Hello, Nicola here with greetings on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815. I'm deep in deadline territory (the manuscript is due in today!) and I'm sitting here on a beautiful sunny day when I would far rather be outside enjoying the countryside. So I thought I would compromise – if I can't go out I can bring the countryside in. So I am blogging about an article I wrote a few years ago for my Public History course. It's a bit unusual but I hope it interests you. It's about the place of the oak tree in the history of Britain.
The Celts, the Norse and the Germanic races held the oak as sacred from pre-Christian times. In Greek, Roman, Norse and Celtic cultures it was associated with the storm gods Esus, Zeus, Jupiter, Donar and Thor because its size and low electrical resistance makes it more prone to be struck by lightning than other woodland trees. It was also believed to be a tree of prophecy and a channel for communication with the Gods. In Homer’s Iliad, Odysseus travels to Dodona to consult the oak tree oracle as to the plans of Zeus.
It was the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus who used the term robur (from the Latin for strength) to describe the common oak. In doing so he was referring to a dual quality of the oak – its robustness as a living tree and the strength of its timber. It is hardy enough to withstand attacks by pests and diseases, and extremes of heat and cold. For thousands of years it has been used for construction purposes where durability was required. Its use for coffins also had a dual purpose. The strength of the wood in the physical sense made it a sound choice for burials but it was also chosen for the sense of safe passage that it conveyed in protecting the dead on their journey to the next world.
From the pagan image of the Green Man garlanded by oak leaves found in many parish churches to the writing of Shakespeare and Keats, the oak has rooted itself deep in the British national consciousness and its influence is represented in many ways.
The Royal Oak is the second most popular pub name in Britain, after the Red Lion. Pub names are key words and phrases that unlock doors to social and military history, folklore, national heroes and heroines, natural history, dialects, trades, industries and professions, sports and the sometimes odd British sense of humour.
The original Royal Oak was the Boscobel Oak near Shifnal in Shropshire where King Charles II and Colonel Carless hid from noon to dusk after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. After the Restoration, the 29th May, the King's birthday was declared Royal Oak Day. Ironically, it was the popular cult of the Boscobel Oak that killed the tree itself; it was dead by the end of the nineteenth century because patriotic souvenir-hunters tore off its branches, thereby hastening its demise. The name, the cult and the link to the pub all live on in the Royal Oak ale now made by the Eldridge Pope brewery. It is described as: “A beautifully soft, well-balanced, bitter, strong, full-flavoured pint."
The association of oak trees with national heroes can be no coincidence. Where else could Robin Hood have met his Merry Men than under the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest? The story could not have been the same, either visually or symbolically if the tree had been a silver birch. The joint symbolism of the hero and the talismanic tree is a powerful one. Here the qualities of both man and tree are entwined, representing once again strength, protection, durability, courage and truth.
The connection of hero and oak tree can also be traced through King Arthur, whose Round Table was said to be hewn from a massive piece of oak and whose coffin at Glastonbury Abbey – if indeed the coffin was Arthur’s – was made from a hollowed out oak tree. Other oak trees that have been associated with British heroes include the Elderslie Oak, which was said to have sheltered William Wallace and 300 of his men (that must have been a BIG tree!) and Owen Glendower’s Oak from which tree he witnessed the battle between King Henry IV and Henry Percy, Macbeth’s Oak at Birnam and Sir Philip Sydney’s oak tree at Penshurst. In all cases the trees are associated with or commemorate a war hero. They shed some of their strength and gravitas on the character, whose exploits mirror the timeless power of the tree.
It is significant that in most cases the oak tree in English folklore has been a symbol of loyalty rather than of revolution, whereas during the French Revolution the tree of liberty was often represented as the oak. Kett’s Oak, in Norfolk, however is a symbol of rebellion. In July 1549 Robert Kett led an uprising against the Crown to demand the end to the practice of enclosure of common land. He made a rousing speech beneath the oak tree on the village green in Wymondham and led a mob in the march on Norwich, where he captured the castle. Defeated by the Earl of Warwick, Kett was condemned for treason and hanged. His oak tree lived on, however, and became a symbol of freedom from oppression. Under the name of the Reformation Oak it became a place of regular pilgrimage for political radicals.
In 1763 Roger Fisher, published Heart of Oak, The British Bulwark, in which he argued empires rose or fell depending on their abundance or dearth of the oak. Fisher warned that the gentry were squandering the future by leaving woodlands to be destroyed by animals protected for the hunt, frittering away the birthright of future Britons so they might fund their passions for "horses and dogs, wine and women, cards and folly". "We are preying on our vitals," Fisher warned, "yet the bulk of the nation is insensible to it." It was left to the newly formed Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts to change attitudes. The Society offered prizes to those who planted the most trees – supremely the oak – but also the softwood conifers used for masts. As a result, acorn fever took hold. The great Dukes planted acre after acre of oak trees. Naval officers on leave, like Collingwood, went around surreptitiously scattering acorns from holes in his breeches in the parks of his unsuspecting hosts!
The title "Heart of Oak" had already been used for a poem by David Garrick, written in 1759:
“Hearts of Oak are of ships, hearts of oak are our men,
We always are ready, Steady boys, steady!
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.”
This used the image of the oak tree to represent the strength of Britain’s fighting men. Garrick was writing at a time of military success in the Seven Years War, when victories in the West Indies, Canada, India and off the coast of France had thwarted Louis XV’s plans to invade Britain. Botanically speaking, the heart or hearts of oak is the central part of the tree, which has no sap and was prized in shipbuilding. During Nelson’s time 2000 oaks would have been used to build a 74 gun warship.These ships were the "wooden walls" that protected Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. In Garrick’s poem the “hearts of oak” were both the British ships of the line and the men who sailed them. These were the stalwart defence, the protection against the ever-present threat of foreign invasion that had been a motif of British life for centuries.
These days the British Houses of Parliament are panelled in oak, hard, plain, solid and austere. The power of the symbolism of the oak not only in history but also in the present day was demonstrated with the discovery of the Bronze Age timber circle at Holme in Norfolk in 1998. For some it was a spiritual site, a symbol of the beliefs and ideas of long dead ancestors. For others it was purely historical, a glimpse into a distant era that we can only read about in history books. For everyone it held its own magic as a direct and tangible link with the past.
The language of trees is in use every day. We are rooted in history, we branch out, we grow or re-grow, and we trace our family tree. Genealogy is frequently represented by the image of the tree with its visible roots going down into the earth. Even today the focus of many English villages is an ancient oak on a village green. In its shade people sit and talk. Notices pinned to its bark tell of fetes and fairs, marriages and funerals, items lost and found and other announcements of local importance. The oak has been and continues to be part of the fabric of life. Do you have a favorite tree, or a tree that features in folklore or stories, or one that has played a significant part in local events?