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  • Oaks: Sacrificial and Otherwise June 20, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    ***This post is dedicated to Justin, who introduced Beach to the Tree that Owns Itself***

    ‘From little acorns might oaks…’ blah blah blah. But, seriously, oaks have long caught the human imagination from sacrificial oaks – Beach has a ‘book’ memory of a German tribe that use to hammer one part of their victim’s guts to an oak and then chase him round and round the trunk – to the Gospel Oak at which a medieval community would listen to a bit of MMLaJ before setting out to beat the bounds. But what about specific oak trees that have made it into the history books?

    Beach spent a long walk with tiny Miss B strapped to his front working up a mental list. He couldn’t think of any classical oaks – bar some sarcastic comments about acorn-burping early Romans. But Drunemeton came to mind. This place – meaning ‘the Sanctuary of Oaks’ – was a shrine of the Gauls who founded a kingdom in Galatia in Central Turkey (another post another day). Did the druids gather their mistletoe there under the sultry Anatolian sun? We can but hope. Moving from the Celtic to the Germanic there was also the Donar Oak – the Thunder Oak: a tree dedicated to Thor that may have been chopped down by the tedious St Boniface in the eighth century: Boniface was one of those missionary types who seemed intent on making Christianity’s carbon footprint as large as possible.

    The oaks of the Sacred Grove and the Oak of Donar are lost but others are still with us. The Gernikako Arbola, ‘the Tree of Guernica’ happily survived Junkers in 1937 only to be laid low by a fungus – it has since been replaced by a ‘son’. It is here, in any case, that the kings of Castille swore to respect the rights of the Basque people: and the number of holy oaks in the Basque lands suggests that the oak marked gathering places of the Basque tribes in ancient and early medieval times.

    Given their size and their, let’s call it, ‘charisma’, oaks around the world have long been places of muster. The famous Treaty Oak in Texas was a meeting point for the Comanches, afterwards becoming a focus of Austin life. The Takovo Bush was a rallying point of patriots in the Second Serbian Uprising against the Turks.

    Sometimes these gatherings were spontaneous rather than traditional. The Emancipation Oak in Hampton, Virginia was where escaped slaves in the Civil War learnt of their freedom. And just down the (Italian) road from where Beachcombing is writing  are some glorious oaks under which the local villagers ‘hid’ from Allied bombing raids in the war. Beachcombing has never pointed out to his elderly neighbours the obvious flaw in their leafed bomb-shelter: oak leaves and twigs vs shrapnel… He always nods though to the trees in question as he passes.

    Some trees played a role or were privileged witnesses. Think, for example, of the Queen Elizabeth Oak at Hatfield in Buckinghamshire under which Elizabeth I learnt that she was to become queen. A true story? The problem is that if you find a beautiful spreading oak tree what patriotic locals will be able to resist inventing a back story: ‘twas here that Bonny Prince Charlie took a knap on his way back from Manchester…’ etc etc.

    Certainly, some oak stories sound too good to be true: did Jan III, resting on his way back from the Battle of Vienna really hide a Turkish sword in the trunk of the Bartek Oak, Poland’s most famous tree? In the good old days Beachcombing could have said ‘we’ll never know’: now, damn it, they’ve provided us with portable x-ray machines that would bereft the BO of its history quicker than you can say ‘cobblers’.

    Many oak stories sadly fall into the cobblers genre. So was the Charter Oak in Connecticut really where the colony’s charter was hidden from a rapacious governor? Did Robin Hood truly gallivant around the five or six oaks connected to him in central and northern England? (Did Robin Hood really exist?) Is the Mercer Oak at Princeton where Hugh Mercer steadied himself after being wounded in a melee between the colonists and the Brits? In all these cases the stories are good and the sources are poor:  a common circumstance of bizarre history.

    But sometimes oak stories stand up to scrutiny. As a monarchist with notable odium towards Cromwell and his proto-Marxist skinheads (aka Roundheads) Beachcombing particularly enjoys the tale of Charles II’s escape at Boscobel. Fleeing after the catastrophic Battle of Worcester Charles spent an entire day up an oak tree while the enemy combed the woods roundabout: at one point a Parliamentarian passed directly beneath him. In happier times – i.e. when Charles had returned as king – the tree became known as the Royal Oak and a pension was given to the Pendrell family on whose land the oak stood: England being England it is still paid today. The Royal Oak is now dead but Son of Royal Oak (pictured above) stands in its place and if anyone could see their way to getting Beach an acorn from that tree he would gladly send a couple of books their way.

    Finally, a mention for the most unusual oak of all: the Tree that Owns Itself. Standing in Athens, Georgia this particular tree was left to itself in a will of a member of the local Jackson family in the early nineteenth century: reportedly one William Jackson had wanted to show his gratitude for the times he had spent under and on the tree as a child. There is no documentation to prove this story either – the first report  comes late in 1890 – and, in any case, any documentation would have no legal value, but locals have respected the tree (and now its successor)’s ‘land’, namely eight feet around its trunk. ‘Sit semper’.

    Any other historical oaks? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    PS Beachcombing should pass on a link to this obscure Scottish folk ditty about a tree that has seen everything (though it is yew not an oak): anyone who grew up with the whining of pipes will enjoy it, anyone else should stay clear as if their mother’s life depended on it.

    ‘And the words of the song were a thousand year long…’


    21 June 2011: PCB confesses – ‘When I was 19 or so, the gods of hitchhiking dropped me in the small village of Copt Oak, Leicestershire, where the locals in the pub told me the name came from an oak that had had its head chopped off in silent protest of Lady Jane Grey’s untimely shortening. I think this is perhaps a false memory, resulting from too much Guinness and the passage of time, but I note a similar tradition in nearby Bradgate Park, where the oaks are likewise copt.’ Thanks for the memories PCB!!!

    25 June 2011: Today a couple of oak tips: First, comes Luis ‘a small but hopefully valuable addendum to your historical oaks’ post, in Allouville-Bellefosse, a small town of Normandy stands an oak dating from the middle ages, that saw William the Conqueror armies. After having avoided being destroyed by numerous lightning hits, it was so popular that the local parish decided to build a chapel in its trunk that had became empty at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1793 the revolution crowd wanted to burn it at stake, for it was a religious building, but the parish decided to rename the chapel Temple of Reason and this saved it. It still is a popular landmark, in average health conditions but very well cared and cherished by the locals.’ Then Judith W, creator of the Zenobia website has found one of those classical references that escaped the befuddled Beachcombing – the prophetic oaks of Dordona. Thanks Judith ahd thanks Luis!