Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Churchyard Yews

Legends abound to explain the yew trees that flourish in most English churchyards. Some say they were planted to supply wood for longbows, others that their poisonous leaves deterred livestock from trampling across the consecrated ground.
The truth is even more extraordinary - the yews were there before the churches.
Yews were sacred to the Ancient Britons, who regarded them as symbolic of the cycle of life because they live for hundreds, possibly thousands of years and, being evergreen, they do not 'die' in the winter. Yews were often planted in sacred groves in the woods, away from settlements, especially in Sussex.
When Christianity arrived, Pope Gregory advised missionaries not to destroy the sacred groves but to build churches there, and the tradition of planting yews in churchyards was established. Some of the ancient pagan trees still survive - the Fortingall yew in Scotland is between 2,000 and 5,000 years old. Local legend says the the infant Pontius Pilate played in its branches!
Yew for longbows was taken not from churchyards, where they were protect by their consecrated status, but from the forests. Military demand was such that by Elizabethan times yew had been wiped out throughout Europe, and might now be extinct but for churchyards.
Longbows were more accurate over longer ranges than Tudor guns - guns were adopted not because they were better but because suitable bow wood was unobtainable.
The majestic avenue of yews at Westbourne church was planted at the end of the 15th century, and is claimed to be the oldest in the country.