Yew trees symbolize both death and immortality, being poisonous but long-lived, and able to re-root their branches to produce fresh saplings. Until the 18th century, their foliage was laid in coffins and graves at *funerals. The custom of planting yews in churchyards seems to have come with Christianity to Ireland and Wales, in imitation of Mediterranean cemeteries with cypress and laurel; it then spread to England, probably as early as the 12th century.
   Later generations, however, found churchyard yews puzzling. Two practical explanations are often put forward, namely to provide wood for longbows, and/or to ensure farmers did not let cows graze among the graves. Both lack documentary support, and the slow growth of yews makes the first implausible; naturally, the branches of an already mature tree could be cut for bows, but existing trees show no sign of having been lopped, nor do parish records note sales of yew staves (N&Q 5s:12 (1879), 112-13).
   The age of large yews is hard to assess, but 1,000 years is not impossible, suggesting that some were planted soon after their church was built. When a large one at Selborne (Hampshire) collapsed in a gale in January 1990, medieval graves were found beneath its roots, the oldest being from around ad 1200 (Harte, 1996: 6-7). However, some have claimed that large churchyard yews are from 2,000 to 5,000 years old and were sacred to *Druids or earlier peoples, implying that the church was built because the tree was there, not vice versa. This is improbable, both botan-ically and archaeologically, and lacks supporting evidence.
   Round the church at *Painswick (Gloucestershire ) are many clipped yews, traditionally said to number 99; it was alleged that every attempt to plant a hundredth would fail - and so it did! At length the mystery was solved, when a lady wrote to The Times (7 July 1963), explaining that her father, a scientist and practical joker who lived beside the churchyard, 'used to pour acid or poison on the roots of the hundredth yew tree whenever they planted a new one. It's highly likely that he started the legend himself.'
   ■ Vaughan Cornish, The Churchyard Yew and Immortality (1949); Jennifer Chandler, FLS News 15 (1992), 3-6; Jeremy Harte, At the Edge 4 (1996), 1-9.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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  • Yew — ([=u]), a. Of or pertaining to yew trees; made of the wood of a yew tree; as, a yew whipstock. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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  • yew — (n.) O.E. iw, eow yew, from P.Gmc. *iwa /*iwo (Cf. M.Du. iwe, Du. ijf, O.H.G. iwa, Ger. Eibe, O.N. yr), from PIE *ei wo (Cf. O.Ir. eo, Welsh ywen yew ), perhaps a suffixed form of *ei reddish, motley, yel …   Etymology dictionary

  • yew — yew; yew·berry; yew·en; …   English syllables

  • yew — [yo͞o] n. [ME ew < OE iw, eow, akin to Ger eibe (OHG iwa) < IE * (e)iwā < base * ei , reddish > L uva, grape: orig. name because of color of the wood] 1. a) any of a genus (Taxus) of evergreen shrubs and trees of the yew family,… …   English World dictionary

  • Yew — ([=u]), v. i. See {Yaw}. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • yew — yü n any of a genus (Taxus of the family Taxaceae, the yew family) of evergreen trees and shrubs with stiff linear leaves and seeds surrounded by a fleshy red aril esp one (T. brevifolia) of the Pacific coast of the U.S. and Canada whose bark… …   Medical dictionary

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