Legend Says the Ankerwycke Yew Witnessed the Magna Carta’s Signing

The tree on the bank of the River Thames may be 2,000 years old

magna carta
A 19th century engraving of King John signing the Magna Carta Chris Hellier/Corbis

In a water meadow alongside the River Thames, 800 years ago, an English king was presented with the demands of 40 rebellious barons. In an effort to stave off war, King John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215. Though the document was nullified by Pope Innocent III just 10 weeks later, and war descended, the document still served as an inspiration for America’s founding fathers and as a step toward more modern governance.

On what spot was the Magna Carta was signed? Many have pointed toward a large, ancient yew tree on the grounds of a Benedictine convent near the meadow. They call it the Ankerwycke yew, and estimates put its age at 1,400 to 2,000 years old.

The meadow, Runnymede, drew its name from Anglo-Saxon "runieg" meaning regular meeting and "mede" for meadow. Anglo-Saxon kings apparently held council there. Though the Magna Carta only cites the location of its signing as "Ronimed. inter Windlesoram et Stanes" (between Windsor and Staines), historians agree the meadow was the general location.

In 1215, the tree itself would have been at least 600 or so years old. A historian writing in 1861 noted that Runnymede had a gigantic tree that "the English regarded with a superstitious veneration, the origin of which might have been traced back to the time when Druids performed their mysterious rites, and sacrificed and feasted under the shelter of its spreading branches, that the King and the barons met."

We will never know if the tree truly witnessed the act, but its mystic lingers. It’s also rumored that under the yew’s branches Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn in the 1530s. Today, "[i]t's a bloody magnificent thing — about 10 feet across the trunk, faintly warm to the touch and gnarly in the way that only something that began to grow when Jesus Christ was hitting puberty could be," Dan Jones, historian and author of The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, wrote in a post on his Facebook page. (The Guardian reports that the tree is 31 feet wide; Atlas Obscura cites 26 feet as the diameter; either way, it’s clear the yew is huge and impressive.)

The signing of the Magna Carta eight centuries ago has now earned the yew a chance to live "for eternity," according to the Daily Mail. Experts from Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens have taken cuttings from the great tree and planted them, along with other historic yews, as part of a conservation project. Even if the main tree somehow succumbs to age, saplings from the Ankerwycke yew will live in a hedge, and the tree will live on, genetically, for as long as conservationists can ensure. 

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