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The Bernard Gilpin Thorn Tree

The ancient Bernard Gilpin Thorn in 1950


The most important time in the Christian calendar is Easter – and I wonder how many Houghtonians are aware that a gnarled and crabby hawthorn tree growing near to the Old Rectory and Houghton Area Office could have a distant connection to the crucifixion of the Christ.

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Known as the Gilpin Thorn, this holy hawthorn tree is thought to have grown from a cutting taken from the legendary Glastonbury Thorn in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey by Bernard Gilpin, Rector of Houghton 1557 to 1583. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

Legend says that the Glastonbury Thorn sprang from the staff of Joseph of Arimethea, an eastern merchant dealing in metals and copper who, after crucifixion, had allowed the body of Jesus to be buried in his own burial chamber. It is even said that Christ visited England with him and was at Glastonbury when the tree was planted.

Gilpin, who was affectionately known as the Apostle of the North and Father of the Poor, was renowned for his journeys into ‘wild’ Northumberland; indeed, he also travelled across Europe in the early months of 1553 and returned to England in 1556, a year before he accepted the Rectorship of Houghton-le-Spring. Could he have taken a cutting from the Glastonbury Thorn on his journey north?

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In 1870, the Gilpin Thorn was described as being: “11 ¼ feet in length at 2 feet from the ground.”

In May 1887 it was noted in St Michael & All Angels Church Magazine that Rector John Grey had recently commissioned some work on the holy tree:

"The Rector, finding that the venerable Bernard Gilpin Thorn in the Rectory grounds required some additional support, owing to its great age, has had the tree carefully examined. The old collars had to be removed, as they were cutting into the tree, and new ones have been fitted, with wooden blocks inserted, which will effectually preserve the tree. Mr Thomas Todd, under the Rector's direction, has executed the work; his father had been employed by the Rector more than 30 years ago, and the Rector finds that Mr Thomas Todd's grandfather had been employed by the late Rector [Rev Edward Thurlow] for the same purpose long before; so that three generations of the family have been employed in the work of preserving this tree, which is supposed to have been here in the time of Bernard Gilpin." Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2011.

A snow covered Gilpin Thorn in 1910

I visited the Gilpin Thorn recently [2006] following a spur-of-the-moment comment from the Rector, Rev Ian Wallis, about the old tree. Imagine my surprise when I saw how unimpressive it was compared to how it looked in the 1950s. The meagre tree is covered in lichen growth and appears to be much neglected. I initially entertained thoughts of contacting the City Council’s arborist in the hope he could take a look at this ancient relic and see if it is worthy of a Tree Preservation Order or perhaps if it would be prudent for seeds and cuttings to be taken from the tree to ensure its survival.

However, I later discovered that the original Gilpin Thorn had sadly died at the hands of vandals.

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The sad news was short lived. Thanks to the perseverance of Peter Tate, a forestry officer for City of Sunderland Council, a second Gilpin Thorn had been planted in March 1992. Unlike many others who had tried and failed, Peter had taken seeds from the tree in 1985 and froze them. The seeds were planted and a seedling grew! The Second Gilpin Thorn is now what is growing in the grounds of the Old Rectory. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2012.

The Gilpin Thorn and St Michael's Church in the 1950s

My mind started to wonder if modern-day science could prove a genetic link between the tree in Houghton and the tree in Glastonbury Abbey. When I returned home I fired an email off to my friend, Jenny Morrison, the Tyne & Wear Archaeologist, which she then kindly forwarded on to Jacqui Huntley, a Regional Science Advisor for English Heritage. This is the reply I received:

"Thanks for your email. It might be possible to do something with DNA regarding the thorn tree. However it is not as easy as CSI makes out! Extracting it from the local tree should be possible.... there is supposed to be a religious tree somewhere from which the local one came I think. If this is dried wood and very historical it will almost certainly be more difficult. We would need DNA from that too. It's a case of going into the molecules and targeting areas that have high mutation rates. For this a primer is needed. There may be primers in existence for hawthorn, there will be for apples/pears and they are ‘nearish’ relatives so might do.

The primer in effect cuts out the relevant bits we need. These then need replicating to get decent amounts. Only after this can they be compared. Even if the primers are available I think that the work would cost some hundreds if not into a 4-figure sum; if there are no primers then it almost certainly would be 4-figures. Are you sure that the original tree is hawthorn? A web search says it is supposed to have derived from the staff of Joseph of Arimethea. Our hawthorn is not native in that part of the old world so this may be a non-starter anyway. I think that the first stage would be to confirm identification to genus/species of the staff.”

Jacqui Huntley, Regional Science Advisor

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The Second Gilpin Thorn in 2006

Some interesting points indeed, however I don’t think my budget will quite stretch at the moment, but with the advancement of DNA and genetic technologies it can only be a matter of time before we discover for definite whether there is a link between the Glastonbury Thorn and the Gilpin Thorn. Some may say we’re better off not knowing for fear of ending a centuries old legend.

One thing is for certain: Houghton owes a big thank you to Peter Tate for ensuring that the legend of the Gilpin Thorn is able to continue, perhaps, for another four hundred years... Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2011.

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P.S. A visit to the Council Office grounds in Rectory Park in April 2011 revealed that the two Gilpin Thorn saplings, from 1992, had been removed. The trees were too fragile and established in the ground to have been transplanted, so does anybody know what their fate was?


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

:: Thanks go to Jennifer Morrison, Rev Ian Wallis and Joan Lambton for their much appreciated help back in 2006 when the original article was written.
:: A note of gratitude is given to Peter Tate for his endeavours in protecting the Gilpin Thorn and ensuring its survival.
:: Imperial Gazeteer of England & Wales, 1870-1872


Siblings of the Bernard Gilpin Thorn Tree

Sadly, the Glastonbury Thorn in the grounds of the Abbey died in 1991 and was removed in 1992, strangely around the same time that the original Gilpin Thorn died. Thankfully the legend continues in many cuttings around the world. The following non-exhaustive list was collated upon the 20th anniversary of the planting of the second Gilpin Thorn, which was felled in Spring 2011:

:: One or two cuttings grow in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Glastonbury.

:: Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury. This cutting was planted in 1952, replacing the one planted a year earlier. This holy tree was vandalised in December 2010.

:: Iona Abbey on Iona Island, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.

:: The Chapel of the Holy Cross & St Alban, Plantation Meadow, Brickendon, Hertfordshire. This cutting was apparently planted by a Constance Demain Saunders.

:: Unknown location, Herefordshire.

:: West Buckland village, Somerset.

:: Quainton, Buckinghamshire. There is a record of 2000 people gathering to view it on Christmas Eve, 1753.

:: Appleton Thorn town centre, Cheshire. This holy tree is thought to have been planted in 1125 by a returning crusader.

:: St Albans School, The Bishop of Washington’s Garden, National Cathedral, Washington DC. This was brought to the USA by the first Bishop of Washington, Henrey Satterlee, around 1899. In 1937 it was described as being 20 feet high and 27 feet across.

:: Holy Thorn trees were also sent to Australia, Canada and New Zealand by Wilf Chislett, son of George Chislett, head gardener of Glastonbury Abbey.


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The Gilpin Crest as found on Bernard Gilpin's tomb

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