Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.

from Twelfth Night (Act 2, Scene 4)

A traditional feature in many churchyards in the United Kingdom is the presence of an ancient yew tree or two. And as attested by the quote from Shakespeare above, the yew tree (Taxus baccata) has long been cultivated in our graveyards, and borne an association with death and all things funereal. To summon up another literary example, the graveyard at St. Oswald's Church in Grasmere boasts eight yew trees planted by the poet William Wordsworth. However the reason quite why this particular tree has long been a favourite to plant in cemeteries has been the subject of much debate over the years.

One of the first often proffered reasons is purely practical: in his epic work Observations on the Statutes (1766), the lawyer and antiquary Daines Barrington, has this to say on the planting of yews in churchyards -

Trees in a churchyard were often planted to skreen the church from the wind; that, low as churches were built at this time, the thick foliage of the yew answered this purpose better than any other tree. I have been informed, accordingly, that the yew-trees in the churchyard of Gyffin, near Conway, having been lately felled, the roof of the church hath suffered excessively

 And indeed, there is a statute by King Edward I that does mention the planting of trees for this very purpose. However in his article Yew Trees in Churchyards, which can be found in the volume Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church (1897) edited by William Andrews, the Victorian scholar TN Brushfield M.D. notes that the statute in question does not make a specific reference to yew trees, and is more concerned with the cutting down of trees in churchyards rather than a policy of deliberately planting them. Furthermore Dr Brushfield goes on to sagely remark that -

If even intended to act as a shelter from windstorms, a number would have been planted either on the side of prevailing winds, or a belt of them would have surrounded the edifice.

So then, we can dispense with the screen idea, and move swiftly on to the next oft-cited theory for having yews in churchyards. This next notion posits that yew trees were planted in churchyards so that the local parish would always have wood for bows and arrows. However in the same essay, Dr Brushfield neatly skewers this theory too, noting that -

The remarkable fact that the English yew did not yield the best bows, may be noted here. Stringent regulations were laid down in several statutes, to require merchants to import bow staves from foreign parts simultaneously with other merchandise. In the time of Elizabeth, the price of “each bow of the best foreign yew” was 6s. 8d., while that of an English one was 2s. Spanish bows were then considered by far the best, but history shows that they were required to be used by English archers to make them fully effective as weapons of war.

In addition to these very pertinent historical facts that argue against the bow theory, later connoisseurs of yew lore have noted that the usual single tree planted in a churchyard would not yield enough wood to be terribly useful for making weaponry anyway. Now one of the fascinating things about yew trees is their exceedingly long lifespans, and many of the oldest have been quietly growing by churches and in cemeteries. Indeed it is widely accepted that many of these churchyard trees are a thousand years old or more. And therefore as many churchyards yews are reckoned to be old enough to have been around when the longbow was a standard weapon of war, it is very telling that they show little if any sign of ever being harvested for this purpose. And in support of this, no parish records have ever come to light that detail either the harvest or sale of yew tree timber. However this does show that the tradition of planting yews in our burying grounds is undoubtedly ancient.

Now the third commonly cited explanation takes us into more sinister territory, for the yew is a tree with a dark reputation. And rightly so, for the leaves, the sap, and even the wood of the yew tree are very toxic. And so it has been theorised that yews were planted in graveyards to discourage cattle or sheep from wandering in and grazing around the graves. And there is a certain merit to this idea, for yew needles are so toxic they will kill the grasses that grow beneath the tree.

However once again, the actual number of yew trees usually found in cemeteries rather argues against this theory. For a typical old churchyard will only be home to one or maybe two ancient yew trees, hardly enough to create an effective botanical barrier for even a small churchyard, and furthermore they are often located far from the edges of the graveyard. An additional problem with this theory is exactly how toxic the foliage of yew trees are to livestock is somewhat unclear. There are mixed reports coming in down the years, and even accounts of yew leaves being used to bulk out winter fodder for cattle and the animals suffering no ill effects from this diet. However perhaps most damning of all, there is the simple fact that many churchyards have ancient walls surrounding them to do that very job in the first place

Another common theory moves away the allegedly practical reasons for yews in churchyards, and looks to more esoteric ideas. According to this different line of thinking, we are looking at the problem the wrong way round - the real question is not why we plant yews in graveyards but why do graveyards appear around yew trees. For this particular theory states that yew trees were an important part of worship in ancient British paganism, and so when the Christian missionaries came, they built their churches at the sites of the old temples. Therefore ancient churches come with even more ancient yew trees.

Now in recent years, time after time, historical research has shown that many old customs that have long been supposed to have pagan origins are in fact of more recent vintage. Hence it would be wise to examine this particular theory very closely indeed.

Firstly we do know that this kind of site conversion did take place. In fact at the dawn of the 7th century, we have a letter from Pope Gregory I written to the Abbot Mellitus, in which the Pope has these instructions for St. Augustine -

Tell Augustine that he should by no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

And indeed there are many attested examples in Northern Europe where churches have been built on former pagan sites. However all the same, many scholars have taken exception with this explanation - partly because it is claimed that there is a lack of botanical and archaeological evidence to back it up, but because we know very little of the beliefs of the ancient pre-Christian Britons. While our literature is full of tales of the Celts and the Druids, in terms of historical evidence, we have very little to tell us about their lives and culture.

Hence is an alternative theory has been proposed, which can be found in The Oxford Book of English Folklore (2000) by Julia Simpson and Steven Roud a more likely scenario is that -

The custom of planting yews in churchyards seems to have come with Christianity to Ireland and Wales, in imitation of Mediterranean cemeteries with cypress and laurel

But once again, as soon as one finds a promising theory, it is not long before one finds problems with it. Firstly we have the same lack of direct evidence that undermines the paganism theory it seeks to challenge. And secondly, it mistakenly supposes that the planting of cypresses in European burying grounds is an exclusively Christian custom.

But once again, as soon as one finds a promising theory, it is not long before one finds problems with it. Firstly we have the same lack of direct evidence that undermines the paganism theory it seeks to challenge. And secondly, it mistakenly supposes that the planting of cypresses in European burying grounds is an exclusively Christian custom.

While the practises and beliefs of the Celts and Druids are still shrouded in mystery, we do know considerably more about the cultures of later pagan inhabitants of Britain. After the Roman Empire collapsed, a new wave of colonists arrived but this time from Northern Europe - Norse, Scandinavian, and Germanic folk who came and peacefully settled in old England. Their religions revered a pantheon of gods and goddesses, usually led by the All-Father, known as Odin, Woden or Wotan

In Norse mythology there were said to be nine worlds which were supported by the branches of an immense cosmic tree, Yggdrasil. And Odin had gained his wisdom, and not to mention his considerable powers of magic, by hanging himself on this world tree in a ritual of death and rebirth. Now for decades, scholars have referred to Yggdrasil as an ash-tree, however recent research, most notably by Fred Hageneder, has revealed that this is probably a mistranslation. For in the oldest sagas, and from where we gain much of our knowledge of Norse culture, Yggdrasil is referred to as vetgrønster vida which means "most evergreen tree", and as barraskr meaning "needle-ash" - and of course ash trees have leaves, while yew trees have needles. Hageneder therefore has claimed that Yggdrasil was actually a yew not an ash, and appropriately enough there is little archaeological evidence for the ash being important in Norse rituals, but there are many examples of the yew tree being revered in their culture.

Looking further back into the historical record, we find that in Southern Europe, in the Classical world, the cypress and the yew was associated with death and funerals. In Roman times, its branches were woven in wreathes to venerate Pluto the god of the Underworld, while in ancient Greece, the yew was associated with Hecate, a goddess associated with the night, herbs, poisonous plants, and witchcraft.

The Classical association of the yew tree with death and funerals appears to have been well known for several centuries.. As a writer in The Gentleman's Magazine (1781) surmises neatly for us -

We read in the Antiquities of Greece and Rome that the branches of the cypress and yew were the usual signals to denote a house in mourning. Now, sir, as Death was a deity among the antients (the daughter of Sleep and Night), and was by them represented in the same manner, with the addition only of a long robe embroidered with stars, I think we may fairly conclude that the custom of planting the yew in churchyards took its rise from Pagan superstition, and that it is as old as the conquest of Britain by Julius Caesar.

Furthermore, long before Pope Gregory, the Romans had a policy of site conversion. When the Empire gained a new territory, it was standard Roman practise to erect new temples at the native places of worship, usually finding an equivalent in the Classical pantheon to the local deity they were supplanting. Therefore given that the Roman Empire spread far into the north of Europe, it would seem a more likely bet that the yew tradition came with them several centuries before the Christian missionaries set out.

And certainly we do have very good evidence of the yew and cypress being used in funeral customs in the United Kingdom during the Roman occupation. For example, in a very revered work by the pioneering polymath Sir Thomas Browne, entitled Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, published in 1658, he notes that -

The funerall pyre consisted of sweet fuell, cypresse, firre, larix, yewe, and trees perpetuall verdant.

However we should note that there was a huge antipathy between the Northern European folk and the Romans, with more northern areas such as Scotland, Denmark and Scandinavia, never falling to Roman rule. Additionally after the collapse of the Empire, many native peoples reverted to their own way of life adopting very little of the imposed Roman culture. All of which casts doubt on the idea that yew traditions were spread through Europe by the Empire. Plus, as we have heard, recent research suggests that in Norse and Scandinavian cultures already had yew tree traditions of their own.

However Browne’s work does give us an important clue to the riddle of the churchyard yew. In Classical times, cremation was more common than burials, and this was often the case in the ancient pagan world too. Now yew wood burns at a very high temperature, and to cremate a human body one does need a very hot fire to burn the bones. Hence yew timber was a very good choice for a funeral pyre. Furthermore, yews are highly aromatic, and so building a funeral pyre using timbers from resinous trees such as the ones listed by Browne has another very practical use - namely masking the smell of charred flesh. Now one of the reasons why cremation was so popular is the fact that fire was seen as cleansing, and there are of course many traditions which feature flames as a symbol of spiritual purification. But also once again there was a very good practical reason for this too, for cremating a body did effectively neutralise the physical threat of infection from decomposing corpses.

However on the subject of the yew in particular, Browne goes on to wonder -

Whether the planting of yewe in churchyards holds its original from ancient funerall rites, or as an embleme of resurrection from its perpetual verdure, may also admit conjecture.

Now this brings us to another important aspect of the yew tree - its evergreen nature. Now trees and plants that do not shed their leaves in winter have long had associations with eternal life and rebirth. However one does wonder why it seems to be the darker and woodier yews and cypresses that have gained funereal associations. One hypothesis is that the link with death specifically came from the yew's poisonous nature. The tree was widely believed to be so toxic that it was dangerous even to sleep in its shade. And in fact there is some truth in this old piece of English folklore - for, if the weather is hot enough the yew tree's deadly toxins such as taxin, taxiphyllin, and ephedrine, can evaporate from the sap. And hence it is, theoretically at least, possible to become poisoned if one is sitting close by the trunk on a hot day.

But also I suspect there are also some underlying practical considerations that made the yew more associated with funerals and burials than other evergreens such as holly or ivy. Our ancestors may have been many centuries away from the discovery of bacteria, but they knew well enough there was a hazard of infection from the recently dead. Now to this day we associate the smell of coniferous trees with cleanliness, to the point it has entered our language - "pine fresh". And I suspect this is why we find yew, cypress and other of the more resinous evergreen plants and trees being part of funeral decorations in many cultures - for their fresh scents were thought to clear the air of noxious vapours and unclean forces. And certainly it is a tradition that has crossed both the centuries and different cultures. The Oxford Book of English Folklore (2000) notes that up until the 19th century, it was a popular custom to lay boughs and wreaths of yew upon a coffin before burial, with several regional variants. For example in 18th century Somerset, the Reverend John Collinson records in A History of Somersetshire Vol. 1 (1791) -

Our forebears were particularly careful in preserving this funeral tree whose branches it was usual for mourners to carry in solemn procession to the grave, and afterwards deposit therein under the bodies of their dear friends

Another interesting variation is found in Ireland, where boughs of yew trees are used in Palm Sunday parades. Indeed in some regions this special day in the run up to Easter is even known as Domhnach an Iúir, which means "Yew Sunday". Now some have theorised that yew branches were chosen for their supposed resemblance to palm leaves, however looking at the two trees it is hard to imagine any that are perhaps more dissimilar! Therefore I'm rather more inclined to suspect the yew was chosen for its funereal associations - for after all, Palm Sunday is the beginning of a series of events that will lead to the Crucifixion of Jesus. And it is especially fitting considering that the Yew tree also has folkloric connections to rebirth and eternal life as well as death.

As we have remarked before in this investigation, yew trees are extraordinarily long lived, and they possess remarkable powers of regeneration. Indeed yew branches can actually reach down to the ground and burrow under the soil for a fair distance to throw up new stems, creating new trunks, new trees around themselves. And hence while the yew tree had a fearsome reputation thanks to its toxic nature - the 17th botanist Nicholas Culpeper ominous proclaiming "the most active vegetable poison known in the whole world, for in a very small dose it instantly induces death without any previous disorder" - our forebears were equally well aware of its resilience, longevity and its powers of regeneration. Truly it was a tree of both life and death.

There are many local traditions that ascribed huge ages, ages of thousands of years, to ancient yews, and in more modern times, it was assumed that these claims of highly venerable trees was nothing more than local folkloric exaggeration. However the advent of sophisticated scientific methods of measuring the ages of trees has proved many of these trees to be as old as it is claimed. For example, it is currently reckoned that one of the oldest living things in Europe is an ancient yew tree growing in St Cynog’s churchyard at Defynnog in Powys, and is believed to be more than five thousand years old! And this venerable tree is not alone: for example, the yew growing in the churchyard of Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland is reckoned to be in the region of three thousand years old. While the yew which stands in the now ruined priory of Ankerwycke in Berkshire, where King John allegedly signed the Magna Carter, is thought to be at 2,000 years old. And modern tests have established that there are many more ancient yew trees still growing throughout the British Isles.

Such ancient trees almost certainly predate the churches whose graveyards they stand in as most churches in the UK are nowhere near a thousand years old.

Therefore it is very possible that some of our oldest churchyards were built at sites that were home to an already ancient yew tree. So were these old temple sites too? Well, given that we have little evidence that yew trees themselves were objects of worship, that still seems unlikely. However given than in both Northern paganism and Roman culture the yew had associations with death, rebirth and funeral rites, it is perhaps more the case that an ancient yew marked a fitting place for the site of a graveyard rather than a church itself. And hence old churches were perhaps not built on former temple sites, but on older burial places.

And the tradition of planting yews where we lay our loved ones to rest continues to this day, with new modern cemeteries having at least one yew tree somewhere on the grounds.

Well do I know thee by thy trusty yew,
Cheerless, unsocial plant! that loves to dwell
‘Midst skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms:
Where light-heel’d ghosts, and visionary shades,
Beneath the wan cold moon (as fame reports)
Embodied, thick, perform their mystic rounds:
No other merriment, dull tree! is thine.

from The Grave, A Poem by Robert Blair

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