The Major Oak


Hayman Rooke was born 20th Feb 1723 at Westminster, London, to Brudenell Rice Rooke and Anne Millington. His military ancestry encouraged him to join the army and after reaching the rank of Major he was involved in the capture of Belle Isle in 1761.

Soon after leaving the army, Major Rooke retired to a picturesque house in Mansfield Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire and became an antiquary and historian. But he also was a pioneer archaeologist within the county of Nottinghamshire and despite having no formal training became well versed in a range of archaeological fields, and a frequent contributor to the journal ‘Archaeologia’ between 1776 and 1796. Later he was elected FSA (Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries).

Rooke produced for the Society of Antiquaries, an account of several Roman Camps which had been discovered in his locality. He also brought to light the remains of two extensive Roman villas, about half a mile from Mansfield-Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire and revealed evidence that this site had been selected for the enjoyment of the pleasures of the chase.

But as well as the Romans, he wrote about medieval churches and local great estates such as Welbeck, Bolsover, Haddon Hall and Thoresby.

In 1790, Major Rooke published his book about "Remarkable Oaks in the Park at Welbeck", where he describes nine oak trees and in 1799 his ‘Sketch of the Ancient and present State of Sherwood Forest’ was published. It was during his research that he identified the brand mark of King John, eighteen inches beneath the bark of one of the Sherwood oaks during some tree felling in Birklands. About a foot from the centre of the tree the letter ‘I’ with a crown was discovered.

It was his love and enthusiasm for Sherwood that in time his army rank was conferred on the formerly known Cockpen Tree and became known as the “Major’s Oak” or as we know it today, the Major Oak.

During the 1800’s it was also known as the Queen or Queen's Oak, although there is no known connection with any royal figure, the name probably arose to describe its large size and its status as ‘lady of the forest’, because it was such a majestic tree. Gradually down the years it also became called The ‘Cockpen Tree’ because its hollow trunk (caused by fungi) was used for breeding game cocks and storing them prior to a cockfight.

Finally, after the publication of Major Hayman Rooke’s book on ‘The Remarkable Oaks’ and particularly his picture (image number 9) and description of the ‘Queen’s Oak’ the famous tree affectionately became known by locals as ‘The Major’s Oak.’



There is a possibility that the ‘Major Oak’ is more than one tree! This could be due to the consequence of two or even three trees growing close to one another. Another theory put forward, to try and explain its massive size, is that the tree has been ‘pollarded’. This was a system of tree management that enabled the foresters to grow more than one crop of timber from a single tree. This was repeated over decades, causing the trunk to grow large and fat, the tops of which became swollen after several centuries of this cropping. ‘Pollarding’ allowed trees to grow longer than unmanaged trees. Could the ‘The Major Oak’ have been spared from the final forester's axe because of its hollow rotted trunk?

The exact age of this giant tree can only be estimated, and is open to wild speculation. It could be anywhere between 800 – 1000 years old. Its large canopy, the leaves and branches, with a spread of 92 ft seems to indicate that it has grown up with little or no competition from oaks nearby. Its height is 52 feet (19 meters) and the main trunk has a girth of 10 meters (33 feet), it weighs approximately 23 tons. The Major Oak still produces good crops of acorns every three or four years, sometimes over 150,000!

This tree had always been well known by local people, but during Victorian times, the Major Oak became a popular visiting place. Tourists started coming to Edwinstowe by train and then by carriage to see the magnificent tree. Today, it attracts over 900,000 people a year, who come from all over the World to see ‘Robin Hood’s tree’; one of the reasons why it has to be fenced off!

Some of the famous visitors who are known to have visited the legendary giant oak include the botanist David Bellamy, Cilla Black, Bernard Miles, Jack Palance and Maureen Lipman. The list also has a merry bunch of ‘Robin Hoods’, such as Richard Todd, Michael Praed and Jason Connery.

I have recently been invited to join a Facebook group dedicated to the Major Oak and its celebratory day on the 20th February (Major Hayman Rooke’s birthday). The page is administered by Adrian Wison and is at MajorOakDay@groups.facebook.com. Please come and join this celebration of the world’s most famous tree!


8 comments:

Clement of the Glen said...

"The Major Oak"
Major Hayman Rooke
Sherwood Forest
MajorOakDay@groups.facebook.com

Albie said...

The tree was fenced off about 30 years ago to help protect it. Not so much from people who would squeeze inside the trunk but due to compression of the soil caused be visitors walking around it. This was causing the roots to not get water and the tree was in danger of dying. They also put the supports for the branches up around this time (or replaced earlier ones, I seem to remember seeing the Major Oak without supports in the '70s).

I know many famous people visit the tree but not sure whether they let anyone inside it much these days. I have been inside the hollow trunk many times as a kid before it was fenced off. The thing I remember about it was the strong smell from the wood. You can get 12 adults inside and our local legends suggest it was where Robin & the Merrie Men hid from the Sheriff. There was a similar tree nearby with a hollow trunk known as Robin Hood's Larder where the outlaw was supposed to have hidden his deer and provisions - it was not as large as the Major Oak but was also hollow.

Although as Clement says, the tree is large it is only the 33rd largest oak in the country. There were once larger trees here in Sherwood. One was hollowed out by a local landowner after a bet. He then drove a horse and carriage through the middle. The tree was well known but succumber to this act many years ago.

Interesting about Rooke's digging of the Roman Villa's in Mansfield Woodhouse (we call it 'Wudduss' locally). There were known to be 2 Roman roads that connected the Fosse Way road to the Derbyshire lead mines which went through the forest. One of them must have been close to these villa's. On a final note, there have been many Roman finds here in the fields between our village and the present Scout Centre. Although no records of a villa have been found there was a villa nearby in Tuxford and we could have an outlying farm from it here.

Will have a look at the Facebook groupw when I get chance.

Clement of the Glen said...

Thanks for the information Albie.

I have some images and details about 'Robin Hood's Larder' in the Sherwood Forest section on this blog. Interesting about the tree that was hollowed out for a bet! I will look into that one.

Albie said...

OK Clement, a bit more info for you.....

The tree in question was called the Greendale Oak and was at Welbeck Abbbey in Sherwood. The owner was the Earl of Oxford (later to become the Dukes of Portland) who had an after dinner bet with friends. He made a hole through the middle of the tree in which he said he could drive a coach with 2 horses abreast. This was done and he won the bet in 1724. At one time one of his descendants drove a carriage with 6 horses through it - it could also take 3 horses abreast with soldiers mounted.

The tree eventually died but there was a large cabinet made for the Countess of Oxford made from the wood removed so the carriage could drive through it. When the tree was eventually felled the trunk it gave 7 tons of oak for use in furniture and so on.

As a matter of interest the Earl was Edward Harley who had married into a local aristocratic family. He gave his name to the famous Harley Street in London where today top medical doctors and clinics reside. In fact that this whole area of West London was called 'Little Sherwood' as the land owners there were from the 4 Ducal families that lived in Sherwood. Many of their family names are associated with streets in this area of London (Portland Street/Square, Savile Row, etc.)

Clement of the Glen said...

As always Albie you have come up with some fascinating informatiom. Thank you!

Albie said...

And a final note on the Major Oak is that it has been 'cloned'! A few years ago some samples were taken from it and around 200 cloned saplings were grown, I think it might have been done by University of Nottingham. These were eventually sold off for a considerable sum - the wife was going to buy me one but price was too high. The soil in my back garden is the same as the forest so it would have grown pretty well.

So somewhere around the world are 200 or so Major Oak Juniors that will in 500 years grow to be as large as their parent!!

If all goes well that is...

Clement of the Glen said...

I wonder how much those clones cost ??

Thanks again Albie!

Albie said...

Had a quick look on internet and found that they grow and sell 50 clones a year. You have to bid for them at a minimum of £300. There is an article in the following link which you might find interesting.....

www.eyemead.co,/majoroak.htm

I found the bit where someone took 500 acorns from the tree 11 years ago and planted them interesting. He eventually bought a 7 acre field and planted 300 saplings in Dorset.... Nice one!

Seem to recollect that the 1st batch were going to be priced around £200 each but interest was so high they each sold for several thousand each.