A Royal Connection

It is common knowledge that archers, archery, and the yew tree are inseparable, as the mythical figure of Robin Hood, for example, shows us all too well. What is much less well known is that for over 6,000 years, yew trees have provided longbows in Scotland (for more information see https://scotlands-yew-trees.org/hist…/the-tree-of-the-bow/ ). Indeed, the oldest example of a yew longbow so far found in Britain was discovered in a peat bog in south- west Scotland near Moffat.
Not only have yew trees been used in such a utilitarian way, primarily as a highly effective hunting tool rather than a weapon used in warfare, humankind has also used the yew for deeply meaningful spiritual purposes, for example protecting the spirits of the deceased. In practice this has ranged from placing branches of yew in coffins and graves, to planting yews in churchyards and burial sites. Indeed, sometimes building churches where yews already stood on sacred ground.
Glamis Castle, Angus

Yews have also been used since at least the second millennium BC (in the Hittite culture of Anatolia now in modern Turkey) to protect and defend homes from ‘evil’ and misfortune – homes, which in Scotland’s case regarding yew sites, range from the grandest of castles such as Glamis in Angus to numerous ‘Yew Tree’ cottages, for example at Loch Lomond near Rosdhu.

Glamis castle in Angus was the childhood home of the late Queen Elizabeth II. Not only did she grow up playing under the magnificent yews which stand near to the castle, both she and her sister Princess Margaret planted yews at Glamis when they were young girls, yews which have survived and can be seen today.   A long ceremonial avenue of yew hedging at Glamis leads from the castle to the Bowes-Lyon family memorial to Princess Margaret.  The Lyon element of the family name connects to Glen Lyon, in which stands the world famous Fortingall Yew – at the geographical heart of Scotland itself. Perhaps then it is no surprise that the yew subtly featured in the recent State funeral rites for the late Queen Elizabeth II, as it did for the Queen Mother.
Yew hedging at Glamis Castle
Royal Company of Archers

In 1822 a tradition was inaugurated for the royal visit of George IV to Scotland, probably the brainchild of Sir Walter Scott who organised what was the first UK sovereign’s visit to Scotland since Charles II’s Scottish coronation in 1651, the last coronation carried out at Scone. The new tradition involved the Royal Company of Archers, who had received a Royal Charter in 1704, and in 1822 became the UK sovereign’s bodyguard whenever the sovereign visited Scotland. Ever since, the Royal Company of Archers performs duties at the request of the sovereign at any State and ceremonial occasion taking place in Scotland.

Exactly two hundred years after the birth of the tradition, the Royal Company of Archers were the guardians of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin when processing from Holyrood to St. Giles Cathedral along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. They were also part of the vigil ceremony in the cathedral (see Youtube link).
The Royal Company of Archers provided a guard on vigil during Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s lying-in-state in 2022.
Each member of the Company on duty during the pageantry was equipped with a stave of yew because yew makes the best and most powerful longbows. The immense energy of the yew released when shooting an arrow empowers the archer bodyguard to be able to maximise the lethal distance of protection within a defence perimeter. A yew stave is only bent for stringing and turned into a bow by the archer immediately before use and unstrung just as quickly when the longbow has performed its service. Once a stave has become ‘bent to the bow’ and is no longer straight it is of no further use and often would be ritually burnt by an archer in the Middle Ages. The staves of yew carried by the Royal bodyguard therefore played a significant symbolic role in the details of the pageantry surrounding this most recent State funeral. Particularly so in a guardianship capacity involving the protection of the physical body of the Queen and metaphysically her spiritual presence: invoked within the rituals carried out before and when final physical burial takes place.
Royal Company of Archers acting as bodyguard to the UK sovereign on visits to Scotland

Although the role of archers equipped with yew longbows as royal bodyguards is a tradition two hundred years old in Scotland, perhaps when it was introduced in 1822 it was carrying on an ages-old multi-cultural custom of archer bodyguards protecting royalty. This can be seen in the origins of the famous Yeomen of the Guard (as seen at the Tower of London), who developed from the bodyguards of Anglo – Norman kings. The Norman kings were of Viking descent, and it was the Vikings who discovered that the marriage of yew heartwood and sapwood in a longbow created a hunting tool on land and a weapon used at sea of unmatched power and effectiveness.

In the Wiki entry for ‘Yeoman’ it states:
“The 14th century…witnessed the rise of the yeoman longbow archer during the Hundred Years’ War, and the yeoman outlaws celebrated in the Robin Hood ballads. Yeomen also joined the English Navy during the Hundred Years’ War as seamen and archers…the Anglo-Norman Kings had three groups specifically ordered to protect them: (1) the royal household sergeants-at-arms; (2) the king’s foot archers (also known as the Yeomen of the Crown); and (3) the esquires of the royal household. The actual number of archers varied over the course of the 14th-15th centuries. In 1318, a Household Ordinance (the King’s Proclamation containing the yearly budget for his royal household) specified that the number of archers should be 24. Edward III had between 16 and 22 yeomen, Richard II recruited an additional 300 archers from Cheshire, Edward IV had 24 yeomen, and Richard III had 138 yeomen…
[Author Anne] Hewerdine proposes that Henry VII may have copied the Scots bodyguard of the French king. In 1445, Charles VII had established two companies of Scots: one contained 100 men-at-arms; the second contains 104 archers designated as personal bodyguards. These Scottish archers were being recognized for their service and loyalty to the French crown.   (Emphasis added)
The earliest documents mentioning individual Yeomen of the Guard date from September 1485 through January 1846.
At Henry VII’s funeral in May 1509, twelve chosen Yeomen of the Guard, garbed in black livery, carried the royal coffin from the west door of Old St Paul’s Cathedral to the high altar for the lying in state. The following day the Yeomen carried their former leader to Westminster Abbey.
One month later, three hundred Yeomen of the Guard participated in the procession on the eve of Henry VIII’s coronation. They wore Henry VII’s livery of green and white. Most Yeomen carried bows and arrows, whilst the others carried halberds or other weapons.”
This evidence makes it clear that for almost over 1,000 years, the wood of yew trees carried as staves in the hands of archers, has specifically contributed to the protection of Royal bloodlines both literally in the physical sense of the mortal monarch, but also metaphysically in the spiritual rituals surrounding Royal and State funerals.
We can see this proof for the last 200 years in Scotland and enacted once again – following its last use in 2002 – in September 2022. By witnessing this subtle and intriguing dual role of guardianship provided by the yew in these demonstrations of such traditional Royal pomp and pageantry, it is also a sad and poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by the yew tree to provide this Royal service over the centuries, because the best staves for longbows in the Middle Ages were normally taken from the trunks of yews, meaning a yew was felled to provide such staves.
However, balancing this rather sombre thought is the fact that Royal and aristocratic families in Britain and Ireland have planted yews since time immemorial, and it is thanks to those endeavours that we have magnificent yews to be seen today, such as those at Glamis castle and hopefully the two planted there by the two young princesses will be just as magnificent one day.
Images copyright Paul Greenwood/SYTHI All Rights Reserved except those of the Royal Company of Archers sourced from Wiki Commons. 😊