Yew trees

In a garrison town not far from here, the Minster has its south door shaded by a yew tree. That tree, to judge from its size and girth, is older than the building by centuries—or more than a millennium, if some of the lore about yew trees is correct.

But to determine the age of a yew tree after several hundred years is not really possible: over the centuries their growth begins to slow down and even, apparently, stop for long periods; the wood takes on a different character; and unlike with other trees, a yew’s age is not determinable by rings if it is felled.

If these enormous yew trees in churchyards are as old as some believe, then the theory that they marked sacred places in the ancient Celtic religion does have some credibility: because when St Augustine was building churches in Britain in the sixth century, Pope Gregory advised him to place them in the spots sacred to the old religion, perhaps ‘to keep the spiritual energy associated with the old worship under firm Christian control.’*

Yew trees are found in hundreds of churchyards in England, especially in the south. The berries are enjoyed by birds, but they and all other parts are poisonous to man and beast.  So the churchyard is the safest place for them: and they were needed before guns were invented, since for efficiency, bows of yew wood are in a league of their own. Shakespeare mentions ‘bows of double-fatal yew’, referring to the weapons and the poison; and Virgil too mentions both these qualities in the Second Georgic: yew is used for the bows of Iturea, famous in the ancient world (line 448), but elsewhere he calls the trees taxi nocentes (line 257).

His earlier mention, in line 113, is a reminder that the yew is a native of colder climes, flourishing perhaps in Britain and Transalpine Gaul, but in the Mediterranean found on the colder uplands and in places exposed to north winds:

Nec uero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt.
fluminibus salices crassisque paludibus alni
nascuntur, steriles saxosis montibus orni;
litora myrtetis laetissima; denique apertos
Bacchus amat collis, Aquilonem et frigora taxi.

¶  But not all soils are able to produce everything.
In rivers, willows grow, in heavy marshes, alders;
on rocky mountains are the barren ash trees;
seashores are beautiful with myrtle groves;
but most of all, Bacchus loves the sunny hills,
while yews love Aquilo and his wintry cold.
Georgics II, lines 111-113

These lines are a preliminary to Virgil’s beautiful eulogy of Italy.


* Professor H.D.Rankin, Celts and the Classical World, Routledge, 1989