The Tree the Stone Masons Did Not Carve

Thursday, 21 July 2022

Ecclesiastical buildings represent most of the best of our operative brethren’s art through the centuries. To decorate these grand buildings the Stone Masons carved representations of people and plants that were significant at the time or local to the area. Whilst representations of our native flora and biblical plants abound in their work, there is one tree that is significantly absent

In 'The Ancient Yew – A History of Taxus baccata' Robert Bevan-Jones1 notes the following: ‘As the yew has certainly been present continuously in churchyards since long before the seventh century, it seems strange that no carving in wood or stone, or any decorative depiction of a yew, or of its foliage, exists in any church in the whole of Britain from much before 1870 AD.’

As our brethren through the ages have never carved a depiction of any part of a yew inside any Christian building in Britain, was then the yew totally banned from the church? Well not quite.

Vaughan Cornish2 describes the practice of substituting yew branches for palm on Palm Sunday and utilising yew to decorate the church. He quotes William Caxton in the fifteenth century 'For reasons that we have none Olyve that beareth green leaf therefore we take Ewe instead of Palm and Olyve and baren about in Procession.'

So once a year the yew was used to decorate the church and was carried into it in procession. But it did not stay there and was banished back out into the churchyard by the Resurrection. Two questions arise; if the yew is not welcome in the church why is it in the churchyard? Was the only reason the yew was taken into the church at Easter as a substitute for palm?

The yew has been an integral part of funeral services. In pre-Reformation times yew was placed in coffins, sown into shrouds or rubbed onto bodies. The role of the yew was to keep the dead dead and stopped them rising again. To understand this belief we need to go further back in time.

Pagan Saxon burial grounds were situated on the Hundred boundary. These sites were used post Christianity for executions and the burial of non Christians, criminals and deviants. The monk Ælfric, writing in the late 10th or early 11th century warned; ‘witches resort to crossroads, and to heathen burial sites with their evil rites, and call upon the devil, and he arrives in the form of the person who lies buried there as if he had risen from the death.’ Ælfric came to Cerne Abbey in 987.  

The site at Knowlton, near Wimborne, was a Saxon Hundred Court. Besides the church and the ring bank the other striking features of Knowlton are its’ ancient yews.

Hal Hartzell Jnr3 records: 'In the 2nd century BC, Greeks held the yew sacred to Hecate… who held dominion over the land of the dead.This was also the role of the yew in Celtic religion with Sacred Yews standing near gateways to the underworld. The function of the yew in pre-Christian religions was to keep the dead where they belonged; in the after world.

The Venerable Bede went to great lengths to build up the role of St Augustine in the conversion of the Anglo Saxons to the Christian Faith. However, it was Aiden, a Celtic Christian monk from the Monastery on Iona, who had the most influence over the Saxons. For this reason Celtic traditions and superstitions long remained a part of British Folklore.

Alan Meredith4 suggests that male [yew] trees were planted to the north of churches to ward off evil spirits. The purpose of the yews was to control the devils, witches and evil spirits that had since moved out of the old Hundred Courts and moved into the north side of the churchyard.

As Ælfric had once warned, the devil needed to raise a body to come to the call of his witches. In the Middle Ages the yew in the churchyard and the yew in the coffin made sure that bodies were not available for him to use.

My researches indicate that the yew had a very important part to play in the early conversion of British Celts to Christianity. The whole business of the yews’ role as a preventer of people returning from the afterworld and the Resurrection somehow defeating it, seem to be tied up in early Celtic Christianity and folklore and burial customs right up into the Middle Ages. It certainly seems significant to me that, whilst the Reformation stripped away most of the beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism, the large yew tree in the corner of the churchyard, so integral to funeral rites, was left well alone.

I have concluded that our ancient brethren did not carve the yew because of their belief that the Resurrection of Christ overcame it and it was only allowed in the church once a year to be overcome again.

Mark Hinsley Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies  

Bibliography

1.  'The Ancient Yew – A History of Taxus baccata', Robert Bevan-Jones, published by Windgatherer Press in 2004,

2. 'The Churchyard Yew and Immortality', Vaughan Cornish, D.Sc - published by Frederick Muller Ltd. in 1946

3. 'The Yew Tree, A Thousand Whispers', Hal Hartzell Jnr, published by Hulogosi in 1991

4. 'The Sacred Yew', Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton published by Penguin Books in 1994

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