The history of Britain is undoubtedly also a history of oak. For as long as Britain has existed as a country, oak has played a huge part in religion, industry and architecture. The oak tree and oak leaf have long been symbols of strength and the connection the people of Britain have to their land. In fact, the English pedunculate oak (Quercus Robur) derives its name from the Latin word for strength. A 2017 survey found that Britain possesses more ancient oak trees than the rest of Europe combined. Remains of oak trees up to 300,000 years old have been discovered in Britain, so our relationship to oak as a population comes as no surprise.
Two of the largest organisations devoted to British conservation also use the oak leaf as their emblem. The Woodland Trust are dedicated to preserving British woodlands, having planted over 43 million trees since 1972. The National Trust are best known for their work preserving heritage sites and historic buildings, many built from oak themselves. Oak trees have even featured on British currency, most notably the pre decimal sixpence and the modern pound coin.
Oak in British Religion
The Roman and Viking invaders of Britain considered the oak sacred to Jupiter and Thor, respectively. Oak trees are more susceptible to lightning strikes than any other species and lightning bolts were symbols of both gods. The druids of Britain sought inspiration, or ‘Arwen’ from lightning and revered oak trees for the same reason. The mistletoe that was important to their rituals also grows on oak trees. It is thought that its use in druidic cures for infertility led to the modern tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe.
Its other medicinal uses were also well known to the druids and these were seen as a gift from the land. The tradition of burning an oak log during the winter solstice also inspired the yule log decorated with mistletoe. Two oak pillars stand at the base of Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, a well known spiritual site. These are named Gog and Magog, after two legendary pagan giants, said to have been the protectors of ancient London. They are thought to be the remains of an avenue of oak pillars leading to the Tor.
Oak in Peace and Wartime
The oak leaf has been a symbol awarded for bravery and service in wartime for millennia. From 1914, British and Commonwealth service personnel mentioned in despatches have been awarded a metal oak leaf device. This is worn on the campaign medal as a symbol of bravery and service. The 22nd Cheshire Regiment wear an oak leaf when parading for royalty and display it on their regimental colours. This is in recognition of their protection of George II in 1743. Roman soldiers who saved a citizen during battle would be awarded a crown of oak leaves, known as the ‘civic oak’.
Oak was a major building material for the Viking longships that raided the British coast and brought settlers from Scandinavia. It was used in many medieval war machines and later in gun carriages and cannon frames. For centuries the British navy was the largest in the world and the cornerstone of Britain’s military might. The wide availability of oak allowed the building of many huge warships, vital to the wartime success of an island nation. When the British oak forests were depleted, wars were fought on the European mainland to acquire more. The wide use of oak for naval vessels until the 19th century earned the navy the nickname ‘the wooden walls of old England’. There have been eight British warships named HMS Royal Oak.
In peacetime, oak has been used for a multitude of industrial, food and medicinal purposes. The bark from young oak trees is high in tannins useful for leather tanning. This has been used for thousands of years and some modern companies still use it. Until the 19th century, ink was manufactured using the galls that grow on oak bark. This means that every important historic document written before this time owes its existence to oak based ink. Oak barrels for food storage and alcohol production have been used throughout history. They are waterproof and hardwearing and can impart flavours not found anywhere else. Oak shavings can be used to preserve and flavour cheese, meat and fish and acorns were ground for flour in prehistoric times. Oak leaves and acorns produce delicious wines and roasted acorns have even been used as a coffee substitute. Acorns are rich in nutrients, low in fat and sugars and have been used as a food source around the world. They are also a nutritious component of animal feed in farming.
The water used to soak acorns to remove bitter tannins and soften the flesh has useful medicinal properties as well. It is antiseptic and anti-viral and can be applied to the skin to soothe irritation and rashes. The dried inner bark from oak trees can be brewed into a tea like drink known as a decoction and used to treat diarrhoea. Oak leaves softened in warm water have been used as field dressings during battles to reduce swelling and bleeding. They can also be applied as antiseptic poultices when mashed up. Before the advent of modern medicine, these treatments could have been the difference between life and death. So strong was the belief in the healing properties of oak that acorns were carried as charms to ward off illness.
The Royal Oak
It comes as no surprise that The Royal Oak is the third most popular pub name in Britain. Oak trees crop up regularly in the history of monarchs and other nobles of Britain. While some of these stories may be apocryphal, they emphasise the prominence of the oak in the history and folklore of Britain.
- Queen Elizabeth’s Oak once stood in Greenwich Park in London until it was unfortunately felled by a storm in 1991. It is said that Henry VIII and his wife Anne Boleyn once danced around the oak. In her youth, Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed picnicking in its shade. Centuries later, the hollow trunk was used to imprison criminals caught in the park.
- In Bradgate Park in Leicestershire, a stand of pollarded oaks remain from the Tudor era. Their tops were removed in 1554 after the beheading of Lady Jane Grey, born at nearby Bradgate Hall.
- After the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the defeated Charles II fled and hid in an oak tree at Boscobel House. This saved his life and after the Restoration in 1660, he declared May 29th Royal Oak Day.
- During Cromwell’s period of rule, weddings were held beneath oak trees, a tradition started by the druids.
- In 1743, George II fought at the Battle of Dettingen, the last British monarch to do so. After his horse bolted, he sought shelter beneath a nearby oak tree. He was protected from the French army by troops of the Cheshire Regiment. After the battle, he presented them with a sprig of oak as a symbol of his gratitude. This emblem is still used by the regiment today.
- The largest living oak in Britain, with a girth of 33 feet, stands in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham. It is Known as the Major Oak and is said to have been used by Robin Hood and his outlaws, who hid in its branches. Modern evidence has cast doubt on this, but the legend persists.
- In Perth and Kinross in Scotland, an ancient oak known as the Birnham Oak still stands, albeit with supporting braces. This is the last remnant of the Birnham Forest, mentioned by William Shakespeare in Macbeth.
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