Many years ago, when I first learned that yew trees are poisonous I was puzzled about their frequent presence in graveyards. Anyone in a graveyard is either already dead, or visiting the dead; either way it seems unnecessary to be reminded that some things can prove fatal.
The English yew (taxus baccata) is a remarkably poisonous tree. The name means ‘poisonous, bearing red berries’ and it is poisonous to an extent that few trees/plants can match. Leaves, roots, bark, sap and seeds are all deadly. Fifty grams of the leaves would kill you or me. A handful would kill a large horse. It works by stopping the heart.
Strangely, the only part that isn’t poisonous is the soft red flesh of the ‘berries’. I use apostrophes because although they may look like berries from a distance, take a closer look and you’ll see that they have a cup-shaped form with the seed nestling inside the open fleshy structure. They are called arils, rather than berries. The seeds have a very hard skin and pass through the digestive systems of birds to achieve dispersion, but human digestion is made of sterner stuff and will break down the seeds, releasing the poison. So don’t put an aril in your mouth with the intention of eating the fleshy part and spitting out the seed – it isn’t worth the risk. The fleshy bit is watery, vaguely sweet, but with no real flavour.
That may not sound to be promising material for a medicine source, but 1,000 years ago the Persian intellectual Avicenna wrote a medical book that included a yew extract for cardiac treatment and in recent years leaf extracts have been used in the development of cancer drugs, such as Doxetaxol.
When first cut the outer sapwood is white; the inner heartwood is a vibrant red-orange. Both are very strong and springy, but the sapwood is excellent under tension and the heartwood is excellent under compression – which makes a stave cut to have a layer of each the perfect raw material for making a bow. In 1991 the body of a man believed to be 5300 years old was found in the Alps. He carried a yew bow. The skeleton of an extinct species of elephant thought to be 85,000 years old was found at Lehringen in Germany. Within the skeleton was a spear made of yew wood. That spear could have been hurled by a Neanderthal. The oldest piece of worked wood found anywhere in the world is a yew spearhead found in Clacton in 1911 and believed to be 450,000 years old. That pre-dates the true Neanderthals by about 200,000 years. It seems that the benefits of yew wood have been known to us, and our distant cousins, for quite a while. The advantages over other woods must be striking given the poisonous nature of the sap that makes working the wood a hazardous business.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of this remarkable tree is its ability to live for a very long time indeed. There are hundreds of yew trees in Britain more than 500 years old.
Stoke Gabriel is a village on the River Dart. The current church dates from the 15th century and was built on the site of a much older church that is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. That listing mentions that alongside the church stood a yew tree that was already ancient in 1086. That tree is still there – and a magnificent sight it is. Modern testing has shown it to be about 1400 years old.
There are a dozen yews in Britain that are more than 1,000 years old. Analytical techniques are constantly improving and that means that the tree thought to be the oldest keeps changing. As of July 2014 the title is held by the tree in St Cynog’s churchyard at Defynnog near Sennybridge, Powys, which is believed to be 5,000 years old. I find it so hard to get my head around the idea of a living thing of that age. It was alive when the first stones were put in place at Stonehenge. It was already 1,000 years old when the Bronze Age began.
The long life can lead to trees of enormous size: not in height, as it’s rare for a yew to exceed 12 metres high, but in spread. As branches grow away from the central trunk they sag towards the ground. The point where a branch contacts the earth can root into the soil, which gives a boost to the growth of that branch. A single branch can root at several points along its length as it grows longer, so the tree steadily spreads out. The canopy of a yew in the grounds of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, a relative youngster of 350 years, now has a circumference of 175 metres.
Like all trees, the yew trunk tends to split when it reaches a great age, and eventually the central core will rot. But unlike other trees, a yew branch from above may grow down into the rotting core, root and feed on the rotting material, producing fresh growth – effectively a re-birth of the tree.
So, there we have a quick look at the properties of the English yew. Is there anything in those properties which could explain the close relationship between the yew tree and graveyards? That close relationship certainly exists.
From the Middle Ages to Victorian times when a new church was built yew trees were usually planted in the surrounding graveyard. There were no set rules, but yews were often planted in pairs, one next to the lychgate and one near the church door. Larger churches may have had more of the trees, perhaps lining both sides of the path from the lychgate to the church door.
An internet search throws up a variety of suggested reasons for this yew/church connection.
It is often commented that the trees are planted because the deadly poisonous nature of the yew will deter livestock from venturing into the churchyard causing damage and nuisance. It’s implied that some instinct in the animals will keep them away, but that clearly isn’t the case – if livestock has such an instinct it’s not strong enough to save lives. Every year horses die from eating yew leaves – and from eating ragwort. It’s more likely that farmers seeking to keep their animals well away would ensure that the wall/fence around the graveyard was well-maintained. But churches in towns also had their yew trees, with no farm livestock around. The yew by the lychgate often overhangs the wall and is well within reach of passing horses that are being ridden or drawing carts/carriages. To me the poison hazard feels more of a liability than a security measure.
The fact that yew is the perfect wood for bows throws up a couple of somewhat contradictory suggestions. Firstly, that yew trees were planted in graveyards as they thrived on corpses and were then readily available to make excellent bows for the King’s armies. Secondly, that yew trees were planted in churchyards (where they were protected) to prevent local archers from procuring suitable branches for making bows and thus having good weapons to oppose the King’s men.
Anyone fancy either of those? No, nor me. When the yew longbow made English and Welsh archers the battle-winning component of Henry’s army he quickly realised that there wouldn’t be enough yew trees to meet demand and imported huge quantities of yew staves from Spain and Northern Europe. He wasn’t going to wait 100 years for newly-planted trees to grow. At one stage all ships bringing cargo into this country had to pay an import toll, not in cash, but in the form of ten bow staves.
It is suggested that some of the yew qualities have particular resonance with the tenets of Christianity. In particular, the red and white colour of the freshly-cut wood represent the blood and body of Christ, and the ability of the yew to regenerate from its dying central core represents the death and resurrection.
I don’t think it can be that straightforward.
The tree in the Stoke Gabriel churchyard is considerably older than the original church. It grows in the middle of the churchyard and stretches from the churchyard walls to the church walls. The path to the church passes through the tree. Throughout Britain there are more than 500 examples of ancient yew trees being older than the adjacent church. There are half-a-dozen examples where the tree even pre-dates Christianity. So, we have churches being built close to existing yew trees, rather than the trees being planted in the grounds of the church.
Whatever the possible mystical properties of yew trees that exert such a strong spiritual influence, they have been appreciated for a very long time. In many ancient cultures the yew was central to the philosophy of life and death. In pre-Christian Britain the locations where yews grew were apparently sites of spiritual, if not magical, significance.
“Walk ye backwards round about me
Seven times round for all to see
Stumble not and then for certain
One true wish will come to thee.”
I’d like to suggest a purely practical reason for the connection between yew trees and religion. Let’s imagine that you are a Druid in pre-Christian Britain. Druids worship outside where they can see the natural world. So, you are looking around your local countryside for a suitable spot where you can gather with co-believers – and it’s a cold, wet, windy winter day.
Trees would provide some shelter, but the deciduous ones have lost their leaves.
There are only three native British conifers present in that time – yew, juniper and Scots pine. Of those only the yew provides adequate shelter, so if there’s one around you’ll head for it. In fact, the closely-spaced, flat needles and the growth habit make the yew ideal for this purpose. A hundred people could gather beneath a mature yew and be well sheltered from the weather.
People live and die, but the yew seems to go on for ever. After a few hundred years that yew has become well-established as a religious meeting place.
When the new Christianity appears and starts to take hold, adherents do not suddenly abandon all of the old beliefs, but blend the old and the new, retaining their gathering place. When the new Church is ready for a permanent structure in which to worship, it is built next to that wonderful old yew. As the centuries pass, the connection between Christianity and the yew becomes so established that when the growing population requires a new church be built in an area without a yew, then yew trees are planted next to the new building.
Well, that’s a purely practical analysis, but I have to admit that standing next to, or even within, one of the ancient yews is a moving experience. The sensation of living antiquity is almost overwhelming and the aura of calm solemnity is ideally suited to a graveyard.
One final thought: someone came up with the name Operation Yewtree for the investigation into Jimmy Savile. It’s a shame that something so wonderful should be associated with something so sordid, but I suppose the poisonous nature and the spreading habit suggested the connection.