Updated: Jan 7, 2021
The 29th of May was once a holiday in England known as Oak Apple Day. It was introduced to celebrate of the restoration, in 1660, of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, to the English Throne. Charles II was the son of Charles I whose Catholic sympathies and refusal to compromise his view that the Divine Right of Kings gave the monarch absolute powers led to the English Civil War in the 1640s. In the 11 years following his father's execution in 1649, England was governed by a strict Puritan regime that imposed an almost universal cultural lockdown on the people of England. Oliver Cromwell, commander of the victorious New Model Army was installed as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth in 1651. He and his Puritan supporters in Parliament wanted to purge England of anything associated with Roman Catholicism and introduce a strict morality code.
Dancing, drinking, gambling, holidays, the theatre and even traditional Christmas festivities were all banned with heavy fines for those who disobeyed them. In 1657 a law ‘for the better observation of the Lord’s Day’ ruled:
“All persons keeping, using or being present upon the day aforesaid (Sunday)
at any fairs, markets, wrestlings, shootings, leaping, ringing of bells for pleasure, or upon any other occasion, (saving for calling people together for the public worship) feasts, church ale, maypoles, gaming, bearbaiting, bullbaiting, or any other sports and pastimes.”
Is it any wonder then that when Oliver Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored people felt they had something to celebrate?
Charles’s restoration was a revolution in itself; not only removing the constraints of Puritanism on people’s daily lives but attempting to heal the deep rifts that had damaged English society, divided families and ruined livelihoods. The royalist gentry returned to their lands, the church was restored to its previous status and professionals such as doctors and lawyers were licensed for work once more.
Oak Apple Day celebrated the national feeling of joy and release at the restoration of the old order. The oak apple or a sprig of oak leaves became Charles’s royalist symbol because he had hidden from Cromwell’s men in the branches of the great oak tree at Boscobel House, in Shropshire, en route to safety in France following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
An oak apple is not a fruit but a parasitic gall; a growth formed of a ball of leaves that contain the eggs and larva of the gall wasp. On the 29th May all supporters of the King and the Restoration traditionally wear a sprig to show their allegiance on the day of his triumphal return to London in 1660. Any nay sayers could be expected to be beaten off with stinging nettles for their anti-royalist sympathies or reluctance to join in the festivities. Charles himself certainly joined in: he is known as the Merry Monarch for taking moral freedom and riotous enjoyment to licentious levels at court at all times of year!
In Great Wishford in Wiltshire the villagers celebrate the day in great style. The ‘Rough Band’ of villagers set off early to Grovely Wood ringing bells and chanting: “Grovely, Grovely, Grovely and all Grovely’ to wake the villagers. Oak branches are brought back to the village for display and a ‘marriage branch’ is placed on the church tower to bless the year’s weddings. Ceremonies then move to Salisbury Cathedral where the four ‘Nitch Ladies’ of the villlage dance outside the North Porch and a cathedral service is given to reassert the rights of the village to collect wood and rear cattle in Grovely Wood. The rest of the day is spent celebrating with Morris dancing, parades and a traditional teatime.
Salisbury Cathedral West Front: The Grovely Oak Apple Day service takes place in the main body of the cathedral. The Magna Carta is on display in the Chapter House, just visible behind the tree on the right hand side.
Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House: oak galls and swan feather quills (left hand), oak gall ink and vellum (right side). This display tells the story of how the Magna Carta was made in 1215.
Oak Galls are a symbol of great political revolutions in a different sense. Until the 20th century they were used to make oak gall ink ideal for use on parchment or vellum. Great documents such as the Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence were written with oak gall ink. The best preserved example of the Magna Carta is held at Salisbury Cathedral in the Chapter House and many American visitors come to see, for themselves, a document that they associate with the genesis of their Constitution.
Oak Apple Day was abolished by the Victorian in 1859 but many would like to see its return; perhaps in place of the bank holiday just a few days before that has no such traditional connections.
There are lots more wonderful stories of Charles II to explore in southern England: including at Salisbury, Winchester, Portsmouth and along the circuitous route he took in 1651 to escape the Roundhead soldiers. If you would like to explore these or know do contact me or keep an eye out for future postings about him.