In 1660, England’s Parliament declared that May 29th each year would a public holiday, “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.”
The ‘returning King’ was Charles II and the public holiday would be called
‘Oak Apple Day’. Why ‘Oak Apple Day’ you may ask.
It celebrates the occasion after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, when the future Charles II of England escaped the Roundhead army by hiding with Colonel William Careless in an Oak Tree near Boscobel House.
Boscobel House was a farmhouse owned by the Giffard family – Recusant Catholics who refused to participate in the worship of the established Church of England – and farmed by Colonel Careless’ brother, who rented the land. Colonel Giffard and the King spent all day hiding in a nearby oak tree watching patrols searching for the King.
Charles spent the night hiding in one of Boscobel’s Priest homes then moved on to Moseley Old Hall, another Catholic redoubt near Wolverhampton, and ultimately escaped the region by posing as the servant of Jane Lane of Bentley, whose family were also landowners at Broom Hall and at the Hyde in Brewood.
As a result of Charles’ escape events often entailed the wearing of oak apples (a type of plant gall, possibly known in some parts of the country as a “shick-shack”) or sprigs of oak leaves, in reference to Anyone who failed to wear a sprig of oak risked being pelted with bird’s eggs or thrashed with nettles. Boscobel House and its Royal Oak tree became famous as hiding places of King Charles II after defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. After Charles’s visit Boscobel remained a working farm, and today you can visit the lodge, farmyard, gardens and a descendant of The Royal Oak. White Ladies Priory, another of Charles’s hiding places, is a short walk away.
In Upton Grey, after the church bells had been rung at 6 a.m. the bell-ringers used to place a large branch of oak over the church porch and another over the lych gate. Smaller branches were positioned in the gateway of every house to ensure good luck for the rest of the year.
These ceremonies, which have now largely died out, are perhaps continuations of pre-Christian nature worship. The Garland King who rides through the streets of Castleton in Derbyshire, at the head of a procession, completely disguised in a garland of flowers, which is later affixed to a pinnacle on the parish church tower, can have little connection with the Restoration, even though he dresses in Stuart costume. He is perhaps a kind of Jack in the Green and the custom may have transferred from May Day when such celebrations were permitted again after having been banned by the Puritans.
At Fownhope in Hereford there is a continuing tradition of celebrating Oak Apple Day as the Fownhope Heart of Oak Society organize an annual event, where members of the society gather at the local pub and march through the village holding flower and oak leaf decorated sticks, whilst following the society banner and a brass band. The march goes first to the church for a service, and then to houses who host refreshments. Although Oak Apple Day celebrations have decreased in popularity and knowledge, Fownhope has managed to keep the event going, increasing in popularity and turn-out every year.
The Oak Apple holiday was formally abolished in 1859 – but to this day many communities continue to recognize and celebrate the story of King Charles II in 1681 and his night in a tree.