Royal Oak

(29 May) A holiday in Britain once, popularly supposed to be in commemoration of Charles Il's famous escape from the Boscobel Oak, when the custom used to be to wear sprigs of oak in the hat, and to decorate houses with oak boughs, which were often gilded (Jones-Baker. 1974) for greater effect. The Charles II theme is particularly apparent at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, for 29 May is Founder's Day there. Every pensioner wears a spray of oak leaves as a memorial to the royal founder (Hole. 1941). But another legend connects the oak with Charles I rather than with his son. Borlase has the story - at the time of the battle of Braddock Down, Charles set up his standard in an oak tree in Bocconoc Park. After the execution of the king the leaves, so it is said, suddenly changed colour to white. Braddock means 'broad oak', so there may have been some earlier tradition of a venerated tree there (Grigson. 1955). It seems, in fact, that some kind of celebration was taking place long before the time of either of the royal Charleses. Aston-on-Clun, in Shropshire, has a 29 May festivity that may well be the oldest of them. There is a BLACK POPLAR there, called the Arbor Tree, growing at the crossroads at the village centre, and this tree is decorated (Hole. 1976). A recent piece of folklore claims that the twigs of the Arbor Tree have powers of bestowing fertility. They were sent to brides all over the country, when asked for (Hole. 1976). This superstition eventually forced the parish council to ban the ceremony, because of the publicity it had received. The ban did not seem to have lasted very long, for the parish council still hangs flags from eight large branches, or rather from eight long poles attached to the branches (Rix).

The flags and decorations are left on the tree until they are replaced on next Arbor Tree Day, and this has its parallel in the decoration of church towers with some kind of garland, as at Castleton, in Derbyshire; again, the garland would be left there until the day came round again (Vaux), or at least until all the flowers had withered away, when the framework would be taken down and kept for another year (A Burton). There are quite a lot of records of OAK branches being hoisted to the top of church towers, in widely separated areas. Bell-ringing was a feature of many of these festivities, and the ringers were active in Dorset in particular. At Whitchurch Canonicorum in that county, the men and boys used to go out at three bo'clock in the morning to cut oak boughs. One was put on the church tower, and another on a post driven into a plot of land near where the war memorial now stands. The church bells were rung, and then the ringers and boys went round the village putting oak boughs over the doors (Dacombe). The ringers at Upton Grey, in Hampshire, did the same (Partridge. 1912), and started ringing at 6 a m (Bushaway). Oak leaves were used to decorate Hampshire door knockers, and people wore them in their hats (Boase).

The schoolboys' celebration of Royal Oak Day is the best known of the customs. The sprig of oak was worn for self-protection. In some places, the sprig was enough, in others the sprig had to bear an oakapple (Opie & Opie. 1959). In Dorset, the boys gilded their oak leaves (Udal) - how is not very clear, but oak-apples were gilded in Gloucestershire, at Minchinhampton, by covering them with gold leaf, specially bought for the purpose (Partridge. 1912). Newcastle boys used to taunt those not wearing the oak in their hats, with:

Royal Oak,

The Whigs to provoke. But there the rival faction answered back:

Plant tree leaves

The Church-folk are thieves (Tongue. 1965).

So wearing the oak can be regarded as a badge of loyalty, not only to the king, but also to the establishment (A Smith. 1968). Even railway engines were decorated with oak leaves in the 19th century (Opie. 1954). In Sussex not wearing the oak meant one would be pinched, preferably on the bum, hence the local name Pinch-bum Day, or just Pinching Day (Simpson. 1973). Similarly, the day was Bumping Day in Essex (Chisendale-Marsh), and Rump Day in Yorkshire, for oak leaves, even when still on the tree, were called Rump there (Easther).

Northamptonshire children carry bunches of NETTLES, with which they attack anyone foolhardy enough not to be wearing the oak. In Hertfordshire, the day was known as Half-day Stinging Day (half-day because, like April Fools' Day, there was a noon closure on the proceedings). "Roundheads", that is, those not wearing the oak, were greeted with the chant:

Poor King Charles lies hidden in a tree (this line sung thrice)

Show your oak-apple

Or I'll sting thee (Jones-Baker. 1977).

The punishment varies in different parts, hair-pulling being substituted for stinging in parts of Cumbria, while the song:

Nob him once, Nob him twice, Nob him till he whistles thrice is sung, with actions to suit (Rowling).

There were colourful names for the day in Wessex, where words like Shick-sack, Shick-shack, Shit-sack, and so on, were used. As far as Royal Oak Day is concerned, the shick-shack was a piece of oak with an oakapple on it. An extension was to use the Shick-shack name in any of its many variants as a name for anyone not sporting the oak. In the afternoon, the oak could be replaced with ASH leaves ("even ash", according to Norman Rogers).

Rubus fruticosus > BLACKBERRY

RUE (Ruta graveolens)

Plant your rue and sage together, The sage will grow in any weather.

That is a piece of gardeners' wisdom from Warwickshire (Northall) that is not however held to be true by other old wives' tales, some of which say that it can make sage planted near it "positively poisonous", or will simply kill it, as it may basil (Boland & Boland). Others, though, say that it will be the rue that suffers near basil (Bardswell). But most will agree that rue is bad for cabbages (Boland & Boland).

Rue is the symbol of regret and repentance, and to rue means to be sorry for. The trouble is that the two words have no relation with each other and have quite different derivations. Rue, the flower, is from Latin ruta, and before that Greek, while rue, to be sorry for, has a Germanic origin. The symbolism, then, must have been at worst mistaken, and at best punning. Thompson (C J S Thompson. 1897) confused the matter still further by suggesting that rue, the herb, could be derived from the same root as Ruth, meaning sorrow or remorse, for ruth (with no capital letter) is another word from Germanic origins, and has no connection with rue, the herb. Nevertheless, the association is a lasting one. Rue is still carried by judges at the assizes, traditionally to ward off fever, but probably originally as a symbol (Brownlow). The series of names based on Herb Grace (Herb of Grace, Herbgrass, Herbygrass etc.,) may very well have this symbolism as their origin (Rohde.1936), but another explanation may be that holy water was once sprinkled from brushes made of rue at the ceremony usually preceding the Sunday celebrations of High Mass (Grieve. 1931). In any case, rue (repentance) may evoke the grace of God (gratia dei).

In Lithuanian folklore, rue is the symbol of chastity (Gimbutas. 1963). As the rue thrives, so does the girl:

If you will wish me, rue Good fortune, Branch out, rue, Up to the tenth branchlet! If you will wish me, rue Ill fortune, Dry up, rue,

From the white roots (Gimbutas. 1958).

Something similar has been recorded in Italy. If the plant flourished, all went well with the girl's love affair, but if it withered it was a sign that the lover she desired had failed her (Hartland. 1909). That may be why in this country it was a funeral herb, when posies of rosemary and rue were put on the coffin of a chaste wife (Tongue. 1967). When Lithuanian girls marry, they wear rue as a wreath. Note too the Herefordshire custom for a jilted girl to curse the man involved by waiting in the church porch during the wedding, and throwing rue at him as he came out. The curse would be something like "May you rue this day as long as you live" (Leather). (see also WALL-RUE)

It used to be said that rue prevented anything evil from growing anywhere near it in a garden (Leighton). It was also said to be twice as valuable if stolen from someone else's garden (Wiltshire), and it would flourish better, too. "Rue stolen thriveth the best". If floors are regularly rubbed with it, no witch can enter, and you may be preserved from witchcraft by green rue leaves consecrated on Palm Sunday (Gordon. 1985). It is particularly as a counter to the evil eye that rue is famous. One of the most potent charms in use in Naples was, and still is, the cimaruta, that is cima di ruta, sprig of rue, a representation of the plant these days, but obviously the real thing originally (see CIMARUTA, where the charm is described in more detail). Rue seems to have been the special protection of women in childbirth, and the cimaruta is worn on the breast of infants in Naples (Elworthy. 1895). Elsewhere in Italy, a new-born baby is washed with a decoction of rue to make it strong (Canziani. 1928). As far away as Mexico, it is recorded that in the Mayan village of Yucatan, a mother may keep a child from ojo (the equivalent of the evil eye) by chewing leaves of rue and rubbing them on the child's eyelids. In the Ardeche district of France, cart drivers would put rue in their pockets to stop those wih the evil eye from causing their carts to stop suddenly (Sebillot). All over Morocco, too, rue is carried as a charm against the evil eye, and also to drive away the evil spirits they know of as juun (Westermarck). Sore eyes caused by this "fascination" were to be cured by a woman bending a branch of rue into a wreath, tied with a red ribbon. But it had to be done in another room, for neither the patient nor any child or animals should watch the process. As the wreath was being made, a rhyme was said:

"I prepare this wreath

To place it on the eyes

Of that sufferer,

That his sight I may restore,

And he may never suffer more" (Gifford).

The patient would have to look through the wreath three times, and say "Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia, from the evil eye guard me". St Lucia is of course the defender against the evil eye (Lucia - lux, lucis, light). Cesalpino (1519-1603) recommended this wreath of rue to defend a child against "fascination", and the usage was still popular in Tuscany as late as 1890 (Gifford).

No plant had more virtues ascribed to it in ancient times. In addition to those well-known powers against the evil eye, there were some that were lesser known. Soldiers, for example, at one time used to heat the point of their swords in the fire and then smear them with the juice of rue. That was supposed to make them invulnerable (Clair). The idea survived into the firearms age, for we hear that gun flints were boiled with rue and vervain. Doing that would ensure that the shot would reach the intended victim, no matter how poor the aim (Moldenke). It was said in Jersey that rue could give second sight, in some unspecified way (L'Amy). It was one of the most active of medicinal plants; no less an authority than Pliny claimed "every species of rue employed by himself has the effect of an antidote if the leaves are bruised and taken in wine". It is good for snakebite - "so much so, in fact, that weasels when about to attack them, take the precaution first of protecting themselves by eating rue" (Elworthy. 1895). Only a weasel could face the basilisk unharmed, provided it ate the rue first. There is a misericord in Westminster Abbey showing a basilisk flanked by two small animals with foliage in their mouth (Rowland). So efficacious against all manner of venomous beasts was it thought to be that Estienne advised that great numbers of the plant should be planted near "sheep coates, and houses for your foule and other cattle ... for adders, lizards and other venomous beastes will not come neere unto rue by the length of the shadow of it" (Clair). Not only poisonous creatures, either, if we are to believe Topsell - "it is reported that if wild rue be secretly hung under a hen's wing, no fox will meddle with her". Antonius Mizaldus tells a story of a man who died after rubbing his teeth and gums with sage. On investigation it was found that a "great toad, . which infected the same sage with his venomous breath" was living under the sage bed. The judge advised people to plant rue round their sage, "for toads by no means will come nigh unto rue" (Lupton). But as we have seen, the sage might be deadly for the rue. It is supposed to heal bee and wasp stings, and particularly mad-dog bites. Such a use is mentioned in a 12th century manuscript of Apuleius. It was said that at Cathorpe, in Lincolnshire, rue dramatically cured the whole town of the bites of a mad dog that had run through the houses attacking everyone (Baker. 1980), date not divulged.

Rue was once taken to cure people of talking in their sleep (Gordon. 1985), and according to the Physicians of Myddfai, "if you would preserve yourself from unchaste desires, eat rue in the morning". Veterinary use includes a Yorkshire record of boiling rue in ale to give to horses to cure farcy, or glanders, to give the disease another name. A little rue juice would be put in the horse's ears, too (Gutch. 1911). It was used by horsemen in the Fen country. For example, the way to control an unruly horse is to rub freshly gathered rue leaves on its nose (Porter. 1969), and a sprig or two given to horses would make them well, and make their coats shine (Randell) (this is an old Fenland custom). Norfolk turkey breeders also used rue to make the birds eat and put on weight (Randell), while a leaf is given to poultry to help in curing croup (Brownlow). This is actually a 17th century usage from Lincolnshire and other areas, when the owner was told to chop the herb very finely and form it into piles with butter, and so feed it to the sick hens (Drury. 1985).

Rue's use in medicine in times past has been widespread and general, with claims for almost anything from warts to the plague. In the latter case, Alexis of Piedmont gave the following recipe, anglicised a long time ago as: "Take the toppe of Rue, a garlicke head and half a quarter of a walnutte and a come of salt. Eat this every morning, contynuing so a munneth together and be mery and jocunde". Gerard too gives a recipe for the plague with the leaves of rue. Thornton repeated the belief: "it is supposed to be antipestilential, and hence our benches of judges have their noses regaled with this most foetid plant". Bunches of it used to be hung at the sides of windows to protect the house against entry of the plague (especially east facing windows, for it was thought that was the direction from which the plague came). So powerful was rue considered that thieves looting plague-stricken houses would risk entry if they carried it, even if corpses still lay there (Boland.1977). It was a strewing herb, too, for it kept away fleas. In 1750, it was used to strew the dock of the Old Bailey as a protection against jail fever then raging at Newgate Prison, and the custom continued right into the 20th century (Genders. 1972). We find that in the Balkans, rue is one of the plants burnt to provide fumigation in epidemics (Kemp), and it is used as a fumigation herb in Brazilian healing ceremonies too (P V A Williams).

It has always been supposed that rue has a potent effect upon the eyes (Pliny said that painters and sculptors mixed some rue with their food to keep their sight from deteriorating (Baumann)). A 10th century Arabian writer on eye diseases used a mixture of rue and honey to prevent the development of a cataract (Gifford). The Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius prescribed rue: "well pounded, laid to the eye", and for "dimness of eyes" it was apparently only a matter of eating rue leaves, or taking them in wine (Cockayne). A mild infusion is still in use as an eyebath and for eye troubles, including cataract (Hatfield). We have already seen its great virtue against the evil eye, and the claim has been made that rue can actually bestow second sight (MacCulloch. 1911).

There is usually a warning given that rue should never be taken in large amounts, and not at all if the patient is pregnant (Gordon. 1977) - with good reason, for it has often been used for abortions (Clair). French folklore insists that there was a law forbidding its cultivation in ordinary gardens. It was said that the specimen in the Paris Botanical Garden had to be enclosed to prevent pregnant girls from stealing it. In the Deux-Savres district of France it was believed that it caused any woman who merely touched it with the hem of her dress to miscarry (Sebillot). Granny Gray, of Littlepool, in Cambridgeshire, so Enid Porter reported, used to make up pills from rue, pennyroyal and hemlock. They were famous in the Fen country for causing abortion. A strong infusion of rue and horehound, followed by a good dose laced with poppy juice and laudanum was a noted Fenland sleeping draught. It is quoted as being a last resort means of stopping a mother giving birth on the first of May, an unlucky date. It just put her to sleep for twenty-four hours (Porter. 1969).

Rue tea for indigestion is a well-known medicine with ancient origins. American domestic medicine recognized rue's worth for this sort of complaint. From Alabama, for instance, one is prescribed rue and sugar for kidney colic (R B Browne), whatever that is. Rue tea is much esteemed on the Greek island of Chios, too, for stomach upsets, and also for checking excessive periods (Argenti & Rose). With vinegar, it cured the stitch (Gerard), and it was used for worms, too. Modern folk medicine still recognizes chewing a leaf of rue as being a cure for nervous headaches (Brownlow). Fever is another condition dealt with by using the plant, usually a leaf decoction. Coughs and colds are also treated with rue tea (Vickery. 1995), and bronchitis too, though in this case it is by the agency of hot compresses, cotton cloths saturated in a strong infusion of rue, applied to the chest (Hatfield). Even epilepsy could be treated with it, according to Wesley, simply by taking a spoonful of the juice, morning and evening, for a month, and trying to control children's fits with it was quite common, either with syrup (Thornton), or leaf juice (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk), or by more esoteric methods. In Herefordshire, for instance, rue was tied to children's hands, wrists and ankles, to prevent the convulsions (Leather), while a Bulgarian practice was to rub the back of an infant's neck, and behind the ears, with rue, daily, for the complaint (Rolleston). It was even used to "invigorate the memory". Lyte recommended it for this - "the juice, with vinegar, doth revive and quicken such as have the forgetful sickness" (Grindon).

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