Skip Navigation

Ancient yew trees: the UK's oldest yews

With lifespans of up to 3,000 years, the oldest living tree in the UK is easily a yew. Yews have witnessed some monumental moments in our history. A yew was said to have sheltered Robert the Bruce, it was under a yew that the Magna Carta was sealed and the same yew was also believed to be a meeting place for Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

Could a yew be immortal?

Yews are incredibly long lived; in fact they live for around 900 years before they become ancient. That’s compared to around 400 years for an oak tree. Ancient yews can then expect to go on thriving for thousands of years.

The association with immortality could have come about because of the evergreen foliage or because of the yew's amazing ability to renew itself. They can return to life from apparent decay.

The Llangernyw yew in Wales. (Photo: WTML)
The Llangernyw yew in Wales. (Photo: WTML)

Fortingall yew

This is considered to be the oldest yew in the UK. Estimates of age vary, but it’s believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.

It’s set within a churchyard in Perthshire. In 1854 it was reported that funeral processions would pass through the arch formed by the split trunk.

Today the tree is protected by a wall. The trunk is now split into several parts and it no longer looks like one tree but many.

The trunk of the Fortingall yew is now in several parts. (Photo: WTML / Ed Parker)
The trunk of the Fortingall yew is now in several parts. (Photo: WTML / Ed Parker)

St Cynog church yew

Another tree vying for the title of oldest yew is in a churchyard in Defynnog. It’s a similar age to the Fortingall yew, however some believe this tree could be 5,000 years old.

St Cynog's yew (Photo: Paul Wood)
St Cynog's yew (Photo: Paul Wood)

Crowhurst yew

Like so many of our ancient yews this one sits in a churchyard. This Surrey yew is famous for the door.

In the mid nineteenth century the centre of the tree was fitted with benches and a table. A door was added at the same time. A cannonball was found inside the tree which was believed to have been there since the civil war.

The original Irish yew

This tree isn’t as old as many of the common yews listed here, but it does have the title of the oldest Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘fastigiata’).

This original Irish yew dates back to the late 1700s when tenant George Willis found two unusual yews. These saplings grew more upright than the common yew.

George gifted one to his landlord, the Earl of Enniskillen, who planted it on the family estate at Florence Court. Here it flourished and cuttings were propagated. This variety is now widely planted.

Ankerwycke yew

Some estimates put this tree at 2,000 years old. If correct it means it was over 1,000 years old when the Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215.

The Ankerwycke yew (Photo: WTML/John Millar
The Ankerwycke yew (Photo: WTML/John Millar

Found an ancient yew tree?

Record with the Ancient Tree Inventory