the most fascinating tale associated with Glastonbury is that of its holy thorn.
The story goes that Joseph of Aramethea came to Britain only a few years after the Crucifixion. As Christ's great uncle and only surviving male relation Joseph had inherited Jesus' staff, and travelled to Britain with it, spreading the Gospel.
Having arrived at Glastonbury Joseph climbed Wearyall Hill and settled down to rest, striking his staff into the ground to be ready to help him up when he awoke. Miraculously the staff sprouted, and grew into a sturdy thorn tree, with beautiful blossoms apparent. The symbolism is evident: his mission would blossom and take; and the thorn is one of the New Testament's abiding images, in the crown of thorns, and St Paul's use of the metaphor 'a thorn in the flesh'.
The thorn became a place of pilgrimage, miraculously flowering at Christmas-time as well as in the spring. The tree survived the dissolution of Glastonbury's Benedictine abbey , but was cut down by Roundheads, destroyed as a superstitious relic.
Not before cuttings had been taken, however, its descendents planted in other spots around the town, and eventually sent around the world by the abbey's gardeners.
The story lives on in other directions too, with a tradition begun in the reign of James I for a sprig of the holy thorn to be sent to the monarch at Christmas to adorn the royal table, demonstrating the link of crown and church in Britain.
Whatever the truth of the tale, Glastonbury is a beautiful place to visit, its natural beauty and ancient ruins enhanced by the stories attaching to them.
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