Tag Archives: murder

An ancient tree of poison and tales of bloody murder

2068 years ago Julius Caesar had some difficulty from some tribes in Gaul. It wasn’t Asterix and Cacofonix, but very close. There were two kings, Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, of a Belgian tribe called the Eburones who rebelled against their Roman overlords. They fought very bravely and took out a sizeable chunk of the Roman legion based in the area, leading to Caesar camping there for months to oversee the campaign against them. He praised them for their bravery, but made them pay in the most vicious manner; Caesar effectively wiped out the entire tribe. Ambiorix has gone down in history as a Belgian legend and – King Arthur style – seemed to disappear. Catuvolcus was a lot older and, despairing at the bloodshed, took his own life by drinking the poison of a Yew Tree.

If you don’t like my version of the story, why not read it from the first-hand account of Julius Caesar himself:

Catuvolcus, rex dimidiae partis Eburonum, qui una cum Ambiorige consilium inierat, aetate iam confectus cum laborem belli aut fugae ferre non posset, omnibus precibus detestatus Ambiorigem, qui eius consilii auctor fuisset, taxo, cuius magna in Gallia Germaniaque copia est, se exanimavit. – Julius Caesar, Gallic War vol VI

Around five hundred years after this genocidal event had taken place, a Yew sapling was growing on a burial ground near, what is now, the Welsh border with England. Some eight hundred years on, that sapling was still alive and now a mighty specimen of a normally smallish tree. A Church was built on the holy land right next to this ancient tree. Turn the clock on more than seven hundred years again and you reach the present day. The church is still standing and so, remarkably, is that ancient tree.

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

For a tree species that is described as small-medium, this 1500 year-old specimen has a trunk that measures almost 9.5 metres in circumference and it blocks out the church built in its shadow.

As Catuvolcus knew well, Yew is deadly poisonous. Interestingly, the only parts of Yew that are not filled with poison are the juicy bright red berries. But the harmless flesh contains a hard seed that could kill a man if swallowed. The needle leaves are even more deadly and will likely stop your heart within hours of ingestion of even a small amount. For hay fever sufferers – like me – the Yew tree is rated 10 out of 10 for the potency of the allergenic pollen. Watching the wind blow a pollen-heavy male Yew is a natural wonder, but beware that you are not caught down-wind from that cloud of dust, as respiration problems, light-headedness and other nasty symptoms will surely follow.

The tree in the photograph has become hollow over time. Its enormous girth has allowed the local people of Much Marcle to put a bench in it.

Much Marcle Yew

Over hundreds of years, just think of the lovers who will have sat there and the children who will have played among the deadly branches. One boy who may well have sat on that bench, as he grew up in the village, was Fred West. As anyone English will know, the farm boy was terribly head-injured in his teens and grew up to become one of the most notorious, sadistic, serial killers in our country’s history. It is sad to think that this beautiful village is now far better known as the place of birth of a man who committed the most terrible of crimes than for an incredible tree. I ran my hands over the dense and complicated swirls of wood reflecting on the history that will have occurred around this ancient, deadly, but peaceful giant…

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Post Scriptum: It is hard to be believe, but across the border in Wales is an even more ancient Yew. In fact, at around 5000 years old, it is believed to be one of the most ancient trees in the world. When the Much Marcle tree was sprouting from a seed, the Llangernyw Yew is believed to have already been a staggering 3500 years old – 3 millennia had passed it by before poor old Catuvolcus topped himself with a draught of poison from the dried needles of one of its European cousins.


Murder at Corfe Castle

Steam train

The Locomotive above was built in 1955. It now transports tourists on the 6-mile stretch from Norden to Swanage in Dorset. In the background the eerie ruins of Corfe Castle can just be made out in the mist.

Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. However, the site had royal fortifications on it long before the Normans came to England. The Castle was one of the last remaining Royalist strongholds in the English Civil War until it eventually fell in 1645. It was demolished by order of Parliament and has been a stately ruin ever since, towering above the village below.

Corfe Castle

On 18 March 978 the young King of the English, Edward, rode his horse up the mound (above) to the hall that preceded the castle. He was apparently greeted by his step-mother, Ælfthryth, with a cup of mead. As he took the drink and dismounted, the Queen Dowager’s attendant stabbed the 16 year old Monarch in the back.

The Keep

Edward’s even younger half brother, Æthelred (Ælfthryth’s son) took the throne. The boy king struggled to unite a suspicious country (grieving the loss of Edward) against the threat from the Danes. He fled to Normandy when the Danes invaded and has been known as Æthelred the Unready ever since. His murdered brother was remembered far more kindly by history: he was sainted and is known as St Edward the Martyr.


The art of Florence: religion, death, and… love

My absence from the blogosphere for a few days is down to a great little break in Florence. I am ashamed to say that I had never been to Italy before and so I decided to take my partner on a surprise break to the Tuscan city.

It is the most beautiful city I have ever seen.

The artwork and architecture of Florence are world famous. Florence was the beating heart of the Renaissance; during our stay we saw works by the megastars of Renaissance art including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and (just so you don’t think I am naming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) Boticelli amongst many others.

Most of the great works are housed in museums where photography is prohibited, but I wanted to share the following sights that I found interesting…

The Duomo

The Cathedral of Florence is rightly world famous. Fully named, “Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore” or Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, it is literally breathtaking: the sheer size – the dome remains the largest brick dome in the world; the fact the entire building is clad in stunning white, green, and pink marble; and the incredible carvings and artwork especially on the façade.

The interior is also impressive – especially the 16th century fresco on the inside of the dome by Vasari and Zuccaro. However, this is not what I want to show you. Next to the the  Duomo is a much smaller and older building, the Baptistry of St John. Built between 1059 (seven years before William the Conqueror became King of England!) and 1128, it has a golden mosaic ceiling which is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen (some detail below).

Begun in 1225, the mosaic probably took nearly 100 years to complete and probably included contributions from artistic genius such as Cimabue. I focused above on the enormous and majestic heavenly Christ, but just look to the right of my shot about parallel with Christ’s knee and partially cut out – a demon eating petrified naked people just before the Last Judgement. A young Dante (see below), baptised in this building, would have grown up looking at this ceiling and I cannot believe it wouldn’t have influenced his depictions of hell in the Divine Comedy.

Since we are on a religious theme, have a look at the image of God the Father below in stained glass…

In Catholic art we get loads of images of God the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost (normally depicted by a dove descending or ascending from/to heaven), but I always get excited when the final part of the Holy Trinity is depicted: God the Father.

Digression alert: putting aside the fact that I am an atheist, I have always had an intellectual problem with the concept of the Holy Trinity. The last words of Christ on the Cross do not seem to me to be the words of someone who is supposedly ‘at one’ and seamless with the Father and the Ghost:

  • “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” – why ask God to forgive the people killing you if you are God? Should it not be “I forgive you, for you know not what you do”?
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – this is a powerful and heart rending plea shouted to God, but why would Christ have doubts or fears if he was God – he wouldn’t forsake himself?
  • “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” – these very final words before he ‘gave up the Ghost’ again do not appear to be the words of a man who IS God.

So, I like seeing images of God the Father (complete with big white beard and looking all Old Testamenty), but I also love the fact he is holding a book with those two big Greek letters on the pages: Alpha and Omega (effectively ‘a’ and ‘z’). The book of revelation has Christ saying, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last”, but I prefer them – as above – connected with God the Father: the Creator and Finisher of all things (but then I suppose this is an argument in favour of the Holy Trinity as a concept).

If it wasn’t for the minor hiccup that I am an atheist, I would love to be a theologian. So, bear with me, I want to stick with religion for one more photo before I move on to the juicier topics of murder and love.

I took the photo of the painting above in another great church, Santa Croce (see below). It is Bronzino’s incredible depiction of the descent of Christ into Limbo. What a great image, what a fascinating concept: Christ visiting the poor lost souls floating around in the shadowy nothingness that is ‘Limbo’. They are guilty of nothing more than the fact that they were never introduced to Christianity (the Catholic philosophical construction to avoid the unpleasant idea that babies who die before being baptised could potentially go to hell). One would like to hope that all that foot-kissing and love would earn the poor things a place in heaven – presumably the Last Judgement would take care of that.

On the frame at the bottom of the image, you can see the Latin inscription, “Populus qui sedebat in tenebris vidit lucem magnam” – The people who sat in darkness beheld a great light.

“Sculpture is the art of the intelligence” – Picasso

The painting above and the following few sculptures were all found in the wonderful Church of Santa Croce…

Inside, the monument to the Italian Polymath, Leon Battista Alberti, by Lorenzo Bartolini is stunning and situated in exactly the right place to capture natural sunlight in a way which can almost be described as heavenly…

The church also holds the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, and  – everyone’s favourite baddie – Machiavelli. However, Florence’s most famous poet, Dante, only has a cenotaph as his body is buried elsewhere as he died in exile.

Dante sits on top of his monument not looking overly happy about the fact that he is dead. The personification of Italy hails him with a hand gesture whilst the personification of poetry is grief stricken to the right.

I am a fan of Dante – not a man to mince his words (hence his banishment from Florence), and love the fact that paintings and sculptures of him capture a face that is so utterly grand and statesmanlike, as with the huge sculpture of him just outside the church…

The master goldsmith

The photo below is the bust of Benvenuto Cellini on Ponte Vecchio with a view down the river Arno.

Cellini was another serial overachiever. He was a painter, goldsmith, sculptor, soldier, writer and musician. He was responsible for this statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s head:

As well as being a polymath, Cellini was also a bit of a rock ‘n roll bad boy. He was banished from the city as a young man for getting into fights and causing trouble although was later welcomed back after displaying heroism in battle (he reportedly had a knack of killing big-wigs on the battlefield). Unfortunately, he didn’t restrict his violence to war-time. His brother was killed whilst attacking another man. Despite this death being self defence, the hot-headed Italian, Cellini, killed his brother’s killer. He is also believed to have murdered a  rival goldsmith following an argument, but he escaped the death penalty as he was just such a good artist.

The bust of the greatest goldsmith now sits on the ancient bridge filled with jewellery shops, Ponte Vecchio:

I bought a ring from one of these shops as I used this holiday to propose to my girlfriend whilst watching the sun set over the Arno. To my delight, she accepted:

So, Florence will forever be a special place for me now.

The nose of the wild boar I am rubbing below is supposed to ensure that anyone who touches it will return to Florence one day…

… I certainly hope so!