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How old is that old yew?

Jeremy Harte

The yew tree at Crowhurst, Sussex in 1936.
Illustration by Lonsdale Ragg.

'Dark yew that graspest at the stone And dippest towards the dreamless head . . .' wrote Tennyson in a funereal mood. The human race is born and dies, but yew trees live forever. You do not have to be a Tennyson to respond to their deep, disturbing, uncalculated age. William Watson certainly was not poet laureate material, but the silent presences of Merrow Down’s yew wood inspired him all the same:-

Old emperor Yew, fantastic sire,
Girt with thy guard of dotard kings
What ages hast thou seen retire
Into the dusk of alien things?

A profound question. Let us spoil the poetry by answering it. There was once a man who was called up to join the army. They asked him all the usual questions, down to the last one on the form: what was his religion? 'Methuselahite', he replied. Come again? `It means’, said the reluctant soldier, 'that I’m going to stay alive as long as I bloody well can'. Now the yew tree is the original Methuselahite, and everything about it is framed to live forever.

Yew grows slowly. Even when young it will only increase its girth half as fast as other forest trees, because it is laying down hard, closegrained wood. That imparts immense strength to the trunk and branches and - from the viewpoint of mortal men - provides durable wood for carving and turning as well as making those famous bows.

With age the yew becomes less straight, 'an unsmooth tree . . . roots twisted in the earth' as the Rune Poem says, but it does not lose its strength. Trees know nothing of old age or death: they grow on and on until accident finishes them off. It is growth itself which makes them vulnerable. Each year a fresh ring is added to the trunk and branches, drawing on the energy provided by the canopy of leaves. Each successive ring is therefore larger than the last, while the crown of leaves stays the same, having reached a point beyond which the framework of the tree can support no more. At last most trees will snap under their own weight, or keel over in storms: but the yew knows a trick or two. It can turn disease into health by allowing fungal infections to eat up its heartwood, leaving a hollow tree which, such is the tensile strength of all that twisted wood, continues to support the heavy crown of leaves. Meanwhile branches loop down under their own weight until they touch the ground, and there they set root. A young branch may even touch down into the leafmould inside the hollow trunk, and then the tree renews itself from within; or the spread of disease may split the trunk into staves, each bowing out to root itself individually, so that a single tree is transformed into a grove.

The last trick of the yew defeats time itself. The tree simply stops growing. There is no increase in girth, no annual ring. Having reached a sufficient size, it remains stable; it may resume growth, or not; and barring accidents, it can stay the same size until Doomsday. So it is no simple matter to discover the age of a yew tree, and until recently most authorities had given it up as a bad job. The revival of interest in the yew, not just as a tree but as a sacred tree, is due to the work of one man, the remarkable Allen Meredith. Meredith is first and foremost a visionary. In the 1970s he received a number of dreams about the meaning of the yew, about its immortality and its powers of wisdom and healing. Unlike most visionaries, he responded to this by getting on his bike and beginning a series of encounters with hundreds of yew trees, measuring and recording them. A self-taught man, Meredith followed up every reference he could find on old yews and single-handedly bridged the gap between mystic intuition and professional biology. He has convinced leading figures, including David Bellamy and Alan Mitchell of the Tree Register, that yews are vastly older - thousands of years older, in some cases - than anyone had realised. He has not convinced me; at least, not in the published version of his work. I shall be showing why. But it is only fair to add that to refute Meredith, a researcher must rely on the immense corpus of information which he has assembled.

He has, for instance, uncovered 37 references to yews planted at various times since the Reformation, and still existing [1]. The statistics of these trees can be plotted out to give an idea of growth rates - once we know that a tree planted in (say) 1780 is now (say) seven feet in girth, then we can deduce, as a general principle, that the yew grows one foot in 30 years. It is not quite as simple as that, because individual trees differ in their powers of growth - in fact there is a variation of plus or minus five feet from the mean among trees older than 200 years - but the general pattern is clear. The observations of Victorian naturalists, who were measuring younger specimens, suggest a brisker rate of growth - one foot every 20—25 years [2].

But things are different when we come to the really old yews, the veterans of above 20 feet in girth. Nobody knows when they were planted: it is open to doubt whether some were ever planted by human hand at all. But antiquaries have measured the most famous specimens repeatedly since the seventeenth century, and here again we can draw on Meredith’s researches, since he has collated figures for 11 of the best-known veterans [3].

The claim that 'old yews grow more slowly than young ones' is not true, if it is taken to mean a gradual deceleration in the growth rate proportionate to the size of the tree. The largest veteran of which there is a full record, the churchyard yew of Darley Dale (32—3 feet) is not growing any slower than the smallest, Church Preen (22—3 feet). Admittedly the sample is small: and comparisons are rendered absurd by another factor. Many of these trees are not growing at all. Totteridge is the best instance. 26 feet in girth in 1677, this tree has been measured on four subsequent occasions, up to the present, without variation. When the Last Trump blows and the dead scramble out of Totteridge churchyard, that tree may still be there, and if it is, it will still be 26 feet round the trunk.

All the other veterans have been through similar periods of inaction. It seems that stability lasts for the tree until its ecological stasis is broken by a variation in the available sunshine or soil, or through the loss of a branch; then growth recommences at a quite lively rate - one foot in 40 years - until its work is done, after which there is renewed stability.

That is interesting for botanists, but frustrating for the student of antiquities. It makes it impossible to tell how old a yew tree really is, since there is no telling how often it may have ceased to grow in its life, or for how long. Remember our formula of one foot in 30 years, with an allowance of five feet either way for individual variation. On these grounds, a tree 30 feet in girth must date to at least 750 years old, which is AD 1250. But that is a minimum estimate. There is no maximum. All one can say is that trees, like other landscape features, should be regarded as recent until proof is forthcoming that they are old. There are a lot of forces ranged against the life of a tree, man not least amongst them, and to survive the centuries it helps to have had some protective significance in human culture. In the warm, dry lands that fringe the Mediterranean South there flourish many evergreen trees - cypress, holm oak and laurel as well as yew. The ancients planted these in cemeteries, moved by the contrast between the undying tree and the sad graves around it, and also concerned to set up a durable signifier that this land had been devoted to burials and was not to be broken up for the plough. Cypress and yew therefore became the trees of mourning; their branches were hung up after a death; the Furies carried torches of yew, and consecrated the dead with them [4]. In our own northerly clime, the yew is the only evergreen (barring holly) to grow below the conifer belt, and so it carries a greater symbolic weight. Its toxic foliage, both lethal and undying, stands for death and immortality at once.

In the far-ranging world of early monasticism, many traditions of the Mediterranean were transferred to Christian communities on the western fringe of Europe; that of the cemetery fringed with evergreens among them. When cypress proved unequal to the Atlantic gales, the monks of Ireland had to resort to yew as a signifier for places of burial. 'Yew, little yew, you are conspicuous in graveyards' says the mad king Suibhne [5]. The yew beside a chapel or church served to remind its celebrant of death, a grateful reflection for holy men; Columcille spoke to angels beneath the shade of such a tree -

`This is the Yew of the Saints . . .
Would that I were set in its place there!
On my left it was pleasant adornment
When I entered into the Black Church’.

A visionary episode in The Exile of Conall Corc describes a similar scene at the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary: 'I beheld a yew bush on a stone and I perceived a small oratory in front of it and a flagstone before it. Angels were in attendance going up and down from the flagstone' [6]. The vision is nakedly political, and serves to underwrite the ambitions of a yew-dynasty, the Eoganacht of Munster, but it shows that churches with yews were already familiar in the eighth century. The planting of yews was often ascribed to the early saints. The monastery at Iubhar-Chinntrechta, now Newry, was named after 'the yew tree which Patrick himself had planted', and its burning in 1162 was a national outrage. The yew tree of Ciaran at Clonmacnoise was already venerable in 1149, when it was large enough to shelter a flock of sheep in a storm; lightning struck the tree and 113 sheep were killed [7]. Nineteenth-century traditions should be received with caution, but the yew in the cemetery at Glendalough was said to have been planted by St Kevin, while three elm trees at Kilmonin in Co. Offaly had replaced an earlier trio of yews attributed to St Cuimin [8].

Traditions of this kind were evidently current when Gerald of Wales visited Ireland in the 1180s. He tells of the Norman archers billetted at Finglas, Co. Dublin, who cast greedy eyes on the `ash trees and yews and various other kinds of trees’ which abbot Kenach and his successors `had formerly planted . . . round the cemetery for the ornament of the church’. The godless invaders cut these up for firewood, but promptly died of plague. Giraldus was struck by the extensive distribution of yew in Ireland. 'You will see them principally in old cemeteries and sacred places, where they were planted in ancient times by the hands of holy men, to give them what ornament and beauty they could' [9]. That some of the trees had grown to be dominating presences is shown by their frequency in placenames - Cell Iubhar, ‘yew church’, is found at six places, and Cill-eo and Killeochaille occur with the same meaning [10].

Irish saints, as pilgrims on this earth, were prepared to find a grave away from their own country: but they wanted to keep up the old funeral customs. Iona, settled by Columcille in 563, is more properly I or Hi, ‘yew island’ [11]. The trees after which it was named must have been deliberately planted - the coast of Argyll is too windswept for them to have grown naturally - and they would have served as a mark of consecration by the saint or his followers. Graveyard yews in Scotland are most common around the southwest coastline and the mouth of the Clyde, suggesting a custom imported by the Irish missionaries. With time, the yews have become proprietary rather than communal signs; they stand beside individual graves, or mark the private burial places of families within the churchyard [12].

Irish customs were also current in Wales. The laws of Howell Dda, which date from c.950, open the section on trees with ‘A yew of a saint is a pound in value’ - twice the worth of an oak, and in marked contrast to the miserable 15 pence quoted for `a yew of a wood’ [13]. Evidently the valuation bore no relevance to the worth of the tree, but was intended to protect sacred ground against outrages of the sort carried out at Iubhar-Cinntrechta.

Yew trees appear to have been planted, as at Finglas, around the boundary of the churchyard. The minsters of Esgor and Heullan were anciently 'of celebrity for sheltering yews'. At Llanelly in Brecon, thirteen yews survive out of an original ring of eighteen; Penpont has a larger circle, with thirty-eight trees surviving; Llanfihangel-nant-Melan is ringed by ancient yews [14]. These trees were evidently planted at a time before the circular llan had been replaced by the rectangular churchyard, although the date of this change is itself open to question, and in some cases may be no earlier than the thirteenth century. In Wales, as in Scotland, the yew appears to have assumed the role of living gravestone. At the abbey of Strata Florida, a veteran yew is pointed out as the grave of Dafydd ap Gwilym - an implausible claim, since the tree is 22 feet and so even at the minimum estimate most have been growing before the death of the celebrated poet in the 1380s. The tradition has a mediaeval origin, however, in a mock-elegy on Dafydd written while he was still alive by Gruffydd Gryg in which it is indeed proposed to bury him under a yew [15]. Tradition also continued to link the yew with saints. The churchyard yew of Llanerfyl owes its existence to St Erfyl, who absent-mindedly left her staff stuck upright in the ground overnight, and in the morning found it had sprouted into a young tree [16]. Without making any claims for the reliability of this story, it can be taken as proof of an enduring link between churchyard yews and pilgrim saints.

Exactly the same tale is told at Congresbury on the other side of the Bristol Channel. The stump of a yew which remains in the churchyard was a flourishing tree before 1829, and the Somerset villagers knew it as St Congar’s Walking Stick. The saint has been associated with this place since 894 but his life, a dramatic rigmarole in which he features as the errant son of a Byzantine emperor, leaves a wide field for historical inquiries: at least six Congars have been identified in different outposts of the Celtic west [17].

The undergrowth of fantasy at Congresbury is a typical background for the churchyard yew. More veteran trees have survived in England than anywhere else, a tribute to our ancestors’ political stability rather than their piety: unfortunately there are no early sources to match the words of Columcille or Howell Dda.

Claims that a statute commanded the planting of yews in 1483, or that Queen Elizabeth ordered them to be grown in churchyards for the benefit of bowyers, have a way of vanishing on close inspection. No primary source has been quoted, either, for the injunction of Charles VII of France that yew should be grown in the churchyards of Normandy to furnish weapons for crossbowmen. Other traditions, that the trees were planted to shade the church, or to keep cattle from poisoning themselves on the foliage, are no more than antiquarian fancy dressed up as folklore [18]. The cutting of yew branches to be borne in procession on Palm Sunday, as a substitute for the liturgically correct but botanically unavailable olive, was a widespread mediaeval custom. But it only represents a versatile use of pre-existent churchyard yews; Palm Sunday processions were a late development, and many plants other than yew were acceptable for use in the ceremony [19].

It is equally hard to find evidence for the modern belief that yew trees were venerated as part of pagan religion. Allen Meredith is convinced that they were; but then he is a visionary, a passionate advocate for the trees, not an impartial judge of their claims. His colleagues Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton have devoted a great deal of their book The Sacred Yew to just this topic. There is a lot about pagan trees and paganism in general; Herne the Hunter, Robin Hood and Hu Gadarn have their turn, together with much other padding of a familiar kind. But actual references to pagan yews are few.

Chetan and Brueton feel that, since the yew is such a remarkable tree, it must have received respect from the earliest times. There is little to support this. The longevity of the tree was known - the ogham letter Idho for `yew’ was elliptically described as `oldest tree’ or `most beautiful of ancients’ [20]. But old or not, the trees were felled without regret. The commentary on Brehon law defines yew as a Chieftain Tree not for its sanctity but on account of ‘its timber, used for household vessels, breast-plates etc.’ Apple and hazel, by contrast, were ritually protected [21]. Yew is so durable a wood that many objects carved in it, both sacred and secular, have survived in the archaeological record. Its use for ogham wands and runestaves therefore bears witness to the sturdiness of its timber and not the enchantment of its name [22].

The shortcomings of pagan literature on this topic do not trouble Chetan and Brueton. It is possible to improve the picture by suggesting that ancient references to apple, ash and oak trees are, in fact, yew; or by identifying Adam of Bremen’s account of the evergreen tree at Gamla Uppsala as if it were a yew, despite his unambiguous 'no one knows what kind of a tree it is'. This miraculous tree, capable of bearing seventy-two hanged bodies on its branches, comes from the same storehouse of marvels as the golden chain which girded the adjoining temple, and to inquire too closely into its botany would obscure the real intent of the story [23]. Similarly the Eo Mugna, one of the five sacred trees of Ireland, bore apples and acorns as well as hazel nuts for its fruit: although its name means `yew of Mugna’, it is obviously a fairy tree, not an actual specimen of Taxus baccata. Another of the five trees, the Eo Rossa or 'yew of Ross', was said to have grown in Co. Carlow until it was felled by a congregation of timber-hungry saints. That sounds historical: but then we find that the tree, like its four peers, had grown from the three-natured berries of a branch born by the mysterious antediluvian Trefuilngid Tre-eochair [24]. Story-telling of this kind certainly recalls the bile or sacred trees which were honoured in pagan Ireland - but it is not fair to regard the tales as mere echoes from that past. They form a distinct and sophisticated genre of historic fantasy, composed by and for Christians for whom the yew was already associated with the resting places of the holy dead.

The history of the sacred yew can be sketched in outline. It originated in sixth or seventh century Irish monasticism; it was carried over the sea to Strathclyde and Gwynedd as part of the establishment of missionary raths and llans. Protected by law in tenth-century Wales, it was cultivated across the border in the West Country and the marcher lands. So it came to be adopted enthusiastically by builders of churches in southern England, the ecological heartland of the yew, and as a result of the Conquest it was grown on the English-facing coasts of Normandy and Brittany [25]. An interpretation on roughly these lines would match up with the written references, the general trends of insular Christian history, and the ages suggested for existing trees by a series of naturalists from 1831 to 1958. But it runs clean contrary to modern estimates of the longevity of yews.

David Bellamy, following his conversion to Allen Meredith’s views, has been issuing certificated claims of age for veteran yews. They hang in churches up and down the land and they make an impressive total; over 130 English churchyard yews are said to be older than the establishment of Christianity in this country. Half a dozen are ascribed a date in the late Bronze Age, while a few are more ancient still. That is a bit much for an archaeologist to swallow. The minimum age for these trees, based on the known growth rates, would date most of them to the high Middle Ages.

Stratigraphy imposes some limits to the ambitious claims of Meredith and Bellamy. A yew which has sprouted on an earthwork cannot be older than the soil on which it grows. A number of the trees found away from churchyards are on hedgebanks or boundaries which seem to be of Anglo-Saxon or later date; there are veterans at Wintershall (29 feet in girth), Acton Burnell Park (25 feet), Aldworth (27 feet), Castle Frome (21 feet) and Chevening (20 feet). Some of these are dated by Meredith to 2000 years (first century AD); their archaeological context suggests that they are only half that age. The so-called Pilgrims’ Way through Surrey and Kent runs beside banks created by mediaeval ploughing, and the yews growing on these earthworks are already of venerable proportions [26].

At Knowlton in Dorset there is a line of yews, survivors from an early hedgerow, with an average girth of 25 feet. The trees are growing over one of a series of henge monuments, and this has persuaded Meredith to give them an age of 2500 or 3000 years - postdating the abandonment of the henges, it is true, but still pretty old. However, Knowlton was reoccupied in the seventh century as a focus for pagan Saxon burials, focussed on a dominating barrow towards which the hedgerow is aligned. The trees form part of an Anglo-Saxon network of boundaries and burials across the ancient earthworks, and they in their turn may have influenced the choice of the site for a church in the twelfth century [27].

Further evidence linking the yew with pagan burials comes from Taplow, where the excavators of the rich seventh century barrow unceremoniously dislodged a 21-feet tree from the top of the mound. Here, as at Knowlton, the history of the site continues into the Christian era with a church thirty yards away [28]. Evidently the yew was planted at a time when the barrow was more important than the church, either to act as a grave-tree for the eponymous Taeppa or to mark out the mound as a place of assembly. Until the decline of hundredal jurisdictions in the twelth century, trees were employed as landmarks for moots. A decayed yew stood on a mound at Wormelow Tump until 1855; it had been the moot for one of the Herefordshire hundreds. The hundredal court of Totteridge met under the yew in the churchyard, and the manorial court and fair of Pensale were held under a yew at Langsett. Knowlton itself was the seat of a hundred [29].

But other yews, equal in size and dignity, are found in sites dating from the later Middle Ages. Trees in deerparks have been preserved as part of a landscape fashion; parks flourished in the thirteenth century, and the yews within thems cannot be much older, which means that Meredith’s dates for the trees at Kentchurch Court (35 feet), Knowle Park (20 feet) and Waldershare Park (30 feet) -all estimated at 1000—2000 years old - are again more than double the true age. At Langley Park in Buckinghamshire a self-regenerating yew is growing in a moated farmstead site; one at Brackley in Northamptonshire grows in or over a deserted mediaeval village [30]. Estimates of their age should be made accordingly.

There is of course one mediaeval structure consistently associated with yews - the parish church. Antiquarian literature on the yew owes much to generations of learned incumbents, each one speculating on his own familiar tree, in the manner of Parson Copleston of Offwell (1832) -

`Thy stem, coeval with the plinth, I ween
That lifts my flinty tower above the sod’.

This is the crux of the matter. Archaeologically and botanically there is nothing implausible about a date ‘coeval with the plinth’ for many English churchyard yews. But to go further - to claim that more than a hundred churches were built on sites chosen because they adjoined flourishing pagan yew trees - that is something else.

Gilbert White's yew at Selborne, Dorset.
Illustration by Hieronymous Grimm, 1776.

There is little direct archaeological evidence. When the 26-feet yew at Selborne came down in the great storm of 1991, the soil under its roots was excavated and an undisturbed area was found, dating to a time when the tree was nine or ten feet in girth. Comparison with more modern trees of known age suggests that the yew was 200—400 years old at that time. This area was cut by, and therefore earlier than, a coffined burial whose grave fill contained five residual sherds, none of them later than 1600 and one definitely thirteenth or fourteenth century [31]. A tree which was three centuries old in c.1500 would be roughly contemporary with the earliest, twelfth century, phase of the church. A similar conclusion can be reached by an estimate of size alone; a growth rate of one foot in 30 years up to the first recorded measurement (23 feet in 1778) would suggest that the tree was planted in the eleventh century. Meredith’s estimate of 1400 years (sixth century), with all that it implies for the history of the site, is not necessary.

Tandridge, Kent in 1936. Illustration by Lonsdale Ragg.

An archaeological case has also been made for the great age of the yew at Tandridge in Surrey. Very tall, 35 feet in girth, and grotesquely hollowed within, it stands by the west wall of the nave. We are assured that within the Saxon crypt stone vaulting can be seen bridging the roots of the tree. This, if true, would vindicate Meredith’s claims with a vengeance: for roots grow pari passu with trunks, and if these roots were equal to their present size a thousand years ago, then the tree must have been immense even then. On inquiry, however, I find that Tandridge church has no Saxon phase nor any crypt, and that local opinion was as puzzled by the story of the root as I was [32].

Almost every old yew can be seen to harmonise with the plan of the church for which it was planted. It will stand overshadowing the entrance path to the church porch, normally on the south side; where convenience has dictated a porch to the north, the yew is there also. Sometimes there are two trees, one beside the main funeral path, the other by a minor entrance. As Vaughan Cornish observes, this implies that the church was laid out first and the yews came afterwards. Common sense would suggest this as the general rule. At Dunsfold the church stands on the edge of a bluff overlooking the river Arun, in a Wealden parish of dispersed and secondary settlement [33]. Below the path as it turns to enter the church stands a twisty, hollow yew 24 feet in girth. Meredith in his usual way dates it to 1500 years (fifth century). In which case, you wonder, why does it happen to stand just below the crest of a hill on which a thirteenth-century church was to be built, and opposite its door?

It is not always unreasonable to suppose that churches have been built on pagan sites, but one would like to see some evidence offered in support. At Fortingall in Perthshire two sections remain from an immense yew which, when intact, must have measured 56 feet in girth. At even the most conservative estimate this tree must be older than the establishment of Christianity in these islands; and although it has been subject to various ritual indignities, including the lighting of Beltane fires against it and the procession of funerals through its trunk, the tree has obviously been cared for over the centuries. Significantly the nearby placename Duneaves is tigh-neimhid, 'the house of the sacred grove', and a nearby village has the reputation of being the true centre of Scotland [34]. Here it is easy to believe that the yew was originally tended as an equivalent to the Irish bile or tribal tree, and was afterwards adapted as part of the environment of a missionary kill during the Christianisation of Dalriada.

Things were different in southern England. Most of the parish churches with which we are dealing were established long after the extirpation of paganism, and many of them serve communities which were themselves secondary settlements. A village with a name like Ashtead is likely to have come into being through woodland clearance; in fact the church here is known to have been built as a dependent chapelry of Leatherhead in 1120, and estimates of age for its 23 feet yew tree must be adjusted accordingly [35].

Some churches, and their yews, can be dated by inference. Lytchett Matravers is one of several parishes in south-eastern Dorset formed in the tenth century by breaking up the parochia of a local minster - in this case, Sturminster Marshall [36]. Nonetheless its yew, 23 feet in girth, is dated by Meredith at 1600 years (fourth century). As before, his estimate of age appears to be double that suggested by the historical context. The same results obtain when churches have been dated archaeologically. At Sydling St Nicholas excavation showed the first phase of the church to be as late as the thirteenth century, thereby fixing a date for its 14 feet yew [37].

There are great problems in proving that any given church is the earliest building standing on its site. There may have been a timber original; there may even have been a pagan predecessor. But the case is much clearer with monasteries, which were built at known dates on greenfield sites. They, too, have their yew trees.Waverley Abbey, founded in 1128, is neighbour to a yew 21 feet in girth; Fountains Abbey, in 1132, is flanked by veteran yews of 22 feet; next comes Dryburgh in 1136, with a 12 feet tree; Ankerwyke Priory, founded in 1160, adjoins a 31 feet tree; Strata Florida, founded 1184, as we have seen has one of 22 feet; at Muckross Abbey, of 1440, the tree is 12 feet and stands in the centre of the cloister, obviously a deliberate planting [38]. These trees belong to the last phase in the cultural history of the sacred yew, its adoption by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. The tree at Dryburgh - the northernmost of this group - has grown slowly, while that at Ankerwyke, in the rich floodplain of the Thames, has flourished. Generally, however, the dimensions of the yews support the rule of thumb with which we began, of growth at a rate of one foot in 30 years with a five-feet margin of error. It is hardly necessary to add that Meredith’s estimates for the dates of these trees make them, yet again, twice as old as the buildings which they were in fact planted to embellish.

I sometimes wonder whether this search for pagan antecedents does not betray a subconscious resentment against the Christian tradition. The annals of geomantic research are full of attempts to marginalise or explain away the achievements of the Church, as if sacredness and Christianity were somehow at variance with one another. In Allen Meredith’s case this zeal for pagan origins has persuaded him that Magna Carta was signed, not on the accepted site of Runnymede, but at Ankerwyke under the shelter of an age-old yew, the axis mundi of a prechristian cult. The tree itself has sent him dreams of a coronation ceremony, and messages about the threat to its existence (a planned golf course). Well, if your life was in danger, wouldn’t you be prepared to glamourise your origins a little? [39].

In 1992 David Bellamy led a meeting which proposed - 777 years after the original event - a new Great Charter, a revised ecological version granting rights of a somewhat non-specific nature to all living creatures on the earth. It was a public relations exercise, and the fact that the signatories were convinced of a prechristian origin for the twelfth-century tree under which they met is only one of the many absurdities involved. But it would be short-sighted of a mere antiquarian to heckle from the sidelines. What are a few centuries here and there when the neo-pagan salvation of the planet is in question? Yet I feel that the truth should also count for something.


1. Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton, The Sacred Yew (Arkana, 1994) pp250—253
2. Walter Johnson, Byways in British Archaeology (Cambridge UP, 1912) p364; E.W.Swanton, The Yew Trees of England (Farnham, 1958) p10 3. Sacred Yew pp254—261
4. Statius, Thebaid VIII:9—10
5. Kenneth Jackson, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (Cambridge UP, 1935) p12
6. A.T.Lucas, ‘The Sacred Trees Of Ireland’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Soc. 68 (1963) pp16—54 (p31)
7. Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, ed. John O’Donovan (Dublin, 1851) 1p1147; Chronicum Scotorum, ed. William M.Hennessy (Rolls Ser.46, 1866) p347
8. Lucas, op.cit. pp36—37
9. Topographia Hibernica in The Historical Works, tr. Thomas Wright (George Bell, 1887) p109, 125
10. Sacred Yew pp88, 218
11. William J.Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Blackwood, 1926) p87
12. Vaughan Cornish, The Churchyard Yew and Immortality (Frederick Muller, 1946) pp48—58
13. A.W.Wade-Evans, Welsh Medieval Law (Oxford, 1909) pp108, 248
14. Johnson, op. cit. p398; Cornish, op. cit. pp33—34; Sacred Yew pp56, 277—278
15. ‘Llowarch’, ‘At Strata Florida’, The Ley Hunter 103 (1987) p5
16. Sacred Yew p55
17. Sacred Yew p96; H.M. Porter, The Celtic Church in Somerset (Morgan Books, Bath, 1971) pp35—39
18. Jennifer Chandler, ‘Old Men’s Fancies: The Case of the Churchyard Yew’, FLS News 15 (1992) pp3—6
19. Cornish, op.cit. pp36—38; Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale UP, 1992) pp23—25
20. E. Charles Nelson, Trees of Ireland (Lilliput, Dublin, 1993) p220
21. Robert Graves, The White Goddess (Faber & Faber, 1961) p203
22. For an alternative view, see R.W.V. Elliott, ‘Runes, Yews And Magic’, Speculum 32 (1957) pp250—261
23. Hilda Ellis Davidson, The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (Routledge, 1993) p87
24. Lucas, op.cit. pp17—18; R.I. Best, ‘The Settling of the Manor of Tara’, Eriu 4 (1910) pp121—172
25. Cornish, op.cit. p29
26. Sacred Yew pp179—183 and gazetteer; Edwin Hart, ‘The Pilgrim’s Way from Shere to Titsey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections 41 (1933) pp1—33 (p28)
27. Jeremy Harte, Cuckoo Pounds and Singing Barrows (Dorchester, 1986) pp10, 56
28. Sacred Yew p64; cf. Eric Fitch,’Ancient Taplow’, At the Edge 1 (1996) pp32—35
29. Cornish, op.cit. p35; George L. Gomme, Primitive Folk-Moots (Sampson Low, 1880) p133
30. Sacred Yew p178, gazetteer
31. David Allen and Sue Anderson, ‘Excavations beneath the Great Yew, St Mary’s Churchyard, Selborne’, Proc. of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Soc. 47 (1992) pp145—152
32. Sacred Yew p47
33. Ian Nairn and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Surrey (Penguin, 1962) p200
34. Sacred Yew pp47—50; Watson, op.cit. p247
35. John Blair, Early Medieval Surrey (Alan Sutton, 1991) p124
36. David Hinton and C.J. Webster, ‘Excavations at the Church of St Martin’s, Wareham’, Proc. of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Soc. 109 (1987) pp47—54 (p53)
37. Alan H.Graham, ‘Excavations in the Nave of the Parish Church of Sydling St Nicholas’, Proc. of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 104 (1982) pp127—136
38. Sacred Yew pp35, 99, gazetteer
39. Sacred Yew p107

Originally published in At the Edge No.4 1996.

Revised dating protocols researched by Peter Thomas, Toby Hindson and Andy Moir combine different methods of aging yew trees bigger than five metres in girth and established they are less than half the age claimed in theSacred Yew . More details can be read here and summarised here.

The research paper is 'Estimating the Ages of Yews – Challenging Constant Annual Increment as a suitable model 'by Toby Hindson, Andy Moir & Peter Thomas' and published in Quarterly Journal of Forestry Jul 2019, Vol. 113, No.3. The relevant web page is but the article is only available to RFS susbscribers.

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