The Holy Thorn
By the 1530s, not long before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, three thorn trees grew on Wearyall Hill (sometimes known as Wirral Hill) about 1km south-west of Glastonbury. The trees were very unusual because they flowered twice - once in the spring around Easter, and a second time at Christmas. Not surprisingly, they were seen as holy thorns. In the Civil Wars of the 17th century Puritan soldiers cut down the only remaining thorn because they saw it as an object of superstition. However, local people had kept cuttings, and it is from these that the thorn now growing in the abbey grounds is believed to descend. It continues to flower around Easter and again at Christmas.
The holy thorn has become part of the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. According to this story, when Joseph arrived in Glastonbury with his twelve companions he climbed Wearyall Hill, whose name derives from his proclaiming 'we are weary all'. He planted his staff in the ground whilst he rested. The following morning the staff had taken root, and it grew into the miraculous thorn tree.
Other examples of the thorn grow elsewhere in Glastonbury, notably at St John's Church and Chalice Well. One was planted on Wearyall Hill in 1951 to mark the Festival of Britain, but this was vandalised in 2010. A new sapling has been planted nearby.
The custom of sending a budded branch of a Glastonbury thorn to the Queen at Christmas seems to have begun in the early 17th century, when a branch was sent to Queen Anne, King James I's consort. A spray is still cut from the thorn in St John's Church yard and sent to the sovereign each Christmas by the Vicar and Mayor of Glastonbury.
The thorn featured on British 12p and 13p Christmas postage stamps in 1986.