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 1851, 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 conflagration 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.