Many reasons have been given as to why yews are to be found in old churchyards. One is that it is ‘as an emblem of Resurrection’. This may be the reason why it was customary during Tudor times and earlier to tie sprigs of yew to coffins. Churches are the present custodians of trees planted and cared for over many centuries, from 500 year old trees planted in the Middle Ages, the 800 year old trees planted by the Normans, even older specimens planted by Saxons and early Welsh saints, with the possibility that some might even pre date Christianity.

Twice as old as the church

St George's in Crowhurst, Surrey, was built in the early 14th century, but its ancient yew is thought to be double the church's age. The tree is rich in tales and folklore. A door was attached 1820 and villagers held tea parties in its hollow trunk. A cannon ball, thought to be from the Civil War, was found embedded within the trunk. It disappeared during the Second World War, but was handed back by a soldier who thought better of taking it as a memento. The Crowhurst yew has been documented since 1630 and is one of the ‘50 Great British Trees’ chosen to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee.

St George, Crowhurst

As old as the throne of England

The gigantic yew looming over the porch is the oldest of a dozen younger yews in this Kent churchyard. The bulging trunk is hollow inside but full of internal growth. The earliest record is found in an 1838 edition of The Farmers Magazine which notes its huge girth, although an 1807 water colour painting of the church also shows a large tree by the church thought to be the yew. In 1936 Arthur Mee wrote that the yew ‘is said to be as old as the throne of England, and it looks as flourishing’.

St Mary, Eastling

Six 500 year yews

St Peter’s is home to six large yews over 500 years old, and was one of 7 sites used by The Conservation Foundation to propagate saplings which were distributed to 8,000 churches across the UK to celebrate the Millennium. This Kent church dates from the 13th century, but the site is thought to be considerably earlier and at least one of the yews is thought to predate the church. This yew separated into two and a rod is bolted to both fragments to prevent further separation.

St Peter, Molash

A church, a castle and a bench

The 13th century Herefordshire church of St Bartholomew’s is just the latest companion of the ancient yew found in the churchyard. Thought to be some 1,500 years old it has seen a medieval castle and Norman church, fragments of which are still visible. The yew has hollowed and a bench placed inside it and as with many ancient yews props have been installed to support its great limbs.

St Bartholomew, Much Marcle

Neighbour of the ‘long man’

Supported by props and chains, the immense yew tree at St Mary & St Peter in Wilmington looks every bit as antique as its age. This exceptional ancient tree grows near the ruins of Wilmington Priory and the ‘Long Man of Wilmington’. A stone sits at the base of the tree, reportedly from Roman times and uncovered by the local well digger whose grave is below. The yew has two trunks which were originally thought to have been from one tree until it hollowed and split, and has a vast canopy spreading across the churchyard.

St Mary & St Peter, Wilmington

Home of the Hundred Court

One of the oldest trees in London, an ancient yew, can be found in Barnet. It is thought the local Hundred Court, a medieval administrative body, met beside this yew, and the tree has changed little since the earliest recorded date of measurement in 1677. A little TLC can go a long way to help ancient yews, which often have a large mass but little foliage to produce energy, and the Totteridge yew is no different, with mulch recently applied to its base to support its growth.

St Andrew, Totteridge

Churchyard and candlesticks

This imposing ancient yew, some 11m in girth and one of the finest in southern England, is now protected by railings, part of which has buckled under the weight of a huge limb resting on it. St Peter’s is an early 13th century Hampshire church, little changed since it was built, and the tree is well documented. The churches candles sticks were turned by one of the parishioners from wood removed from yew. Its heavy limbs are supported by giant props and a postcard from a hundred years ago shows the giant ancient yew. The props, visible in the postcard, are now rotting and the church is fundraising to replace them.

St Mary, South Hayling

A recovering yew

Close to the path leading to Linton St Mary’s church near Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, you can find an ancient female yew. The yew was badly damaged by fire in 1998 but has been recovering well. The yew has a substantial girth with a large cavity that reveals an internal stem. The Linton community have done much to celebrate their yew, including hosting an exhibition on the tree.

St Mary, Linton

A treasure trove of history

The church in Beltingham, Northumberland, is a treasure trove of British history. A large yew tree in its churchyard, the trunk of which is twisting as if to escape from the brace that prevents it splitting, is accompanied by a Roman altar and a Saxon Cross. Despite extensive Victorian restoration you can still find a medieval font, used to baptise Nicholas Ridley, one of the Oxford Martyrs burned at the stake during the English Reformation. The yew would have provided ample shade in the 16th century for Nicholas, and the soldiers that took part in the nearby Battle of Flodden, one of the largest Scottish English battles. Yew was a favored wood at the time to make bows.

St Cuthbert, Beltingham

Four standing stones

Four standing stones, thought to be pre Christian, stand towards one of the three yews found in Gwytherin churchyard. Two yews flank the entrance, whilst a third, badly damaged by fire, is found overlooking the valley. The yews were likely here when Saint Winifred, a 7th century noblewoman from which folklore abounds, came here to become a nun. The church was built on the foundations of the covenant and Saint Winifred was buried here until, 500 years after her death, monks from Shrewsbury travelled here to transport her remains to their cathedral.

St Winifred, Gwytherin

Oldest living tree in Britain

Thought to be the oldest living tree in Britain, and one of the ‘50 Great British Trees’ declared as part of the Queen’s Jubilee, the yew in Fortingall, near Perth, is now only visible behind a wall, built to protect it from souvenir hunters. Thought to date from a post Roman Christian site, the yew, fragmented in two, is peculiar not just because of its age but also because one branch has changed sex, from male to female. Today’s church is on a site of early Christian worship and contains a number of historical artifacts, but was only built in 1901, in the decorative ‘Arts and Crafts’ style popular at the time.

Fortingall Parish Church, Fortingall

We Love Yew

Great Britain has one of the world’s greatest collections of ancient and veteran yews. They have long been a feature in landscape and heritage, with many older than the Magna Carta for which the Ankerwycke yew is thought to have provided shelter for the Barons, Bishops and King John. We Love Yew, a project of the Conservation Foundation encourages people, communities and churches to care for ancient yew trees, discover their local heritage through them, and to plant new trees for the future.

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