meaning and origin of the phrase ‘heart of oak’



A New Song, sung by Mr. Champness in Harlequin’s Invasion
from The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure – March 1760



The phrase heart of oak denotes a person with a strong, courageous nature, especially a brave and loyal soldier or sailor, and a courageous or valorous spirit.

Its literal meaning is the heartwood of the oak. The heartwood is the dense, inner part of the wood of a tree trunk, yielding the hardest timber.

The figurative usage is first recorded in The first part of the true and honorable historie, of the life of Sir John Old-castle, the good Lord Cobham (1600), by the English playwright and translator Anthony Munday (died 1633):

– Fill all the pots in the house there.
– Oh wel said M. Harpoole, you are heart of oake when all’s done.

The Ipswich Journal, or, The Weekly-Mercury (Suffolk) of 15th July 1727 published this:

The following Address of the Officers and Seamen of the Oxford Man of War is come up in order to be presented to the King, viz.
Most gracious Sovereign Lord may please
To accept the Homage of the Seas.
We use no Tinsel Art to prove
The force and ardour of our Love,
But come like open minded Folk,
To tell you we’re your Hearts of Oak,
And true as ever struck a Stroak.

The English actor, playwright and theatre manager David Garrick (1717-79) juxtaposed the literal and figurative meanings of heart of oak when he wrote the lyrics of a patriotic naval anthem in 1759, the year of celebrated British military and naval victories at Minden, Quiberon Bay, and Quebec. This song, originally written for the pantomime Harlequin’s Invasion, was published in The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure (London) of March 1760 under the title A New Song, sung by Mr. Champness in Harlequin’s Invasion; the following are its first verse and chorus:

Come chear [sic] up, my lads, ’tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year:
To honour we call you, not press you like slaves,
For who are so free as we sons of the waves?
Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men;
We always are ready, steady boys, steady,
We’ll fight, and we’ll conquer again and again.

The song soon became popular; about a play which had been performed at Covent-Garden Theatre, London, the Sussex Weekly Advertiser, or Lewes Journal of 1st December 1760 reported:

There was a great Riot before the Play began; occasioned by some Sailors in the Slips¹, joined by the People in the Upper Gallery, insisting upon the Music Playing “Hearts of Oak, &c.” The Actors endeavoured to begin the Play twice, but were obliged to withdraw: At last Mr. Anderson informed the Audience, that the Musicians had declared, one and all, that they did not know the Tune, but would play any one they were acquainted with; upon which the Tars commanded God save the King.

(¹ the slips: the sidings of a theatrical stage)

The plural form Hearts of Oak denotes an Irish non-sectarian organisation formed in 1763, which protested, often violently, against taxes for the building of new roads, and tithes exacted by the Church of Ireland. This plural form also designates the members of the movement, which chiefly involved the people of Armagh, Tyrone and Monaghan. Pope’s Bath Chronicle, and Weekly Gazette (Somerset) of 21st July 1763 published the following extract of a letter from Armagh, dated 7th July:

“Affairs here are in great Confusion. The White-Boys², who have never ceased their Ravages since their first Rising, notwithstanding the exemplary Punishment inflicted on several of them, still continue to commit Disturbance, and have lately had their Numbers increased by the Addition of many Hundreds of Farmers and others, in different Parts the Courtry [sic], who have taken Umbrage at the Cesses imposed last Assizes.
“This Day se’ennight upwards of ten thousand of them, the greatest Part armed, appeared in the Neighbourhood of Market Hill, and on the Saturday following near as many appeared at Rich-Hill, from whence they proceeded with Drums beating, Fifes playing, &c. to all the Gentlemens Houses around, whom they obliged to give them a Promise in Writing, that they would never demand these Dues. Yesterday both Bodies, with several others from the adjacent Parts, joined, and a Person who arrived here the same Morning from Newry says, that he met them in his Passage, to the Number of at least twenty thousand, with above thirty Pair of Colours displayed before them, all marching in regular Order for the Mountains, with an Intent to wreak their Vengeance on one Mr. ****, whom they look upon as the principal Authour [sic] of these Cesses, and who is the only one that has refused giving them up. They oblige all Persons wheresoever they come, to join them; and by Way of Distinction wear Oaken Boughs in their Hats, from whence they call themselves Hearts of Oak. Where these Disturbances may end, God knows, as they seem now to have some Thing further in View, than the Repeal of Cesses, and in Consequence thereof have done a great deal of Mischief to the Enclosures, Cattle, &c. But in the mean while, Express upon Express has been dispatched to the Lords Justices, and ’till some Assistance arrives, such as think themselves in the least obnoxious to them, take Care to keep out of the Way.”

(² The Whiteboys were the members of an agrarian protest organisation active in Ireland in 1761-65 and again in 1769-75, whose chief grievances were the enclosure of land, extortionate leases and tithes, and the encroachment of livestock on tillage. This organisation originated in the poorest areas of County Tipperary, and chiefly consisted of bands of armed men who damaged farm property during night raids. It was one of a number of secret agrarian groups with broadly similar objectives and methods.)

The Hearts of Oak were also called Oak-boysThe Scots Magazine of July 1763 reported this:

Disturbances have broke out afresh in the north of Ireland, occasioned, as it is said, by the heavy cess to the highways, and the small dues claimed by the clergy. The insurgents wear branches of oak, and are called Hearts of Oak, or Oak-boys. Their number is computed at 40,000; but as many are forced to join them, no just estimate can be made of the real number They commit great outrages, assaulting some, threatening others, and forcing gentlemen and clergymen, and even magistrates, to sign such papers and take such oaths as they tender to them. They march by parishes: each parish has a leader, with a standard and colours, drums, horns, fidlers [sic], and bagpipes. About the 20th of July, the Lords Justices signified their pleasure, that all officers on the Irish establishment, absent from their quarters, should repair to their respective posts, notwithstanding any leave of absence, and that no furloughs should be granted until further orders: and as the troops have been sent against the insurgents, there is no doubt but they will soon be quelled.

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