Many of the Cotswolds’ beautiful churches are set in graveyards framed by yew trees. It’s a quintessential British sight. But the reason for these evergreens guarding the dead is a mystery. When I decided to investigate I found some myths and mysteries.
“They provided wood for longbows”
Well yes, the famous longbows that won battles such as Agincourt are made from yew wood because of its strength and flexibility. But each tree can only provide the wood for five bows: it took whole forests to make enough bows for an army, and from medieval and Tudor times we even raided woods in the Baltic and eastern Europe to get enough of this valuable material.
“They keep animals away from the tombs”
Yew seeds, needles and bark are toxic to animals because they carry an alkaloid poison called taxine that could even kill an adult if they took a hefty dose dose of about 100 grams.
In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth the witches make a dangerous brew from’ slips of yew’. Actually, cuttings from a huge yew hedge that guards the Bathurst Estate in Cirencester are harvested for these taxanes, which help to make drugs that make cancer treatments more effective.
“They are a powerful symbol.”
In addition to being evergreen, yews can grow on infertile soil and have branches that can foster new trees if they reach the ground. This has led them to be associated with the idea of life after death for countless years. Yews were planted by pagan places of worship and used in ceremonies.
When Christians began to establish their own churches, they often used these same sites, complete with yew trees. The message of regeneration tallied with their own beliefs, such as Jesus coming back from the dead. So the presence of the yew trees comforted both pagans and Christians. Indeed, royal staffs and regalia were often fashioned from yew because they represented longevity and power from God.
“They’ve always been there”
Yews thrive in most well-drained soils, including the limestone that forms the Cotswolds, and cope with the cold winds that can make the area a tough place to survive in winter. In addition, churchyards usually have plenty of light and space and are sited well away from woodlands that would harbour rival growth. So once yews are established, they stay. In addition, their abundant branches can be cut into pleasing shapes to make the graveyard look appealing and welcoming.
The north door of St Edward’s Church in Stow-on-the-Wold is framed by two yews that have become part of the structure of the church. Fantasy author JRR Tolkein often visited the Cotswolds and this door is said to be the inspiration for the doors to the underworld in The Lord of the Rings.
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