1714 Charles Eyston, The Thorn Legend

Charles Eyston (22 September 1667 – 5 November 1721) was an English antiquary.

He became a friend of Thomas Hearne, who wrote of him: "He was a Roman Catholick and so charitable to the poor that he is lamented by all who knew anything of him . ... He was a man of a sweet temper and was an excellent scholar and so modest that he did not care to have it at any time mentioned."

A little Monument to The Once Famous Abbey and Borough of Glastonbury, or, a Short Specimen of the History of that ancient Monastery and Town, giving an account of the rise and foundation of both was published by Thomas Hearne in his History and Antiquties of Glastonbury (Oxford, 1722); reprinted by the Rev. Richard Warner in his History of the Abbey of Glaston and the town of Glastonbury (Bath, 1826).

Legend of the Glastonbury Thorn

Eyston's is one of the first accounts of the thorn:

'My curiosity,' he says, 'having led me twice to Glastonbury within these two years, and inquiring there into the antiquity, history, and rarities of the place, I was told by the innkeeper where I set up my horses, who rents a considerable part of the enclosure of the late dissolved abbey, that St. Joseph of Aramathea landed not far from the town, at a place where there was an oak planted in memory of his landing, called the Oak of Avalon; that he (Joseph) and his companions marched thence to a hill near a mile on the south side of the town, and there being weary, rested themselves; which gave the hill the name of Weary-all-Hill; that St. Joseph stuck on the hill his staff, being a dry hawthorn-stick, which grew, and constantly budded and blowed upon Christmas-day; but, in the time of the Civil Wars, that thorn was grubbed up. However, there were, in the town and neighborhood, several trees raised from that thorn, which yearly budded and blowed upon Christmas-day, as the old root did.'

Eyston states that he was induced, by this narration, to search for printed notices of this famous thorn; and he came to a conclusion, that:

'whether it sprang from St. Joseph of Arimathea's dry staff, stuck by him in the ground when he rested there, I cannot find, but beyond all dispute it sprang up miraculously! This tree, growing on the south ridge of Weary-all-Hill (locally abbreviated into Werrall), had a double trunk in the time of Queen Elizabeth; 'in whose days a saint-like Puritan, taking offence at it, hewed down the biggest of the two trunks, and had cut down the other body in all likelihood, had he not been miraculously punished by cutting his leg, and one of the chips flying up to his head, which put out one of his eyes. Though the trunk cut off was separated quite from the root, excepting a little of the hark which stuck to the rest of the body, and lay above the ground above thirty years together, yet it still continued to flourish as the other part of it did which was left standing; and after this again, when it was quite taken away, and cast into a ditch, it flourished and budded as it used to do before. A year after this, it was stolen away, not known by whom or whither. '

We are then, on the authority of a Mr. Broughton, told how the remaining trunk appeared, after its companion had been lopped off and secretly carried away.

'The remaining trunk was as big as the ordinary body of a man. It was a tree of that kind and species, in all natural respects, which we term a white thorn; but it was so cut and mangled round about in the bark, by engraving people's names resorting hither to see it, that it was a wonder how the sap and nutriment should be diffused from the root to the branches thereof, which were also so maimed and broken by comers thither, that I wonder how it could continue any vegetation, or grow at all; yet the arms and boughs were spread and dilated in a circular manner as far or further than any other trees freed from such impediments of like proportion, bearing haws as fully and plentifully as others do. The blossoms of this tree were such curiosities beyond seas, that the Bristol merchants carried them into foreign parts. But this second trunk—which bore the usual infliction of the names of silly visitors—was in its turn doomed to destruction.

This trunk was likewise cut down by a military saint, as Mr. Andrew Paschal calls him, in the rebellion which happened in King Charles I's time. However, there are at present divers trees from it, by grafting and inoculation, preserved in the town and country adjacent; amongst other places, there is one in the garden of a currier, living in the principal street; a second at the White Hart Inn; and a third in the garden of William Strode, Esquire.'

Then ensues a specimen of trading, by no means rare in connection with religious relics:

'There is a person about Glastonbury who has a nursery of them, who, Mr. Paschal tells us he is informed, sells them for a crown a piece, or as he can get.'

Nothing is more probable. That there was a thorn-tree growing on the hill, is undoubted; and if there was any religious legend concerning its mode of getting there, a strong motive would be afforded for preparing for sale young plants, after the old one had disappeared. Down to very recent times, thorn-trees have been shewn in various parts of Somersetshire, each claiming to be the Glastonbury thorn. In Withering's Arrangement of British Plants, the tree is described botanically, and then (in the edition of 1818) the author says: 'It does not grow within the abbey at Glastonbury, but in a lane beyond the churchyard, on the other side of the street, by the side of a pit. It appears to be a very old tree: an old woman of ninety (about thirty years ago) never remembers it otherwise than it now appears. There is another tree of the same kind, two or three miles from Glastonbury. It has been reported to have no thorns; but that I found to be a mistake. It has thorns, like other hawthorns, but which also in large trees are but few. It blossoms twice a year. The winter blossoms, which are about the size of a sixpence, appear about Christmas, and sooner if the winter be severe.'

Concerning the alleged flowering of the tree on Christmas-day especially, there is a curious entry in the Gentleman's Magazine for January 1753, when the public were under some embarrassment as to dates, owing to the change from the old style to the new. 'Glastonbury.—A vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn on Christmas-day, new style; but, to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, old style, when it blowed as usual.' Whether or not we credit the fact, that the tree did blossom precisely on the day in question, it is worthy of note that although the second trunk of the famous legendary tree had been cut down and removed a century before, some one particular tree was still regarded as the wonderful shrub in question, the perennial miracle.

A thorn-tree was not the only one regarded with reverence at Glastonbury. Mr. Eyston thus informs us of another:

'Besides the Holy Thorn, Mr. Camden says there was a miraculous Walnut-Tree, which, by the marginal notes that Mr. Gibson hath set upon Camden, I found grew in the Holy Churchyard, near St. Joseph's Chappel. This tree, they say, never budded forth before the Feast of St. Barnabas, which is on the eleventh of June, and on that very day shot out leaves and flourish't then as much as others of that kind. Mr. Broughton says the stock was remaining still alive in his time, with a few small branches, which continued yearly to bring forth leaves upon St. Barnabas's Day as usual. The branches, when he saw it, being too small, young, and tender to bring forth fruit, or sustain their weight; but now this tree is likewise gone, yet there is a young tree planted in its place, but whether it blows, as the old one did, or, indeed, whether it was raised from the old one, I cannot tell. Doctor James Montague, Bishop of Bath and Wells in King James I's days, was so wonderfully taken with the extraordinariness of the Holy Thorn, and this Walnut-Tree, that he thought a branch of these trees was worthy the acceptance of the then Queen Anne, King James I's consort. Fuller, indeed, ridicules the Holy Thorn; but he is severely reproved for it by Doctor Heylin (another Protestant writer), who says "he hath heard from persons of great worth and credit, dwelling near the place, that it had budded and blowed upon Christmas Day," as we have above asserted.'

A flat stone at the present day marks the spot where the famous tree supposedly once stood, and where, according to the legend, Joseph of Aramathea stuck his pilgrim's staff into the ground. The stone dates from the mid-nineteenth century. The original position is marked on Newcourt's view in Dugdales Monasticon (see page '1655 Hollar/Newcourt' above). This appears to be at the side of the then main road south (now called Roman Way) in front of the present No. 56, and not inside the Deer Park where the stone was positioned; and a thorn planted nearby for the first time in 1951.  

 

Glastonbury Antiquarian Society, 48 High Street, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 9DX - Registered Charity No: 309955
Website designed by Sean Miller - All images and text © Glastonbury Antiquarian Society 2017

Site Map