Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Yews in churchyards

On 8 January 2019 a London correspondent asked in the Daily Telegraph‘s letter page ‘Why did the yew [Taxus baccata] take root in our churchyards?’  Over the years he had heard three theories:

Christian churches were built on sites previously used by other religions which considered the tree to be sacred.  Church builders took over these sites, together with their ‘pagan objects’.

As every part of the yew is toxic to domestic animals, the tree, which was needed for the production of longbows, was cultivated within churchyard walls to prevent cattle and sheep from eating it.

The toxicity of yews deterred wild scavengers, such as foxes, badgers and bears, from raiding graves.

The following day, 9 January, a Colchester, Essex, correspondent stated that yews were associated with pre-Christian burial grounds, and ‘recent research shows that Bronze Age round barrows were encircled with yews’.  Yew is symbolic of both death and resurrection, and its evergreen foliage  was ‘highly valued and used for religious and secular festivals’.  Yews planted in churchyards today are reminders of an ‘earlier, pagan age’.

On 10 January a Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, correspondent  drew attention to the oft-quoted passage in John Gerard’s 1597 Herball remembering how he and his school mates ate the arils surrounding yew seeds.

Three letters were published on 11 January after which the correspondence came to an end.  Stefan Buczacki who investigated the idea of yews growing in churchyards for the production of longbows when writing his book Earth to Earth: The Natural History of Churchyards, stated that this was a most implausible idea.  Straight branches about 6ft long are required to make longbows, and ‘given the crooked shape of most yews and the number needed to equip a medieval army, the idea that the wood came from churchyards is ludicrous’.  Most longbow wood came from southern Europe.

Another correspondent, from Duffield, Derbyshire, stated that he had been told that yew trees were planted in churchyards to keep churches free from damp, as their roots suck up so much water’.

Finally a correspondent from Herefordshire, doubted if yews were planted in churchyards to deter grazing animals.  Sheep are grazed in St Dubricius churchyard, Hentland, once the wildflowers had finished blooming, to save scything.  But, ‘Come Palm Sunday, we cut branches from the yews to strew upon the path for the procession’.

Images:  upper, yews in St Leonard’s churchyard, Streatham, London Borough of Lambeth, although a church has stood on this site since the 14th century and its churchyard contains numerous yews, the trees are not ancient, probably less than a century old, and most appear to be bird-sown, January 2019; lower, yew in St Martin’s churchyard, Canterbury, Kent (St Martin’s is said to be the first church to be founded in England, and the oldest church in the English-speaking world), February 2019.

Updated 26 February 2019.

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