29th May, a commemoration of the restoration of the monarchy in England
"The wise boy wore his oak leaves, armed himselves (sic) with a stinging nettle and carried a few dock leaves for first aid just in case"
– Bibliography of Nottinghamshire Folk Plays & Related Customs
I remembered too late - I was on the bus before I noticed the other boys wearing them, and it was too late to get any oak leaves (or better, an oak apple). Other years I had raided the woods at the top of our road for some, but this year I'd somehow forgotten completely. It was indeed the wise boy who went rigged out, and I remember that one year I was ill-prepared, and suffered the slings and arrows
wielded by my school chums
that one year I forgot.
The tradition varied around the country, but the reason was the same. Bad old Oliver Cromwell and his wicked Roundheads had lost the Civil War, his incompetent son Richard had stepped down, and the Commonwealth of England had failed. Charles II returned to England, arriving in London on 29th May, 1660, his 30th birthday. He was eventually restored to the throne, being crowned on 23 April 1661.
Parliament proposed an annual public holiday to commemorate this event, and set a committee in motion, to prepare a bill
...for keeping of a perpetual Anniversary, for a Day of Thanksgiving to God, for the great Blessing and Mercy he hath been graciously pleased to vouchsafe to the People of these Kingdoms, after their manifold and grievous Sufferings, in the Restoration of his Majesty, with Safety, to his People and Kingdoms: 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.†
The holiday was indeed celebrated - for example, in the town of Bridgwater
in Somerset, "Revels were said to have been held near Pig Cross on Oak Apple Day (29 May) until the 1830s"
. In 1859
, the holiday (confusingly, known as Arbor Day
to some) was abolished, but the spirit of it lived on in many parts of England, mostly connected with the oak tree.
A Spanking! A Spanking!
Or rather, the avoidance of one. In many parts of the country, the anniversary was marked by the wearing of oak leaves, or oak apples (a gall formed where a wasp lays its eggs). Failure to comply meant that one would face some form of punishment, varying from one place to another.
Those who refused to wear an oak-sprig were often set upon, and children would challenge others to show their sprig or have their bottoms pinched. Consequently, this day became known as Pinch-Bum-Day.‡
Other punishments included "scragging" (being beaten), having soil rubbed into the hair, and being whipped with nettles. The latter was the proscribed treatment in the village school of Blidworth, Nottinghamshire, as late as 1964. I know. That was the year I forgot.
The Oak Connection
It is said that Charles' life was saved after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, when he escaped from the Roundhead army by hiding in an oak tree in the grounds of Boscobel House in Staffordshire, hence the wearing of oak leaves to commemorate his return to the throne.
It is possible, however, that the day itself reflects another, older, pagan ceremony - the town of Castleton in Derbyshire a parade in honour of the "Garland King", who "rides through the streets of Castleton, Derbyshire, at the head of a procession, completely disguised in greenery", on this date, possibly a reference to worship of the Green Man.
Whilst Oak Apple Day is no longer a public holiday, it is not yet completely forgotten. At All Saints Church in Northampton, a garland of oak-apples is still laid at Charles II's statue each year.
The Chelsea Pensioners of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, also still parade on this day for inspection by a member of the Royal Family (it being "Founder's Day", in honour of King Charles II, who founded the Hospital). Oak leaves are still very much in evidence, although I doubt whether detractors still get whipped with nettles.