An artist’s impression of that fateful day

Christians wearing a crucifix, quipped Bill Hicks, is “kinda like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant on”.

You might draw a similar comparison to the tradition born of Oak Apple Day — that of wearing oak apples or leaves to commemorate Charles II’s less-than-kingly feat of secreting himself up a tree after fleeing a battle. Is this something the Merry Monarch would honestly want to be reminded of? Apparently so. As Charles sashayed triumphantly back into London on 29 May 1660, Royalists proudly brandished branches of oak, a gesture that coincided with these glad tidings from Parliament:

Resolved, That a Bill be prepared for keeping of a perpetual Anniversary, for a Day of Thanksgiving to God… And that the Nine-and-twentieth Day of May, in every Year, being the Birth Day of his Sacred Majesty, and the Day of his Majesty’s Return to his Parliament, be yearly set apart for that Purpose…

So hang on, when Charles shunned up the oak, did it also happen to be his birthday? No, it didn’t. As an article from a 1912 edition of the Coventry Herald explains, Charlie scarpered from the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. So essentially, Oak Apple Day celebrates his birthday, his return to London, and the Restoration combined, rather than the arboreal incident itself.

But then, you’ve got to have strong branding.

Chelsea Pensioners at play. Image: Shutterstock

“Grovely, Grovely and all Grovely”

Anyway, it seems the folk of London — and England as a whole — lapped up the idea of Oak Apple Day (or Shick Shack Day or Oak and Nettle Day or Arbor Tree Day), and wore their oaky decorations with pride, not least because some sources suggest if they DIDN’T, people faced being “pelted with bird’s eggs or thrashed with nettles”. Merry Monarch indeed.

Oak Apple Day didn’t have a bad innings as a public holiday; it was only abolished in 1859, lasting just under 200 years. Neither has it vanished altogether; in some parts of the country, scraps of celebration continue. A horseback ‘Garland King’ procession takes place in Castleton in the Peak District, while in Great Wishford, Wiltshire, locals adorn the church with oak boughs, then head to Salisbury Cathedral, where they all chant “Grovely, Grovely and all Grovely.”

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 27 May 1939

What about reinstating Oak Apple Day as a holiday instead of St George’s Day?

But it’s in London that Oak Apple Day is still going strongest, albeit under a different moniker. Every 29 May is Founder’s Day at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, an institution which Charles II established in 1682. Confusingly, Founder’s Day isn’t always celebrated on 29 May — in 2019 it falls on 6 June. Anyhow, this is when, during a private ceremony, the Chelsea Pensioners dress up in all their finery, plus a sprig of oak leaves, and honour Charles, by adorning his conspicuously Roman-looking statue in the hospital grounds with boughs of oak. There’s also a (varyingly awkward) visit from one of the contemporary royals; Prince Harry’s appearance in 2011 will probably best be remembered for the moment a mischievous OAP inquired “When are you getting married?”.

Every April, we hear a cacophony of whining that St George’s Day isn’t a public holiday. But what about reinstating Oak Apple Day instead? OK, George DID kill a dragon, and Charles II DID leg it up a tree. But at least the tree actually existed. Anyone who doesn’t join in gets a mush-full of pigeon yolk — sound fair?

If you do fancy celebrating Oak Apple Day, and don’t happen to be a royal or a Chelsea Pensioner, try one of London’s best Royal Oak pubs (try The Royal Oak, or perhaps The Royal Oak), go on a random jaunt to Royal Oak Underground station, or simply shun up an oak tree somewhere, and pretend the people below you are snarling Roundheads. Go on, see what happens.

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