The magnificent cedar tree in St Stephen’s field on the edge of the churchyard was rumoured to have been around at the time when Henry VIII was courting Anne Boleyn. In 1921 it was thought to be the largest cedar tree in England. The then vicar had written to Kew Gardens to obtain confirmation. In 2008 the Sopwell Residents Association hugged the tree as part of a campaign by the Woodland Trust to measure ancient trees. Our measurements suggested that it was over 500 years old being over 9m around its girth. Back in 1921, the tree measured 26¼ft at 3ft from the ground (approx 8m) so it had grown about a metre in 100 years. We still had no accurate estimate of its age. Kew reckoned that the previous oldest cedar tree cut down at Wilton House, measured 36ft at 5ft from the ground in 1874 and from its rings it was estimated that it dated from 1638. In order for our tree to fit the legend of King Henry canoodling with Anne Boleyn under it, it had to be another hundred or so years older that the Wilton House one.
So in 2013 members of the SRA met with David Alderman of The Tree Council to establish how old it really was. It was a mixture of good and bad news. It was not as old as we thought. It’s a mere 250 or so years old in his estimation. Cedars of this type are very fast growing so that is why we thought it was a lot older. Apparently, when cedars first came to Britain in the 17th century, they were not that hardy and were all wiped out by 1743 when there was a terrific storm. People planted a hardier species after that and ours is one of them. David described it as a cluster tree, multi-stemmed, and so it looks big with all the branches off the several trunks, a bit like a hedge. On the other hand he said it was a fine specimen: a champion category 3 tree no less! It is big in volume and David described it as classic. He was pleased with its condition: there was only one branch which looked damaged and this had a hole in it which was likely to have been made by a woodpecker.
So for the record, the measurements of the St Stephen’s cedar are: height: 19m, girth: 8.3m at 0.4m, crown spread west-east 30.8m and crown spread north-south 29.4m. David dated it as being planted c1750 but we shouldn’t be too disappointed as it was still a very fine specimen and, out of 2,000 they have recorded, it is in the Top 50 for Britain. Regarding its status as the largest cedar in Hertfordshire, this is all dependent upon whether a tree survives at Beechwood Park School, Markyate. Until this is confirmed our tree at our slightly reduced girth of 8.3m at 0.4m is second largest. It is still something to be proud of.
Regarding the Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn story, David said that this may have started by the Victorians who liked to exaggerate rumours. However, quite often trees were planted to commemorate an event so it could have been planted because of the visit by the pair of them to St Stephens. Or, it could just have been planted to replace one of the less hardy cedars – the dates are right. We will never know the true story, but the pair of them were around our area and they may well have done some courting under a tree in the vicinity. Henry used to hunt there and Anne was known to have visited Sopwell.