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Two hundred years in the making

The Story of Napoleon and French Oak

France is home to some of the finest oak forests in the world; and it’s from these ancient trees, with a history that traces back to the days of Napoleon Bonaparte, that Sitting Spiritually source a great deal of their exceptional quality timber. Stunning garden furniture…200 years in the making!

King Louis XIV’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert

A legacy of premium-quality oak

From the sun king to napoleon 

In truth, the story of oak becoming such an important commodity in France can be dated back as early as 1669, when King Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, expanded and restructured France’s forests; a policy which focused on planting premium quality oak that would help build a navy capable of fighting the British. Even now, you can still visit a 32-acre grove of nearly 400-year-old oaks that bears Colbert’s name.

This legacy was continued by Napoleon, who prohibited all non-state-authorised tree felling in 1803. Two years later, the French emperor passed a decree that stated that every oak felled must be more than 150 years old and replaced by a new, premium oak. During the same 200-year period of rejuvenation of French oak, Britain’s forests declined by 50% covering 5% of the country’s land mass — and just 1% in Ireland.

The Battle of Trafalgar

Building Napoleon's navy

Defeat at trafalgar 

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy creations during Napoleon’s reign was the Forest of Fontainebleau, located just south of Paris, where mighty oak trees were grown specifically for naval purposes. It took a remarkable 3,400 of these oaks to build just one 74-gun ship!

Despite Napoleon’s best efforts, his strategy ultimately failed to reap the expected success. The same year as his prescient decree, he was defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar by Lord Admiral Nelson and French naval demands became obsolete for a generation. In 1859, three years after the Crimean War, the French navy launched the Gloire, the first ironclad battleship, making oak even more redundant for the purposes of shipbuilding. 

Still, thanks to the Sun King and, later, Napoleon's forward-thinking forest management policy, France today has 34,000 square miles of oak forests — compared to 4,000 in the UK.

sitting spiritually swing seat made from oak

The benefits of choosing French oak

straighter grain, premium quality

One of Sitting Spiritually’s trusted timber suppliers, Hewins Oak, are a great proponent of the benefits and quality of French oak. Here’s Managing Director Alastair Rubie to explain:

“We buy from four regions; Burgundy, Champagne, the Val-du-Loire and Normandy. The French government has always been very passionate about oak preservation stemming right back to the reign of Louis XIV!  They used the oak in shipbuilding for both the Navy and merchant vessels, which meant they could continue to challenge us and the Dutch to gain complete command of the seas."

"Today, it’s different – around 50% of oak in France is owned by the state and the remainder is privately owned, but has to follow state harvesting rules. This system of management is known as futaie régulière, and promotes the growth of the healthiest, fastest-growing and straightest trees. The straighter the grain, the better the wood."

HMS Victory

Restoring HMS Victory

Preserving history 

Hewins Oak are also at the heart of a major restoration project to one of history's most celebrated naval vessels. Here's Alastair Rubie, again, to take up the story:

"When HMS Victory was built more than 250 years ago, the wood of more than 5,500 oak trees was used to complete the man o’war. The vessel has been undergoing a 20-year conservation scheme, including recently having its mast removed, and the latest phase – which will see planks on the hull replaced with new oak – is expected to take 10 to 15 years."

"The £45m project marks the 100th anniversary of the ship being brought into Portsmouth's dry dock, and repairs will also be made to the ship's structural framework.  The vessel, which is the world's oldest commissioned warship, will also be fully re-rigged."

"Hewins are proud to have been selected to supply large quantities of very specifically graded European Oak for this monumental project, playing a key part in preserving this incredible piece of history for many more decades to come."

Invest in a piece of history

from ancient forests to your garden

French oak is prized for its strength, durability, and attractive grain patterns, making it highly sought after for a variety of uses including flooring, cabinetry, wine barrels, construction, and of course…garden furniture!

So, when you buy high-quality oak swing seat from Sitting Spiritually, you're not just ordering a beautiful feature for your outdoor space – you're investing in a piece of history.

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