Until 1859, the Church of England marked 29 May as “Oak Apple Day,” marking the day that the Monarchy, and with it, the Church of England, was restored after the interlude of the Commonwealth under Cromwell. As Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary:
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.
The “oak tree” commemorated the fact that after the Royalist defeat at Worcester in 1651, the young Prince of Wales (later Charles II) had hidden in one whilst the Rounheads sought him. The English like a good story, and a good party, and Restoration Day provided both.
The Church of England had good reason to commemorate the day, and the decision to abolish its official memorial in 1859 was, along with the decision to drop the service for Guy Fawkes’ day, a sign that parliament wanted to take a less censorious line towards Nonconformists and Catholics, which whilst welcome in itself, should not lead us not to celebrate the day on which the Monarchy was restored.
History and identity are important to a nation, and as one commentator has shrewdly suggested:
Against a joyless Puritan commerical republic, the Restoration symbolised the renewal of convivality, balance, memory, locality, a deeper, more joyful vision of communal flourishing than the Puritan republic could envisage or allow.
There is in this a deeper message to be grasped too.
A nation is more than the sum of its Gross Domestic Product and its balance sheets. A nation which knows the cost of everything often knows the value of nothing, and its polity can become one which sees people as means to an end. This can never be a Christian view of mankind. Life is given to each of us by God for His purpose which, across the course of that life we work out more or less. Any polity which neglects the poor and denies the rights of workers is headed for degradation. At the heart of the Restoration was “monarchy – an expression of the anointed, sacramental nature of communal life, a rejection of the idea of the ‘secular’.” Man does not live by bread alone, and his worth cannot be defined solely by the material. Neither the free market nor social activism quite cuts through to what makes the good life, even if both might have their place.
During this crisis we have seen people going on line to find Church is a way not as many did beforehand; will this continue? Sceptical by nature of claims that “everything will/must change” and of assertions that “nothing will be the same”, if only because history tens to show that change is slow and human beings are always the same, nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether a chance to slow down and reflect, to be more rooted on one place than usual, will have any lasting effects.
In the meantime, Oak Apple day was, by tradition, an occasion for joy and celebration, so let us do that as best we can, giving God thanks for His many and great mercies, as we await Pentecost.