Tales from End to End
The Mayor’s Tale
The Holy Thorn
by Andrew Willis
A small boat made its way slowly through the misty marshes near the island of Avalon. On board were a group of people who had sailed for months across stormy and lonely seas. One of the number was Joseph of Arimathea. He and his companions had set out on a journey to take the Word of God to the peoples of strange lands.
The boat moored at a makeshift landing stage at the bottom of a tall hill standing out from the marshes. Joseph and his party disembarked and climbed to the top of the hill. Joseph looked round him and, surveying this new land, turned to his friends and said ‘We are weary all and now we must rest’. He thrust the blackthorn staff he was carrying into the ground and before their eyes it miraculously grew roots. As time went by it turned into a mature tree that always blossomed at Christmas, and that is how the legend of the Holy Thorn was born.
Wearyall Hill is the site where the Holy Thorn is most revered and the tree on this hill is the most important. However, there are quite a number of other ‘Holy Thorns’ around Glastonbury and these are found mostly in the Abbey Grounds and in St John’s Churchyard in the High Street.
In 2,000 AD, when there were celebrations throughout the world to mark the birth of our Lord 2,000 years earlier, I was appointed Deputy Mayor of Glastonbury. I was able to go to Winfield House in London to present the United States Ambassador with a Holy Thorn cutting to plant in the garden of the Embassy. It has grown into a fine tree, reminding Americans of Glastonbury and our connections with Christianity.
Then in 2001/2 I had the honour of becoming Mayor of Glastonbury. I greatly enjoyed following the tradition that in December the Mayor and the eldest child at St John’s Infant School always cut a sprig of the Holy Thorn to be sent to the Queen for adorning the Royal dinner table on Christmas Day. This custom of sending a spray of the Glastonbury Thorn to the monarch at Christmas was started during King James I’s reign.
As another part of the Mayor’s duties, I also had the privilege of actually delivering small cuttings of the Holy Thorn to various people around the country so that they, too, could possess a symbol of one of the oldest Christian legends of this land. During 2001 I made two trips to London, one to meet the Mayor of the City of London and one to visit the Queen Mother. We went to London in October to present the then Mayor, Sir David Howard, with a tree that we had taken with us and we planted this in the grounds of St Michael’s Church in Cornhill. It was given as a sign of peace and friendship between our two cities. We then went back to the Mansion House and were given a rare sight of the vaults where much of the treasure of the City of London is housed.
In December we took a small cutting, together with a bottle of water from the Red Spring at Chalice Well, to Clarence House in London to give to the Queen Mother. Sadly, it was at the time of her last illness and we did not get to meet her. Her Private Secretary, Sir Alistair Aird, received the gifts on her behalf.
It was a busy year for my wife and myself as we had the honour of meeting such important people. We naturally treasure our memories and we hope that giving gifts of Glastonbury’s Holy Thorn cuttings, one of this country’s most important symbols of the Christian story, will help remind future generations of our love and commitment to our God.
Andrew Willis was Mayor of Glastonbury in 2001/2. The legend he describes is one of a number of stories told about Joseph of Arimathea and the origin of the Thorn Tree.
The Glastonbury Thorn is a form of common hawthorn but unlike ordinary hawthorn trees it flowers twice a year, once in winter and a second time in spring. The tree is propagated by grafting cuttings on to a root of blackthorn and ‘Holy Thorns’ have been sent to numerous different countries. The tree on Wearyall Hill was severely damaged by vandalism in 2010.