They are the sentinels of the silent cities, standing tall and often spreading out their branches to shade the last resting places of the permanent residents. Yew trees can often be older than the churches they nestle beside and may predate Christianity as many churches were built on pagan sites of worship. In fact there are reputed to be at least 500 yew trees of this vintage in the UK! And incredibly, there are 10 yew trees in Britain that are believed to predate the 10th century.
These venerable trees have many associations and traditions. So, I will concentrate on a few. They are usually associated with churchyards and burial grounds. The most common tradition is that they are nourished by the decaying bodies beneath them and, as they can grow up to 20 metres high, this could seem plausible. Another tradition states that yews were planted on plague victims graves to protect and purify them – if this were true then some churchyards would resemble a forest!
Another common tradition is that they were planted to prevent ‘commoners’ from grazing their cattle on church ground. This was because yews are very poisonous to livestock. The needles are deadly, and Shakespeare used this in Macbeth when the three witches conjure up a deadly brew that contains, amongst other unpleasant ingredients:
‘Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,’
However, the Celts saw the yew as a symbol of immortality, death and resurrection which makes the yew’s presence in burial places more obvious. This was because its drooping branches are able to root and form new trunks where they touch the ground. The one at St James in Cooling was living inside its dead ancestor which demonstrates its ability to renew itself.
In fact, they are one of the most long lived trees in Western Europe but are not considered ancient until at least 900 years old. The oldest tree in Scotland, and possibly Europe, is the magnificent Fortingall yew in Glen Lyon. It has been suggested that it is over 2000 years old and maybe even 9000 years old. It has numerous legends attached to it and in 1769 was reputed to have a girth of over 56ft. In 1854, funeral processions were reputed to be able to pass through the arch formed by its split trunk. The yew in St Cynog’s churchyard in Wales is a mere stripling at a reputed 5000 years old. One of the world’s oldest surviving wooden artifacts is a yew spear head which is estimated to be around 450,000 years old. They are evergreens with red berries which although are edible, the seed in the berry is extremely dangerous.
One of my favourite churchyards is that of St Marys in Painswick, Gloucestershire. It has 99 clipped yew trees but according to Roy’s blog post, attempts to grow a 100th tree have always failed. They are a dramatic sight to see!
I must admit that I would feel disappointed if I visited a churchyard and didn’t see a tall, majestic yew or two keeping watch over the dead as potent symbols of resurrection and immortality and the life to come.
© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
References and further reading
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortingall_Yew oldest yew tree in Britain.