The common or English yew tree (Taxus baccata) whilst native to Britain, is also found across much of Europe, western Asia and North Africa, but why does every Churchyard have a yew tree? The answer could be because of druid and pagan belief, cadavers, the longbow or perhaps protectionism.
The Druids used yew trees as places of gathering and often planted trees to form groves in which they could worship. Druids were forbidden from worshiping their gods inside an enclosed building, instead they worshiped in the open air, and most of their sacred sites were on elevated ground where the heavenly bodies that they worshiped could be seen most clearly.
Pagans are believed to actually worship the yew trees themselves; the yew tree is associated with longevity and fertility in paganism.
The Fortingall Yew is an ancient yew tree in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland. Many expert estimates put the age of the tree at between 2,000 and 3,000 years old which makes the Fortingall Yew one of the oldest trees in Britain and a direct link to pre-Christianity.
Jennifer Chandler suggests that yew trees were planted in graveyards because they thrived on corpses and Robert Turner, writing in 1644, suggested that yew trees absorbed the vapours produced by putrefaction.
In Medieval and early Tudor England, the Church dominated everybody’s life, people believed that God, Heaven and Hell all existed. From the very earliest ages, the people were taught that the only way they could get to Heaven was if the Roman Catholic Church let them.
The Church also did not have to pay taxes. This saved them a lot of money and made the Church far wealthier than any king of England at the time.
The Church had immense wealth and political power and beginning in the mid-11th century the Church also developed the capability to generate military power for its own (religious) purposes.
The longbow (so called because it is 6’ in length) was the premier weapon of the middle ages and made from yew. The volume of yew wood needed for war archery from the early 13th to the late 16th century was far too great to be supplied by from trees grown in churchyards. After all of the yew stands in Britain and Ireland had been depleted, the English crown began to import yew wood from all over Europe including Austria, Poland and Russia.
When Elizabeth I decreed on October 26, 1595, to replace the military longbows with firearms, she did so because there was no tradable yew wood left in the whole of Europe! Not because firearms were superior. On the contrary, even at the time of the battle of Waterloo, almost 200 years later, firearms still were no match for the firing speed and precision of the yew longbow.
The bark, the leaves and the seeds of yew trees are highly poisonous to cattle, horses, sheep and other domestic livestock as well as people, especially children; only the red fleshy seed covering is not poisonous, hence yew trees were planted in churchyards so that common folk did not graze their livestock on Church land.
Yew contains toxic alkaloids collectively referred to as taxines. Taxol is a cancer medication, derived from taxine, that interferes with the growth of cancer cells and slows their growth and spread in the body. Taxol is widely used to treat breast, lung and ovarian cancer.
Why does every churchyard have a Yew tree?
The answer has to be that the early Christians built their churches on the ancient Druid and Pagan sites of worship and the planting of yew trees in modern churchyards reflects the early assimilation of the old religions into the new religion.