IN a small churchyard in Crowhurst village, East Sussex, grows a yew tree that has been there since before the time of the arrival of William the Conqueror. The Crowhurst Yew stands in the south of the churchyard, just off a path leading to St George’s Church. It is reckoned to be over 1,300 years old, having been planted around 700 AD. Given that Crowhurst lies on the road from Battle to Hastings, it is not surprising to learn that it has connections to both William and the Anglo-Saxon King Harold.

King Harold actually owned the manor house and land in the area and this was destroyed by the Normans before the Battle of Hastings. His reeve, who in medieval times was the local magistrate, may have held court by the yew. He is said to have been hung from the yew, because he would not reveal where Harold’s treasure was kept. It is perhaps ironic that having dispensed justice and sentenced people to death at this ‘yew tree’ court, the same fate befell him. Some suggest also that the Normans, while plundering the village, took wood from the yew tree to make bows.

The yew is female and is recorded as a champion tree of Sussex. In 2006, it was measured at standing 12 metres tall, with a main trunk of 9.08 metres. Like many ancient yews, this tree has a complex distorted shape with its root system running away from it. Interestingly, John Aubrey, a 17th-century archaeologist, noted that the tree had a girth of 27 ft 6 in and that there was a wide opening in the trunk.

Subsequently, this opening increased in size and now quite distinctive-looking white-coloured dead wood surrounds it. However, the side of the tree that faces the church is quite large and, despite the gap, stands tall and proud. The Crowhurst Yew is the largest of three yew trees that grow in the churchyard. The other two trees are thought to have been planted by Sir John Pelham, the constable of nearby Pevensey Castle in the 15th century, which makes them around 600 years old.

The opening was caused by a large section of the trunk at the back of the tree leaning away. It has come close to resting on the metal railings which were put in place in 1907 by Col PR Papillon, whose family seat was Crowhurst Park, to help protect it. The rest of the trunk to the front, however, remained stable and upright.

Historical tree protection work saw iron bands placed around the trunk of the tree to help support it and ensure its longevity into the future. 

These were part of the work carried out by arborists of the past, along with upper branch cabling, and the use of chains and props to support branches. These were all put in place to help protect the yew and to ensure that it remained healthy. The tree itself has played a part by spreading its branches out over the surrounding fence, almost touching the ground to support itself. It is likely that these grounded limbs may themselves become trees in their own right, thus ensuring the survival of the ancient tree with new trees growing alongside it.

It was in the 1980s that the most of the important work was carried out to improve the health and life of the yew. There was an appeal launched to pay for the work that was recommended by a local forestry advisor. This appeal was successful and the work was carried out by a Sussex-based tree surgery company. Dead wood, particularly in the crown, was removed alongside the pruning of other branches and the removal of loose bark. 

In addition, feeding of the root system was carried out and, as ideas around how to protect trees changed, the iron bands were removed. Instead, three metal hawsers, which were bolted through the branches, were put in place. These were much less visible and thought to be more suitable. As a result the tree is in good health and looking like it will continue to prosper for centuries to come. Unlike many trees in this part of the southeast of England, it was not affected by the Great Storm of 1987.

The Crowhurst Yew is one of the oldest trees in Sussex and has, in the past, been shortlisted by the Woodland Trust in its annual ‘Tree of the Year’ contest. The residents of Crowhurst were proud of the fact that their oldest resident made this shortlist and although not the winner, it allowed more publicity for this famous historic tree. On 27th September 2016, as part of the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings commemorations, a plaque was placed on the railings surrounding the tree by the Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex. The writing on the plaque reads: “1066–2016. This ancient yew was here in 1066 when King Harold owned the Manor of Crowhurst. In this 950th anniversary year of the Battle of Hastings we remember his close links to this part of Sussex.” 

The Crowhurst Yew is sometimes confused with another yew tree, which grows in the Surrey village of Crowhurst, also in a churchyard, with a church, which is also called St George’s. While the trees are both of a similar size, they are very much different in appearance. For a start, the Surrey Crowhurst yew has a door covering one of the openings in the tree’s trunk. This Surrey yew tree is considerably older than its Sussex cousin – in fact, it is recorded as the oldest tree in that county. This tree is also linked with history, having had an English Civil War cannonball discovered in its side during the 19th century. 

Returning to the Sussex yew, it is recorded that, over the years, many notable people have received young yew trees, which have been grown from the seed of this famous tree. These have included King George V, Rudyard Kipling, and the Cambridge Botanical Gardens, thus ensuring that as well as the yew putting down more roots around itself at Crowhurst churchyard, its lineage is assured for future centuries to come.