The tree that gave refuge to a Stuart king on the run
On 30 January 1649, King Charles I of England and Scotland, wearing two shirts to avoid any shivering that might be mistaken for fear, climbed on to the scaffold outside the Banqueting House in London’s Whitehall and was beheaded (see THE KING’S HEAD). This event was intended to mark the end of the English Civil War and the victory of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army over the English monarchy.
But as the saying goes, ‘The king is dead! Long live the king!’ and his eighteen-year-old son, Charles, was soon proclaimed King of Scotland, an entirely separate kingdom at the time. Before long, the boy king was leading an army south to drive out Cromwell. By the spring of 1651, his force of 14,000 well-armed men had crossed the border into England.
But Cromwell, the great military strategist, had already sent Parliamentarian forces north to disarm suspected Royalist sympathizers by confiscating weapons and horses from the country estates and securing them for his own use in secret locations. As a result, Charles failed to raise any meaningful support on his journey south, and when his army of just over 16,000 men reached Worcester, he was met by a well-prepared and determined force of nearly 30,000 battle-hardened Parliamentarian troops.
Early on the morning of 3 September 1651, Cromwell ordered his field commanders to attack Royalist positions around the town and the Battle of Worcester was over within a few short hours. By mid afternoon Charles’s forces were on the run. His advisers agreed that the king would be safer and draw less attention in a smaller group and one of his companions, Charles Giffard, took him to the White Ladies Priory (where, legend has it, Guinevere retired after the death of King Arthur) and then to Boscobel House on the Shropshire and Staffordshire border in the early hours of 4 September.
With Cromwell’s men hard on their heels, Giffard knew they had to move fast. A reward of £1,000, a vast sum of money in 1651, had already been offered for his capture: anybody found to be hiding him was certain to be executed. In an attempt to disguise the king to help prevent his capture, Charles’s distinctive thick, black curly hair was cut short and he was dressed as a simple woodsman. Tipped off that Cromwell’s forces were closing in, Giffard had nowhere else to go and he was desperate to hide the king. Charles himself later recalled the story, recounting it for Samuel Pepys, the great seventeenth-century diarist:
‘Giffard told me that it would be very dangerous to either stay in the house or go into the wood … that he knew but one way how to pass the next day, and that was to get up into the great oak, in a pretty plain place where we might see round about us, for the enemy would certainly search at the wood for people that had made their escape.
Of which proposition I approving, we went and carried with us some victuals [provisions] for the whole day, viz. bread, cheese, small beer, and nothing else, and got up into a great oak that had been lopped three or four years before, and being grown out again very bushy and thick, could not be seen through, and here we stayed all day … While we were in this tree we saw soldiers going up and down in the thicket of the wood, searching for persons escaped, we seeing them, now and then, peeping out of the wood.’
It took another six weeks of disguises and adventures before the young king was finally smuggled to safety in France. Charles then stayed in exile until 1660 when he finally returned to London on his thirtieth birthday, 29 May. In 1664 this day was made, by Act of Parliament, a national holiday to mark the restoration and officially called ‘Oak Apple Day’ in honour of the oak tree at Boscobel that had successfully concealed the king and protected him, years earlier, from certain death.
For nearly two hundred years, Oak Apple Day was celebrated all over the land. It was a hugely popular festival. Everyone, high and low, male and female, adult and child, would wear a spray of oak leaves in their lapel or hat: traditionally any child not wearing such an emblem was attacked unmercifully by their schoolfellows and could be pinched, stung with nettles or pelted with rotten eggs.
And many taverns and inns were named the Royal Oak to demonstrate their loyalty and support for the monarchy. By the early 1700s the original oak tree had been all but destroyed by souvenir hunters although, from a single acorn, another fine oak tree has grown alongside the site of the original, called the ‘Son of Royal Oak’. In 2001 Prince Charles, the future King Charles III, planted a sapling alongside this tree after it was severely damaged in a storm.
Grown from one of the tree’s acorns, this makes it ‘Grandson of Royal Oak’. To this day, there are thought to be over six hundred pubs and hotels bearing the name the Royal Oak, making it one of the most popular pub names in Britain. In many cases the traditional pub sign depicts a great oak tree and, if you look hard enough, you may just be able to make out the young king peeping through the branches somewhere near the top.
My Favourite Pub – Thirty Great Pub Name Histories
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