It may have looked like a scrubby bush high on the bare slope of a hill in Somerset, but it was one of the most famous trees in England, and once one of the most famous in all Christendom. And it has been felled by vandals.
The attack left the crown trailing to the ground beside the almost severed trunk of the Glastonbury Thorn, said to have flowered on Wearyall Hill every Christmas day for 2,000 years, since Joseph of Arimathea thrust the staff he brought from the Holy Land into the soil and it miraculously broke into blossom.
There were reports of many people in tears in Glastonbury today as they looked up at the bare patch of sky where the tree had grown, beside a public footpath and protected only by an iron railing – still festooned with the ribbons, prayers and little decorations regularly left as offerings.
The day of the attack, 8 December, may have been chosen for its special significance: each year on that day a sprig is cut from a tree in St John's churchyard grown from a cutting from the thorn, and sent to the Queen to decorate her Christmas dinner table.
Katherine Gorbing, the director of Glastonbury Abbey (ruins at left), said: "It's a great shock to everyone in Glastonbury – the landscape of the town has changed overnight."
'"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 Glastonbury mayor, John Coles, climbed the hill to look at the stump yesterday, and said he was devastated.
"I'm stood on Wearyall Hill looking at a sad, sad, sight. The tree has been chopped down – someone has taken a saw to it. Some of the main trunk is there but the branches have been sawn away. I am absolutely lost for words – I just do not know why people would want to do this."
Paul Fletcher, a trustee of the Chalice Well, believed by some to be a sacred spring where Joseph hid the Holy Grail, said: "People in the town have felt this like a physical blow. It's an act of violence really, against a living thing, a tree which was so special and symbolizes the very origins of Christianity to so many people. There has been a vigil at the site all through the day, and I am sure people will come together to replant the tree."
It is not the first time the tree has been targeted, but thorn trees are famously resilient. In the middle ages, like the abbey below believed to hold the graves of King Arthur and Guinevere, it became a major pilgrimage site – and therefore was regarded as an object of Romish superstition in the religious turmoil in which the last abbot of Glastonbury was hanged in 1539 on top of Tor Hill. It was felled by Parliamentarians during the civil war, but had regrown from cuttings saved by townspeople. Like the St John's tree, thorns from cuttings also flourish in the grounds of the abbey, the rural life museum, the Chalice Well garden and other gardens in the town.
Avon and Somerset police are appealing for witnesses, and making house-to-house inquiries – despite being isolated, the spot is popular with dog walkers.
Joseph of Arimathea (left), who according to the Gospel gave his own tomb to hold the body of Christ, is said to have come to the West Country after the crucifixion, sparking legends about Glastonbury that unite the Holy Grail and Arthurian lore. In some versions of the story Joseph's staff was made from the wood of the cross, in others it had belonged to Christ himself.
The Guardian, "Glastonbury Thorn chopped down as town rages over attack on famous tree", by Maev Kennedy, accessed December 9, 2010