Greenwich Park boasts thousands of trees, but a very special specimen is easily the most famous.
The celebrated tree known as Queen Elizabeth’s Oak is hundreds of years old. A scientific technique known as ‘dendrochronology’ has recently shown that it dates from 1292!
|What is dendrochronology?|
This is a scientific technique that dates trees by analysing the ‘tree rings’ inside them.
The tree sadly died in the nineteenth century but remained standing until 1991, when it fell during a storm. You can still see it in the Park, though, where it is marked with a special plaque.
Over the centuries, many tales have been told about this legendary tree. As its name suggests, some of these stories have a royal connection.
The infamous King Henry VIII was born at Greenwich Palace. He spent much of his time in the park, where he enjoyed feasting and jousting.
Greenwich Park also provided a backdrop to some of his many relationships. Legend has it that he once danced with Anne Boleyn – the second of his six unfortunate wives – around the base of the oak tree.
However, it is the daughter of Henry and Anne – Queen Elizabeth I – after whom the tree is named.
There are several reports that the young Elizabeth enjoyed picnicking in the shade of this large oak tree – although some stories have a slightly different twist, suggesting that she picnicked inside the tree’s hollow trunk!
A Victorian Prison?
It is certainly true that the trunk was hollow. In the nineteenth century, this proved a convenient place to keep those who were misbehaving in the park – essentially turning the tree into a prison! Its location, close to the old keeper’s cottage, made it an ideal site for this.
In 1853, an anonymous writer submitted a long poem about this famous tree to the West Kent Guardian. It included the lines:
They call me the Old Hollow Tree,
In truth it so appears,
For I have been a hollow tree
Above a hundred years.
A terror, oft my name has been
To schoolboys and to thieves,
Who, chestnuts have been knocking down,
Or damaging the trees.
For my old trunk, is made into
A prison with a door,
And many times has had confin’d
Young urchins half a score.
And many are the darksome deeds
That I could tell of old,
Of robberies, and murders too,
Would make the blood run cold.
Threshing the Chestnuts
The poem above refers to mischievous visitors ‘knocking down’ chestnuts. The chestnut trees of Greenwich Park were a great attraction for local boys, who flocked to the park in autumn to thresh the trees – an activity that was vividly illustrated in a newspaper of 1857.
A report accompanying the illustration described the scene:
One of the greatest days of the year for the youthful inhabitants of Greenwich has passed away. The chestnut-trees in the Park have received a sound threshing, according to annual custom, and, also according the annual custom, have wept chestnuts by the cart-load. All Greenwich is husky; and more than one lad has been carried home [over-full].
At the moment when the accompanying sketch was taken, we saw one misguided young fellow perfectly fascinated by a choice bunch of nuts descending just within his reach. His gaze was long and intently fixed upon them, He was drawn irresistibly toward them. He was lost! For, his appetite stimulated to a pitch which rendered him utterly regardless of consequences, he made a sudden dash at the bough, and got the chestnuts and the keeper’s cane at the same moment.
For three weeks past the park-keepers had hard work to keep the park, for legions of boys poured in daily, desperately seizing every opportunity of filling their pockets. The risk was great, but how great the temptation!
|How have trees featured in mythology and folklore?|
Watch this talk to find out more!