Heart of Oak

Heart of Oak

The English Oak

The oak tree is seen to symbolise Englishness in much the same way as the British Bulldog is muscular, strong and friendly. Quercus robur, the common pedunculate oak is our native tree. Anciently, the druids worshiped in oak groves and many traditions, from marriage ceremonies to the burning of the ‘yule log’ at Christmas, have their connections with this symbolic tree. Not only do ‘mighty oaks spring from tiny acorns’ these trees provide a myriad of life providing sources for man and beast.

Oak trees are host to numerous insects and support for birds and mammals. Commoners have ancient rights to graze and feed their pigs on the fallen acorns (and beech mast).  The timber has been a major contributor of for building houses, halls, bridges, gates, fences and all manner of furniture, tools and farming implements.

The indelible iron ink made from the apple galls of the oak tree have been used to print documents dating back to Roman times. Many deeds from the Middle Ages are as clearly written as they would have appeared, had they only just been produced. Oak Apple Day (Royal Oak Day) was a former holiday on 29th May to commemorate the ‘Restoration of Charles II in 1660’.

Naval ships, built from English oak fought our battles, and as many as eight or more warships were named ‘Royal Oak’ or ‘Heart of Oak’.

“When Freedom know not where to rove,
From conquer’d Greece and groaning Rome,
At random driv’n like Noah’s dove,
Without a shelter or a home:
Th’ expanded world she view’d, where best,
She might repose her weary foot;
Saw this, our isle, set up her nest,
And bade the spreading oak take root;
Bade it adorn the land, and be
Fair England’s tree of Liberty.”


Heart of Oak of the English Navy
When Alfred our King, drove the Dane from this land,
He planted an oak with his own royal hand;
And he pray’d for Heaven’s blessing to hallow the tree,
As a Sceptre for England, the queen of the sea. 

Heart of oak are our ships,
Hearts of oak are our men.
We always are ready, steady boys, steady.

Come, cheer up my lads, ‘tis to glory we steer,
With heads carried high, we will banish all fear;
To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?


Although Henry VIII is broadly recognised as the father of the Royal Navy, I would argue that it had been Henry II who had set things in motion for an eventual supremacy over the seas. Henry II initiated the federation of the Cinque Ports that connected England with Normandy.

Society in the English nation under Henry II was made up in three groups. A military class, the Merchants and Traders dwelling in the cities and seaports, and the Peasantry. From the third class were the nameless ranks of archers and foot soldiers to bear the brunt of battle. These were also the hardy sailors serving the merchants in times of peace. They were ever ready to convert their ships into ‘men-of-war’.

For the reorganisation of the national forces, an Assize of Arms was issued in England in 1181. Holders of a knight’s fee (rents of property) were to keep a coat of mail, helmet, shield and lance; the owners of property worth ten marks should have a hauberk (shirt of mail) an iron headpiece and a lance. All burgesses and the whole body of freemen should have a quilted jacket, an iron headpiece and a lance. These arms were never to be parted with, but to descend from father to son. No burgess was to keep more than his statutory quota. Jews were forbidden to retain mail or arms.

At that time, the itinerant justices were able publish the assize and to hold enquiries by the juries of freemen as to who held properties and where. The final article of the Assize of Arms directed that no one should buy or sell any ship nor export any timber away from England.

Fighting ships, before the establishment of the royal navy, were organised almost entirely by the federation of the Cinque Ports. The origin of this federation is rather obscure. The five ports were bound together by the possession of common privileges and responsibilities during the reign of Edward the Confessor. Hastings, the undoubted head, was first to acquire privileges at the royal court and in connection with the herring fishery at Yarmouth. This was afterwards extended to the other members.

The Cinque Ports were clearly established by the reign of Henry II, as in 1161 a payment is recorded of £34, 17s, to the ships of the ‘five ports’ which conveyed treasure across the Channel. At times the English fleet was referred to as the “Hastingenses” alluding to the allied ports.

Henry at Westminster, in a charter, confirmed to the “barons” of Hastings, their privileges at court, exemptions from customs and other dues, and the foreshore rights of “strand and den” at Yarmouth, in return for the provision of twenty ships for fifteen days when required. Similar exemptions were made “to the ancient towns of Rye and Winchelsea”, affiliating them to Hastings. They were to supply two ships in addition. This exempted them from the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts and might be implicated only in the same manner as the barons of Hastings and the Cinque Ports.

In this arrangement, the king could rely, at need, upon a force of some sixty ships. The ships were ordinary fishing and trading vessels of the channel ports, small but seaworthy, easily converted into fighting ships by the erection of wooden fore and stern castles and manned by hardy and experienced sailors. About a hundred soldiers could be carried by each vessel. The Cinque Port vessels were bound to carry a crew of twenty-one.

At such times as the Irish expedition of 1171, the average crews of the thirty-six ships from Norfolk and Suffolk, the seven from Dorset and Somerset, six from Devon, two from London and one from Herefordshire, had an average crew of only twelve. Twenty-eight ships from Gloucestershire averaged only six men. Eight on nineteen from Sussex and the two from Hampshire each had a crew of twenty-two. In the troubles of 1173, most of the ships which were “sent to Sandwich to meet with the ships of the Cinque Ports” carried crews of twenty or more and the two vessels from Colchester carried sixty seamen between them.

At that time, Southampton was the chief mercantile port of England, for its proximity to the royal; city of Winchester. Winchester was the home of the Treasury and Westminster was the king’s official residence, with London being the leading centre of trade. The great fair of St. Giles drew merchants from all over England and from foreign lands to Winchester, to sell their fine worked stuffs or to buy the course woollen cloth of local manufacturers. Winchester with its gilds of weavers and fullers was a great seat of the cloth industry. Cheaper and coarser cloth was made in Cornwall and this was often purchased by the king’s almoner.

Gilds of weavers existed in 1156 at Winchester, London, Lincoln, Oxford, Huntingdon and Nottingham, all being of sufficient importance to pay yearly to the king, from 40s to £6, but their productions were for the most part, poor and course, with the notable exception of the scarlet cloths of Lincoln, found to be fetching 6s.8d per ell. This was probably due to the Flemish influence. At the time of the expulsion of the Flemings after the rebellion of  1173. There were numerous entries in the Pipe Rolls recording seizures of wool and woad belonging to Flemings. The dyers of Worcester are recorded as owing £12 to the king’s Flemish enemies, and there is evidence to show the presence of these skilled clothworkers throughout the country.

For foreign trade, there was no imposition of customs for revenue purposes. Each town, whether seaport or inland market, had its own schedule of customs and trade dues, but crown charters only affected them regarding persons ‘exempt from payments throughout the realm’. Such exemptions were amongst the most valued franchises of the barons of the Cinque Ports, the freemen of privileged boroughs and the tenants of certain religious houses. A trading privilege of particular interest for its bearing upon the development of London under Norman influence was the right of citizens of Rouen to a port or anchorage in the Thames, close to the city walls. This was confirmed to them by Henry II in 1174.

A still more striking instance of the connection of two ports was Henry II’s grant of Dublin to the burgesses of Bristol, assuring to them a virtual monopoly of the Irish trade (previously shared with Chester). The monopoly of trade being in the same way assured to Rouen. Henry II’s earlier years of reign were liberal and encouraging. He granted the customs of York to the burgesses of Scarborough in1155, the liberties of London and Winchester to the men of Gloucester, and the customs of Lincoln to the burgesses of Coventry at a later date. Gilds merchant and trade-gilds were confirmed in their privileges at Oxford, Nottingham, Lincoln and elsewhere, and the formation of others licensed.

With the increasing growth of trade, other unauthorised gilds sprang up and in1180, no fewer than nineteen such ‘adulterine’ gilds were reported in London alone, five of them connected with London Bridge, the famous stone bridge built in 1176. Of these London gilds, the only four definitely identified with special trades were the goldsmiths, spicers, butchers and clothworkers. The others being, no doubt, social and religious societies of a less specialised composition.

In that period, minerals, such as the lead-mines of Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Shropshire provided good revenues. Particularly the silver bearing mines of Carlisle and at the other end of the kingdom, the rich tin mines of Cornwall and Devon. Iron was worked in the northern counties, and in Northamptonshire. The Forest of Dean enjoyed a practical monopoly of the southern iron trade. Tin was exported, and lead sent to the monks of Clairvaux, but iron was not exported. Chief exports in early times were the raw wool and hides and a certain number of foodstuffs.

Ale was sent to Normandy for its appreciation among foreigners. At the time, England had sufficient vineyards, from Kent to Hereford, to avoid the importation of wines. Taste preferences at that time was given to cider over Kentish ale and was noticeably popular at the cathedral priory of Christchurch, Canterbury.

Throughout the long 35year reign of Henry II he can be seen to have formulated much of the English social traditions. He was a methodical man, hot tempered at times, but with a keen sense of justice. He was also a skilled general who never engaged in warfare if it could be avoided. His restless energy and enjoyment of sport was tempered by a passion for literature. He was a free-thinking adulterer who also had a genuine appreciation of purity and true religion; a king who could manage the affairs of half-a-dozen principalities but was unable to rule his own house. As an acute judge of men, who lavished affection and benefits upon ungrateful and unworthy sons; he was a mass of contradictions. But, in my opinion, we owe much of what we may regard in the traits and traditions of Englishness to those foundations set by King Henry II.

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