[Extracts from CTS Christian Shrines Series Glastonbury pp.5-6, 12]
A casual reckoning of Glastonbury’s population – approximately 9,000 – coupled with its location deep in rural Somerset, would probably invoke a generalised image of a small, quiet, country market town – akin to many others throughout the land – quietly going about the usual daily business connected with its rural surrounds.
However, first-time visitors to Glastonbury, wandering down the High Street and taking in the variety and range of colourful New Age and ‘alternative’ shops, may immediately start thinking otherwise.
But in contrast to all this, they will also come across, within short distances around the town, a substantial and elegant fifteenth century Anglican church, the dignified ruins of a huge and once beautiful Abbey set in spacious and tranquil grounds, an internationally renowned Roman Catholic Shrine just opposite, and, on looking up to the near easterly skyline, the prominent, iconic hill feature of Glastonbury Tor.
They may then start to realise that what they see about them – whilst also taking in the happenings of many previous centuries – is that Glastonbury is no ordinary rural town, but one with several intriguing stories to tell.
These are stories that interweave myth, mystique, legend, tradition and historicity – sometimes dubbed as ‘mythtory’ – all intermingling and blurring, so as to beguile, bemuse and bedazzle – so, beware! And all of it has a romance about it: Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Thorn, the Holy Grail, King Arthur, the Isle of Avalon, saintly pilgrims, the anguish of Dissolution and Reformation, spiritual forces and ley lines, the reality of brutal martyrdom, New Age practices and beliefs – but all of that is just grist to the mill in and around Glastonbury.
These tales continue to actively attract many thousands of people every year, all seeking some spiritual truth – to define, confirm, affirm, clarify – hoping to find and follow whatever strand that brought them here, and attempting to untwist it from others.
The strongest of these strands, and one that has endured over the last two millennia, is that of Christianity in Glastonbury, bringing over those hundreds of year, and continuing to this day, countless pilgrims, all on their individual journey as they check to inform and strengthen their faith….
The existence of the Holy Thorn, so inextricably linked with Glastonbury, was not evident until the early sixteenth century, where the earliest literary reference was of:
“Three hawthorns also, that growth in Werall,
Do burge and bear green leaves at Christmas
As fresh as other in May….”
Nonetheless, the legend that emerged subsequently, tells of Joseph resting on Wearyall Hill (‘Weall’), the feature just west of Glastonbury Tor, planting his walking staff in the ground, where overnight it took root and blossomed into a thorn tree.
This was the miracle that was supposed to have convinced the local pagan community of the power of God, and the start of Christian conversion. To this day, a thorn tree grows on this hill.