Ancient Rome and Greece are in full swing; the Mesapotamian Empire is drawing to a close. Man puts stylus to tablet for the first time on the American continent, producing the first Zapotec writing; the Hutu tribe emerges in Africa. In India the first republic is founded in Vaishali, Bishar; the symbol of Rome, the She-Wolf, is created.
And somewhere in the heart of a small wet island off the coast of Europe, long before the Romans arrive, someone plants the seed of a yew tree.
I say plants: how do you know, you ask me, that some bird did not drop a yew seed and by pure chance, the tree began to grow?
This tree seems far from the madding crowd, down a series of winding paths a stone’s throw from Magna Carta Lane, Wraysbury, close to the banks of the Thames. Yet a building stands very near it, though it is tumbledown and almost not there at all, surrendered to the crown in 1536 by a wise prioress at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.
This is Ankerwycke Priory. Just for the record, there is evidence the last prioress went off and got married afterwards.But that’s another story.
According to sources high up in the Ancient Yew Group (check out the site here. Compulsive reading for anyone who loves ancient yews) yews were used in the eighth and ninth centuries for the inauguration of chieftains. And there’s plenty of chieftains near Windsor. This is the tree in whose shadow the Magna Carta was signed by King John in the presence of barons and bishops; this is the tree at which Henry VIII is said to have met – and indeed chased – Anne Boleyn.
They say that the proximity of the priory to the yew and Windsor, and ancient centre of royalty, indicates this has been a sacred site for a very long time. Longer by far, in probability, than the priory. It was an old site. A sacred site which existed for the old people, long before mine – the Normans – ever arrived in England.
Old yews are notoriously difficult to date. They get fat, just as many of us do, but unlike us, trees of any kind go hollow from the inside. Oaks, beeches, they’re all the same. But yews have a passport to immortality: they sucker, sending out branches which embed themselves in the nearby earth and become new, vital trunks. Same DNA, new body. If trees had a consciousness the yew would be the closest to immortal we’ve got.
If you are ever near the banks of the Thames, in Runnymede, take the drive skirting the M25 to Wraysbury, and the little road which runs to a set of ramshackle farm buildings, and the path which treks out across the fields to the Ankerwycke yew and its priory.
And touch a yew reported to be 2500 years old: a yew whose very sinews track the progress of kings.