Under England’s famous old oak tree: John Clayton’s account of the Cowthorpe Oak

Assistant Archivist Luke Thorne examines an old account about an ancient giant of nature for this edition of Treasure of the Month.

Published on 1st October 2021

The Cowthorpe Oak was once considered to be the greatest oak tree by girth in England and was for the longest time believed to have been the country’s oldest tree as well, dating back to at least the Norman conquest of England. The first record of measurements for the tree were taken by Scottish Physician Dr Alexander Hunter, who measured the tree in the 1700s and recorded that it had a girth of 78ft and a height of 80ft.

The oak was situated in a field next to the now disused St. Michael’s church in the village of Cowthorpe, North Yorkshire. Due to its immense size and age the tree drew in crowds of people, including various artists who attempted to capture its majesty in paintings and sketches. Diagrams and photographs of the tree and surrounding area were also taken by the botanist John Clayton (1847-1933) who visited it in 1893.

A black and white photograph depicting the Cowthorpe Oak from the North side. The tree is surrounded by a wooden fence and logs have been positioned around the tree to support its branches.
A photograph of the Cowthorpe Oak as seen from the North. Due to the size and spread of the branches makeshift props had to be placed around the tree in order to support it.

Clayton had a particular interest in old trees, especially Oak and Sequoias, which he wrote about in great detail. He wrote his personal account of the Cowthorpe Oak (MS/8) in 1899, four years before joining the Linnean Society as one of its Fellows. Little else is known about him in the Society’s records except that he wrote another piece on Sequoia trees (MS/9), he was President of the Bradford Naturalists and Microscopical Society in 1887 and he died on 20 December 1933.

The account is stored in its original leather case and requires some much needed repair, but thankfully the manuscript itself and accompanying pictures are still in good condition. Handwritten in a beautiful cursive, Clayton’s paper describes how much interest there has been in the old tree over the course of many years and details the measurements made by various individuals who visited the tree at different intervals. A number of mounted photographs of the Cowthorpe Oak and other notable oak trees are also kept alongside the paper to demonstrate the size and scale of the trees. Clayton also included diagrams with his measurements as well as copies of illustrations made by various artists.

A photograph showing the first page of John Clayton's account of the Cowthorpe Oak.
The first page of Clayton’s 22 page account of the Cowthorpe Oak.

“The oak tree at Cowthorpe near Wetherby is acknowledged to be the largest in diameter of all oaks that are known. It therefore commands an attention that is specially its own – as a king among men – and it is doubtful whether any other living tree has as much written about it as it has”

John Clayton

Clayton notes that when the tree was first recorded by Dr Hunter it had a girth of 78ft and a height of 80ft, but later measurements also record the tree having a girth of 60ft and a height of 45ft, as well as a cavity that could hold 40 men inside. When Clayton recorded the oak he found that the measurements were further reduced to 54ft and 3 inches in girth and a height of 37ft. He found that the reason for the changes in these measurements was because the tree’s roots and branches were gradually decaying and its immense weight caused it to sink into the earth.

A picture with labelled diagrams showing the dimensions of the tree at various angles.
Diagrams showing the dimensions of the Cowthorpe Oak from different angles.

The tree itself is of course the real treasure, but unfortunately the Cowthorpe Oak no longer stands today as it was struck down by lighting in the early 1950s and was believed to have been between 1200-1800 years old when it fell. In a way it is fitting that such a giant of nature, one that potentially existed since both the Roman and Norman conquests of England, could only have been felled by a mighty bolt from the sky. What remains of the tree are the writings and pictures made by scientists like John Clayton, who set about creating a valuable resource for future generations and a testament to the fame of the Cowthorpe Oak.

You can search for the account of the Cowthorpe Oak and other writings by John Clayton in our archives catalogue.

An illustration depicting the Cowthorpe Oak. A large crowd of people are standing and dancing under an outstretched branch of the tree.
An illustration depicting the Cowthorpe Oak. A large crowd of people are standing and dancing under an outstretched branch of the tree.

By Luke Thorne, Assistant Archivist


MS/8, Cowthorpe Oak - John Clayton

Wikipedia, ‘Cowthorpe Oak’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cowthorpe_Oak, accessed 15/09/21

The Yorkshire Post, ‘Country & Coast: A Yorkshire tree as old as Magna Carta’, https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/environment/country-coast-yorkshire-tree-old-magna-carta-1790468, accessed 15/09/21

Wetherby Civic Society – Cowthorpe Oak, https://www.wetherbycivicsociety.org.uk/cowthorpe-oak/, accessed 15/09/21