Luca Fumagalli

There is no doubt that the Glastonbury Hawthorn, renamed the “Holy Thorn”, has exceptional properties. Unlike other hawthorns, it blooms twice a year, and when an attempt was made to sow its berries elsewhere, the result was that only common variants were born.

Since a similar plant is found in Palestine, some have advanced the theory that the Hawthorn may have been brought to England in medieval times by a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land or by a crusader. Tradition instead tells that it all began with the arrival in Glastonbury, on Christmas day, of Joseph of Arimathea, in search of the place where Christ had commanded him to build a church in honor of Our Lady. As the local population was quite skeptical about his mission, Joseph asked God to grant him the grace of a miracle to show them his good faith: his staff, once planted in the land of Wearyall Hill, sprouted until it became a hawthorn.

Beyond the story of the “Holy Thorn”, Joseph of Arimathea is a figure closely linked to British Christianity, so much so that the British have always boasted of having received the Gospel directly from his lips. Another tradition – also cited by William Blake in Jerusalem – even says that Joseph, interested in the tin trade, visited the Cornish mines in the company of Jesus when he was only a boy (it should not be forgotten that the man is believed by some commentators to be Mary’s uncle, her father’s younger brother).

Hugh Ross Williamson (1970)

On the destined path of Joseph following the Passion of Christ there are various reliable sources such as the apocryphal The Acts of Pilate, The Life of Joseph of Arimathea – a text in verse widely diffused in the Middle Ages but of more ancient origin – and the annals of the historian Gildas, who was active in the sixth century. According to these documents, Joseph, after he had filled two ampoules containing the blood and water that flowed from the side of Jesus, was sentenced to forty days in prison by the Sanhedrin. At Pentecost, free again, he stood next to Mary and then went to Gaul, with St. Philip, in order to preach the word of God. In the company of eleven other missionaries he then reached the British coast and finally found refuge in Glastonbury, on Wearyall Hill, then a small island surrounded by marshes, renamed by the natives “Avalon” (“the island of glass”). There Joseph had a modest church built, the so-called “Wattle Church”, the first ever built on British soil, and inside it he placed an image of the Virgin that he himself had engraved. When he died, he was buried in that place along with the two ampoules that he had always kept with him.

Regardless of the veracity or otherwise of the story of Joseph of Arimathea, it is certain that when St. Augustine of Canterbury, in 597, arrived from Rome to convert the Anglo-Saxons, in Glastonbury he met a thriving Christian community (and through this place, as well as countless hordes of pilgrims, saints such as St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, and St. David, patron saint of Wales are said to have passed). On Wearyall Hill, next to the “Wattle Church”, other buildings were erected little by little, including some churches and a Benedictine abbey, and it seems that the legendary King Arthur, fighting for the faith against the Saxons, was also buried there. Alfred the Great was also devoted to Our Lady of Glastonbury, celebrated by G. K. Chesterton in the Ballad of the White Horse for his extraordinary victory over the Danish invaders.

Unfortunately, the “Wattle Church” was destroyed in a fire in 1184, but the name of Joseph of Arimathea made a comeback with the spread of the legend of the Holy Grail linked to Arthur and his knights precisely at a time when a lively debate was taking place within the Church about the nature of the Eucharist, a debate that would later lead to the definition of the dogma of transubstantiation.

The New Edition of the Book (Arouca Press, 2022)

If under the reign of Henry VIII, when he began to clash with the Pope, the monks of Glastonbury first took the side of the king, later they did not fail to criticize his conduct with such determination that in 1539 the abbot of the time, Richard Whiting, finally suffered a brutal martyrdom. The looting carried out by the thugs of the bloodthirsty Tudor – immortalized by the pen of an indignant Wordswoth – was followed by the devastation wrought by the Puritans, who destroyed the ecclesiastical buildings and had no scruples in knocking down the “Holy Thorn” (luckily many thorns then sprouted from the same root and still today, every year, at Christmas, a branch of Hawthorn is offered as a gift to the English sovereign).

Hugh Ross Williamson in 1962 told the story of the miraculous plant in a booklet, The Flowering Hawthorn, which today returns to bookstore shelves thanks to the Canadian Arouca Press, a recently founded publishing house that is undertaking the worthy task of reprinting the classics of English-speaking Catholic apologetics, of which Williamson is one of the leading exponents. The latter, who died in 1978, was in fact a convert, historian and former Anglican prelate, one of the British opponents of the liturgical reforms born of the Second Vatican Council and who always worked in favour of the “Vetus Ordo”.

Even in his brief study on Glastonbury’s Hawthorn, Williamson shows the passion of a consummate analyst, arguing with great care, leaving nothing to chance, careful to provide the most convincing of possible interpretations. The result is a very  pleasing text, a gem that ought to be present in your library.

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