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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Legend of the Glastonbury Thorn......

is a story that hearkens back to the early days of Christianity in Britain, serving a foundation for various other myths and legends, including the Arthurian Cycles. Since it a very Christmassy tale, I think now is an appropriate time to tell it!

     Although the exact date is unknown, tradition holds that Christianity was introduced to Britain some time during the first century. This definitive event in British history is often associated with St. Joseph of Arimathea. Pious legend tells us that he was the younger brother of St. Joachim, thus making him the uncle of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the great-uncle of Jesus Christ.
    He is said to have worked as a merchant under the employ of the Roman government, carrying lead and tin from Cornwall, England, to Phoenicia. He also owned a fleet of ships with which he made trading ventures throughout the Roman Empire. Living in Marmorica, Egypt, for a time, Joseph moved back to Judea and settled in the town of Arimathea, eight miles north of Jerusalem. He was a voting member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and moving so close to the holy city would have been convenient for someone of his position.
    The next phase of the legend deals with Joseph’s journeys abroad with the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child. These tales maintain that St. Joseph the Carpenter died when Jesus was still a boy. As a result, Joseph of Arimathea took his niece and grand-nephew under his wing and brought them along on his tin-trading missions to Cornwall, England, and beyond. This is vaguely alluded to in the medieval English carol, “I Saw Three Ships”, which depicts Christ and the blessed Virgin traveling by ship:

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning

And what was in those ships all three
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?
And what was in those ships all three
On Christmas Day in the morning?

Our Saviour Christ and His Lady
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day,
Our Saviour Christ and His Lady
On Christmas Day in the morning

    Also, William Blake, the 18th century poet and mystic, speculated about Christ’s supposed visit to England and vowed to improve his country for the sake of it in his famous hymn, “Jerusalem”:

And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark, satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold;
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear; oh, clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hands
Till we have builded Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land

  Whether or not Jesus and Mary ever resided in pre-Roman Britain, Joseph of Arimathea’s appearance on the British scene is not at all impossible. The Romans did carry on a lively trade with the Britons long before the actual Roman conquest and colonization of Britannia, and a prominent man such as Joseph may well have been involved in it. 

    Years later on that fateful Holy Week, Joseph is said to have been the owner of the Upper Room in which Jesus and the Apostles celebrated the Last Supper. After the Crucifixion, it was he who obtained permission from the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, to take Christ’s body from the cross and give him a decent burial in a new tomb hewn out of rock. As a result of his sympathetic gesture, he suffered persecuted at the hands of the Sanhedrin who he once served.

    Legend holds that he was imprisoned by them and miraculously released by Christ on the eve of his Resurrection. But this was far from the end of his troubles. Pontius Pilate launched a persecution of Christians in the wake of these tumultuous events, and Joseph was forced to flee Jerusalem.

    He joined the Apostle Philip, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene in Gaul, and together they began to preach the glad tidings to the people there. But then one night as he lay sleeping in his hut, a brilliant flash of light awakened him, and he saw an angel shrouded in a cloud of incense standing before him.   

    “Joseph of Arimathea,” the heavenly visitor addressed him, “cross thou over to Britain and preach the glad tidings to Arvigarus. And there, where a Christmas miracle shall come to pass, do thou build the first Christian church in that land.”

    Joseph did as he was told and set out in a small ship will eleven other Christian missionaries. He intended sail around Land’s End in Cornwall and return to his old stomping grounds in Cornwall in order to make contact with some of his old business associates there. However, this was not to be. His ship ran aground in the marshland around Glastonbury, and he and his companions were seized by the natives and taken before their king, Arvigarus.

   Although he was impressed by their courage, the king was still unwilling to convert to Christianity. However, he did give Joseph and his companions’ permission to preach. Furthermore, he let them make their base on the island of Avalon (“the island of apples”), which was also know as Ynis-witren (“the island of glassy waters), and divided the land into Twelve Hides, one for each of the missionaries. Today, this place is identified as modern-day Glastonbury, presumably surrounded by marshland way back when and mistakenly thought to be an island.

    The Christians were escorted to Avalon and enthusiastically decided to climb a steep hill, presumably to get a good view of their new home. When they reached the summit, the exhausted Joseph of Arimathea rested his weight on his hawthorn staff, which was said to be made with pieces of Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Immediately, the staff took root and blossomed with a cluster of beautiful white flowers. Since it was Christmas Eve of 63 A.D., Joseph took the sign to be a fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy and built a mud-and-wattle church dedicated to Our Lady on that spot, which came to be known as “Weary-all Hill”. The staff of Joseph continued to flourish and blossom every year on Christmas and Easter.

    Further legends involve the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly used to catch the blood flowing from Christ’s side after he was pierced with a lance. He is said to have taken in with him to Britain wrapped in a cloth of white samite and placed it under the first altar to be raised in the land. He later hid it at the bottom of well which afterwards gushed out red-tinted water, now known as “Chalice Well” or “Blood Well.”

    Some claim that the Glastonbury Thorn was really brought back to Glastonbury Abbey by a zealous crusader who picked it up somewhere in Palestine during the Middle Ages. Also, tests on the water from Chalice Well have shown that it has a very high iron-content, which explains its unusual red tint.

    However, these legends are not without significance, nor have they been proven to be altogether false. If other early Christians such as St. Paul traveled across the Roman Empire to spread their religion, why would it be unreasonable to believe that St. Joseph of Arimathea would return to the land where he spent so much time in order to proclaim the glad tidings? Furthermore, to presume that are no such things as miracles is a truly far-fetched notion. Whether it was Joseph or someone else who first planted the cross in British soil, the fact remains that it did take root, blossomed, and bore much fruit.

Glastonbury Thorn
The Glastonbury Thorn, before being vandalized in 2010


  1. Yes, Glastonbury used to be a wonderful place (I lived there from 1973 to 1976). Now the pagans have moved in and it has lost its air of grace.
    A holy and happy Christmas to you, Pearl.

  2. Thank you, Pearl! A happy and holy Christmas to you and your family.

  3. Thanks for reading, Richard and Mack! You are both my blogosphere main-stays and stalwarts, and I am grateful to God for your friendship :-)

    That's fascinating that you lived in Glastonbury, Richard! And even if the neo-pagans have sort of laid claim to the locale, the holiness will never die so long as people like us remember its Christian significance.

    Merry Christmas to you and your families!

    God Bless,

  4. I knew a little of the story of the Glastonbury Thorn, mostly the part with Joseph of Arimathea's staff blooming, but that was it. Thanks for sharing more of the legend; that really is a interesting story, highly appropriate for the Christmas season!

  5. Oh, so that's the origin of the Three Ships carol! That's long been one of my favorites.

  6. Thanks for reading, Kat and Emerald! I'm glad the post helped "fill in the gaps" with regard to the blooming staff and three ships!