Get Set for Oak Apple Day in Chelsea

This is a guest post by Laura Porter of London Travel especially for The Beaufort. Thank you Laura!

29 May was once a public holiday in England but nowadays not many remember the date’s significance in our history. But there is one place in London which does remember as it is also their Founder’s Day.

Royal Hospital Chelsea is where the Chelsea Pensioners live. It is a home for old soldiers founded by Charles II in 1682 but let’s find out why.

King Charles II

English Civil War

The royalist forces loyal to King Charles I and the parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell fought from 1642 to 1649 when Charles I was caught and executed on 30 January 1649 at Banqueting House on Whitehall. Cromwell appointed himself as Lord Protector and ruled until his death in 1658. He was succeeded briefly by his son Richard before the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king on 29 May 1660.

Why Oak?

In 1651, during the English Civil War, Charles II was having dinner at Boscobel Manor in Shropshire – home of the Penderel family who were staunch Royalists. A strong force of Cromwell’s cavalry approached so King Charles II and his companion, Colonel Carlis, hid inside a large oak tree while Roundheads searched the house and grounds. Luckily they were not found and after the Roundheads left Charles fled from England.

Charles II Statue Royal HospitalOld Soldiers

While in exile the young Charles II was forced to live abroad, most notably at the court of his cousin Louis XIV of France where he saw that Louis had provided a retirement home for old soldiers called Les Invalides.

When Charles was restored to the British crown in 1660 he decided to show his appreciation to the army by setting up a grand retirement home for old soldiers, based on the French model. It was founded in 1682 and Charles II is celebrated at Royal Hospital Chelsea with a statue by Grinling Gibbons, better known for his wood carving especially inside St Paul’s Cathedral. The bronze was gilded in 2002 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

29 May

This was Charles II’s birthday as well as the date he was restored to the British throne. Royalists lined the streets cheering and waving oak leaves as a reminder of his narrow escape.

Oak Apples

Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary on 1 June 1660:

“Parliament had ordered the 29th of May, the King’s birthday, to be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government, he returning to London that day.”

Oak Apple Day was an annual public holiday from 1660 until 1859. Every year, people were expected to wear oak apples or oak leaves to remind them of the King’s escape. Punishment was dished out to those who forgot such as thrashing with nettles (hence the name ‘Nettle Day’ in some areas) or pinching and kicking (hence the other alternative name ‘Pinch-Bum Day’).

2010 marked the 350th Anniversary of Oak Apple Day. The day is still marked in some other English locations, such as Great Wishford in Wiltshire, but is mostly forgotten in London.

Chelsea Pensioners

Founder’s Day

The Chelsea Pensioners celebrate Founder’s Day at the Royal Chelsea Hospital on a day near to 29 May each year. This year they will be having a private ceremony on 6 June.

The statue of King Charles II will be decorated with oak branches and all the Chelsea pensioners taking part in the service wear sprigs of oak leaves.

The Royal Hospital still has close links with British Royalty and often a member of the Royal Family will come on Founder’s Day to review the Chelsea Pensioners. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has reviewed the In-Pensioners on Founder’s Day on four occasions and the Reviewing officer has been a member of the Royal family every year since 1980. More recently, Prince Harry reviewed the Chelsea Pensioners in 2011 and became the first serving officer to inspect Founder’s Day for many years.


Visit Royal Hospital Chelsea

While the Founder’s Day ceremony is a private affair the Royal Hospital has a museum, open Monday to Friday, and you can have a tour of the site with a Chelsea Pensioner. Full details on the official website.

Royal Hospital, Chelsea

These photos have been supplied by the Royal Hospital Chelsea and allow us an insight to this annual ceremony. Photographer credit: Nick Panagakis.

Royal Hospital, Chelsea

Royal Hospital, Chelsea

Royal Hospital, Chelsea

Laura Porter writes the London Travel site and is also a VisitBritain Super Blogger. She fits in further freelance writing while sustaining an afternoon tea addiction to rival the Queen’s. Laura is @AboutLondon on Twitter and @AboutLondon Laura on Facebook.

Image sources & credits: Charles II statue at Royal Hospital Chelsea, © Colin Smith /Oak apples, © Sandy RaeKing Charles II (by Peter Lely) / Chelsea Pensioners, wiki commons /  Royal Chelsea Hospital, © Steve Cadman. Founder’s Day Ceremony images, photographer: Nick Panagakis.