Was This Tree Really Such a Thorn?

Glastonbury Thorn photographed last month

Two days ago, somebody cut down Glastonbury’s famous thorn tree. It was reputedly said to have grown from the staff of  Joseph of Arimathea which burst into blossom when he thrust it into Wearyall Hill close to the Glastonbury Tor. It spookily used to flower every Christmas and Easter and at one point was the most famous tree in Christendom. It was only last Wednesday that I watched a local TV news report of the ritual where a child from a nearby school has the honour to cut off a branch to send to the Queen so that she can put it on the royal dining table for Christmas.

The act has been called vandalism but really it is sacreligious. It was done deliberately because the tree was considered sacred. Katherine Gorbing, the director of Glastonbury Abbey said, “The mindless vandals who have hacked down this tree have struck at the heart of Christianity. It holds a very special significance all over the world and thousands follow in the footsteps of Joseph Arimathea, coming especially to see it.” The local folk of Glastonbury are shocked.

No doubt this was done by someone who takes exception to Christian superstitions. It could have been someone from a different religion but I imagine that it was probably someone who does not like religion. I think that the act was pointless and destructive. I do not want to see these religious practices eliminated and I think it gives atheists a bad reputation (if indeed the desecration was done in this cause). Where would we stop? This part of Somerset is dotted with the legacy of obsolete religions from the prehistoric mounds and Stonehenge to the incredible abbeys of Bath, Wells, and Salisbury. I, for one, do not want to see these go and take great joy and satisfaction considering the foibles of mankind and the need for superstition.

However, the Glastonbury Thorn will triumph in the end. Cromwell’s soldiers cut it down and burned it during the English Civil Wars but it was replanted. There is also more than one tree as I understand with another one in the grounds of the Church of St John. In fact, the thorn has been replaced continuously over the centuries and so it wont be long before the tree is replanted on Wearyall Hill.

You might be interested to learn that there are other sacred trees in the world. The apple tree under which Newton is supposed to have observed a falling apple and hit upon the idea of gravity has been grafted and can be found in a number of auspicious locations including MIT. Do you think that someone might take the hump against science and cut that down?

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Was This Tree Really Such a Thorn?

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  2. Arno

    I have to agree with you that this is indeed a case of sacrilege. And I would almost go further to say that this is not unlike the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan by the Taliban. If the destruction was indeed motivated by atheistic tendencies, then this is bad advertisement for the atheist movement.
    However, from a philosophical and metaphysical point of view, I also cannot help but be amused. The ship of Theseus did briefly come to mind, though of course the case is not identical, as the tree is based on the same ‘materials’. Nonetheless, you can assume that each tree grown from the graft will look fundamentally different from the original tree, and it therefore becomes difficult to say that this is still the same tree. Especially if the new tree no longer blooms twice a year (as that was the reason why the tree was considered a miracle in the first place). It is also extremely funny to read that in the 18th century, someone was selling grafts of the sacred tree for a crown a piece.

  3. Gerard Simons

    Great trees the world over, such as the oak, beech, elm, yew etc. etc. are amongst some of the most beautiful of Nature’s creations. The apple tree under which Newton sat to unravel the mysteries of gravity at the time, plays no significant part in Newtonian gravitation. Newton could have been under a pear tree instead. We should strive to preserve trees as it takes years for an oak to grow but cutting it down is easily done. Trees considered sacred should not be defiled or abused in any way.

  4. It could have been someone from a different religion but I imagine that it was probably someone who does not like religion.

    Eh, I’m not really buying your “probably” there. It could have been an anti-theistic statement, but I would find that a bit odd because it doesn’t make much sense as a target. As far as religious traditions go, this one is about as innocuous as they come. If someone were to desecrate a religious icon in the name of atheism, I’d expect it to be something associated with greed, oppression, or false hope… e.g. like the Knock shrine or something. Not just some tree that just sits there and has a silly story associated with it.

    It’s conceivable to me that the vandals did it as some sort of lashing out against the Catholic church’s longstanding protection of child rapists, but that would be a little funny too, since even though it was originally a Catholic artifact-of-sorts, it’s owned by the CoE now.

    I can’t help but note that the first time the Thorn was destroyed, it was by Roundheads, who were almost certainly doing so in the name of either Puritanism or Presbyterianism. Of course times have changed since then! But that still lends more plausibility to the “someone of another religion” hypothesis.

    Frankly, though, I think the most likely culprits are probably some drunk high school kids who don’t really give much thought to religion either way. Cutting the branches off a famous tree, and seeing their handiwork become international news… that must seem like quite a lark. (Then again, I thought the same thing about the sign stolen from Auschwitz, and that turned out to be neo-Nazis after all…. so who knows, my tendencies to see everything as absolutely not a conspiracy may be calibrated too strongly🙂

    In any case, beyond tho whodunit, one thing we can all agree on is that this act is reprehensible. It is not a tragedy on the level of the Buddhas of Bamyan (which Arno mentions), but it is indeed a crime cut of the same cloth. Destruction of the beautiful and the venerable in the name of ideology, any ideology, is an ugly and terrible thing. If the perpetrator(s) are caught, and do turn out to have had an anti-theistic agenda, you can be sure I’ll be first in line to condemn them for their sick actions.

    • brucehood

      Actually if you take a look at the TV news report
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-11957440
      you can see that it was rather professionally done and it must have been someone pretty determined because the temperature that night was well below zero. It looks like a chainsaw from my experience. So I don’t think it was drunk kids.
      The tree is not really considered a Catholic icon even though Cromwell’s troops thought so.
      I’m sticking to my pet theory.

      • So now I’m more interested in debating how it was done than who did it… 😉 I didn’t feel like the BBC News report showed enough to really tell. I only saw one time when there was a cross-section, and well, that tells you nothing. Except that it wasn’t an ax, but who uses an ax to chop trees anymore?

        I agree that given the subzero whether it was most likely some type of powered saw, just because a hand saw would take too damn long. But it’s worth nothing there was nothing in the appearance of the one cross-section they showed that rules out a hand saw, and it still looks like it could have been done with a hand saw in under half an hour.

        If the Guardian report is correct, I’m doubling down on my “impulsive vandalism” theory: “The attack left the crown trailing to the ground beside the almost severed trunk.” (emphasis mine) Dude, if this was planned in advance and the perpetrator had even a cheap $100 gas chainsaw from Home Depot (or whatever the British equivalent is), there’d be no “almost severed” about it. Taking down a small tree like that with a chainsaw is trivially easy.

        Going out on a limb (no pun intended), I’m going to advance the “random tool from the garage” hypothesis: Some bored and drunken kid(s) grabbed a power saw of some kind from her dad’s tool collection, and managed to get halfway through the trunk before she realized it was the wrong tool for the job — the blade wasn’t long enough to span the diameter of the trunk. Undaunted, said bored and drunken kid proceeds to do the best he can, and then saws off a few branches for good measure.

        If it was a premeditated attack, and the Guardian report is accurate, then the attacker had no idea what he was doing. I am by no means a professional, nor am I even particularly handy — I’ve used a chainsaw all of twice in my life before — but given a halfway decent chainsaw, and without having to worry about branches coming down on power lines or anything, I could take down a tree that size in about five minutes.

        “Professionally done” it was not :p

  5. brucehood

    I’ll keep you updated on any arrest James.

  6. This report really saddens me. Regardless of religion, it was a stately, old tree, full of history and myth. The destruction was a petty, small-minded act. The world is full of beautiful religious artifacts, and though I do not consider myself particularly religious, I do love art in its many forms. I love to examine the architecture of old churches, and illuminated manuscripts are incredibly beautiful. Ethiopian Christian art (to my mind, anyway) includes some of the most beautiful depictions of religious iconography in Christian History. When I worked at the museum, we showed African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia, and it was one of the most beautiful exhibits that I had ever seen.
    I find such desecration thoughtless, distasteful, and a sad reflection of the growing intolerance throughout the world.

  7. For your general interest, I came into possession of a clone of the Newton apple tree some years ago (or the one that’s said to be the tree, anyway – it’s historically challenging to prove exactly which tree Newton was sitting under when he formed his ideas on gravitation, but the pedigree of mine is fairly persuasive.)

    The full story is here if you are interested.

    I planted the tree in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, with the ashes of my dearly loved wife, Kate. It flowers with white blossom.

  8. jacarandamimosifolia

    Bruce – seems there’s a reward out for the ‘Thorn Vandals’:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-11990037

  9. Pingback: May Blossom | Hickling Village, Norfolk, Blog

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