Hawthorn and the May Tree

Hethel Old Thorn in Norfolk, Hawthorn folklore
Hethel Old Thorn in Norfolk, by Evelyn Simak CC BY-SA 2.0  via Wiki Commons

"Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue's sweet air
More tuneable than lark to shepherd's ear,

When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear."

- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Scene 1

"There is a man ... hangs odes upon Hawthorns and elegies on Brambles"

- As You Like It, Act III, Scene 2

"I cannot cog and say thou art this and that, like a many of these lisping Hawthorn-buds."

- The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene 3

"Gives not the Hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade 
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,"

- Henry VI Part 3, Act II, Scene 5

"Through the sharp Hawthorn blows the cold wind."

- King Lear, Act III, Scene 4

The Hawthorn is a deciduous tree found across Europe, the two species native to the British Isles are the Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and the Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). The Hawthorn is highly adaptable and can grow as either a shrub or a tree, reaching up to 30 feet in height. It has a very hard and durable wood, it was once classified as Crataegus Oxyacantha, coming from the Greek kratos meaning hardness, oxcus meaning sharp and akantha meaning thorn. Hawthorns can live to a great age, one of the oldest in Britain is the Hethel Old Thorn in Norfolk which is said to be over 700 years old.

Flowers on the Common Hawthorn, Shakespeare folklore
Flowers on the Common Hawthorn by Sannse CC BY 3.0 via Wiki Commons

Other names for the Hawthorn include Whitethorn, Quickset and Thorn. It is possible that when Shakespeare refers to Thorn he may be referring to the Hawthorn as well. The Hawthorn blossoms around the beginning of May so it is also known as May, May Tree, May Bush, May Blossom and Queen of May. The May Tree is the only British plant to be named after the month in which it blooms.

"Among the many buds proclaiming May,
Decking the field in holiday array,
Striving who shall surpass in braverie,
Mark the faire blooming of the Hawthorn tree,
Who, finely cloathed in a robe of white,
Fills full the wanton eye with May's delight."

- Britannia's Pastorals, William Browne (1613)

Hawthorn played an important role in traditional May Day celebrations, including the tradition of going a-Maying. Boys and girls would go out at sunrise and return home with Hawthorn blossoms and boughs which were then used to decorate churches and the outside of houses. Sometimes this would be accompanied with a May Day carol.

"We have been rambling all this night,
And almost all this day;
And now returned back again,
We’ve brought you a branch of May.

A branch of May we have brought you,
And at your door it stands;
It is but a sprout, but it’s well budded out
By the work of our Lord’s hands."

Since ancient times the Hawthorn has been considered a sacred tree. According to ancient myth it originally sprang from lightening and as such was considered as protection against fire and storms. As a symbol of springtime and fertility the ancient Greeks used Hawthorn as part of their wedding festivities, where it was added to decorations, worn as garlands and used as torches to light the way to the bridal chamber. In Christian tradition the Hawthorn is said to be the plant that furnished the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. However many other plants have also been credited with this. There is also the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, a variety of Hawthorn that blossomed during the Christmas season and is reputed to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. 

In Celtic folklore the Hawthorn is particularly associated with the fairy realm. Not surprisingly as May Day or Beltane is one of the days in which the fairies are said to have special power. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the characters "observe the rite of May" showing the connection between English May Day and fairy lore.

"At the beginning of each summer, when the milk-white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour, and miles and miles of golden whin adorn the glens and hill-slopes, the fairies come forth in grand procession, headed by the Fairy Queen."

- The Story of Thomas the Rhymer
from Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1917)

The story of Thomas the Rhymer relates how a 13th century Scottish mystic and poet met a fairy by a Hawthorn bush; he was then led into the fairy world for what seemed like a brief time, only to discover when he returned that seven years had passed. 

Hawthorn Tree at the Hill of Tara, Ireland, Hawthorn folklore
Hawthorn Tree at the Hill of Tara, Ireland, by Rob Hurson CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki Commons
A solitary Hawthorn is sometimes referred to as a "faerie tree" and oftentimes hung with cloughties/clooties, cloths and rags that are tied to the tree as a prayer or blessing. Likewise Orlando in As You Like It hangs odes upon the Hawthorn. In Ireland it is considered very unlucky and unsafe to disturb these solitary trees. A legend in County Donegal recalls how a fairy once tried to steal the baby of a man called Joe McDonough who had recently chopped a tree down. 

In Britain it was considered extremely unlucky to bring Hawthorn flowers inside the house, as it was a portent of illness and death. Botanists have discovered that the chemical trimethylamine in Hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals produced when an animal body starts to decay.  During the medieval period it was said that Hawthorn blossom smelled like the Great Plague. As it was common for bodies to be laid out at home for up to a week before burial, people of the period would have been very familiar with the smell of death. Interestingly the Midland Hawthorn which is now relatively rare, but may have been much more common when this folklore developed, gives off a pungent smell of decomposition when the blossom is first cut, this association may well explain why there was such a prohibition against the blossom entering the house.

The Hawthorn is also one of the emblems of the house of Tudor. When Richard III was slain at the Battle of Bosworth his crown was hidden in a Hawthorn bush. When it was found and carried to Lord Stanley he placed it on the head of his son-in-law and saluted him as King Henry VII. To commemorate this event the house of Tudor assumed the device of a crown in a bush of fruited Hawthorn. The proverb of “Cleave to the crown, though it hang on a bush,” also alludes to this incident.