The Extraordinary Legend of the Yew

There are 5,000 year old yew trees in the UK planted by druids, revered by generations of devotees that have seen kingdoms rise and fall

Britain has the largest collection of ancient yews on earth. There are 117 of them, aged between 2 and 5 thousand years and this number may expand further, as others are discovered. These trees do not have legal protection and Janis Fry is campaigning for this to change.

Yews, once described as one of the UK’s 3 indigenous conifers, are soon to be given their own category as they are not conifers and are different to other trees. Yews are described as immortal giants, capable of continuous regeneration. The very oldest are the clifftop yews which grow in places such as Llangollen, Offa’s Dyke. These date back to before the last ice age as their roots were dragged by the ice and deposited on limestone cliffs, from which they regenerated after the ice retreated. These trees are often quite small and have densely packed rings. However these indigenous yews are not the ones that deeply interest me. These are the sacred yews, Taxus Sanctus, planted in churchyards, often in remote places by saints, pilgrims and holy people. These trees were often brought from Egypt and the Holy Lands. There are at least 60 legends of saints carrying and planting dry staffs which grew into yew trees, sometimes with holy wells close by.

One of the most famous of these, was the staff of St Padarn. Padarn went to Jerusalem in the company of St. David and St. Teilo. They were given gifts by the Archbishop of Jerusalem. Padarn was bestowed with the greatest gift of all, a staff called Cyrwen, whose reputation as a peace maker was well known. Praise poetry was written to Cyrwen who was described as a miraculous power or force reaching 3 continents. It seems likely that Padarn planted this staff at Llanerfyl, over his daughter Erfyl’s grave, where it grew into one of the most extraordinary looking monoecious yews (trees carrying a branch of the opposite sex) I have seen, whose 4 stems snake their way around the church yard. Yews are generally male or female. The males carrying vast amounts of pollen and the females producing ‘berries’ or arils.

Saint’s staffs were considered holy objects of extreme importance. St Christopher is portrayed with a sprouting staff carrying the Christ child across the water and Jesus himself is said to have had one which eventually became St. Patrick’s staff, later destroyed by iconoclasts. Known as the Oath Super Baculum, at one time an oath sworn on one of these staffs was considered more binding than one sworn on a Bible and when the culprit who stole St. Serf’s sheep was caught and swore his innocence under such an oath, the sheep bleated in his stomach! Other staffs directed people to where a church should be built, such as that of St. Illtyd’s, given to St Baglan, who refused to accept the staff’s choice of the site and preferred to build on the plain, until after 3 times starting to build such a church, which fell down at night, he finally built it where the staff told him to. The yew itself is difficult to get to.

Llangernyw Yew: At about 5,000 years old, this tree in Conwy, North Wales, is one of the oldest in Britain. It started growing in the Bronze Age, probably before Stonehenge was built

Legends, ancient artifacts and carvings, suggests certain yews are descended from the Tree of Life. At the time of the pyramids, yew had disappeared from that country and although grave goods were made from it, people had forgotten which tree, the Tree of Life was and thus it was portrayed as a sycamore. In fact images of the yew as the Tree of Life appear in all cultures in the northern hemisphere where the yew grows, the oldest being that in a cave in Cadiz dating to 52,000 BC. The clues are there however with this sycamore being described as emerald green and eternal which it isn’t. The yew is the tree associated with life, death and eternity and with Trinity goddesses such as Hecate, Athena and Persephone. The yew was known as the Tree of the thrice blessed fruit, the acorn, the nut and the apple and the legend of the Holy Wood, revered by the Catholic Church, was commissioned at great expense, as a series of paintings by Piera Della Francesca, in its own tower in the cathedral of Arezzo, Italy.

A number of yews on ancient sacred sites pre date Christianity. As the Church gradually took hold in Britain, it took over the pre Christian burial mounds and religious sites, along with the yew trees that grew on them. Proof that some of the early church sites pre date Christianity is to be found in numerous examples of early Saxon, Roman and pre Roman remains and artifacts such as sarcophagi, altars, sarsen, Ogham and standing stones, barrows and human remains at places such as Llangernyw, Broadwell and Fortingall. Yews were sacred trees, long connected with the dead and with burial mounds. In Wales, a country whose territory at one time covered a far larger area than it does now. Celtic yew tribes such as the Cernwy named Lake Vernyw near Bala after the yew goddess Efernyw and the 5,000 year old yew at Llangernyw is likely to have been that tribe’s Axis Mundi, where people gathered for meetings, councils of war and the inauguration of kings. Another famous yew where the latter took place is the famous Ankerwycke yew at Runnymede which saw the inauguration of Saxon Kings and the Magna Carta agreement. Recently forgotten and recently returned to memory, the eternal Yew has always been of the utmost importance in our history, spirituality and psyche.

Janis Fry has been studying yews for over 40 years from historical, mythological and scientific angles and is considered a leading authority on these trees. A painter and a writer, Janis is author of ‘The God Tree’ and ‘Warriors at the Edge of Time’ and booklets on individual yew trees. She runs Ancient Yew Tours around Brecon and Usk and is preparing her next book called ‘The Cult of the Yew’.