2,500-Year-Old Tree Witnessed Magna Carta Signing

The Ankerwycke yew is estimated to be between 2,000-2,500 years old. (Photo: ImranC [CC by 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

As the world celebrates the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, a document that laid the foundation for modern liberties and law, it's worth remembering that one silent witness to that historical event remains alive and well.

According to some historians, King John signed the Magna Carta beneath the Ankerwycke yew, a 30-foot-wide behemoth, which in June 1215 was already a well-known ancient landmark. Estimates of its age today range from 2,000-2,500 years — making it one of oldest trees in the United Kingdom and the world.

The famous yew is located along the banks of the River Thames on grounds previously occupied by a 12th-century nunnery called St. Mary's Priory. Historians point to a 19th-century reference to the nunnery, now in ruins, that hints at its importance in the signing of the Magna Carta.

"Here the confederate Barons met King John, and having forced him to yield to the demands of his subjects they, under the pretext of securing the person of the King from the fury of the multitude, conveyed him to a small island belonging to the nuns of Ankerwyke [the island], where he signed the Magna Carta," wrote J.J. Sheahen in 1822.

History credits the yew as playing host to several other important meetings, from a place of council for Saxon kings to secret meetings between Henry VIII and a young Anne Boleyn. Earlier this year, saplings grown from the cuttings of famous yews from all over the U.K., including the Ankerwycke, were planted in a hedge in Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens.

‘We are losing ancient yews all the time, to climate change, development and vandalism," said Martin Gardner, who is leading the preservation initiative. "These are the most iconic trees in the world. We have to conserve every single one."