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The Royal Oak at Boscobel

Southwest of Boscobel House, at a distance of about 150 yards (137m) and surrounded by an iron paling, is the tree commonly described as the Royal Oak. There is some doubt whether this is in fact the Royal Oak or some younger tree which has taken its place and its name.
Immediately the story of Boscobel had become known people flocked to see the house and the oak, and almost at once the tree was injured by souvenir hunters removing its young boughs.
The damage was so great that before 1680 the owners of Boscobel, Basil and Jane Fitzherbert, were forced to crop part of the tree and protect it with a high brick wall. Over a door in this wall they placed a stone tablet carved with an inscription reciting the fame and history of the tree.
Their action may have been too late to save the tree or there may have been further damage in later years, one cannot say, but in 1706 John Evelyn wrote that he had heard that the Famous Oak near White Ladies had been killed by people hacking the boughs and bark, and six years later William Stukeley described the tree ‘as almost cut away by travellers’. He also remarked that ‘a young thriving plant from one of its acorns’ was growing ‘close by the side’.
This is the first record of a younger tree growing near the old oak, but during the eighteenth century there are several other accounts of two trees, the one decayed, the other growing beside it, until towards the end of the century a change occurs - the older tree is no longer mentioned and the younger tree alone figures in the descriptions.
In 1784 there is a careful account of the surrounding brick wall, by this time neglected and ruinous, and of the stone tablet with its inscription, but within the enclosure only one tree is described, a tree of middling size, growing within the wall but not in the centre. Again in 1791 only one tree is referred to, a tree of ‘about four score years old’, and in 1809 a writer who had visited Boscobel two years earlier speaks of a tree ‘fine and thrifty…said to have originated from an acorn of the old Oak’.
None of these writers mentions a second tree nor even the remains of one. They speak of the tree they saw as a relatively young one and do not claim that it was the original oak.
Indeed the writer of 1784 also remarks that ‘the old tree has been carried away piece-meal by curious visitors’ and adds that ‘many snuff-boxes and other toys have been made from the wood of this famous oak’.
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The passion for souvenirs, first noted by Thomas Blount in 1660, had evidently continued unabated. Snuff-boxes, tobacco stoppers and other similar items were fashioned from wood taken from the tree, and not even its roots were spared. In the early nineteenth century a seat is mentioned, ‘a large block with an inscription’, cut from part of the root of the Royal Oak!
There is also some evidence of how the tree was finally destroyed. It comes from the Rev Joseph Dale, curate of Donnington from 1811 to 1849, who wrote that some old people at the beginning of the nineteenth century had told him that the last remains of the Royal Oak had been rooted up many years before, and the position of the younger tree in a corner of the enclosure had made it possible to take out ‘the whole of the stock and the thickest portion of the roots’ of the old oak.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that by the end of the eighteenth century the Royal Oak no longer survived. Within the enclosure a younger tree had taken root and grown, and it is this tree that stands at Boscobel today, a memorial to the old oak and, if Stukeley is correct, a descendant of the original tree.
Within the present enclosure are three brass plates engraved with commemorative inscriptions. Two are in Latin and one in English. The smallest plate is the one supplied by Basil and Eliza Fitzherbert in 1787 when they rebuilt the brick wall of their predecessors, Basil and Jane Fitzherbert. The original stone tablet with its inscription had by this time been damaged or destroyed.
The larger brass plates were placed here by Miss Elizabeth Evans in 1875. They give a history of the tree and describe how the second brick wall was replaced in 1817 by iron railings erected by Miss Frances Evans.
It will be noticed that the inscription also refers to the tree as the original Royal Oak. These later plates took the place of yet another made in 1845 which described the tree as descended from the Royal Oak. Between 1845 and 1875, therefore, opinion changed and it may seem strange that there should be this sudden alteration. But by 1875 the second tree had grown to a considerable size; also the memory of an earlier tree had faded from men’s minds and eyewitnesses of an older stump no longer lived to tell the tale. Perhaps even more important, the climate of opinion had changed. Harrison Ainsworth’s romance, Boscobel, or the Royal Oak, had appeared in 1872 and literature about Charles II’s adventures was much in demand. It was at this time that the inscription was altered, and one feels that of all the reasons for the change, sentiment played the major part.
Trees descended from the Boscobel oak no doubt flourish in many parts of the country. There is indeed a pleasant tradition that King Charles II after his restoration planted Boscobel acorns in St James’s Park and carefully watered them himself. In fact a gardener’s dictionary of 1759 mentions a sapling raised from a Boscobel acorn growing near St James’s Palace. It adds, however, that it was cut down at a quite early date, probably when Marlborough House was built.

Please Note: All Civic Society articles relating to “Charles II, Boscobel and White Ladies” have been taken directly from the
English Heritage handbook “Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory”

Village News August 2011