The Oaks of England

by Christine Sine

It is our last day in England and Tom and I have just returned from a wonderful walk along the Thames at Richmond.  Part of our walk went past Deer Park where the kings of England once hunted for deer – dating back centuries.  I was particularly struck by the beautiful old oaks some of which must have been standing when Henry VIII was raging his way around England.  Oaks are some of the longest lived of trees.  Down through the ages the oak tree has become known for its very durable wood, so much so that the phrase English oak has become a metaphor for strength and fortitude.

It was a very sobering moment – looking at these ancient trees and reflecting on their significance and what they have seen over the centuries so I thought that you would not mind if I indulged in a little looking back at the history of oaks in England.

From the pagan image of the Green Man garlanded by oak leaves found in many parish churches to the writing of Shakespeare and Keats, the oak has rooted itself deep in the British national consciousness and its influence is represented in many ways.

The Celts particularly revered the oak which represented their most prized virtue, hospitality. The Celts loved to hunt in oak woods, as did the Anglo Saxons and in Celtic mythology it was the tree of doors, believed to be a gateway between worlds.  It was also seen as a protector and healer.

The Royal Oak is the second most popular pub name in Britain, after the Red Lion.  The original Royal Oak was the Boscobel Oak near Shifnal in Shropshire where King Charles II and Colonel Carless hid after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

After the Restoration, May 29th, the King’s birthday was declared Royal Oak Day. Ironically, the Boscobel Oak was dead by the end of the nineteenth century because patriotic souvenir-hunters tore off its branches, thereby hastening its demise. The name, the cult and the link to the pub all live on in the Royal Oak ale now made by the Eldridge Pope brewery. It is described as: “A beautifully soft, well-balanced, bitter, strong, full-flavoured pint.”

Not surprisingly, Robin Hood met his Merry Men under the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. The joint symbolism of the hero and the talismanic tree is a powerful one. Here the qualities of both man and tree are entwined, representing once again strength, protection, durability, courage and truth.

The connection of hero and oak tree can also be traced through King Arthur, whose Round Table was said to be hewn from a massive piece of oak and whose coffin at Glastonbury Abbey – if indeed the coffin was Arthur’s – was made from a hollowed out oak tree. Other oak trees that have been associated with British heroes include the Elderslie Oak, which was said to have sheltered William Wallace and 300 of his men (that must have been a BIG tree!) and Owen Glendower’s Oak from which tree he witnessed the battle between King Henry IV and Henry Percy, Macbeth’s Oak at Birnam and Sir Philip Sydney’s oak tree at Penshurst. In all cases the trees are associated with or commemorate a war hero. They shed some of their strength on the hero, whose exploits mirror the timeless power of the tree.

The English oak is usually a symbol of liberty though sometimes, like Kett’s Oak in Norfolk, one of rebellion.  In July 1549 Robert Kett led an uprising against the Crown to demand the end to the practice of enclosure of common land. He made a rousing speech beneath the oak tree on the village green in Wymondham and led a mob in the march on Norwich, where he captured the castle. Defeated by the Earl of Warwick, Kett was condemned for treason and hanged.  His oak tree lived on, however, and became a symbol of freedom from oppression. Under the name of the Reformation Oak it became a place of regular pilgrimage for political radicals.

The image of the oak tree is also used to represent the strength of Britain’s fighting men. The central part of the tree, which has no sap and was prized in shipbuilding. During Nelson’s time 2000 oaks would have been used to build a 74 gun warship.These ships were the “wooden walls” that protected Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1763 Roger Fisher, published Heart of Oak, The British Bulwark, in which he argued empires rose or fell depending on their abundance or dearth of oaks. Fisher warned that the gentry were squandering the future by leaving woodlands to be destroyed by animalsprotected for the hunt, frittering away the birthright of future Britons so they might fund their passions for “horses and dogs, wine and women, cards and folly”.

The newly formed Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts offered prizes to those who planted the most trees – supremely the oak – but also the softwood conifersused for masts. As a result, acorn fever took hold. The great Dukes planted acre after acre of oak trees. Naval officers on leave, like Collingwood, went around surreptitiously scattering acorns from holes in his breeches in the parks of his unsuspecting hosts!

Even today the focus of many English villages is an ancient oak on a village green and the British Houses of Parliament are panelled in oak. The oak continues to be part of the fabric of English life though its numbers are now vastly depleted by the advance of modern cities.

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