Our Six Favourite Cultural and Historic References to the Mighty English Oak

It has been a pretty good last few years for all things English.

We’ve seen William and Kate tie the knot and subsequently bring a future king of England into the world. Not to mention the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations and the small matter of a London Olympics with an opening ceremony us Brits will never forget: the London 2012 Olympics that shared with the rest of the world what made Britain Great: the industrial revolution, NHS, James Bond, Mo Farrar… Boris Johnsson on a zip wire!

It seems that English culture and style has now been wholeheartedly embraced by the rest of the world. And as the forth series of Downton Abbey comes to a dramatic conclusion, we are looking for our fix of all things English – on our television screens and in our homes.

When it comes to home décor, nothing declares allegiance to traditional English style like beautifully crafted solid oak furniture. But what makes the mighty oak so very English, and why do we love it so much?

Here are five of our favourite cultural and historic references to oak that may explain our obsession with this most magnificent of trees.

(1) Downton Abbey

Period dramas are something the English have always done extremely well. Hugely popular in the UK and now fast becoming one of our greatest cultural and historical exports: Downton Abbey – first aired in the US in 2011 – has been taken into Americans’ hearts and has already won a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award.

The hallway centerpiece of Downton Abbey, around which much of the action has taken place, is the graceful yet imposing ornately carved oak staircase.

According to the website of Highclere Hall, where Downton Abbey is filmed:

 “Thomas Allom’s great oak staircase fills the tall Italianate tower built by Sir Charles Barry in 1842. Messrs Cox and Son of London took nearly a year to carve and install the staircase between December 1861 and October 1862.”

A Victorian masterpiece.

(2) The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

English oak furniture makes a grand appearance in some of the most famous works of literature. Long before Downton Abbey was a twinkle in the quill of its creator, Julian Fellowes, the mighty oak was carving its niche as the epitome of style and grandeur. Here, it nestles among the opulence of Jay Gatsby’s great Gothic mansion – the venue for his famous Saturday night parties.

 “The bar, where we glanced first, was crowded, but Gatsby was not there. She couldn’t find him from the top of the steps, and he wasn’t on the veranda. On a chance we tried an important-looking door, and walked into a high Gothic library, paneled with carved English oak.”

(3) The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne

Oak also makes a bold appearance in one of the most popular US novels of the mid nineteenth century, The Scarlet Letter:

“A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”

An epic and imposing vision of a door that isn’t to be messed with.

(4) The National Trust logo

The English oak is the national tree of England, and has long been a symbol of endurance and strength. But did you know that the oak has been recorded in British history since the interglacial periods, around 300,000 years ago? It was the most common tree in our forests about 5,000 years ago and still is today.

It was a natural choice, therefore, for the iconic oak leaves and acorns shape to be adopted and used in the logo of the National Trust, founded in 1895 to protect the English woodland and forest in which they grow.

(5) The Royal Oak

Perhaps the most well known of all our favourite oak legends is the story of the Royal Oak. We are all familiar (but will never tire) of hearing of how King Charles II famously hid in an oak tree – henceforth named The Royal Oak – to escape the Roundheads after the seventeenth century Battle of Worcester.

(6) The chivalry of King James IV

But perhaps we love oak so much because it harks back to a time of traditional good manners, where gentleman were chivalrous and ladies were always offered a seat.

Gentlemanly manners became much more widespread during the socially strict Victorian period, but who was the trendsetter? Controversially, it seems we have a chivalrous King of Scotland and his English oak chair to thank for this.

In his book When Oak was New: English Furniture and Daily Life 1530 – 1700, John Fiske describes an occasion in 1503, when Henry VII’s daughter, Princess Margaret, traveled to Scotland to marry James IV. She showed some discomfort, so in an act of courtesy that was unheard of at the time, the king broke rank and offered her his great oak chair.

“because the Stole of the Quene was not for hyr Ease [he]…gaffe hyr the said Chayre.”

Oak furniture represents our connection to history, our love of the great British woodland and countryside, a statement about our manners, and now – a style statement in our modern day homes.

Are you a chivalrous gentleman like King James IV, an enigmatic socialite like Jay Gatsby or an avid Downton Abbey fan who is now counting down the days until the next series?

Whatever your taste for décor, English oak furniture will always remain a popular choice of for stylish homeowners and culturally iconic houses throughout past centuries and for centuries to come.

Liam O’Dowd heads up the content marketing team for House Of Oak. A keen spots fan who loves Mountain Biking, Ski-ing and Spearfishing when the weather is kind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *