Oak apple in Cork

Published in Artefacts, Issue 4 (July/August 2024), Volume 32

By John Stocks Powell

How many people in Cork in 1677 would have known the story of the Boscobel oak tree in Shropshire and how Charles II hid from his enemies high in its branches after the defeat of Royalist forces by the Parliamentarians after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651? Yet this image appears on a brass penny token, with a diameter of 19mm, issued in Cork city by a trader merchant called William Ballard. Charles II is portrayed as a bust taken from the regal coinage design, with the crowns of the three kingdoms around his head, all in the middle of an oak tree. Below him are his hunters, one on horseback.

Above: William Ballard’s 1677 penny token, showing (left) King Charles II in an oak tree with the crowns of the three kingdoms around his head; below him are his hunters, one on horseback.

What is known of William Ballard? He was not alone in providing unofficial token currency for a country starved of small change by way of pennies and ha’pennies. With the breakdown of royal authority in the 1640s, tradesmen and corporations began creating their own currency to ‘pass for necessary change’, as some pieces declared. In England these tokens first appeared in 1649, in Ireland first in 1653; despite the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, issues continued until 1679. Over 170 different places in Ireland produced these items, Dublin having the greatest number, with over 145 issuers; this specie provides a superb historical source for names, the trades of ordinary people and the iconography of the day in a period when the ordinary signs of living are few.

These tokens varied in size, weight and number issued, and the profit between denomination value and metal weight could be high. As tokens their circulation was limited to the distance within which they could be redeemed for official money or goods by the issuer; some may have been just advertising mementoes. It is not certain where they were made—there was no central minting agency for them—yet these pieces required die-engravers, minting machinery, and supply and preparation of metal. Ballard’s Cork token even has an edge inscription, ‘Prosperity to this city’.

The Boscobel oak episode, which figures on this token, was later transformed into ‘Oak Apple Day’ to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and 29 May became a fixed public holiday. It had its own political prayer day in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, along with the failure of the Gunpowder Plot (5 November 1605), the landing of William of Orange at Brixham (5 November 1688), the martyrdom (execution) of Charles I (30 January 1649) and the failure of rebels to seize Dublin Castle (23 October 1641). Oak Apple Day was also observed as Founder’s Day for the Royal Chelsea Hospital in 1681 and was sometimes called ‘Shick Shack Day’ or ‘Oak and Nettle Day’. It is still observed in a few English locations, and several pubs are named ‘The Royal Oak’.

These political prayer days continued into the nineteenth century and were adopted by the Church of Ireland into its liturgy. Each monarch re-specified these prayers on his or her accession, but they were removed by what became the Anniversary Days Observance Act in 1859, as they had come to be perceived as unduly sectarian and divisive. This act, in a separate amendment, deleted the 23 October prayer from the Irish Book of Common Prayer. In looking at this small token coin from Cork, it may truly be added Multum in parvo.

John Stocks Powell was formerly librarian at York Minster Library.


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