Queen Elizabeth’s Oak

Greenwich Park

My rather spurious reason for including this just now is merely that the postcard I have of this grand old (ex)tree, sent over 100 years ago in 1904, shows it covered in holly and ivy.

Of course, even at that time it was actually only being kept up by the creepers, as A D Webster reported in 1902 that “the tree is quite dead, the last living shoots having been noticed about twenty four years ago.”

Why Queen Elizabeth’s Oak? Because popular tradition reckons that Henry VIII sported with Anne Boleyn under its branches (well, ok, ‘danced’) and the fruit of his loins, the future QEI “oft partook of refreshments” in its shade. It’s not, by the way, the tree under which she was sitting eating an apple when she discovered she had been made Queen. That’s at Hatfield House.

Is it true? Who knows – and to some extent, who cares. History is not always facts. It’s interpretation too. But enough of the philosophy and back to the tree…

It was certainly a grand old oak by the time Henry and his latest wife were dancing around it. Obviously no one put plaques under trees when they planted them in the 12th Century – but it seems to have been an acorn around that time – long before Duke Humphrey was building Bela Court.

AD Webster gets quite excited about the gnarled old tree. It was ‘fully twenty feet in girth,’ he tells us – and had become completely hollow a good few centuries earlier. The space inside was big enough – over six feet in diameter – for all kinds of shenanigans to go on – especially when someone took it upon themselves to put a door in the side (facing One Tree Hill) and then add paving inside and a window for good measure. Apparently it was even used as a lock-up for sundry felons who broke park rules – presumably playing loud music, having film screenings or generally having fun and annoying local residents…

Webster mentions a ‘rustic seat’ accommodating 15 people placed around the outside for Victorian visitors to enjoy but even he admits that “it is hardly likely that this ancient and honoured monarch of the forest will remain intact for many more years.”

In fact, the only thing that really seems surprising is that the venerable old oak lasted as long as it did. Despite its being so high up on a hill, it managed to survive the 1987 storm, and, amazingly, it wasn’t wind that finally brought it down in 1991. It was rain. Such heavy rain, in fact, that the ground became muddy and soft and the ivy was washed away. Without its natural scaffolding, the poor old thing finally took a tumble.

It’s still there, home to all kinds of beetles and fungus, slowly decaying behind a cast iron fence. A baby oak was planted by The Duke of Edinburgh in 1992, and this time it has a plaque so phantoms of the future will be able to date it…

While we’re on the subject of hollow trees (and it being the time of year it is) I should also mention the splendid old holly trees along the path from the Observatory to Queen Elizabeth’s oak which provide extremely good emergency cover, as I discovered not so long ago, when a sharp shower caught me as I was walking across with a friend – we dashed into the middle (they may look solid, but their leaves, going right down to the ground, are merely a canopy) and my friend, myself and a rather enthusiastic stray dog sheltered there, completely dry, for the ten minutes the rain took to pass.

A note on the postcard. What did people write about 100 years ago, sitting under an ancient oak tree in Greenwich Park? Here’s what my sender, P. Clarke wrote:

If you come across a stray piece of seaweed, do not forget me as I am fond of it.

Well. There you have it. It just goes to show you shouldn’t read other people’s correspondence…

One Comment to “Queen Elizabeth’s Oak”

  1. Just found this entry and linked to it. Fascinating about the tree, thanks for this! :)