Spina Sacra -
the Holy Thorns of Herefordshire
By Jonathan Sant
(Originally published at Samhain 1994)
Well of course we all know that Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground at Glastonbury and it took root as the Holy Thorn. However he wasn't much inconvenienced by this as it seems that he had a spare staff, from which grew the Holy Thorn formerly at Orcop in Herefordshire. In fact, various Holy Thorns are to be found in Somerset, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, though not all sprang from Joseph of Arimathea's staff.
Who was this chap who hovers at the edge of the Jesus myth? Mary's brother? The man who buried Jesus? Or an itinerant walking stick salesman? The winter-flowering thorn does seem to be a Middle Eastern tree, or at least it occurs in the Middle East too, and there is a theory that it was brought to England by Iron Age people who came via the Severn and thence the Wye. This neat piece of speculation explains the Somerset thorns and (sort of) the Worcestershire thorns. Of the latter, Palmer's Folklore lists Alfrick, Hampton, Newland, Ripple and Tardebigge; there was also a ''wishing'' thorn on the Malverns.
There were also once an awful lot of thorns in Herefordshire. Many have now gone but they certainly still exist at Wormsley, Eaton Bishop and Little Birch, and possibly at Dinedor and Kimbolton. My father remembers going to Eaton Bishop in the 1950s to see the thorn blossom at midnight on Old Christmas Eve. It did so - from the heat of the lanterns, said the sceptics. It has since died but has been replaced by a new thorn (from Kew, I'm told) planted in a less thoroughly-shaded part of the churchyard. Midnight on Old Christmas Eve seems to be the correct date everywhere for thorns to flower, which makes one suspect that this bit of the lore is relatively recent.
The Orcop thorn was perhaps Herefordshire's most popular thorn, and its blossoming narrowly missed being televised in 1949 when the BBC discovered at the last minute that there was nowhere to plug their lamps into: electricity hadn't yet reached Orcop. Alas the thorn perished in a storm in 1980. But its (former) existence adds fuel to the Iron Age/Middle East theory, for just north of Orcop Hill (and not far from Little Birch) is Poor Man's Wood, said to have been a sacred grove of the Iron Age Silures. Now, the Silures were remarked upon in Roman times for their dissimilarity to other Celtic people, being more of Middle Eastern appearance. QED?
And there's another odd thing ...Where the three counties of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester meet, there is a place called Whiteleaved Oak. A sacred boundary tree? Now the variegated or ''white'' oak admittedly doesn't flower at Yule, but it does come into leaf and the one at Craswall on the Welsh border was certainly regarded as sacred for this reason. This must be part of the same tradition as the thorns ... and of course the holly and the ivy....
The flowering of the Holy Thorn at what, by the current, calendar, is effectively Old Christmas Eve may have a pre-Christian origin.
In some older witchcraft traditions there was a festival which does not appear in the present (modern) wiccan calendar which falls on what we would call Twelfth Night - ie around about the date of Christmas Eve according to the old calendar. The festival marked the coming to early puberty of the Young God and his arming by the Goddess as her future champion and lover - echoed perhaps in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion which deals in some detail with the importance of Aranhrod's arming of her son Lleu Llaw Gyffes. A literal and a symbolic flowering, perhaps? If there is a connection between the Middle East and the Silures it is not impossible that a particularly ancient practice may have survived from the beliefs of this Celtic tribe into historic times.
It may also be worth recalling that in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the Green Knight arrives to lay his challenge at Arthur's coart on the fifteeth day of the Yule festivities. If we accept that those festitivies would have started at the Winter Solstice then the 15th day would have fallen close to Old Christmas Eve.