The Royal Oak

NPG 5249 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Following on from: ‘An Unexpected Guest‘ and ‘A Humble Home

For the second time in three days Charles Stuart found himself entering the Boscobel estates in the small hours of the morning. No less exhausted, no nearer safety, the King was back in the hands of the wider Penderel family, except that he could now add bloody and  blistered  feet to his list of ailments. Not daring to chance Whiteladies again they made straight for Boscobel house. There the King was welcomed by William Penderel and his wife, Joan. He was brought into the parlour and Joan immediately saw to those feet.

Also hiding at Boscobel was another fugitive at large, Colonel William Carlis. Carlis was a local man who had spent the best part of the last three years evading capture amongst the Royalist and Catholic communities. He had played a distinguished role in the battle of Worcester, reputedly leading the rearguard as the King escaped. One account has him bursting into tears upon seeing Charles safe, the Monarch reciprocating. Two battle weary men reunited.

Over a steaming posset of small beer, it was agreed that it was not safe to stay in the house during the day.  The militia was searching nearby woods, but it was inevitable that they would find their way to the secretive denizens of Boscobel estate eventually, and the house would be searched. It was decided to place Charles back into the protection of the sprawling woods, this time they would hide him in the thick camouflage of a pollarded oak, not far from the house. In doing so an iconic moment in British history was brought about, a moment that Charles and his supporters would not be slow to exploit after his restoration.

Charles and Carlis climbed into the tree, Carlis with a pockets full of provisions and a pillow for Charles to rest his head on. Being a pollarded oak, and not yet Autumn, the tree was dense with foliage and provided adequate cover for two men to be hidden in. It can’t have been particularly comfortable perched on the knobbly boughs of an oak tree, as this account demonstrates:

they continue there the whole day; where his Majesty, by reason of long watching, is suprised by sleep, and resteth in the Armes and Lapp of this Loyal Colonel. But whilst his Majesty was thus sleeping, he chanc’d so to rest his Head upon one of the Armes of the Colonel, that by compressing the nervous parts of it, it caused such stupor or numness in the part, that he had scarcely strength left in it, any longer to support his Majesty from falling off the Tree, neither durst he, by reason of the nearness of the Enemy (now hunting greedily after him) speak so hard, as to awake him; nevertheless, to avoid both the danger of the fall and surprise together, he was (though unwillingly) constrained to practice so much incivility… as to pinch his Majesty, to the end he might wake him, and prevent this present danger.

Miraculum Basilicon, 1664

At nightfall it was decided that Charles should be brought back into the house to receive some supper. The great oak had done its job, but once down from its protective embrace Charles decided to risk a night in Boscobel house rather than suffer the discomforts of a rough bark bed.

Oak trees played an important role in country life, but by ‘protecting’ Charles from ruin they became intimately associated with the monarchy. Despite what we now think about the hyper religious, or ‘puritan’, folk of the 17th Century, the myths and traditions of the countryside were still integral parts of how they celebrated life. May Day and Christmas both included elements of nature being brought into the house, spring growth and the holy tree. A new tradition sprung up around the Boscobel oak, nurtured by Charles and his supporters, keen to tie the monarchy back into the old order off things. On 1 June 1660, the day after Charles’ triumphant return to England, Parliament declared:

the 29th of May, the King’s birthday, to be for ever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny, and the King’s return to his Government, he entering London that day

Samuel Pepys Diary, 1660

This was known as Royal Oak Day, or Oak Apple Day. An oak apple is a red coloured swelling that appears on the branches of oak trees in late Summer, caused by burrowing, parasitic wasps they look a little like rosy red apples. In some areas of the country, if you were caught not wearing a sprig of oak on this day, it was customary to be beaten with nettles. Pepys’ diary shows how quickly the Royal Oak became enshrined as a popular, patriotic cultural reference, Royal Oak pubs spring up all over the country (and still remain in most English towns), Pepys refers to one as early as 1663. The navy named a ship ‘the Royal Oak’, and the tradition of having a ship bearing that name carried  on until 1938.

Charles ‘ statue on Oak Apple Day

Oak Apple Day was officially discontinued as a holiday in 1859, but still continues to be celebrated in pockets around the country to this day. Notably, the Chelsea Pensioners celebrate it as Founders Day, wreathing the statue of Charles II in a garland of oak leaves.

Son of the original Boscobel Oak as it stands today

The oak that stands in the grounds at Boscobel house today is a sire of the original oak. I was surprised at how close it stands to the house. Somehow, I expected them to have wanted to put the King as far away from the house as possible. It now stands in a scruffy field, its only company being two young grandsons and some rather unimpressed sheep. Its location and current state don’t particularly help us in imaging what it was like for the King, on that downcast Saturday. The original oak would have been a different shape and would have been lost amongst a crowd of other trees. If it had stood on its own as it does now, it surely wouldn’t have served as much of a hiding place. As such, when imagining the King in the tree, my mind tends to wander to Issac Fuller’s depiction of Charles’ of the episode (above).

It’s not surprising that this part of the King’s tale became the so popular, oak trees grew to be an even more prestigious symbol of British national identity in the following centuries. The wood from managed oaks soon built the Great British navy, and with it an Empire. Just outside my window is a mature, thriving oak tree and at this time of year it’s sprawling arms are laden with acorns, its leaves constantly whispering in the wind. I can quite see how it lodged itself in our national consciousness as the stubborn, bountiful symbol of the countryside. Whether I’d want to spend a day on one of its branches though, is quite another thing. Next Post

The oak outside my window

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4 thoughts on “The Royal Oak

  1. Pingback: Under the Floorboards: Boscobel House « In Pursuit of History

  2. Pingback: It’s Oak Apple Day | affable-lurking

  3. Pingback: A Humble Home: Hubbal Grange and a Bid for the West | History Botherer

  4. Pingback: Under the Floorboards: Boscobel House | History Botherer

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