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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section VIII: Of Yew Trees, Yew Bows, &c, &c
Section VIII
Of Yew Trees, Yew Bows, &c, &c
Part 1 of 3

Make glad chere, said Little John,
And frese[1] our bowes of ewe,
And loke your hearts be seker and sad;[1a]
Your strynges trusty and trewe.
Good sooth ! it was a gallant sight
To see them all of a rowe;
With every man a keen broad sword,
And eke a stout ewe bowe.
Old Ballad.

Des Arc., qui en voudroit savoir, qu'il aylle en Angleterre, car c'est leur droiet mestier.-- Les Chasses de Gaston Phebus, Comte de Foix, 1470.

Those honours decreed the oak, the forest monarch, since Englishmen first made ocean's bosom the theatre of their greatest triumph, were once assigned to the yew. Among poets, it became synonymous with the weapon manufactured from it; and thus we read of the "twanging yew;" "the yew obedient to the the shooter's will." "Son of Luth," says Ossian, "bring the bows of our fathers; let our three warriors bend the ewe." Pope's translation of the Iliad ventures still further, and by the violent application of a well known rhetorical figure, writes "forceful yew," when speaking not of a wooden but a horn bow.

The growth of yew is now altogether neglected, except where it canopies the humble graves of some village church-yard, or, dark and sombre, creates an agreeable contrast among the gay tints of summer foliage in lawn and shrubbery. In many situations it is considered a nuisance, especially when growing in the hedgerows of pasture and meadow lands. Vegetation languishes and dies under the influence of its noxious shade; and, though poisonous to horses, these animals feed greedily on its berries and tender branches. Hence, where landlords make no opposition, the farmer generally extirpates the yew, once, like the falcon, so highly esteemed, that to cut down the one for any purpose except the legitimate uses of the bowyer, or to destroy the other's eyrie, even in a man's own grounds, was punished with fine and imprisonment. But in the progress of human taste and ingenuity, they have experienced a nearly similar fate. The falcon, from being guarded by laws which esteemed her destruction a far more heinous offence than manslaughter, from being the constant companion of kings and nobles, is now regarded as vermin, and nailed, like a felon, to the kennel-door. The yew, when preserved from rotting on the spot where it fell, rarely aspires to uses more honourable than the repair of a gate-post, or as a serviceable log to cheer the rustic group assembled around its owner's Christmas fire. Occasionally, however, trees having an unusually fine butt are hauled home, and converted into planks; but instead of cleaving these into bow-staves, as did his ancestors, the vandal fabricates them into some vulgar article of domestic furniture. Verbum satis sapienti: the materials for many a fine self bow may be rescued from destruction by keeping on fair terms with the village joiner, where yew grows abundantly; a hint not thrown away on those acquainted with the value and extreme rarity of good bow wood.

Although yew abounds not around London, and what little does exist is severely guarded against the bowyer's fell inroads, there are several parts of this kingdom absolutely overrun with it. Of these, certain districts in North and South Wales, with the lovely woodlands of Hereford and Monmouth, may be stated as the principal.

In summer time when straws be sheene,
    And leaves are large and longe,
And 'tis merry walking in fair forest
    To hear the fowlys song;
To see the deere drawe to the lea,
    And leaves their hillis tree;
And shadow them in the leaves green
    Beneath the broad oake tree,--

its appearance among the extensive copses of that portion of England produces a charming contrast when viewed in connection with the paler, more delicate, foliage of oak, alder, hazel, and mountain ash. In that dreary season, too, when storm and tempest--

Breathe a browner horror o'er the woods,

its dark green verdure, uniting with the varnished holly, the fir, and those few other evergreens indigenous to our soil, throws an air of cheerfulness over the scene, and the mind feels a consciousness that Nature, like Lazarus in the tomb, "is not dead, but sleepeth."

Notwithstanding the extensive demand for yew during the ages of military archery, there is no reason for believing it was propagated otherwise than by chance. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, England abounded with vast forests. To clear these, not to extend them, was the care of the ancient husbandman, who thought as little of planting any species of timber as modern backwoodsmen of Canada.

All persons familiar with rural sights and scenes, have noticed the frequent recurrence of yew trees in village churchyards, and are aware that the motives which induced our ancestors to foster them there has been variously stated. The archer, always an enthusiast, always anxious to magnify the importance of his favourite hobby, stoutly maintains, at all times and in all places, that the extensive application of yew to making bows, at the period when most of our county churches were erected, renders any further explanation unnecessary.

Thy wish is father, Harry, to the thought.

Unluckily, however, for the stability of this pleasant hypothesis, not a single argument can be adduced in its support; while half a score may be speedily collected to effect its demolition. First then, if the trees were originally planted for that purpose, our forefathers afterwards changed their minds, since they remain in statu quo, even unto the present hour. It may be answered that those we now see are possibly the fifth generation left standing when archery gradually gave place to fire-arms. The nature of the tree itself disproves this; for our sepulchral yews are, in a majority of instances, of equal and superior antiquity to the churches they shelter and adorn. Many were never planted by the hand of man; but having been found growing on the spot destined to receive the sacred edifice, they were suffered to remain for ornament, and the purposes hereafter stated.[2]

Secondly. In certain districts of England, from some cause or other, yew trees, in a state of nature, are almost unknown. Here, then, plantations would have been most appropriate, in order to supply the deficiency, had our ancestors designed them for the bowyer's use. Yet the churchyards, in such situations, are as destitute of yew as the open country; its place being supplied by lime, elm, chesnut, and occasionally by oak. The mere presence, then, of some sort of foliage, and not the cultivation of one species of timber, for any specific purpose, was the object of our fathers in thus planting their sepulchres. In certain parts of Monmouthshire, on the other hand, the Taxus baccata[3] is seen starting from every cranny, cleft, or "coin of vantage" of its mountainous and rocky surface; where, even at the present day, bowstaves might be procured within the circuit of a few miles, sufficient to equip a thousand archers. I say with all this profusion of wild yew, yet is there scarcely a village burying-ground unoccupied by some gigantic patriarch of the species. Is it not absurd to suppose men would plant, within these contracted bounds, a single tree of such slow growth that, in the space of a century, its height and substance are scarcely sufficient to furnish half a dozen bow staves, while numbers were courting the woodman's axe on every hill side?

Thirdly. The piety, or, as some men may choose to style it, the superstition, of our ancestors would have been decidedly opposed to the application of wood reared within consecrated ground to any such use.[4]

Fourthly. Instead of the fine clean growth, indispensable in trees intended for the bowyer, they in most cases present gnarled, knotty, crooked trunks, with branches springing close to their roots,--of all objections to me the most conclusive.

Fifthly. Every yew tree growing within the united church yards of England and Wales, admitting they could be renewed five times in the course of a century, would not have produced one fiftieth part of the bows required for the military supplies. The reader will more clearly perceive the force of this objection, by perusing the following extract from an original MS., once in the possession of Dr. Leith, entitled, "A complete List of the Royal Navy of England, in the year 1599." Be it also recollected that archery was then rapidly on the decline.

At the Tower of London.

Bowes, with ccciiijvi. decaied - 8185
Bowstaves - - - - 6091
Slurbowes - - - - 15
Crossbowes - - - - 180

On perusing this document, the archer will marvel likewise what became of these bows, since arms of every other kind have been scrupulously preserved there from a much earlier period. I regret being unable to throw any light upon this subject; but since it is certain no bows have been seen at the Tower within the memory of man, most probably they were used as firewood.

I have thus endeavoured to show what our ancestors did not intend, when they planted their village cemeteries with this species of evergreen. It is now incumbent on me to acquaint the reader with the real purposes for which they were designed. That the existence of a yew tree of extraordinary size and beauty within the district where a church was to be erected, often determined its exact position, is a very rational surmise. The prodigious antiquity of many now growing in Herefordshire, when compared with the date of the building, renders it quite apparent they must have attained considerable bulk before the foundation were laid. The utility of masses of dense foliage, in shielding the church from the rude blasts of the north wind, is alluded to in the second statute passed in the thirty-fifth of Edward I. The yew afforded this protection in winter, the time it was most needed, and when deciduous trees present no barrier against the fury of the tempest. Here we have one good and sufficient reason: another was, its continual verdure, which rendered it a fitting emblem of the immortality enjoyed by those whose bodies mouldered beneath its ample shadow. A tree of baneful influence, observes Sir Thomas Browne, yet its perpetual verdure was an emblem of the resurrection of that eternal vigour which the soul enjoys after death. It may be added that, previous to the Reformation, slips of yew were substituted by the Roman Catholic priesthood on Palm Sunday, for the exotic plant, from which the festival derives its name.

In many of the little green inclosures, forming the burial grounds of this sequestered corner of Britain, there are yews truly gigantic, whose enormous arms, thrust out on every side, cover not the gravestones only, but sometimes a portion of the church-roof besides.[5] What a venerable and magnificent tree stands in the centre of Llanelly village churchyard![6] Many a time and oft have I loitered there, admiring its prodigious trunk, around which the small green hillocks cluster, as if exulting in the protection of some guardian genius of the place; and in Aberdwy churchyard, Glamorganshire, are two uncommon yews, under the branches of which sixty rustic couples have danced at the annual feast.

From my earliest initiation into the mysteries of bolt and butt-shaft,--and it was somewhat betimes,--to me this tree has ever been an object of singular interest; but whether decorating the romantic slopes and woody dingles of Piercefield Park, overshadowing the rustic bench of some road-side inn, or waving from the rocky precipices of the stupendous Wyndecliffe, still the cui bono alone possesses the archer's imagination. Insensible then to all the charms of the picturesque, to him it appears interesting only when levelled by the woodman's axe, and after being, like Falstaff, " sawed into quantities" reposing upon the shelves of some bowyer's workshop.

The general inferiority of English yew has been rather too much insisted on, since, as I have just stated, there is much excellent wood growing in most parts of Hereford and Monmouth. I think it was before the porch of a little inn in the former county, bearing the singular appellation of the "Kite's Nest," that I once noticed several noble trees of this species. They are specially recommended to the attention of Mr. Waring.

Much fine bow-wood grows in the vicinity of Chepstow. Above 100 trees might be selected in that neighbourhood, from twelve to twenty inches in diameter, straight as the main mast of a Seventy-four, and rising to the height of seven feet without branch, knot, or wind-gall. Even the woods of Italy, Castile, Tyre, and Crete, the grand nursery whence our English bowyers drew their supplies, could hardly produce any thing superior.

The yew tree appears to be a native of almost every temperate climate of the old and new world. It abounds in Canada; is in many parts of Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Poland; Italy as well as Spain had anciently the reputation of abounding with extraordinary fine timber of this species; and the forests of Castile, in the latter country, once supplied England with highly prized bow-staves,--

All made of Spanish yew, their bows were wond'rous strong.[7]

But subsequent to the invasion of Edward the Black Prince, the Castilians decreed that, not only should all yew trees then existing be destroyed, but their increase be put a stop to for ever afterwards. And little wonder either; for if at any time the Spaniards tasted the sharpness of our arrows, it was then. France does not possess much; it is very rare in the Netherlands; but European Tartary grows, on the other hand, a prodigious quantity, enough to have supplied not England only but all Europe, ere musketry banished the bow.

Switzerland also has yew in abundance; its rocky mountainous surface being well adapted to its nature; and along the banks of the beautiful Orbe, flowing beneath the Jura, through a valley of the same name, we find enough of these trees. The inhabitants of the Pays de Vaud are also fond of archery, and Vevay, Geneva, and Lausanne, have their bow-meetings. Yet, with such an abundance of fine yew, they prefer the Cytise, or Laburnum, which also grows plentifully on their mountain slopes. Bows of the latter wood have certainly a very pretty appearance, the back being white, like those of its rival the yew, and the belly of a rich dark brown. They are durable, elastic, and take a very high polish.[8]

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