Oak Apple Day: Echoes of Our Druid Past

Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day is a festival celebrated in Britain on 29th May to mark the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after the interregnum of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic. Its roots, however, like those of the oak itself, might go far deeper.

First, however: the recent history. On a bleak 3rd September in 1651, Charles II lost his last battle against the same men who had signed his father’s death warrant. Knowing that his only hope was to flee, he escaped the skirmish and, seeking refuge with Catholic royalists (who were used to hiding their priests from the puritanical regime of Cromwell), he evaded capture. It was at Boscobel in Shropshire that Charles disguised himself first as a woodsman and, when a crossing of the River Severn into Wales failed, hid in a hollow oak for the day to avoid marauding soldiers.

When Charles regained his throne in 1660, he remembered the oak tree that saved him and declared 29th May as a public holiday in its honour. Everyone wore sprigs of oak upon their lapel or else oak apples, which are galls formed among the leaves by a parasitic wasp. These small round ‘fruit’ give the day its name.

Although the holiday only lasted until 1859, when it was abolished, some aspects of the tradition still survive in parts of the country, where they seem to have merged with customs of those other great lovers of the oak: the Druids. Perhaps some aspects of this great tree move us in similar ways.

For the Druids, whose name may mean ‘wisdom of the oak’, the oak is never more sacred than when mistletoe grew upon its branches. Drawing an analogy between the sticky substance extruded from mistletoe berries and human sperm, the Druids believed that mistletoe enhanced fertility in animals and people alike. In effect, the plant produced the sperm of the oak. We remember something of these beliefs when we kiss under garlands of mistletoe at Christmas.

Charles II was clearly no Druid and yet his Oak Apple Day began to take on saucy overtones. Anyone not wearing an oak apple or a sprig of oak leaves had their bottoms pinched in what became colloquially known as ‘Pinch Bum Day’. Harmless fun. But perhaps also a conflation with the Druid’s mistletoe ceremony and its overtones of fertility. Even the oak apples people wore looked slightly rude.

At Castleton in Derbyshire, a man garlanded in flowers still rides through the town on Oak Apple Day, invoking a pre-Christian nature spirit as much as Royalist sensibility, despite the Stuart costume he wears under the mass of flowers. At Great Wishford in Wiltshire, people exercise their ancient right to collect branches of oak from nearby Grovely Wood. (It is surely a coincidence that Druids carried branches of oak to their rituals.) At Aston-on-Clun in Shropshire, a tree at the centre of the village is dressed in flags, which remain in place until the following year.

For the more masochistically minded, the pinch on the bum for not wearing the requisite oak decoration could be replaced by a jolly good thrashing with nettles. Grammar school boys from Wem in Shropshire used to insist their teachers sit on nettles for the day, before running out of school grounds to wreak havoc. In fact, they started a rhyme, which went “29th of May is Oak Apple Day. If you don’t give us holiday, we’ll all run away”.

Since Britain now has a bank holiday on the last Monday in May, their wish came true but its origin is now largely forgotten. It would be good if the traditions of Oak Apple Day gained wider appeal but, rather than focus on the return of the monarchy, we should honour the oak tree itself. Held sacred from Druid times and still the symbol of our land, it has provided us with food, shelter, and protection. And let’s not forget, the day is also an excellent reason to pinch someone’s bum, unless that is, they are wearing an oak apple on their lapel.

18 Responses to “Oak Apple Day: Echoes of Our Druid Past”

  1. Leiane says:

    The small oak burrs sometimes found on oak trees are called “druids’ balls” in Germany and German folklore has it that the druids wore the small round oak burrs as necklaces. They are often sold to neo-pagans at craft fairs and medieval craft markets.

  2. That’s fascinating Leiane.
    I wish I had known that when I wrote my post.
    Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Thank you for another fascinating and informative blog, Mike.

  4. Jane says:

    I had never realised that the bank holiday weekend had so many historical and folkloric connotations.

  5. Thank you Catherine and Jane; I am so pleased you enjoyed the post.
    And Catherine – your sculpture is incredible. (Anyone else reading this, click on Catherine’s name above and you’ll be taken to her site and can view a selection – simply astonishing).

  6. Matt says:

    Hi, interesting blog, thought I’d share the royal oak day website with you: http://www.royaloakday.org.uk

  7. Thanks Matt and thank you for the link to the site. Good to know that the day is celebrated more widely than I had appreciated.

  8. Cait says:

    :) very timely post, thank you Mike. I’m heading into the woods today to look for some wood from which to create a wand/staff. I’ll watch myself in the pub later though, or find myself an oak apple!!

  9. Thanks Cait and what a brilliant day to look for some wood for a wand. Have fun and watch out behind you!! ~ Mike

  10. Laura Harrison McBride says:

    Wonderful post…but thought I should tell you there’s a transposition typo. It appears the initial 1851 should be 1581. Thanks again. Great post!

  11. Thanks Laura and you’re absolutely right – it should be 1651 not 1861! Well spotted and I’ve now amended the text. Thanks again and glad you enjoyed the article.

  12. Laura Harrison McBride says:

    You sparked a wee painting and an entry for my art-as-life art blog, so I mentioned you. Url here: http://artasithappens.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/oak-apple-day.html

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  13. Hi Laura. A beautiful painting and a wonderful blog post – thanks for sharing the link. And I’m definitely going to watch out for acorn bug disease in my walks through the woods from now on!! Thanks again ~ Mike

  14. Rylin Mariel says:

    I think you meant conflation – a conflagration is “a large destructive fire” from the Latin “to burn up”

  15. Rylin Mariel says:

    Besides that, I loved this very informative article! :)

  16. Hi Rylin. Glad you liked the article and thanks for the correction. You’re quite right and it’s now amended. (Although we Druids do like our large fires!) Thanks again ~ Mike

  17. Jane says:

    Really interesting article – I had no idea of these origins of the second May bank holiday. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Thanks Jane and really pleased you liked the article!