The English Oak is one of the symbols of the British way of life. It has a long connection with the region, particularly with the British Royal family and with the traditions and customs of the British Isles. As our beautiful woodlands are vanishing before our eyes, people may no longer feel the connection with the oak that once existed, and may even wonder how one common tree has come to stand for the whole of the little, but Great Island.
Oak and British Tradition
The history of the connection between the oak and the British lies in the mists of time. Even the genus name Quercus comes from two words, quer and cues, which together mean ‘fine tree’. In the Celtic religion, the tree was dedicated to Dagda, the god of lightning. There is a traditional connection between the oak and the British Druids, where large numbers of oaks were planted in holy areas, and rituals and even local judicial events were conducted beneath the strong branches of the tree.
The legal connections of the tree were so strong that it was common for couples to be married under an Oak right until the Restoration. As the oak tree can live for a thousand years, it is possible that couples from the Celtic to the early medieval period married under the same village oak.
The Royal Oak
As the traditional heritage of the oak tree was fading in England, the future Charles II was hiding in an oak tree in the grounds of Boscobel House. He is thought to have stayed in the tree for many hours, hiding from Parliamentarian forces in about 1650. After his restoration in 1660, he named the 29th of May as a national holiday, and it was called ‘Oak Apple Day’. It is still celebrated in some areas, and sprigs of oak leaves were worn to celebrate the date.
There is some suggestion that these celebrations mixed restoration festivals with a pre-Christian ceremony. In addition to this date, The Royal Oak became a familiar pub name across Britain, with more than 500 Royal Oak pubs in 2007.
Oak and the Navy
Another great tradition which connects the British to the oak tree is the Navy. When the English kings first started to build up the Navy in the 16th century, the common wood used was oak. The Navy uses a quick march known as the Heart of Oak, with the line “Heart of Oak are our ships” reminding sailors that the traditional warship was built from the very middle of the oak tree, considered to be the strongest.
From ancient holy ceremonies to Restoration celebrations, the oak tree is at the heart of many British traditions. As the wood favoured by the builders of the Royal Navy, it has come to symbol the strength and security of the British Kingdom, and its connection to the monarchy, to tradition and to the woods of Britain have lead to it becoming the symbol of the Isles.
Nick Halls is co-director of Rustic Oak, and part of the team who specialise in creating bespoke Oak furniture, and are based in Essex.