Oh where, Oh where, has Chaucer’s “Foul Oak” gone….?

 

 

The Baginton Oak, Warwickshire

According to Project Gutenberg, on 6th September 1390 Geoffrey Chaucer was mugged at a place called the Foul Oak, but not the Baginton Oak. Rather was it on what we now call the Old Kent Road but was originally the Roman Watling Street, leading out of London, on the way to Canterbury and Dover.

“….[Chaucer was] Clerk of the King’s Works at the Palace of Westminster, the Tower of London and various royal manors. In 1390 he was employed to repair St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and to erect scaffolds at Smithfield for Richard II. and his Queen, Anne of Bohemia, for them to view a great tournament….

“….He was also appointed one of the Commission for the repair of the roadways on the banks of the river between Greenwich and Woolwich. About this time a great misfortune overtook the poet. In the pursuit of his duties,{84} with the King’s money in his purse to pay the workmen, he was robbed by highwaymen twice on the same day. The first time at Westminster of £10, and the second at Hatcham, near the ‘foul oak,’ of £9, 3s. 8d. This was a serious loss, and he was forgiven the amount by writ dated 6th January 1391….”

Well, it’s not actually known if he was robbed more than once; but he certainly was set upon near Hatcham, at a place called the Foul Oak. He was en route from Westminster to Eltham, with funds to pay for something or other – I’m not sure exactly what. He was beaten up, the money, his horses and goods taken. And if the king hadn’t absolved him by accepting his story, he’d have had to pay it all back himself!

Hatcham was a small manor on the Old Kent Road, and has now disappeared, except for a few street names,. As for the mysterious Foul Oak, well, it’s a will-o’-the-wisp! Presumably it was simply a tree, not a disreputable tavern. Whatever, it was frequented by gangs of robbers, an ‘accolade’ that in later years went to nearby Blackheath. The countryside around Hatcham, then little more than a hamlet, was wooded and not exactly highly populated. Ample opportunity for criminals to go about their business.

Medieval Robber Knights attacking a Merchant Caravan during the 12th Century, from.
‘The Illustrated History of the World’ Published by Ward; Lock & Co; 1890

Medieval Robber Knights attacking a Merchant Caravan during the 12th Century. From ‘The Illustrated History of the World’ Published by Ward; Lock & Co; 1890

I’ve looked and looked for an exact site of this famous incident, which was also notorious because in 1384 “…Nicholas Brembre, while in office as mayor of London for one day, snatched 22 people all of whom had been arrested and incarcerated in London’s Newgate prison for various offenses, some accused, some felons, and some chaplains. He took them, their arms bound, in the silence of night by force to a place called Foul Oak in Kent, and without the voice of a judge they were mercilessly allotted a capital sentence, and their blood ran in rivulets from their veins, except for one who escaped alive by means of some barely plausible excuse….” Hard to imagine Sadiq Khan resorting to such violent activities!

from British Library MS Royal 20 C VII f. 203v

Brembre was violent and corrupt, and according to Medievalists.net https://www.medievalists.net/2016/05/the-mayor-of-london-the-first-the-cursed-and-the-worst-mayor-in-londons-history/ “….seemed to have run London like medieval Tony Soprano, and in the end, made more enemies than friends, ultimately leading to his demise….”

The rebuilt Christ Church Greyfriars, by Wren, opposite St Paul’s Cathedral

 

The route Chaucer took was clearly very well trodden, not only by those on their way to Canterbury and Dover, but also to those en route for Eltham Palace. Kings, magnates and their retinues rode that way. It would have been a route well known to Richard III, and all monarchs until Eltham felt out of favour, so why has the Foul Oak disappeared from the records, except in connection with the two incidents described above? We’ve all seen maps with gallows tree clearly marked at crossroads, so why not a place were so many executions had occurred and where robber gangs were known to lurk?

So, if anyone reading this knows more about the Foul Oak and its association with the Father of English Literature, please do comment, because I’ve love to know.

 

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