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King John’s Oak

18 July 2011 5,816 views No Comment

King John’s Oak


(photos can be enlarged by left clicking on them twice)

Grid reference:      SY 24060  97381
Latitude:            50.771025
Longitude:          -3.0782970
Nearest Postcode:   EX13 7QP

King John’s Oak is the largest and probably the oldest oak tree in the West Country. It stands in private grounds (owned and managed by the Bird family) in an old deer park, called Woodend Park.

Legacy to Landscape:  WINTER NEWSLETTER 2019

King John’s Oak in the spotlight again:
King Johns Oak has another moment of fame in its 800 year life time, being once again featured in a documentary film, From Mighty Oaks; a story of Trees, Woods and People. The title of which you might recognise as resonating with the Tree Charter; https://treecharter.uk/ . We will let you know when the film is to be broadcast.
Volunteers are continuing to record other ancient trees in the landscape. Please when out walking, do record any you see recording is explained on www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk; If you haven’t a tape, use your scarf or measure your hug!
Caring for King John’s Oak. After 3 years of volunteer effort King John’s Oak is now totally free of brambles that have been competing for water and nutrients. This winter we will be mulching around its base with wood chips and planting some young oaks in tree guards. If you would like to lend a hand then please get in touch.

If you have any contributions, or need further information, or event bookings, please do get in touch with Ruth Worsley or Pete Youngman. Phone 01404 310012
Email legacytolandscape@gmail.com    www.eastdevonaonb.org.uk/our-work/wildlife/legacy-to-landscape

Latest News: Woodland Trust Tree of the Year Final 10 trees Award :

Pete Youngman AONB:   ” Shute Primary School have nominated our very own King Johns Oak, an 800 year old  Veteran English Oak tree in the medieval deer park at Shute, for the Woodland Trust Tree of the Year Award. Sadly we did not win this award but Pete Youngman did appear briefly on the programme!


For over 800 years King Johns Oak has grown in the medieval deer park at Shute, whilst the world changed around it. It witnessed King John hunting in the park thinking about his troubled reign, 400 years later the grounds it sat in were confiscated by Queen Mary as they belonged to the family of the recently be-headed challenger for the throne of England the  9 day queen Lady Jane Grey. Meanwhile the landscape changed around it and so did the world, it has survived through the Battle of Trafalgar , two World Wars, the invention of steam engines, electricity and the internet and still it sits peacefully within the Deer Park.

The King John’s Oak is now a magnificent tree, very different to most people’s vision of a tree but a great resource for people to learn about the importance of veteran trees, their longevity, the unique life that they support and their future in the landscape. Shute Primary School have adopted this ancient giant of a tree and are determined to bring it to local people’s attention.

It needs help as it is surrounded by bramble which is out competing the tree for nutrients and water, is shaded by nearby trees, we also wish to take some grafts so preserve its genetic heritage to plant out in the deer park and surrounding area.”

Some musket shot was found around KJO about 3 years ago – does anyone know from whence they came? Could it have been 18th Century shooting practice? Please let Rick know on rickandeleanor@btinternet.com    Thanks.

King John’s Oak (King John b1166 – d1216 – reigned from 1199 to 1216) is over 10m (10.04) in girth and could date back to the 12th century monarch, although no connection has been proved.

A recent girth measurement  by Jill Butler (Ancient Tree Hunt – Tree  53647) in 2010 was 10.04m  = 33ft or 396 inches – making it, according to tree expert from Gloucester, Mark Frith, the 15th largest oak in Britain, larger girth-wise than the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. This would also make it the 15th oldest oak tree in the UK. Mark is attempting to record, in the form of his superb drawn sketches, the 20 oldest recorded ancient oaks of the UK.         (The Great Oak (Nibley Green), Bowthorpe Oak (Lincolnshire), Pontafadog Oak (Powys), Marton Oak (Cheshire), The Old Man of Calke (Derbyshire), Darley Oak (Cornwall), Fredville Oak (Kent), Offa’s Oak (Windsor Great Park), Queen Elizabeth Oak (Sussex) and the Capon Oak (Borders).

The remaining ten drawings that will be temporarily stored and exhibited at Kew include:

The Wyndham’s Oak (Herefordshire), Gospel Oak (Herefordshire), Chaceley Oak (Gloucestershire), Mottisfont Oak (Dorset), Jack of Kent’s, (Hertfordshire), King John Oak (Devon), Billy Wilkins (Dorset), Major Oak (Nottinghamshire), Lydham Manor Oak (Shropshire) and the Spernal Oak (Warwickshire).

Mark Frith’s superb sketch of King John’s Oak is now on this website – see below: our huge thanks to him:

MF020316_0012_KING JOHN OAK


"    ‘Whosoever plants a tree, winks at immortality’ (Felix Dennis)
Inspired by the grandeur of Britain's ancient oak trees, many of which are believed
to be more than a thousand years old, artist Mark Frith approached the publisher, 
poet, philanthropist and planter of trees, Felix Dennis and proposed a series of
drawings of millennial oaks.  Equally passionate about these magnificent veterans,
Felix Dennis commissioned a twenty drawing series, of which the King John Oak is one.
The series took the artist three and a half years to complete and was finished just
before Felix Dennis’s death in June 2014. Following Felix Dennis's wishes, his
estate bequeathed ten of the twenty drawings to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  
The remaining ten drawings were bequeathed  to Felix Dennis's charity, the Heart
of England Forest, in Warwickshire, where they will, in time, be displayed at the 
visitor centre.
The Heart of England Forest is a charity dedicated to accomplishing Felix Dennis's
life work and dream of creating a new, 30,000 acre, indigenous forest in the heart
of England, for more information of which visit: Heartofenglandforest.com.  "

How to calculate the age of a tree:

1. Measure up 1.3 metres from base of tree (usually chest height on an adult). If there are ‘Lumps & Bumps’ at this height, adjust to just above or below, whichever is narrowest or easiest to do, but you must go no lower than 0.5 metres above the base. Measure the girth (circumference) in metres, to the nearest 10cm.
2. Convert the girth measurement to centimetres (multiply by 100) and then
divide this value by 1.25 if the tree is in woodland :

10.04 (official)  Divided by  1.25 = 803 years old =1207 – the time of King John !

The Story of Shute – M F Bridie

“One of the ancient trees is marked on early maps as “King John’s Oak”. Tradition has it that the acorn was planted by the King when hunting. He had been created Earl of Cornwall at an early age, and the manor of Axminster had been held by him till 1204 (The manor of Axminster was parcel of the ancient demesnes of the crown. King John gave it to William, Lord Briwer or Brewer; one of the co-heiresses of this family brought it to Reginald de Mohun, by whom it was given to the Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Newenham). So it is just conceivable that he may have passed this way on some unrecorded journey, before the days of modern publicity and tarried awhile for a day’s sport.
Be that as it may, in the Shute grounds too, several very ancient oaks rear their majestic heads; they have been well planted and wisely spaced so that their growth has been unrestricted
The deer park would be an added attraction for hunting in the days when sports were few. At the present time the Park extends to a mere 120 acres, but is reputed to have been formerly a Royal Deer Park of vast extent dating back from an early period in the Norman dynasty. As a Royal Deer Park one of the stipulations was that at least 40 head of deer should always be preserved, presumably ready in case the King wished to do any deer stalking. Now the enormous trees rear their aged heads proudly on the slopes of the hills. Tradition says that in ancient days a “Druid’s Circle”, scene of pagan rites, stood on the summit of the central hill. There is no trace of stones, but the few remaining oaks, in the form of a rough circle, may have grown from an ancient oak grove.”

Strife of the Roses and days of the Tudors in the west – W H Hamilton Rogers

“Among the glade of venerable oaks, huge gnarled and twisted, is a veteran with a regal appellative, surnamed of Lackland ( King John )- with which monarch, tradition delivers it, was in existence contemporary. And who is to say the legend is not correct, especially as every lineage of this aged grandee of the forest’s appearance goes to confirm it.”

King John  – a brief history

(born 24th December 1166)

King of England 1199 to 1216 – 17 years

John, the youngest of five sons of King Henry II of England and Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, was at first not expected to inherit significant lands. Following the failed rebellion of his elder brothers between 1173 and 1174, however, John became Henry’s favourite child. He was appointed the Lord of Ireland in 1177 and given lands in England and on the continent. John’s elder brothers William, Henry and Geoffrey died young.  By the time Richard I became king in 1189, John was a potential heir to the throne. John unsuccessfully attempted a rebellion against Richard’s royal administrators whilst his brother was participating in the Third Crusade. Despite this, after Richard died in 1199, John was proclaimed king of England.
In 1214, John faced a rebellion by many of his barons, who were unhappy with his fiscal policies and his treatment of many of England’s most powerful nobles. Although both John and the barons agreed to the Magna Carta peace treaty in 1215, neither side complied with its conditions. Civil war broke out shortly afterwards, with the barons aided by Louis of France. It soon descended into a stalemate. John died of dysentery contracted whilst on campaign in eastern England on 18th October 1216; supporters of his son Henry III went on to achieve victory over Louis and the rebel barons the following year.

English oak or Pedunculate oak (Quercus robur)

Quercus robur is distinguished by its leaves having only a very short stalk 3–8 mm long, and by its pedunculate (stalked) acorns. It is a long-lived tree, with a large wide-spreading crown of rugged branches. While it may naturally live to an age of a few centuries, many of the oldest trees are pollarded or coppiced, both pruning techniques that extend the tree’s potential lifespan, if not its health.
Within its native range, it is valued for its importance to insects and other wildlife. Numerous insects live on the leaves, buds, and in the acorns. It supports the highest biodiversity of insect herbivores of any British plant. The acorns form a valuable food resource for several small mammals and some birds such as jays which were overwhelmingly the primary propagators of oaks before humans began planting them commercially, because of their habit of taking acorns from the umbra of its parent tree and burying it, undamaged, elsewhere.

Oak was the sacred wood burnt by the druids for their mid-summer sacrifice. In fact the word ‘druid’ means ‘oak man’.

Legacy to Landscape; linking King Johns Oak to the future

The most well-known element of the natural heritage of the area has to be the 800 year old King John’s Oak and its fellow veteran trees standing proud in the Woodend Deer Park, an under studied area with much to reveal.

The project will delve into estate archives to discover how the landscape has evolved over time. Starting with the tithe maps dating from the 1830’s, which in an earlier project were digitised and made available on-line by the AONB. Already the project is in possession of a 1783 estate map and an audit of the estate dated 1665. These will all indicate the network of farm holdings and how the land was being managed at that time. Other documents detail when trees were planted and land improved for agricultural purposes. Hopefully the archives will reveal more evidence of how the local communities in the past have shaped the landscape from the medieval times with its deer park to the modern day.

The project will also give people an opportunity to help improve the wildlife value of this treasured landscape and learn new heritage skills which will include: planting trees from seeds of the King John’s oak , hedgelaying, scrub clearing and managing orchards to enhance the landscape and improve its connectivity between wildlife hots spots.

Local school children will also be part of the project, working with their schools to develop lessons beyond the classroom, expanding their knowledge of their local wildlife and enhancing their awareness that our landscape, is dynamic: developing and changing over time.

The project provides potential for all ages to engage with the project at a variety of levels, whether it’s enjoying the landscape and wildlife, searching archives, pouring over old maps, learning more about our native wildlife, sharing your memories or leading a survey group. No matter what your current knowledge or your particular interests are, we would like to hear from you and would love you to be involved.

The Legacy to Landscape Project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with additional support from the East Devon AONB Partnership, Devon Wildlife Trust and the Axe Vale and District Conservation Society.

If you would like to get involved, please contact

Pete Youngman, 01404 310012, pete.youngman@eastdevonaonb.org.uk


Woodend Park (the old Shute Deer Park), is the oldest extant park in Devon – dating back possibly to the 12th Century. The Park is famous for its ancient oaks (more than 100)  (Lord Arundell’s Oak may still have a small remant but Chaselands Oak is no longer) as well as its epiphytic lichens and deadwood beetles.

The fungus on King John’s Oak has been identified by Alan Lucas as

Phellinus wahbergii

which is only found on 4 other oak trees in England – two at Langley Park (Buckinghamshire), one in New Forest and one at Staverton Thicks (Suffolk). The only other place in ‘Europe’ that it has been recorded is the Canary Islands. It is known in the tropics. So it is an outstanding rarity and one where southern England is the European epicentre.

On another large oak in the wood is another rare lichen Lobaria virens:

September 2011: Jill Butler (Woodland Trust), Alan Lucas (fungus expert), Keith Alexander (beetle expert) looking at King John’s Oak:

George Ashe (1879-1961) retired to Colyton and recorded beetles in Woodend Park from 1939-58. Amongst the many rarities he found were:

Stenichnus godarti (RDB3),

Ptenidium gressneri (NS),

Quedius scitus NS),

Abraeus granulum (NS),

Aulonothroscus brevicollis (RDB3),

Ptinus subpilosus (NS),

Pseudocistela ceramboides (NS)

& Ischnomera sanguinicollis (NS).

His list demonstrated that this parkland is of national importance to nature conservation for its beetles. Most have a requirement for ancient hollowing oaks, so I don’t doubt that these species are still there. They are just difficult to find. He took nearly 20 years to build up the list!

All photos courtesy of either Angela Pearce, Ann Shepherd, Phil Wilson or Rick Wood


In high winds, dead branches can sadly come down:

There are many other fine old oak trees in Shute Deer Park:

Once a year in June or July, the Bird family have very kindly agreed to allow us to take a group of interested people up to the oak and then have a picnic at the top of the hill near Druids Circle. We are extremely grateful to them for their generosity. For the rest of the year, please respect the fact that this is private land. Thank you.

There is also a fine oak tree in the grounds of Shute House by the footpath which runs through the estate. It is  Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) thought to be over 260 years old and the biggest of its type in the country with a girth of 21ft and spread of about 120 ft. Elisabeth Miller who lives a mere minute’s walk away, says it is an outstanding specimen, perfectly proportioned and with a trunk characterised by a series of cathedral-like buttresses.

Rick Wood