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10/26/2004 Archived Entry: "Yew trees"
Following my last diary entry which mentioned the Fortingall Yew in Scotland, I have received some enquiries as to why yew trees were planted in churchyards, or why they grow close to churches. The truth is that many of those yew trees were growing on those sites long before the church was constructed. Quite often, it is the church which has been built near the yew, not the yew which has been planted near the church.
Not many years ago, people guessed the age of yews by measuring the girth of their trunks and in a lot of cases reckoned they were somewhere between 200 and 400 years old. This was considered very ancient in comparison with many other species. The truth was that such trees are now thought to be of a far greater age. It is known that more than four hundred yews in this country are over 1,000 years old with a further 45 being at least 2,000. And top of the tree, in a manner of speaking, is that fabulous old yew in Fortingall, boasting at least 5,000 years of life and even rising to 9,500 according to some experts. Not many churches are so old!
It has never been easy to calculate the age of a yew because the tree is prone to a disease which destroys the interior of the trunk to make it hollow and thus it is impossible to count the growth rings. That is the normal means of establishing the age of a tree. In spite of this, and in spite of pieces being cut from yews, they survive to send up new shoots some distance from their original trunk.
Some believe this system of growth, which makes use of the original root system, means that a yew could be everlasting as well as evergreen, but its age can be calculated - or perhaps estimated - by measuring the girth of the trunk. In 1796, the Fortingall yew's girth was more than fifty feet - and a girth of only forty feet means a yew is 5,600 years old. A ten foot girth means 250 years of age; a fifteen foot girth means 500 years, 20 foot girth means 1,000 years, 25 foot means 1,400 years and 30 foot equates with 2,500 years. But these ages can only be approximate due to vagaries of climate, location and the tree's individual lifestyle.
It is highly probable, therefore, that some of our existing yew trees were growing long before Christianity came to these shores. We must also remember that lots have been deliberately destroyed for various reasons, although one must wonder whether the old root systems of those lost trees have survived.
So why were churches built so close to yew trees, often with the yew on the north side of the building? The answer is that ancient peoples regarded the yew as a sacred tree, probably due to its evergreen foliage or even because it appeared to defy death. It has been revered for thousands of years with Druids and the Celts in particular regarding it as a holy plant. For those who respected or even worshipped the yew for religious reasons, it made sense to site their places of worship close to the tree and so they did. Many such sites were established close to yew trees.
When Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England to convert the English and become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, he was advised not to destroy the old pagan temples but to re-use them as Christian churches.
Those early buildings and religious ceremonies would bear little resemblance those with which we are familiar today and it is almost certain there would be a mixture of pagan and Christian rituals to ease the transition between the two faiths. But while this turmoil was afoot, those ancient yews would stand there, almost as silent, watchful sentinels, and so they then became part of the Christian tradition.
In fact, some Christians referred to the yew as the palm tree and used its leaves and branches in ceremonies on Palm Sunday and for other occasions, and it has often been used to decorate churches at festive times, such as Christmas. This use of greenery in our churches and in our homes at Christmas (known to the pagans as Yuletide) is just one of those customs which have remained with us since pre-Christian times.
The fact that yew trees still feature in our modern places of worship is quite remarkable, for it means the tree has retained its mystical symbolism even though our faith has radically altered down the centuries. Indeed, as a Millennium celebration, lots of yew tree cuttings were planted in our churchyards and some were blessed by the Archbishop of York at a ceremony in Northallerton parish church in October, 1999. The cuttings were taken from yews more than 2,000 years old.
For all its appeal, it must be said that all parts of a yew tree are poisonous to humans and most animals, the exception being the flesh of its bright red berries; the seed itself is poisonous. This is a mysterious tree for many reasons and I like the story that there are 99 yew trees in the churchyard at Painswick in Gloucestershire but each time a hundredth is planted, it always dies.