Yew trees are important to many UK Pagans, symbolizing the process of death and life beyond. The yew tree sends branches down into the ground, which then turn back into shoots, regenerating the tree. Unlike other trees, yews are also highly resistant to disease when they split. Perhaps because of these powers of regeneration, the yew has been planted in many churchyards throughout the UK with some of these trees are very ancient.The 6th century church of St Brynach in Nevern, in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, there is the famous ‘bleeding’ yews; the trees exude a red sap which resembles blood. They were held to symbolize the blood of Christ, and at least one of them is said to be 700 years old. There is also a local more political legend that says that the tree will not stop bleeding until a Welsh Prince once more takes the throne at Nevern.
Despite any Christian associations, these trees are also important to Pagans. Some say that they appear in churchyards as a relic of earlier Pagan worship and given the sheer age of some of these trees, this is a possibility, and this is not only true in the UK. It has been a Spanish custom to take yew branches to the graves of the recent dead on All Saints Day.
Very old yew groves appear across the nature reserve of Kingley Vale in Sussex, which also features Bronze Age barrows, earthworks, and is the site of a Romano-British temple at Bow Hill. Yew trees are mentioned in Roman annals: some Celtic leaders apparently chose to ingest yew berries as a method of suicide, rather than submitting to their Roman conquerors. And, although Yggdrasil, the sacred World Tree of the Norse traditions, is usually considered to be an ash, there is a school of thought which theorises that it has been wrongly translated and was actually a yew.
Whilst some of the Kingley Vale trees are estimated to be around 2000 years old, which is remarkable in itself, it is also notable that many English yews were felled in the 1400s to make longbows. The English government imposed a “yew tax” of four “bowestaffs” for every cask of wine that was unloaded at an English harbor, and this caused yew forests across Europe to be felled. It was also a popular wood for the making of lutes in the Middle Ages. Evidently, however, many of the yew trees of Kingley Vale, and some others across the British Isles, were spared.
The Woodland Trust says, “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.”
Despite the age and history of these extraordinary trees, they are not protected under law. The new petition, initiated by the Friends of the Yew and featured among other places on the Facebook page of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, seeks to redress this legal omission. The organisers of the petition, which is addressed to Michael Gove, the Minister of the Environment, say:
…we believe there are approximately 35 yews in Wales between the ages of 2 and 5,000 years and 82 in the rest of Britain, making a total of 117 yew trees. 3 of the 4 ancient yews over 5,000 years old, are in Wales…The vast majority of these trees are in churchyards. With the demise of the Church in our times and the closure of many redundant churches, these buildings and some lands, with or surrounded by yews, are being sold off. The need to protect these ancient yew trees, is becoming more urgent with the change in ownership and stewarding. Although in the past, the Church has been responsible for having some yews cut down, on the whole, the yews have been afforded a good degree of protection until now.
This is not the same story in parts of Europe, where the destruction of a yew tree that is only a few hundred years old can incur a fine of 5000 euros. The Asturian Government declared one old Spanish yew tree to be a natural monument in 1995. The current UK petition is limiting its scope to yews that are over 2000 years old.
“All that is available at present to protect them are Tree Protection Orders that carry fines which are not large enough to put off developers and which take a community some effort to obtain, even if they have the time, energy and inclination to do so,” explains the organisers.
They also point out that the lack of protection is a comparatively recent development: yews were sacred in Wales and protected under early Welsh law. That protection went back to the legal system devised by Pope Gregory in around 600 AD, and continues onto the laws of Hywel Dda in the 10th century and the Synod of Exeter in 1287.
There is a long history of yews undergoing legal protection. Saints’ yews, known as Taxus Sanctus, were also protected: Edward 1st gave them protection in law under a Royal Seal in 1307 and this was reviewed and continued by Parliament in 1781. The petition organisers point out, “The law is still active and has never been revoked but there also has never been a test case since those times and so the old laws need to be restated and brought up to date.”
They list a number of yews known to be ancient, throughout the UK, and a list can be found this site.
At the original time of writing, the petition had gathered over 700 signatures needed to take it to the next stage, but when this journalist checked on the update a few days later over 4,600 signatures had been gained and the current target is standing at 5000 signatures. As for publication, the signatures have surpassed 5,000 and are climbing quickly to the new goal of 7500.