May 29th used to be a public holiday here in Britain. It was called Oak Apple Day. An oak apple is a kind of gall, that sometimes grows on oak trees. It is the home of a tiny wasp larva. But that’s not what’s being celebrated here. Because that would be weird. No, Oak Apple Day is all about celebrating a king hiding in a tree.
We had beheaded our king, Charles I, in 1649 as a result of the English Civil War. His son escaped and was briefly made king of Scotland, but it all went very wrong and he was forced to flee. Despite having a price of £1000 pounds on his head, he found friends to help him. Cromwell’s New Model Army were everywhere, it wasn’t safe to hide in a house so he had to climb an oak tree and hid there. He later told his friend Samuel Pepys that he could see the soldiers passing directly underneath the tree. He eventually managed to make it to France where he stayed for nine years. On 29th May 1660, which was also his 30th birthday, the monarchy was restored and he was made king. The following day, Parliament declared that is would be made a national holiday.
Everyone would wear an oak apple or a sprig of oak leaves on that day in celebration of the event. You need to understand that under Cromwell’s rule, we weren’t allowed to celebrate anything. I mentioned earlier this month that the Puritans, who were in charge during the Commonwealth, weren’t keen on theatre. They also banned alcohol and Christmas. Charles II, on the other hand, was all about fun, which was a bit of a relief and certainly an occasion worth celebrating. In fact, you could get into trouble for not celebrating it. Anyone found not wearing their oak could be beaten with nettles or have eggs thrown at them.
In 1859 parliament changed their minds about Oak Apple Day and abolished it. They decided it had become associated with drunkenness and general mayhem. But the day is still celebrated in some places. The picture on the left shows the annual celebration in Castleton in Derbyshire. The person covered in the flowery bell is King Charles and the lady behind him is the Queen. They are both dressed in period costume and the king is certainly hidden, but there’s definitely something else going on here. They ride around the town accompanied by a band, morris dancers and little girls dressed in white. Then the huge garland is hoisted up the side of the church tower where it hangs until the flowers wilt. It’s probably related to an earlier May Day ceremony that would also have been banned by the Puritans. Perhaps the King is a stand in for a Jack-in-the-Green figure representing the pagan spirit of the greenwood. I did find a book from the early 1820s that described a ceremony at Tiverton in Devon, where the procession was led by a figure known as ‘Oliver’. Presumably, he was meant to represent Cromwell. He was dressed in black and had his face smeared with soot and grease and was tied up with a rope. He capered about the crowd in a ludicrous manner and children threw dirt at him.
When I started to read up a little bit about oak apples, I found out that they weren’t just a weird growth formed by an invasive insect, they were once actually quite useful. Oak galls were used to make iron gall ink. It was made by mixing the tannin from oak galls with iron sulfate. Being both permanent and waterproof, it was the most popular method of making ink in Europe for around 1400 years. Leonardo da Vinci used it, so did Vincent van Gogh. The earliest surviving copy of the Bible was written with it and iron gall ink was used to draft the American Declaration of Independence. So maybe it is worth celebrating tiny wasps after all.