Hethel Thorn

or King John's Thorn


From White's 'History & Gazeteer of Norfolk' 4th edition, 1883:

'Near the church is an ancient and wide-spreading thorn, recorded to have stood here for 600 years but it is probably much older. It measures at one foot from the base of the trunk, 12 feet 1 inch in circumference and at five feet high, 14 feet 3 inches, whilst the circumference of the base over which its branches spread is 31 yards. Its trunk is reduced to a mere shell, and the branches are most curiously intervolved. Its bark is as hard and heavy as iron, and nearly all the interior wood is gone. It is covered with lichen and crowned with mistletoe, but still puts forth blossom and haws everywhere yearly. Tradition says that this tree is mentioned in an old chronicle as the meeting place in an insurrection in the time of King John.'

Hethel thorn in late 19th Century - probably looking much the same as in 1883

HETHEL THORN is the country's smallest nature reserve - just one tree - and is managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. The area owned is only 0.062 acres (or 0.025 hectares), but the thorn is an impressive bush, partly because it is growing out of a raised mound. Some have surmised this might be a barrow (an ancient burial site) but this seems unlikely. It is a Hawthorn - Crataegus monogyna - and is one of England's most ancient hawthorns. NWT agrees that it is quite possible that this tree / bush could date from the 13th Century, so it would have been a mere shrub in the days of King John (1166-1216). But it is possible that it came from an even older thorn that was here around the time the Barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.

Ninham's sketch of Hethel Thorn c.1840 - on the NWT board at the reserve
Ninham's sketch of Hethel Thorn c.1840 - on the NWT board at the reserve

Legends are associated with hawthorns - the thorn of Glastonbury is supposed to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea (who donated his tomb for Jesus' body before the resurrection). And some impressive thorns may well have been pagan sites which were later taken over by the church as Christianity spread. Hethel thorn has also been known as the 'witch of Hethel' (linking it with other myths about hawthorn trees) and there is some documentary evidence* that local boys  were 'in the habit of going a-Maying' at the tree, i.e. collecting May blossom for their girlfriends. This was noted on a now-lost notice-board on the fence around the tree. Another tradition says it was a boundary marker, which may be why such a common hedgerow tree has been left undisturbed for so long. 

Hethel thorn from a colour slide taken c.1960 showing the extent of the tree and the many props to hold the branches. Original in a Christmas card from Arthur & Alice de Caux to the Myhill family.

All these mythical associations means that it could also have been meeting-places for the disaffected - and there were plenty of these in John's reign, at all levels of society. The East of England (nearly as much as the North) was a hotbed of opposition after his disastrous wars with France. Magna Carta was never seriously implemented, and the country descended into civil war. In 1216, whilst trying to attack rebel-held areas of East Anglia, and then move to Lincolnshire, King John reputedly lost his baggage-train - and he crown jewels - in one of the tidal estuaries flowing into the Wash. During that summer he contracted dysentery in (King's) Lynn, after which both his health and his chances of military success deteriorated and he died in Newark Castle in October.

King John is the villain of the Robin Hood stories in books and films. here at Hethel there is just one tree to remind us of his troubled reign and the earliest tiny seed of democracy.

Hethel Thorn, Autumn 2017

There is more information about the thorn at Norfolk Wildlife Trust
* James Grigor, Eastern Arboretum, or, Register of Remarkable Trees, Seats, & Gardens, etc in the County of Norfolk (London: 1841) - sited in a study of The Significance of Hethel Thorn and Associated Earthwork, 2015, by Lorraine Houseago. The full (and fascinating) fieldwork project can be read here thanks to the kind permission of the author and staff of the School of History at the University of East Anglia.