You might have noticed that May only has one bank holiday this year thanks to the extra bank holidays we get for the Platinum Jubilee, but did you know that May used to have a national holiday on 29th? This holiday was known as oak Apple Day and at one time, it was one of the most important holidays of the year. So, what happened?

Oak Apple Day was brought in as a public holiday on 29th May 1660 as a way to commemorate the restoration of the English Monarchy, mostly because it was the day that Charles II returned to London to take his throne and also happened to be his birthday. For years after the restoration, royalists would wear a sprig of oak leaves with some oak apples attached and anyone not seen wearing one would be beaten with stinging nettles and have their hat pulled down over their eyes. It wasn’t just clothes that were decorated, it was also customary to decorate statues and your front door with oak leaves too.

So, how exactly did oak leaves become associated with the returning king? To answer that we need to head back to 1651 and the Battle of Worcester.

During this time, England was in the midst of a Civil War brought on by the continuing tension between the King and Parliament. By the Battle of Worcester, King Charles I had been executed by a council led by Oliver Cromwell who became the country’s figurehead and England was known as a Commonwealth. This didn’t completely end the fighting though, the Civil War continued for some time with parliamentarians battling the remaining royalist forces led by King Charles I’s son, also Charles.

On 3rd September 1651, the parliamentarians and royalists met in Worcester for a battle. With the fight turning against him, Charles II escaped from the parliamentarians by hiding in an oak tree near Boscobel House in Shropshire. After evading capture, he lived in disguise for some time, narrowly remaining at large until 16th October when he finally landed in Normandy. He then lived in France in exile with his siblings and mother for a number of years.

Back in England, Oliver Cromwell was named Lord Protector but when his son took over on his death, everything went very quickly downhill. Due to his inexperience and general lack of leadership skills, Robert Cromwell was forced to resign. This led to another period of unrest throughout the country, resulting in the Governor of Scotland bringing an army to London and forcing parliament to readmit those still loyal to the King. With these members back in parliament, a series of concessions and negotiations took place with Charles II from his base in France, inviting him to return to England and take up the throne. He arrived in London on 29th May, his 30th birthday where he was returned to the throne and the decision was made to ignore the brief period of abolition. The line of succession now insisted that Charles II immediately followed his father as King. To commemorate this, parliament passed into law: An Act of Perpetual Anniversary Thanksgiving on the Nine and Twentieth Day of May, making 29th May officially a public holiday.

Consequently, oak leaves became a symbol of Royal sympathises and on Oak Apple Day, it was customary to hold parties and dance. It was common for children to show their oak leaves to risk being whipped with nettles or pinched. In some areas it was necessary to wear the oak sprig only until noon, as after this time, you were safe from ridicule. It wasn’t just people and doors that were decorated, even trains would have boughs of oak on.

As a public holiday, Oak Apple Day was abolished in 1859, but it is still celebrated in some places in the UK. In Worcester, the location of the Battle and known as the Faithful City, Oak Apple Day is still commemorated by decorating the entrance gate to the Guildhall with oak branches.

Northampton also celebrates the day. Charles II is a particular favourite of the town because he gave the town 1000 tonnes of timber to rebuild it after a huge fire. There is a statue in the town and this is decorated every year with oak leaves.

Celebrations also still take place in London. The Chelsea Pensioners hold a parade on the day to remember the founding of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which Charles II set up as a home for Army Pensioners. To this day, the parade is inspected by a member of the royal family in honour of Charles II.

There are a couple of historic houses associated with Charles II that also still mark the day by holding special events. Find out more about Charles II and the English Civil War here.




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