Written by Heather Elvidge
When Charles II came back from exile, years of strife were ended. The nation breathed a sigh of relief and the day of his return in 1660 became a public holiday.
Now every year on May 29 the king goes riding in Derbyshire, disguised as a flowering shrub. The mound of leaves is the famous Castleton Garland, which conceals him so well that only the royal legs are visible. Charles and his Lady ride in procession accompanied by a silver band and girls carrying flowers. At the parish church the six-stone garland is hoisted up the tower, where it remains for a week.
After civil wars and Puritan rule the Restoration was well received. The first anniversary was marked in the customary manner with bonfires, church bells and special services.
People celebrated by reviving their old May customs, banned by the Puritans. Maypoles were erected in the streets and houses decorated with greenery. But the most potent symbol of the day was a spray of oak leaves.
A sprig of oak with a gall or “apple” attached was pinned to hats, bosoms, and horses’ bridles. This recalled Charles’s narrow escape in 1651, following the Royalists’ defeat at the Battle of Worcester. He avoided capture by climbing an old oak tree and hiding among the leaves, while Roundheads passed below without suspecting a thing.
This so caught the imagination that the 29th became known as Royal Oak Day. Until the early 19th century it rivalled May Day and Whit, with almost everyone wearing oak leaves, adults and children alike. The few who didn’t were subjected to another custom of the day, being walloped with a bunch of nettles.
In 1852, the incident with the oak inspired a well-loved painting. Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais produced “The Proscribed Royalist, 1651”, showing a young woman taking food to a soldier who’s hiding in a hollow oak. The model for his tree, which he found in a Kent wood, was dubbed the “Millais Oak” and it became a popular destination for Victorian tourists.
We still have a fondness for old oaks that have stood for hundreds of years. One in Sherwood Forest was a meeting place for Robin Hood’s outlaws. Wesley’s Oak in Cheshire is where the preacher held open-air services. In Nottinghamshire, King John is said to have called a meeting under the Parliament Oak.
In 1859 Royal Oak Day was dealt a blow when the public holiday was abolished. By the end of the century it had almost died out. But wearing oak leaves and bashing each other with nettles survived among children in the Midlands and North until the 1950s.
Places that had cause to be grateful to King Charles have kept up their old traditions. Every year in Northampton a garland is placed on a statue of Charles II; in Worcester, there’s a gathering at the Guildhall where the gates are hung with oak branches; and in London, Chelsea Pensioners parade to mark the founding of their Hospital by the Stuart king.
Recent revivals use the name Oak Apple Day — there might be one near you. And all over England you can pop in for a pint at The Royal Oak.