Vandals have destroyed one of the most celebrated Christian pilgrimage sites in Britain and chopped down a tree said to have sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea 2,000 years ago.
The Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury, Somerset, is visited by thousands every year to pay homage and leave tokens of worship. Those visiting today were moved to tears on finding the tree cut to a stump.
The sacred tree is unique in that it blossoms twice a year - at Christmas and Easter - and sprigs taken from the thorn are sent to The Queen each year for the festive table.
Police tape surrounds the vandalised Holy Thorn tree on Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury as stunned locals look on. The branches were cut off overnight and a police investigation has been launched
The tree in all its glory before it was hacked apart. Legend says it sprang from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who helped Jesus of the cross. To the right of the tree, in the distance, is Glastonbury Tor
A member of the public gathers sprigs from the chopped branches while (right) onlookers cry and say prayers
BROUGHT TO LIFE BY JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA, CHOPPED DOWN BY CROMWELL'S ROUNDHEADS, REBORN THANKS TO LOCALS
Christian legend dictates that Jesus's great uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, came to Britain after the crucifixion 2,000 years ago bearing the Holy Grail - the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.
He visited Glastonbury and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill, just below the Tor, planting a seed for the original thorn tree.
Roundheads felled the tree during the English Civil War, when forces led by Oliver Cromwell (pictured) waged a vicious battle against the Crown.
However, locals salvaged the roots of the original tree, hiding it in secret locations around Glastonbury.
It was then replanted on the hill in 1951. Other cuttings were also grown and placed around the town - including its famous Glastonbury Abbey.
Experts had verified that the tree - known as the Crategus Monogyna Bi Flora - originated from the Middle East.
A sprig of holy thorns was taken from the Thorn tree by Glastonbury's St Johns Church on Wednesday and sent to the Queen.
The 100-year-old tradition will see the thorns sit on Her Majesty's dinner table on Christmas Day
Avon and Somerset Police have launched an investigation after locals found that vandals had hacked off the branches of the iconic tree. They were dumped next to the trunk which is protected by a metal cage.
Locals wept openly today at the foot of the tree, on the town's Wearyall Hill opposite its world-famous Tor as they struggled to contain their emotion.
Katherine Gorbing, curator of Glastonbury Abbey, said: 'The mindless vandals who have hacked down this tree have struck at the heart of Christianity.
'It holds a very special significance all over the world and thousands follow in the footsteps of Joseph Arimathea, coming especially to see it.
'It is the most significant of all the trees planted here and can be linked back to the origins of Christianity.
'When I arrived at the Abbey this morning you could look over to the hill and see it was not there.
'It's a great shock to everyone in Glastonbury - the landscape of the town has changed overnight.'
Glastonbury Mayor John Coles rushed to the tree site after he heard the news.
Mr Coles, 66, said: 'I'm stood on Wearyall Hill looking at a sad, sad, sight. The tree has been chopped down - someone has taken a saw to it.
'Some of the main trunk is there but the branches have been sawn away. I am absolutely lost for words - I just do not know why people would want to do this.
'This tree was visited by thousands of people each year and is one of the most important Christian sites. It is known all over the world.'
Deputy Mayor William Knight, 63, added: 'This is absolutely mindless. We are all devastated.