Circa 1000-year-old Yew Tree [10th century] in St Margaret’s 800-year-old [13th century] cemetery
‘Sammy the Snake’ in the Yew Tree


Humans have a deep emotional need for symbolism and ritual, the awe inspired by trees has had fertile roots in the past and continues to bear fruit and new shoots in our modern world.

As the nights get longer it’s a time for tall tales and inner searching. Is it any wonder that trees have stood for so much and been venerated since the dawn of humanity? Looking up into the lush green canopy and gnarled boughs of an ancient tree feels wonderful. Providing people with shelter, materials, medicine, heat and light, these beautiful living, breathing giants have inspired many stories and lore.

Groves of oak and yew trees were worshipped by the ancients. When the young religion of Christianity wanted to make its mark it used many of these sacred groves as the location for its holy churches.

Humans have a deep emotional need for symbolism and ritual, the awe inspired by trees has had fertile roots in the past and continues to bear fruit and new shoots in our modern world.

Julian P Guffogg / Ancient Yew tree, Much Marcle Church / CC BY-SA 2.0


The old pagan religions associated yew trees with death and rebirth, their branches and foliage were cut for ceremonial occasions. Groves of yews were sacred places and more were planted to create new hallowed land. The link with death probably started because it’s an evergreen and though the yew’s needle like leaves and round red berries are poisonous to people, it can live for thousands of years. It can even regenerate. When a low branch touches the ground, it can sprout roots and grow into a new tree. Trees and the yew in particular symbolised nature’s power of renewal, the cycle of seasons, birth and death and new birth. As time passed the yew remained a symbol of eternity in Christianity. The words and focus changed from ‘rebirth’ to ‘resurrection’.

As yew trees grow old, their central core rots away, making them difficult to age, but a yew tree with a girth of 6m is likely to be at least 1,000 years old. There are some yew trees still alive and well that would have been seedlings in pre-Christian times. It is astonishing to think what these ancients have lived through.

‘It is a common saying amongst the inhabitants of the New-forest, that a post of yew will outlast a post of iron.’ (From ‘Remarks on Forest Scenery and other Woodland Views’, Volume 1, 1834, Rev. William Gilpin).

These trees have been protected in churchyards because of their sacredness. Aggressive commercial logging to supply wood for things such as heating and building ships caused dramatic deforestation and the loss of most of our ancient woodland. British Yew trees were mostly gone by the 15th century to supply the long bows of armies. But even somewhere as urban and covered in concrete like London can boast an ancient yew protected by a church. The Totteridge yew in the churchyard of St Andrew is thought to be 2000 years old and is probably London’s oldest tree.


Historic suicides

In the ancient Celtic world, the yew tree (*eburos) had extraordinary importance; a passage by Caesar narrates that Cativolcus, chief of the Eburones, poisoned himself with yew rather than submit to Rome (Gallic Wars 6: 31). Similarly, Florus notes that when the Cantabrians were under siege by the legate Gaius Furnius in 22 BC, most of them took their lives either by sword, fire, or a poison extracted ex arboribus taxeis, that is, from the yew tree (2: 33, 50–51). In a similar way, Orosius notes that when the Astures were besieged at Mons Medullius, they preferred to die by their own swords or by yew poison rather than surrender (6, 21, 1).


Door of a Norman chapel set in a yew tree, Chapelle Saint-Anne, Church of Notre-Dame, La Haye-de-Routot, France.

The yew is traditionally and regularly found in churchyards in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Northern France (particularly Normandy). Some examples can be found in La Haye-de-Routot or La Lande-Patry. It is said up to 40 people could stand inside one of the La-Haye-de-Routot yew trees, and the Le Ménil-Ciboult yew is probably the largest, with a girth of 13 m.[52] Yews may grow to become exceptionally large (over 5 m diameter) and may live to be over 2,000 years old. Sometimes monks planted yews in the middle of their cloister, as at Muckross Abbey (Ireland) or abbaye de Jumièges (Normandy). Some ancient yew trees are located at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Overton-on-Dee in Wales.[citation needed]

In the Septuagint rendering of the Book of Nahum, 1:10, Nineveh and other deemed enemies of the biblical God are foretold to “be laid bare even to its foundation, and…devoured as a twisted yew.”[53][54]

In Asturian tradition and culture, the yew tree was considered to be linked with the land, people, ancestors, and ancient religion. It was tradition on All Saints’ Day to bring a branch of a yew tree to the tombs of those who had died recently so they would be guided in their return to the Land of Shadows. The yew tree has been found near chapels, churches, and cemeteries since ancient times as a symbol of the transcendence of death. They are often found in the main squares of villages where people celebrated the open councils that served as a way of general assembly to rule village affairs.[55]

It has been suggested that the sacred tree at the Temple at Uppsala was an ancient yew tree.[56][57] The Christian church commonly found it expedient to take over existing pre-Christian sacred sites for churches. It has also been suggested that yews were planted at religious sites as their long life was suggestive of eternity, or because, being toxic when ingested, they were seen as trees of death.[58] Another suggested explanation is that yews were planted to discourage farmers and drovers from letting animals wander onto the burial grounds, the poisonous foliage being the disincentive. A further possible reason is that fronds and branches of yew were often used as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday.[59][60][61]

King Edward I of England ordered yew trees planted in churchyards to protect the buildings. Some yews existed before their churches, as preachers held services beneath them when churches were unavailable. Due to the ability of their branches to root and sprout anew after touching the ground, yews became symbols of death, rebirth, and therefore immortality.[61]

In interpretations of Norse cosmology, the tree Yggdrasil has traditionally been interpreted as a giant ash tree. Some scholars now believe errors were made in past interpretations of the ancient writings, and that the tree is most likely a European yew (Taxus baccata).[62]

In the Crann Ogham—the variation on the ancient Irish Ogham alphabet which consists of a list of trees—yew is the last in the main list of 20 trees, primarily symbolizing death. There are stories of people who have committed suicide by ingesting the foliage. As the ancient Celts also believed in the transmigration of the soul, there is in some cases a secondary meaning of the eternal soul that survives death to be reborn in a new form.[63]



With lifespans of up to 3,000 years, the oldest living tree in the UK is easily a yew. Yews have witnessed some monumental moments in our history. A yew was said to have sheltered Robert the Bruce, it was under a yew that the Magna Carta was sealed and the same yew was also believed to be a meeting place for Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

Could a yew be immortal?

Yews are incredibly long lived – in fact they live for around 900 years before they become ancient. That’s compared to around 400 years for an oak tree. Ancient yews can then expect to go on thriving for thousands of years.

The association with immortality could have come about because of the evergreen foliage or because of the yew’s amazing ability to renew itself. They can return to life from apparent decay.

Fortingall yew

This is considered to be the oldest yew in the UK. Estimates of age vary, but it’s believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.

It’s set within a churchyard in Perthshire. In 1854 it was reported that funeral processions would pass through the arch formed by the split trunk.

Today the tree is protected by a wall. The trunk is now split into several parts and it no longer looks like one tree but many.

St Cynog church yew

Another tree vying for the title of oldest yew is in a churchyard in Defynnog. It’s a similar age to the Fortingall yew, but some believe this tree could be 5,000 years old.

Ankerwycke yew

Some estimates put this tree at 2,000 years old. If correct it means it was over 1,000 years old when the Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215.

Crowhurst yew

Like so many of our ancient yews this one sits in a churchyard. This Surrey yew is famous for the door.

In the mid nineteenth century the centre of the tree was fitted with benches and a table. A door was added at the same time. A cannonball was found inside the tree which was believed to have been there since the civil war.

The original Irish yew

This tree isn’t as old as many of the common yews listed here, but it does have the title of the oldest Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘fastigiata’).

This original Irish yew dates back to the late 1700s when tenant George Willis found two unusual yews. These saplings grew more upright than the common yew.

George gifted one to his landlord, the Earl of Enniskillen, who planted it on the family estate at Florence Court. Here it flourished and cuttings were propagated. This variety is now widely planted.

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