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We read in the Antiquities of Greece and Rome that the branches of the cypress and yew were the usual signals to denote a house in mourning. Now, sir, as Death was a deity among the antients (the daughter of Sleep and Night), and was by them represented in the same manner, with the addition only of a long robe embroidered with stars, I think we may fairly conclude that the custom of planting the yew in churchyards took its rise from Pagan superstition, and that it is as old as the conquest of Britain by Julius Caesar.
The funerall pyre consisted of sweet fuell, cypresse, firre, larix, yewe, and trees perpetuall verdant.
Whether the planting of yewe in churchyards holds its original from ancient funerall rites, or as an embleme of resurrection from its perpetual verdure, may also admit conjecture.
Our forebears were particularly careful in preserving this funeral tree whose branches it was usual for mourners to carry in solemn procession to the grave, and afterwards deposit therein under the bodies of their dear friends
Trees in a churchyard were often planted to skreen the church from the wind; that, low as churches were built at this time, the thick foliage of the yew answered this purpose better than any other tree. I have been informed, accordingly, that the yew-trees in the churchyard of Gyffin, near Conway, having been lately felled, the roof of the church hath suffered excessively
If even intended to act as a shelter from windstorms, a number would have been planted either on the side of prevailing winds, or a belt of them would have surrounded the edifice.
The remarkable fact that the English yew did not yield the best bows, may be noted here. Stringent regulations were laid down in several statutes, to require merchants to import bow staves from foreign parts simultaneously with other merchandise. In the time of Elizabeth, the price of “each bow of the best foreign yew” was 6s. 8d., while that of an English one was 2s. Spanish bows were then considered by far the best, but history shows that they were required to be used by English archers to make them fully effective as weapons of war.
Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.And indeed there are many attested examples in Northern Europe where churches have been built on former pagan sites. However all the same, many scholars have taken exception with this explanation - partly because they claim there is a lack of botanical and archaeological evidence to back it up, but mostly because we know very little of the beliefs of the pre-Christian Britons. And hence the idea they venerated the yew tree is pure supposition. According to the Oxford Book of English Folklore (2000) by J Simpson and S Roud a more likely scenario is that -
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 laurelHowever once again, as soon as one finds a promising theory, it is not long before problems with it surface. In this case we ironically have the same lack of direct evidence that undermines the paganism theory. But a more obvious problem is that it mistakenly supposes that the planting of cypresses in European burying grounds is an exclusively Christian custom. For long before the rise the Christianity the cypress and the yew was associated with death and funerals: in the Classical world its branches were woven in wreathes to venerate Pluto the god of the Underworld, while in ancient Greece it was associated with Hecate, another Underworld deity. Now interestingly, long before Pope Gregory, the Roman empire had pioneered the practise of site conversion; for it was standard Roman practise to erect new temples at the native places of worship, usually finding an equivalent in the Classical pantheon to the local deity they were supplanting. So then given that Classical culture was spread far into the north of Europe thanks to the Romans, it would seem a more likely bet that the tradition came with them several centuries before the missionaries set out.