- Associated Press - Friday, December 10, 2010

LONDON (AP) — A rare thorn tree with ties to Queen Elizabeth II and the early days of Christianity has been vandalized, leaving investigators searching for a motive in the pre-Christmas attack.

The well-loved Glastonbury Holy Thorn Tree near the summit of Wearyall Hill has been reduced to a stump, its historic limbs sawed off in what local officials believe was a deliberate attack.

The assault came shortly after a sprig was cut to put on Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas table in an annual holiday tradition. The desecration has marred the run-up to Christmas Day in a country already grappling with painful budget cuts and a student protest movement over rising university fees that turned violent on Thursday.

“I’ve just driven past the site, and people are coming out in tears,” said Glastonbury Mayor John Coles. “I’ve never seen a sadder sight, or a more serious act of vandalism, in my 60 years in Glastonbury.”

He said the nighttime attack between Wednesday and Thursday came after he, the local vicar and schoolchildren participated in the annual sprig cutting, which provides a special decorative element used each year on the queen’s Christmas dining table.

The sprig is sometimes visible during her annual televised Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth. Mr. Coles said the queen always sends a letter of thanks afterward.

He said he believes that someone who saw the ceremony broadcast on local television — or who witnessed it in person — probably decided afterward to chop down the tree, which was unprotected after dark and did not have any CCTV coverage that might have provided police with investigative leads.

“It could be an anti-monarchist, an anti-Christian, or someone who’s an atheist,” Coles said. “We don’t know whether it’s one person responsible or a group.”

Avon and Somerset police would not comment on the motive. No arrests have been made.

The once-proud tree provides Glastonbury believers with a significant link to the early days of Christianity in England.

Religious tradition holds that the original tree was planted by St. Joseph of Arimathea — the wealthy merchant who volunteered his prepared tomb to Jesus — after he first made landfall in England some 2,000 years ago. The chopped-down tree is thought to be descended from the original. It blooms twice a year — during the Christmas season and at Easter time.

“The story goes that Joseph of Arimathea pushed his staff into the ground and pronounced it to be weary — that’s why it’s known as Wearyall Hill,” Mr. Coles said. “The tree is said to have grown from the staff. It’s something you can’t prove or disprove.”

Some people believe the growth of the wooden staff into the tree was a full-fledged miracle, while others believe it was left standing in a boggy area for months on end and eventually sprouted, said Susan Strong, education officer at Glastonbury Abbey.

“You can take the miraculous approach or the pragmatic approach,” she said.

Experts say the tree should recover in about 10 years, if it was in good health at the time of the attack.

“It will obviously be deformed, but it will put grafts out next spring,” said Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. “But it will take a long time to make a good tree.”

Local historians including Mr. Coles said the tree has been chopped down at least once before — by a soldier using an ax during the English Civil Wars. Many pilgrims have left offerings at the base of the tree over the years.

Glastonbury, 125 miles west of London, is best known for its annual rock music festival that has drawn artists such as Bruce Springsteen since the 1960s. Its mysterious landscape — including the Glastonbury Tor hill, which is believed by some to have magical qualities — has drawn pagan worshippers to the area for many years.

Katherine Gorbing, the director of Glastonbury Abbey, said the tree originally came from the Middle East and is a type of thorn tree common in Lebanon as well as in Europe. It typically lives about 100 years, but locals have kept it going by taking grafts and clippings from the tree to plant new ones when the existing once is nearing the end of its natural life span.

“It’s a sacred tree,” Ms. Gorbing said. “Not only for the Christian church, but for many other people.”

She said the loss of the tree, which used to be visible from many parts of rural Somerset, is devastating.

“The tree unites everybody in the town,” she said. “It’s a symbol worldwide. Local people do see this as an attack on Glastonbury.”

Raphael G. Satter contributed to this report.

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