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!
Labels: Sherwood Forest