The Yew Tree
Extract from Eggbuckland Parish Magazine, April 2015
I recently came across a June 1914 copy of “The Sign”, a publication printed monthly in London and Oxford. It was inserted by many parishes in their church magazines. This particular issue contains an article entitled “Some Ruminations of an Ancient Yew.”
I have written in the past about yew trees in churchyards, with specific reference to the wonderfully impressive specimen in ours which is a frequent subject of interest, especially to those seeing it for the first time.
It is because it is such a conversation piece that I make no apologies for writing once more on the subject.
Extracts from the Ruminations:…………………
”I have lived more than 400 years (this in 1914) and indeed it is a long life according to the short time of man. I was told by an old friend of mine (a yew), by whose side I grew for many years until his death, that I had been planted here in consequence of a law made in 1472 by King Edward IV whose attention had been drawn to the scarcity of bow-staves in the realm and of the excessive price of those that were to be obtained, “whereby the exercise of archery was greatly discontinued and almost lost.” King Edward and his advisers were provident men and were troubled that there should be so great a scarcity, the more so because they knew that it would be many years before we newly-planted ones grew to be a useful size for bows.
When King Edward and his Parliament made the law and ordered us to be planted, there was much discussion as to where we should be cultivated and it was finally decided that the churchyards would be the best and safest place. Had we been planted on commons we should have been a constant danger to cattle and we should have had small chance of ever growing to a useful size, for there were just as many mischievous boys in those days as in these……..”
It is very likely that the yew tree in our churchyard, which is immediately adjacent to the original church porch, is the same age as the building – nearly 600 years old. In addition to the use of yew for longbows, there were a number of other reasons for their presence in churchyards. The thick growth was seen as a means of protecting the building in stormy weather and the grounds from farm animals. Farmers would ensure their livestock stayed out for fear of poisoning.
There was also the symbolism of the yew – the longevity of which being a sign of immortality. Being an evergreen, the branches were used to decorate the church, especially at major festival times and they were an alternative to palms on Palm Sunday. Even now, our own yew is used in floral decorations, especially at Christmas when, for the past two years, boughs have been placed in the porch and decorated by children from the church school.
But probably its most useful purpose these days is for providing shelter from inclement weather. It acts as a most efficient large umbrella, appreciated by anyone who has cause to wait outside the church before and after services – and this certainly includes the Clergy.
Other evergreens of some longstanding, especially on the north side of the churchyard, are laurel and holly whose foliage is also much valued by flower arrangers, as is ivy. The laurel, with its connotations of winning and success, is a reminder of Christ’s victory over sin and death. The holly, of course, has come to be associated with Christmas and is synonymous with Christ’s crown of thorns and the blood he shed. Unfortunately, the berries on our holly trees seldom survive the attention of the birds to give much of a show in the run up to Christmas.