Death and Life in a Country Churchyard
By David Dennis
In England, there are at least two Crowhursts with a very old Yew Tree – one in Surrey and this one in East Sussex near Battle. Before we learn about the magnificent King Harold 1066 Yew Tree and the other beautiful Crowhurst trees, let’s find out about St. George’s Church, where this enormous yew is located.
As M. E. Newman says in her little guide ‘Some Notes on the Church and Manor of Crowhurst’ (1971):
‘The church was first mentioned in the year 771 in the charter of King Offa of Mercia. The village was then called Croghyrst.’ Offa gave some land to the Bishop of Selsey to build a Saxon church here and then Robert Count of Eu and the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Llanfranc rigorously enforced ownership after the bloody Conquest, in which the Crowhurst area was laid to waste by William the Bastard.
Yew trees can seed themselves naturally or be planted for a specific purpose. A human settlement can form around a naturally occurring yew tree or a yew tree can be deliberately planted to form a focus of community importance or worship.
Unfortunately, no-one seems to have been able to determine for sure, why or when the oldest Crowhurst Yew was planted and so we need to dig down through history – which is always fun.
There are several old and new yews here in the Parish Church of St George: without much ado you can view a few new yews it’s true (couldn’t resist that), and two older ones planted most probably on the orders of Sir John Pelham, who paid to have part of the pre-existing Saxon and 12th century enhanced to its present form church building, in 1412 or so. Then we come to the eldest yew here – and various sources give dates from to 1,250 years to 3,000 years.
Often yews were planted on sites of pagan worship and then Christian activity began to incorporate existing trees in a reverential way, rather than chopping them down This reverence was maybe, to entice pagans to believe in Jesus because it is said he died on a wooden cross. In fact the current priest incumbent Father told me that he thinks yews were planted by worshippers not for arcane druidic reasons but simply to provide greenery ready for Palm Sunday services.
This whole area has a truly wonderful history. Twelve thousand years before, Stone Age hunters sat on the shore of Combe Valley below where Crowhurst is now situated. Some had walked for more than 100 miles – from Dorset. Combe Valley was then, like Pevensey Levels, just the sea. You can imagine many hunters coming and sitting for an hour or so knapping flint to make knives, scrapers and arrowheads – these beautifully crafted items have been found here. Their descendants continued to hunt and occupy the area, developing into Iron Age cultures easily because of the massive amount of iron in the rocks stretching from Crowhurst to Beauport in Hastings.
Iron was mined in the south-east of England long before the Romans came, but when they did invade they had already had a belly-full of the Druids who worshipped and used the yew tree as a source of magic and poison. The Saxons certainly lived here, King Harold owned Crowhurst and is said to have had a manor here at Wilting at the top of the hill above Crowhurst village. A case has been made that William the Conqueror’s fleet sailed up Combe Valley to beach below Upper Wilting farm near modern Crowhurst recreation ground – but this has been discounted by some experts because of evidence of silting and longshore drift at the time of the invasion.
However, the theory that best fits the facts in my opinion, is that of Kathleen Tyson in her book ‘Carmen Widonis – The First History of the Norman Conquest’. This theory sites the landing and battle near a once sea-flooded estuary near Icklesham, not that far from modern Battle. My own discovery supports her ideas. The traditional historians mistranslated the early word ‘Apuldre’ to mean ‘hoar apple tree’ whereas in fact it means Apppledore, not far from where the Vikings sailed with 230 ships and attacked Castle Toll in the sea marshes. Updated versions of books describing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now use Appledore not hoar apple tree – so the message is getting there slowly. Anyone who looks at Kathleen Tyson’s maps of the coast in the year 1066 will soon see how things became confused later.
A lot more work needs to be done to prove to English Heritage that the current ‘Senlac’ is not where the battle took place after all! It really took place at ‘Sandlache’ (Sandy Loch) near Icklesham. This was – back then – a very large but quiet estuary big enough for 770 ships. It would have been madness to land soldiers (and horses) on beaches with crashing waves – as Julius Caesar soon found out.
Laying to waste was a bloody business in which humans and livestock were killed, forests burned and farms destroyed. It is possible that King Harold’s Danish right-handfasted wife Edith Swan-Neck lived at Upper Wilting – and that one scene in the Bayeux tapestry shows her being burned out of her home along with her boy child – never to be king.
Thankfully the old Yew was spared – after all, the Normans were Christians. For those who think the Yew is 1,250 years old then the planters must have been Saxons not Normans. Planting a yew is usually done when then slow-growing sapling is 8 or 9 years old, so the tree and the early church building might be a simultaneous enterprise.
For obvious reasons of hatred, the Domesday book never refers to Harold as King, but as Earl Harold – who owned Crowhurst. Once he was dead, the overall landowner of church lands here has been the King of England until 1412, though the Walter of the Fitz-Lambert family managed it first for the Count of Eu from the Domesday Survey until the 12th century. Then an ancestor of Walter Fitzherbert – Walter de Scotney (originally Escoteni), was given stewardship by Richard I after the Third Crusade, although Walter forfeited it in 1259, having been found guilty of a crime.
And it was a humdinger! – Walter de Scoteni (then called), was tried and hanged, at Winchester, for administering poison to Richard, Earl of Gloucester, and William de Clare, his brother, the latter of whom died on 23rd July 1258 at Retheford in Scotland and was buried at Durreford Abbey.
Sir John Pelham, coroner of Sussex, Treasurer of the Exchequer and Royal Swordbearer was then given Crowhurst to own in perpetuity by Henry IV in 1412; Pelham built the present parish church.
To find out if our Yew could be as old as 3,000 years we need first to see if there are any such yews that old – and we find that in Wales there is one that is claimed to be 5,000 years old. On 8th July 2014, the Daily Express revealed:
‘…they say the tree in St Cynog’s churchyard, at Defynnog near Sennybridge, Powys, is certainly Europe’s oldest living thing. The yew tree is more than 5,000 years old, from the era 3,000BC. It started growing nearly 500 years before the Pharaohs built the Great Pyramid of Giza. And it was a sapling at about the time work first began on building Stonehenge. The 60ft wide tree’s age has been revealed by experts who carried out ring dating and DNA analysis. It could be the oldest living tree in the world, a title currently held by a bristlecone pine in California known to be 5,063 years old.’
So what is the girth of the Welsh giant? The Express reveals that:
‘“It is so old that it has split into two halves, one 40 feet wide and the other 20 feet wide.
“It’s DNA has been tested by the Forestry Institute and its ring count is 120 per inch, which makes it over 5,000 years old.”
This means it outranks its nearest British rival, the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire Scotland, which is said to be up to 5,000 years old.’
However, this ‘dendrochronology’ of yews is slightly suspicious, as some experts say that big yew trees don’t make annual rings?
So the Welsh tree has an approximate diameter of 60 feet. How about the Crowhurst Yew? How big is it?
Well, in 1680 it was measured to be 27 feet in girth at 4 feet from the ground and 33 feet in girth at ground level and in 2012 it measured 30 feet and two inches around with the tape measure 18 inches above the ground.
Tony Hindson and Lesley Elphick who measured it in 2012 explain that has grown 2 feet and 10 inches (86 cm) in girth in the last 332 years so that is 2.59 mm a year, but it increased its growth rate to 3.44mm a year between 1879 and 1894 because it had been damaged – which spurred recovery. The Ancient Yew Group say that any Yew tree with a girth of 23 feet should be older than 800 years. So combining all the factors about growth rate and damage we come to the conclusion that the tree is at least 1,300 years old – not 3,000 years old.
In the much-praised book on the conflict between Harold of England and William of Normandy, Hope Muntz tells of a treasure buried nearby whose location was known by Harold’s reeve at his manor of Crowhurst. Because the reeve stayed loyal to his Saxon king, he was hanged from the Great Crowhurst Yew. The trouble is – the tree by then would only have had a girth of 10 feet so could not have been that imposing. But where is the treasure of Crowhurst now?
In 1669 Evelyn Silva alleged that the Yew had a diameter of 10 feet and as most schoolchildren know, we can calculate its girth then using the formula: C=piD = 31.42 feet. In 1842 it was reported to be ‘flourishing’ at the topmost branches. Then in 1870 it was claimed to be 33 feet around – but gradually through storms it began to split and the top of the tree is past its best – like we would be if we were over a 1,000 years old. Twenty years ago it had a health & safety check and a fence was put around it to stop people from climbing up its temptingly convoluted and amazing branches.
Please note that all the photographs of the yew tree above are of one tree only – the King Harold – all parts connected to the roots in one massive structure – an awesome survivor.
There are more large yews and some huge oak trees in the churchyard too – it is a quiet place full of butterflies and moths, with wild flowers and well as commemorative bunches. Here for example is a magnificent holly.
And here’s a great oak…
Crowhurst also has a direct descendant tree of Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Thorn at Glastonbury – but that’s another story!
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St George’s Church, Crowhurst, East Sussex, England