The yew tree (Taxus baccata) is often found in churchyards and is an important feature in many of Canterbury’s many heritage sites, including St. Martin’s churchyard. Some of these trees may be centuries old, having been grown from medieval times. This longevity is a major part of the tree’s appeal, as is the strength of its wood, becoming a symbol of tenacity and endurance, as Juliette de Bairacli Levy remarked in her Herbal Handbook for Farm & Stable (1952). These older trees are the common yew, and tend to have broad and sometimes rather dishevelled crowns. Ancient examples often have a massive hollowed-out trunk (making absolute dating impossible), so it is sometimes unclear whether the ‘tree’ comprises a single specimen or several. Another common form, the Irish yew is found in modern plantings. For example, in the churchyard of St Gregory the Great (built 1851), which is close to the former outer precincts of St Augustine’s Abbey. As a ‘variety’ of the common yew, it is grown for its statuesque, fluted shape.
A famous use of yew is for longbow and arrow shafts, noted for their importance for English victories at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). Yet this linkage between bow staves and churchyard yew trees may be somewhat misleading because, as Richard Williamson in The Great Yew Forest (1978) notes, the evidence is not straightforward. For example, it is Elizabeth I who encouraged the planting of yews in churchyards, whereas her late medieval predecessor Richard III called, in 1483, for a general planting of yews for the benefit of archers, as well as for the importing of foreign bow staves. The latter related to the belief that continental yews produced better quality wood than their English counterparts, which was reported as having too many ‘pins’ of small twigs embedded in the wood thereby potentially causing the bow to fracture. The best bows were made of Spanish yew, but perhaps because of the general depletion of continental stocks by the later 16th century, Elizabeth I decreed that staves should be imported from the Baltic Hanse towns amongst other places.
The yew was put to non-military uses too, including wood for the making of gates and fencing that was resistant to the weather. It was also considered to have medicinal and other valuable properties, such as the leaves used to form a strong brew that was then applied cold to soothe nervous twitching, while smoke from fires of dampened leaves kept away gnats and mosquitoes. Perhaps a more colourful use of yew was the belief that staves and shepherds’ crooks made of this wood, when waved in the air, would protect against beasts of prey, vampires and bolts of lightning. Yew branches were valued as substitutes for palm fronds that were carried by members of the congregation during the annual pre-Reformation Palm Sunday ritual, which involved processing around the churchyard and re-entering the church via the west door.
The yew is dioecious which means that there are separate male and female trees. The bright red berries are a major autumn feature, and each of these cup-form fruits (technically an ‘aril’) contains a single seed, the whole attracting birds who feast on them, although it is not thought germination is dependent upon passing through a bird’s gut (but a clean seed is more likely to germinate). All parts of the yew, except the red berry pulp, are deemed poisonous; hence, some believe, these trees were grown in churchyards to keep them away from livestock (but many rural churchyards use sheep as ‘lawn-mowers’). Yew poisoning of humans is known, but this should not detract from its attraction for naturalists, historians, and other churchyard visitors.
Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh is Principal Research Fellow in the Centre for Kent History and Heritage, Canterbury Christ Church University.
The University will also be hosting a two-day conference on Canterbury and other UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world on Friday 24 and Saturday 25 May at Old Sessions House, Longport.