Book Lovers’ Quiz

I’ve really enjoyed writing quizzes based on my Miscellany books over the last few weeks (if you have missed them you can try my museum quiz here and my library quiz here) so for my final foray please find my book lovers’ quiz! The answers are here in a separate post. Do let me know how you get on either on Twitter @nonfictioness or in the comments below. Enjoy!

1. Match the writer with their nom de plume:

Real name                                                           nom de plume

Stephen King                                                     George Eliot

Anton Chekhov                                                O. Henry

Mary Ann Evans                                               Mary Westmacott

William Sydney Porter                                   Man Without a Spleen

Agatha Christie                                                 Richard Bachman

2. All three of the following series contain the same total number of books in them, but how many books are in the series (bonus point if you know the technical name)?

Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War series

Frank Herbert’s Dune series

Anthony Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire.

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was published in 1958 but was immediately suppressed by the Stalinist regime who accused him of maligning the peasants’ struggle. What year was the book finally published in Russia?

a) 2010

b) 1966

c) 1999

d) 1987

4. Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks, Solo by William Boyd and Colonel Sun by Robert Markham are all continuation novels (sequels written by another author) inspired by which hugely popular series of books?

5. What was the name of the film that was based on the 2005 book Q & A by Vikas Swarup?

6. What do Sanditon by Jane Austen, The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens and The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov have in common?

7. Some writers have been especially young when their debuts were published, while others were notably old. Put the following writers in order (youngest to oldest) by their age at first publication:

Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero)

George Eliot (Adam Bede)

Percy Bysshe Shelley (Zastrozzi)

Richard Adams (Watership Down)

Anna Sewell (Black Beauty)

Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes)

S. E. Hinton (The Outsiders)

Mary Shelley (Frankenstein)

8. Dame Barbara Cartland was an extremely prolific writer, not only penning numerous romance novels but also writing cookbooks, plays and poetry. How many books did she write during her career?

a) 77

b) 177

c) 523

d) 723

9. The longest book ever written is the 17th century romantic novel Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus by Madeleine de Scudéry, but how many words did it have?

a) 570,000

b) 3.8 million

c) 1.3 million

d) 2.1 million

10. Which book is the all-time bestselling work of fiction?

a) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

b) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

c) The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

d) The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

11. To produce a Bible on vellum in the Middle Ages the skin of roughly how many calves would be required?

a) 23

b) 170

c) 89

d) 320

12. Name the writer and book title of these famous first lines:

a) ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

b) ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

c) ‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents…’

d) ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

13. Match the classic Penguin paperback cover colour to the type of book it denoted:

Jacket colour                                                      type of book

Orange                                                                 biography

Green                                                                   travel & adventure

Cerise                                                                   fiction

Dark blue                                                             crime fiction

14. How many rejections did Margaret Mitchell receive for Gone with the Wind before finally securing a publishers and going on to sell over 30 million copies?

a) none

b) 12

c) 73

d) 38

15. The following is the last line from which famous novel?

‘And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.’

See the answers here.

If you enjoyed the quiz and are left wanting more fabulous bookish facts why not buy a copy of The Book Lovers’ Miscellany here.

Book Lovers’ Quiz ANSWERS

Here are the answers to my book lovers’ quiz (if you have not had a go yet you can see the questions here). Let me know how you got on!

1. Real name                                                      nom de plume

Stephen King                                                     Richard Bachman

Anton Chekhov                                                Man Without a Spleen

Mary Ann Evans                                               George Eliot

William Sydney Porter                                   O. Henry

Agatha Christie                                                 Mary Westmacott

2. The series all contain six books which is known as a hexalogy or a sextet.

3. d) 1987. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature for Doctor Zhivago after it was smuggled out of Russia and published. Sadly the Russian government banned him from collecting his prize.

4. The James Bond series by Ian Fleming. Fleming himself wrote about Bond in 12 novels and 2 short stories.

5. Slumdog Millionaire. The film went on to win 8 Oscars.

6. They were all unfinished novels which were posthumously published (some in fragments).

7. S. E. Hinton (The Outsiders) was 18

Percy Bysshe Shelley (Zastrozzi) was 18

Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) was 21

Brett Easton Ellis (Less than Zero) was 21

George Eliot (Adam Bede) was 40

Richard Adams (Watership Down) was 52

Anna Sewell (Black Beauty) was 57

Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) was 66

8. 723!

9. d) 2.1 million. The book came in ten volumes and has 13,095 pages.

10. b) A Tale of Two Cities. Although numerous celebrated books vie for the title of best-selling book of all time, poor record keeping in the past and unreliable sales figures has made gaining a definitive answer difficult, however it has widely been agreed that A Tale of Two Cities has sold over 200 million copies since publication.

11. The skins of roughly 170 calves would be required to make one bible from vellum.

12. a) ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

b) ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ 1984 by George Orwell

c) ‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents…’ Paul Clifford by George Bulwer-Lytton

d) ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

13. Jacket colour                                                type of book

Orange                                                                 fiction

Green                                                                   crime fiction

Cerise                                                                   travel & adventure

Dark blue                                                             biography

14. d) 38. Mitchell is in good company. J K Rowling, James Joyce, Beatrix Potter and Yann Martel were all also rejected by numerous publishers before finally securing a deal.

15. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I hope you enjoyed the quiz! You can buy The Book Lovers’ Miscellany here.

Library quiz

Book cover for A Library Miscellany

Welcome to my library quiz! It’s packed full of fun library facts from my book A Library Miscellany, do have a go and let me know how you get on. Answers in a separate post here (no cheating!).

1. Which is the biggest library in the world by number of items in its collection?

a) National Library of Russia

b) The British Library

c) Library of Congress

d) New York Public Library

2. Which library, which opened in 1909, was designed in art nouveau style by Charles Rennie Mackintosh?

3. Which popular 1990s TV show included the fictional library Sunnydale High Library?

4. Which is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world?

a) The Bodleian Library, Oxford

b) New York Public Library, New York

c) The Wren Library, Cambridge

d) Chetham’s Library, Manchester

5. In the first decade of the noughties (2000–2010) who was the most borrowed author in UK libraries?

a) Jacqueline Wilson

b) Catherine Cookson

c) Roald Dahl

d) James Patterson

6. Name any three of the six legal deposit libraries in the United Kingdom (bonus points if you can name all six).

7. The Osmotheque is a unique library in Versailles, France. But what does it preserve there?

a) Poisons

b) Pornographic books

c) Gems

d) Perfumes

8.  Which celebrated author was said to have published a book in all of the ten main subject groupings of the Dewey Decimal Classification System except ‘100 philosophy’?

a) Isaac Asimov

b) J R R Tolkien

c) Mark Twain

d) Barbra Cartland

9. The American Library Association keeps a record of all books that are challenged or banned in libraries across the USA. Which book was the most ‘challenged’ book in America 2000–2010?

a) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

b) The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

c) His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman

d) The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

10. Match the writer’s archive to the library which holds it:

Virginia Woolf                                                  New York Public Library

George Orwell                                                  British Library

George Eliot                                                       Lilly Library, Indiana University

Sylvia Plath                                                         University College London Library

11. Over the years many famous people have worked as librarians, but who is the odd one out in this list and the only person who was never a librarian?

Mao Zedong      J. Edgar Hoover                 Andy Warhol      Marcel Duchamp              Giacomo Casanova

12. What do L’Enfer in Biblioteque Nationale de France, the Phi collection in the Bodleian, the triple-star collection in New York Public Library and the XR collection in Harvard’s Widener Library all have in common?

13. Which American luminary borrowed a book from the New York Society Library in 1789 which was not returned until 2010? (Bonus point if you can name the book!)

a) Alexander Hamilton

b) George Washington

c) Paul Revere

d) John James Audubon

14. The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard was established by Eleanor Elkins Widener in memory of her son after he died in which disaster?

a) World War I

b) The Hindenburg disaster

c) The sinking of the Titanic

d) The Great Boston Molasses Flood

15. True or false: White gloves should always be worn when handling rare books.

Check your answers here!

If you enjoyed this quiz have a go at my museum quiz here.

For more library fun buy a copy of A Library Miscellany here.

Book cover for A Library Miscellany

Library quiz ANSWERS

Here are the answers to my library quiz (if you haven’t had a go yet please click here).

1. c) The Library of Congress. As of 2017 the Library of Congress in Washington DC had 162 million items in its collection. The British Library is second in the list with 150 million items.

2. Glasgow School of Art Library. Unfortunately the beautiful wood-panelled library burned down in a fire in 2014, however it is currently being restored.

3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The library was somewhat unfortunately situated above the entrance to the Hellmouth.

4. d) Chetham’s Library, Manchester. The library was established in 1653 by wealthy textile merchant Humphrey Chetham as a free public reference library. Although libraries such as the Bodleian in Oxford opened earlier (1602) they were only for the use of scholars at Oxford University.

5. Children’s author Jacqueline Wilson was the most borrowed author 2000–2010 with her books being lent out an astonishing 16 million times.

6. Bodleian Library, Oxford.

University Library, Cambridge.

The British Library.

National Library of Scotland.

Trinity College Library, Dublin.

National Library of Wales.

7. d) Perfumes. The Osmotheque was founded in 1990 and contains over 3,200 scents, many of which are no longer made.

8. Isaac Asimov. An incredibly prolific author he wrote or edited over 500 books.

9. b) The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. All of the books mentioned in the question made it into the list of the top ten most challenged books.


Virginia Woolf: British Library

George Orwell: University College London Library

George Eliot: New York Public Library

Sylvia Plath: Lilly Library, Indiana University

11. The only person in that list not to have worked as a librarian was Andy Warhol.

12. They were all the classmarks for collections of obscene works.

13. b) George Washington. Staff at his Mount Vernon home discovered the unreturned book (The Law of Nations) in 2010 and the library graciously waived the $300,000 fine.

14. c) The sinking of the Titanic. Book collector and Harvard graduate Harry Elkins Widener died in the sinking of the Titanic. His mother established the library at Harvard in his honour in 1915 with his collection of 3,300 rare books at its heart.

15. False. The British Library produced guidelines in 2011 which stipulated that white gloves reduce dexterity which can cause damage to delicate books. Instead clean, dry, bare hands are advised when handling delicate old books.

Enjoyed the quiz? Please share it on social media! For more library facts buy A Library Miscellany here.

Museum Quiz!

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

I thought that seeing as under lockdown all our favourite museums and galleries around the world are closed we could do with some museum-related fun. So I’ve created a quiz based on some of the fascinating information in my book A Museum Miscellany. Do dive in and give it a go, answers to follow in a separate blog post. Good luck!

1. Which museum consistently tops the list of the most visited museum or gallery in the world?

a) National Museum of China

b) The Louvre

c) Metropolitan Museum of Art

d) The British Museum

2. Sir Hans Sloane’s incredible collection of natural history objects formed the basis for London’s Natural History Museum, but which fruit did he name?

a) avocado

b) banana

c) physalis

d) mango

3. True or false: The Night Watch by Rembrandt depicts a night scene?

4. The World’s smallest museum is housed inside what?

a) A tea-chest

b) A canoe

c) A telephone box

d) A shipping container

5. Which world famous museum is home to a large number of resident cats?

6. How many elephants feature in the American Museum of Natural History’s famous Hall of African Mammals diorama?

7. Which museum owns the most complete and scientifically valuable dodo remains in the world?

a) The Smithsonian

b) London’s Natural History Museum

c) The Grant Museum of Zoology

d) Oxford University Museum of Natural History

8. The largest single property theft took place in 1990 when thieves made off with artworks worth over $500 million from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but how did the thieves disguise themselves?

a) As clowns

b) As museum guards

c) As police officers

d) As cleaners

9. How long did it take Picasso to paint his huge mural painting Guernica?

a) 3 weeks

b) 3 months

c) 3 days

d) 3 years

10. Put these museums in the order that they were established:

Musee des Beaux-arts et D’archaeologie (Besançon, France), Princess Ennigaldi’s Museum (Ur, Iraq), Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Capitoline Museums (Rome, Italy).

11. What part of Sir John Heydon is preserved at Norwich Castle Museum? Bonus points if you know how the body part became separated from its owner.

12. Which museum is depicted in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch?

13. Since 2018 the Museum of London have displayed a sample of the largest fatberg ever discovered – but just how big was it?

a) 27 metres long

b) 127 metres long

c) 526 metres long

d) 250 metres long

14. The Louvres is the largest art museum in the world. If you spent just 30 seconds looking at each object in the museum, how many days would it take you to see the whole collection?

a) 100 days

b) 10 days

c) 1,000 days

d) 57 days

15. It has long been tradition for incoming US presidents to request the loan of some artworks from America’s museums. Which artwork did Donald Trump request (and was refused)?

a) Whaam! By Roy Lichenstein

b) Dogs Playing Poker by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

c) Landscape with Snow by Van Gogh

d) Water Lillies by Monet

Check the answers here. Why not share how well you did in the comments? If you enjoyed the quiz please do share it with your friends and family. Keen for more fabulous museum facts? Buy A Museum Miscellany here.

Museum quiz ANSWERS

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

Hopefully you are reading this page because you have already had a go at my museum quiz, if not, no cheating now, click here to try the quiz.

1.  b) The Louvres has held the top spot of most visited museums for a number of years with a peak of 9.3 million visitors in 2015.

2. Sir Hans Sloane gave the avocado its name in his 1696 catalogue of Jamaican plants.

3. False. The Night Watch does not in fact depict a night scene, its just the layers and layers of varnish applied to the work over the years have caused it to appear as if the scene is set at night. The painting completed in 1642 is actually entitled ‘Officers and Other Civic Guardsmen of District II Amsterdam’ but became popularly known as The Night Watch from the 18th century.

4. The World’s smallest museum is the Warley Museum in West Yorkshire whose collection is housed inside an old red telephone box.

5. The Hermitage has maintained a population of cats since 1745 when they were brought in to control the mice. Today the museums is home to approximately 75 felines.

6. 8 elephants appear in the diorama, one of which was shot and killed by Theodore Roosevelt.

7. No whole dodo skeleton exists but the mummified head and foot of a dodo is kept at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History. Due to the survival of soft tissue on the specimen scientists have been able to extract DNA, making it an extremely valuable specimen.

8. c) As police officers. The thieves arrived before the museum opened for the day pretending that they were responding to a disturbance. Once inside they tied up the museum guards and made off with 13 paintings by artists such as Degas, Vermeer and Manet. To date the works have yet to be recovered.

9. a) 3 weeks

10. 1. Princess Ennigaldi’s Museum (Ur, Iraq) – established c. 530 BCE

2. Capitoline Museums (Rome, Italy) – established 1471.

3. Ashmoleon Museum (Oxford) – established 1683

4. Musee des Beaux-arts et D’archaeologie (Besançon, France) – established 1694

11. Sir John Heydon’s hand was severed in a duel in 1620 and today resides in an ornate box at Norwich Castle Museum.

12. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is the setting for The Goldfinch, despite the fact that the painting The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius is actually housed by the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

13. The fatberg was 250 metres long and weighed in at 130 tonnes. It was largely comprised of grease, congealed oil and wet wipes.

14. a) It has been calculated that it would take 100 days to view every item in the museum’s collection.

15. c) Landscape with Snow by Van Gogh. The Guggenheim refused Trump’s request and instead offered America by Maurizio Cattelan – a fully-functioning gold toilet

Keen for more fabulous museum facts? Buy A Museum Miscellany here.

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

7 Surprising Animal Burials

Animals have always been hugely important to humans – as food, as beasts of burden and as companions. The archaeological record has offered up some fascinating animal burials from all over the world which reflect the importance of our animal friends but have frequently posed more questions than they answered. Below are seven fascinating animal burials which have puzzled archaeologists:

Hybrid animal burials:

In 2015 a series of graves were discovered in Winterborne Kingston in Dorset, England in which Iron Age peoples had seemingly buried together the remains of separate species. Archaeologists suggested this could have been an attempt to create mythical hybrid beasts. The graves revealed a cow which had been sacrificed but its legs had been replaced with four horse’s legs; a sheep with two heads – its own and a bull’s head; and a horse with a cow’s horn placed at its forehead.

The archaeologists from Bournemouth University also uncovered two jawless cow’s skulls which had the lower jaw replaced with the jawbone of a horse. The most intriguing burial was of a young woman, who it was suspected was sacrificed due to evidence her throat had been cut. She was laid on a bed of animal bones, with her head resting on a mixture of skull bones from sheep, cows, horses and dogs plus animal leg bones were placed underneath her legs as if mirroring her own body.

It is not clear why these hybrid burials occurred but the archaeologists have suggested it could be as an offering to increase the productivity of the animals – for example the horse buried with the head of a cow may have signified a wish to increase the fertility of the herd. You can read more about this fascinating dig known as the Durotriges Project here.


Illustration of a porpoise

The carefully buried remains of a porpoise were discovered at a 14th century site on an island called Chapelle Dom Hue off the coast of Guernsey. Archaeologists have puzzled over the strange remains, as although porpoise may have been eaten at that time it is unclear why the solitary monks on the island would chose to give the animal a careful burial rather than disposing of its remains in the nearby sea.

One theory put forwards by the archaeologist leading the dig Dr Philip de Jersey was that rather than being given a religious burial the porpoise was carefully placed in a pit full of brine in order to preserve it for food but it was somehow forgotten.

Egyptian crocodile mummy with four heads:

It is well known that the ancient Egyptians buried mummified animals as offerings to the gods, but researchers were recently surprised by a CT scan of a crocodile mummy from the 1st century BC. The scan revealed that the package in the shape of a mummified crocodile actually contained the skulls of four crocodiles arranged to give the shape of one single crocodile.

The mummy belonged to the Museum of Manchester and underwent a CT scan as part of the research project Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank. This research scanned and examined numerous mummified animals held in museum collections all over the world and uncovered the fact that only one third of all the animal mummies scanned contained the remains of just one animal. Some mummies contained no animal matter at all and although on the outside resembled an animal, they were in fact constructed from mud, sand and plant materials.

Photo of Egyptian cat mummies

Mummified dogs:

Archaeologists uncovered the mummified remains of over 40 dogs buried with blankets and food in Peru. This is thought to be the only case of dogs being afforded such status in burial outside Egypt. The remains date from 900–1350 CE and were so well-preserved because of the desert conditions in which they were buried. Researchers think that these dogs were especially important because they herded the llamas on which the Chiribaya people depended for food. Analysis of the remains, which resemble small golden retrievers, led the researchers to name the breed Chiribaya Shepherds. Work continues to try and establish if this was a breed native to South America.

Pet cemetery:

In Berenike on the Red Sea coast of southern Egypt a site has offered up the remains of over 100 carefully buried animals in what is thought to be one of the earliest known pet cemeteries. The site dates from 75–150 CE and unlike other animal burials from Egypt these animals were not mummified. The majority of the burials are cats, which is no great surprise as Egypt was one of the first countries to domesticate the kitty. Other animals found in the cemetery include monkeys and dogs. Researchers concluded that these animals were pets because there was no evidence of sacrifice and little evidence of disease, implying they were well looked after.

Beheaded dog:

During the excavation of part of the Roman town at Towcester near Northampton in England a strange dog burial was uncovered. The small lap dog had been carefully buried in a grave but its head had been removed and placed by its back feet. To modern eyes it would seem cruel to mutilate the body of a beloved pet thus, however evidence from contemporary Roman burials suggests this was not an uncommon practice among human burials. A site at Great Whelnetham, Suffolk revealed 40% of the burials in the Roman cemetery had been decapitated and the head laid by their legs. The significance of head removal is not yet understood but that a pet dog was treated in the same fashion as humans suggests it was an important companion.

Horse burial:

A mass grave containing 145 horses was uncovered in 1964 in Shandong Province, China. The beasts were buried in a pit 215 metres long and had been sacrificed. A further dig years later uncovered further horse skeletons, bring the total found to 251. The horses were killed and buried alongside the grave of Duke Jing the ruler of the State of Qi (547 to 490 BC). Researchers think the animals were mostly young horses, aged between 5 and 7 years old. They were drugged with alcohol before being clubbed over the head.

Illustration of a horse skeleton

Archaeologists estimate that there were in fact about 600 horses buried in a square arch around Duke King’s tomb making it by far the largest horse burial uncovered in China. Excavations continue but so far some 40 dogs and 2 pigs have also been unearthed. Sources suggest that Duke Jing loved horses so it is assumed that the sacrifice of so many animals was a great honour.

Image sources:

Porpoise: The Half Hour Library of Travel, Nature and Science for young readers, 1896 via The British Library

Cat mummies: A guide to the third and fourth Egyptian rooms : predynastic antiquites, mummied birds and animals, portrait statues, figures of gods, tools, implements and weapons, scarabs, amulets, jewellery, and other objects connected with the funeral rites of the ancient Egyptians, 1904 via The Internet Archive

Horse: On the Domesticated Animals of the British Islands by David Low, 1845 via The British Library

Yew trees and graveyards

A graveyard

There are numerous reasons given as to why yew trees have become ubiquitous in our graveyards. Some trace it back to ancient times when druids considered the tree sacred. In pagan tradition the evergreen yew trees were symbolic of the regeneration of the natural world and the spirit. Yew trees were therefore planted near temples or sacred spaces and over time as these pagan temples were replaced by Christian churches the trees remained. Yew trees were therefore assimilated as sacred trees from pagan to Christian tradition.

Poisonous yew berries

Yew trees can live for an inordinately long time and it has been suggested that some yew trees are many thousands of years old. One such tree is found in the churchyard at Coldwaltham, West Sussex. It was dated a number of years ago to about 1,000 BC and so it has been suggested that it was originally planted by pagan druids. One of the reasons that yew trees live so long in graveyards is because here, unlike in woodlands, they have no competition from other trees, crowding out the light.

A further theory as to why yew trees are planted in graveyards stems from the symbolism of the trees themselves. The evergreen nature of the tree is seen by some as a nod to the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul. It is thought that this symbolism made them an appropriate tree to give hope in a graveyard.

There have also been practical suggestions for the planting of yew trees in graveyards. Roy Vickery in A Dictionary of Plant-Lore suggests that graveyards were one of the few places in a village that free-roaming cattle and other livestock could not trample through. Yew berries are poisonous to animals and so these trees were planted in graveyards so stop the animals getting at them and falling ill. Yew wood was excellent for making bows and the theory has been proposed that during the Middle Ages villages needed to have a crop of yew trees to provide archers with good long bows. As a result the trees would be planted in graveyards where they could not be damaged by animals.

Yew trees looming over a graveyard

This theory however does not stand up to scrutiny as the huge amount of yew trees needed to make sufficient longbows for an entire army could not be covered by the few yew trees in graveyards. Evidence from the decrees of Edward IV, Richard III and Elizabeth I suggests that in fact most of the wood from which long bows were fashioned was imported from Italy, the Netherlands or Germany. This implies that there was either not sufficient native crop to cover the needs of archers or perhaps that English yew was not of as good quality for bow-making as imported yew.

Another more prosaic reason to plant yews near churches was because their bushy branches, which stayed green year round, were thought to provide wind breaks for the church, protecting it from bad weather. This would have been a very far-sighted bit of planning by our ancestors as yews are relatively slow growing and would have taken hundreds of years to be big enough to afford a church any form of protection from the weather, but it’s a nice idea!

One folk belief has that yew trees especially thrived in ground enriched with rotting corpses, and another states that the trees themselves helped to absorb the putrefaction of the rotting bodies, keeping the air in the graveyard nice and clean. Certainly some superstition has grown up around the yew tree due to its association with cemeteries – some believe that yew trees are good to plant in cemeteries as their roots entwine through the eye sockets of the dead, preventing them from rising again. Perhaps because it was familiar in graveyards the yew was inevitably associated with death and some held that yew branches should never be brought into the house or death would follow. Enid Porter recalls that in the Fens yew trees were regarded with suspicion as witches were said to gather underneath them.

One final, perhaps fanciful, theory was put forwards by the correspondent to The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1779. He proposed that yew trees were planted near churches so that their evergreen branches could be harvested and used during the parades for Palm Sunday on which it was tradition to wave palm fronds, a plant of the warmer climes which could not be sourced in Britain. His theory is not a bad one as I imagine the yew branches might also have been used to decorate the interior of the church in winter. I certainly remember at my primary school in Oxford we would take part in a Palm Sunday parade each year and in place of palm fronds we would fashion leaves from green sugar paper.

So it seems there are numerous theories as to why yew trees are associated with graveyards and perhaps the truth is that each of these theories holds some merit and has added to the rich tapestry of tales and folklore which surround this tree. What is clear is that some of the yew trees found in the churchyards of Britain are very ancient indeed and this seems to confirm that the yew tree has been sacred for many thousands of years.

Books referenced: Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Edith Porter, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969

A Dictionary of Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery, OUP, 1995

Image sources: The flowering plants, grasses, sedges, & ferns of Great Britain, London, F. Warne, 1905

Photo of yew berries by Hanna May on Unsplash

Photo of graveyard by eddie howell on Unsplash

Fantastic Miscellany Special Offer!

For a short time only you can buy all three of my miscellanies — The Book Lovers’ Miscellany, A Library Miscellany and A Museum Miscellany direct from the Bodleian Library shop for the bargain price of £25 (they are usually £9.99 each). What’s more they come tied in a fancy ribbon! This book bundle would make the perfect gift for book, library and museum lovers everywhere.

Click here to take advantage of this extra special offer.