Falling on 29 May and known as Oak Apple Day, this is a former public holiday which, although less celebrated today as a calendar custom, symbolized an event of crucial importance in English history, the traditions of which are still kept alive. To understand it we have to look back to the year 1660 to see quite how it came to bear this name and why the symbol of the oak was such a particular one.
The Charles II House in New Street, Worcester, today the King Charles II Pub
However, the year 1630 is also important to help us understand the true meaning of Oak Apple Day, because it was on 29 May of this year, that the future Charles II was born at St. James’s Palace and it would be the King’s birthday that was aptly chosen as the day that became known in English history as ‘Restoration Day’, when a thirty year-old Charles II rode in triumph into London amidst widespread rejoicing and celebration. The great diarist Samuel Pepys recorded in his journal dated 1 June 1660, “that Parliament had ordered the 29th of May, the King’s birthday, to be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government, he returning to London that day”. Charles had set out from Scheveningen and reached Dover a mere four days previously. Although Restoration Day was celebrated on 29 May 1660, the King’s coronation did not take place at Westminster Abbey until 23 April 1661 and Samuel Pepys recorded his eyewitness account of the event in his diary. The calvacade of Charles II through the city of London on the day before his coronation was immortalised in the painting by Dirk Stoop, today to be seen in the Museum of London. Stoop had painted the young Catherine of Braganza, travelling together with her entourage to England when she came as the future bride of Charles II in 1662.
It is significant that Charles II, en route back to an England that he would never again leave, talked of Worcester. In Worcester lies the key to understanding why this public holiday became known as the Royal Oak Day, or Oak Apple Day. Not only does the Royal Oak symbolize England itself, but the future Charles II hid in an oak tree following the Battle of Worcester to escape from Parliamentarian troops who searched the woodland beneath him. Being a tall man, a tree would have offered him a very immediate form of disappearance, until he was able to hide in a priest-hole in the attic at the house at Boscobel in Shropshire before ultimately continuing to Moseley Old Hall. Tellingly, a painting was commissioned by Charles II of Whiteladies and Boscobel after the Restoration of the monarchy, as a reminder of his experiences. The house from which the future King Charles II escaped immediately after the Battle of Worcester, is today an English pub which has been restored to its original appearance and is fittingly named after Charles II, a pleasing royalist remnant in what became known at the time as the ‘Faithful City’. On 3 September 1651, Charles lost the Battle of Worcester to the Cromwellian army and fled from this very house into exile. The oak tree in which Charles hid (and slept) – known as the Boscobel Oak – probably ceased to exist some centuries ago, because in the 18th century a sapling was noted as being close to the original and it seems likely that the tree known as the ‘Son of Royal Oak’, is this sapling grown, the original being long lost to us. Other trees have been planted close to this descendant of the Royal Oak, including one which was planted by the 5th Earl of Bradford to mark the tercentenary of Charles II’s escape; and one by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2001, which was grown from an acorn of this descendant tree and is therefore a ‘Grandson of Royal Oak’.
A plaque in one of the windows of the King Charles II Pub, recording his escape
Until 1859, 29 May in fact remained a public holiday although this practice was abolished that same year. The day had by then been woven into the general fabric of traditional English folklore, with people wearing oak sprigs or leaves with the oak apple still attached, to denote their royalist sympathies and support of the Restoration. Indeed, there seems to have arisen a certain stigma in reaction to those who did not participate in this commemorative symbolism, with stinging nettle wreaths being put upon doors which did not have their due decoration of oak. In certain parts of England, the day also acquired the byname of ‘Shick-Shack Day’ – for example in Hampshire – because the oak apple was apparently sometimes called a ‘shick-shack’ in popular terms.
Oak Apple Day remains celebrated in certain counties today and also in London. Predictably, Worcestershire still commemorates it, with Worcester’s Guildhall and railings being decorated with oak leaves. Northampton marks the day with a wreath of oak apples being laid at the foot of its statue of Charles II. According to a report in 2014, BBC Local Wiltshire was still commemorating Oak Apple Day in an active sense, with people making their way to Grovely Forest near Wilton, removing an oak bough to decorate and then placing it in the tower of the church in Great Wishford, although this does appear to combine an ancient local rite of gathering firewood with the May tradition of Charles II’s oak apple. St Neot in Cornwall is also said to place an oak bough at the top of its church tower, bells are rung and certain Cornish societies promote dancing and attendance in seventeenth century costume. The Chelsea Pensioners in London also mark May 29 in direct homage to Charles II, who founded the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, where consequently the day is known by the Pensioners as ‘Founders Day’, and is celebrated as close as possible to the King’s actual birthday. Resident pensioners are reviewed on this day by a member of the Royal Family and most fittingly, the Hospital forecourt contains a statue of Charles II by Grinling Gibbons, which was re-gilded in 2002 to mark the occasion of The Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Plum pudding is also meant to be eaten on this day, accompanied by beer. Charles II’s biographer Antonia Fraser, also referred to a traditional dinner held by the Royal Stuart Society on Oak Apple Day. A further tradition also persists with Garland Day at Castleton in Derbyshire featuring a parade with a man on horseback dressed in Stuart costume, known as the ‘Garland King.
These and other similarly enduring folk traditions ensure that Charles II will ever be associated with this day in May.
Photo credits: Copyright of the author, 2016.