Oak Apple Day: The Public Holiday That Celebrated Our King Hiding Up A Tree

Last Updated 16 May 2024

Oak Apple Day: The Public Holiday That Celebrated Our King Hiding Up A Tree

For more London history, take a look at our weekly newsletter Londonist: Time Machine.

Charles II poking his head out of an oak tree
An artist's impression of that fateful day when Charles II played hide and seek with some Roundheads.

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 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 in Shropshire 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 to reclaim the throne, 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…

A line of Chelsea Pensioners in red tunics
Time to bring back Royal Oak Day as a public holiday? © Royal Hospital Chelsea

So hang on, when Charles shunned up the oak, did it also happen to be his birthday? No, it didn't. 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 as a three-for-the-price-of-one occasion.

"Grovely, Grovely and all Grovely"

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 27 May 1939, taken from the British Newspaper Archive.

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...

A person on horseback covered in flowers
The Castleton 'Garland King' in the mid-1970s. Image: public domain

Oak Apple Day didn't have a bad innings as a public holiday; it was only abolished in 1859 (just a few years before the London Underground opened), lasting just under 200 years. Neither has it vanished altogether; in some parts of the country, scraps of the tradition continue. A horseback 'Garland King' procession takes place in Castleton in the Peak District (as you can see from the image above, hay fever sufferers need not apply), 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." It's a free country, after all.

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

Chelsea Pensioners standing by the gold statue of Charles II
Founder's Day has been celebrated by the Royal Hospital Chelsea almost every year since 1692. © Royal Hospital Chelsea

But it's in London that Oak Apple Day that really sticks to its roots, albeit under a different moniker. Every 29 May is Founder's Day at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, an institution which Charles II established. Confusingly, Founder's Day isn't always celebrated on 29 May — in 2024 it falls on 6 June. Anyhow, this is when, during a private ceremony, the Chelsea Pensioners dress up in all their finery, garnish themselves with a sprig of oak leaves, and honour Charles by adorning his gold Roman-inspired statue (see above) in the hospital grounds with boughs of oak. There's also a visit from one of the royals; in 2024 that's Anne, the Princess Royal. The ceremony has taken place more or less every year since the hospital was established, in 1692.

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? After all, the dragon never existed, and the tree definitely did. Plus, we're living in a age of another King Charles.

If you do fancy celebrating Oak Apple Day this year, but don't happen to be a royal or a Chelsea Pensioner, try one of London's best Royal Oak pubs (maybe 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.