Stroll into a "quality neighborhood bar" in London's Marylebone area, a "real Scottish pub" in Edinburgh, a "beautiful country pub" in Poynings of West Sussex or a "friendly country pub" in Swallowcliffe near Tisbury in Wiltshire county, and one thing will be the same—they'll all be called The Royal Oak.
It's not that these eateries are part of a chain (though there is one of that name, as well), they just all happen to sport one of the most popular pub names in the United Kingdom.
The solidness of the name might seem to make it a favorable choice, but like so many things in the British isles, there's history here, explains Jerome de Groot, a historian at the University of Manchester in an excerpt from his book, Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture at History Today (via Time).
The story of Royal Oak starts back in September of 1651 after the Battle of Worcester, the last battle of the English Civil Wars, when supporters of the monarchy of Charles I fought parlimentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell. At that time, Charles II, was a mere claimant to the thrones of England and Scotland. His father, Charles I, had been executed just a few years earlier. After this battle, Charles II became a fugitive.
Charles II "evaded Cromwell’s troops by hiding in priest-holes [a hiding place built for priests when Catholics were persecuted by law in England] in the houses of loyal subjects; disguising himself as a woman; and by climbing an oak tree at Boscobel House in Shropshire," writes de Groot.
Apparently Charles II watched from a safe perch in the branches while parliamentary patrols searched the countryside below. During the next decade and especially after the restoration of the monarchy and Charles II to the throne in 1660, people told and retold the story of the oak tree.
John Wade wrote a poem in 1660 called "The Royal Oak", a section of which reads:
In this disguise by honest thrift
Command all for themselves to shift,
With one friend both night and day:
Poor Prince alone to Gods convoy
His foes they could not him destroy.
These two wandred into a Wood
Where a hollow Oak there stood,
And for his precious lives dear sake
Did of that Oak his palace make…
"Rather than a symbol of defeat, the Royal Oak became one of defiance, of loyalty to the kingdom and of the stoicism of its subjects," de Groot writes. But then, he adds that the story and the "'facts about the king's time in the tree"—were debated and contested for years. But the tale took its hold in people's imagination. Decades later historians attempted to map Charles II's flight, and the name continues to live on in popular culture.
Besides bars, a racehorse born in 1823 in Yorkshire that eventually sired 171 thoroughbreds was called Royal Oak, and he passed his name on to a horse race held in France to this day. Eight warships have also been given the name of Royal Oak.
While the original tree is gone—people took so many cuttings from it that it died in the early 1700s—those in search of the famous tree can find the next best thing: an acorn dropped by the original produced a new tree that stands at Boscobel House today.