Charles II hiding in the Boscobel Oak (c) NPG 5429 National Portrait Gallery
A dashing, witty, young King takes refuge amongst his loyal subjects, the English countryside itself offering a protective arm, hiding him in an Oak tree. Meanwhile the usurper and tyrant Oliver Cromwell searches for him, high and low. How could we not fall in love with that story?
Royal history, for all its big personalities and high politics, can sometimes seem irrelevant and frivolous. Who cares what powerful and privileged men did in the Seventeenth Century? They’re only David Cameron and Ed Milliband in wigs and stockings.
Yet, what I love about the story of Charles II escape from the Battle of Worcester, is that the history of Kings makes one of its rare incursions into the lives of ordinary people, specifically the ordinary country folk of the Boscobel estate on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border.
The tale is dramatic, romantic and in some ways an anathema to the heroic model of the day. The contemporary accounts are all the better for the struggle that the authors have in trying to represent Charles’ abject humiliation as a triumph of the spirit. In their struggle suddenly we are confronted with Charles Stuart the person, the exhausted and frightened young man, not King Charles; God’s own representative on earth. This lost King is forced to interact with, and rely on, people he would never normally meet and it doesn’t always go smoothly.
In a series of posts I’m going to look at what makes this such a great tale, look at some of the places that appear early on in the story, and examine what it reveals about the common people of England that he is so rudely thrust amongst. The story of Boscobel house has been a popular one for the best part of 350 years but, aside from the Royal Oak, it doesn’t seem to be as familiar to people as it once was. So, I’ll begin with my potted history of the events.
Behold, I present you with an History of Wonders; wonders so great, that, as no former Age can parallel, succeeding Times will scarce believe them.
Expect here to read the highest Tyranny and Rebellion that was ever acted by Subjects, and the greatest hardships and persecutions that ever were suffer’d by a King; yet did His Patience exceed His sorrows, and His vertue became at last victorious.
Thomas Blount, Boscobel, 1660
The civil war was lost, King Charles had been executed for treason, prominent Royalists were either dead, in exile or trying to melt quietly back into local life. The new King, thus far crowned only in Jersey, had listened to the plans of his frustrated, conflicted courtiers and finally agreed to take up the offer to travel to Scotland, to begin there his attempts to win back the three kingdoms. In offering himself into the hands of the Scottish Kirk, the twenty year old Charles Stuart would face almost a year of humiliation, being forced to compromise nearly all his beliefs, and watch meekly as allies were betrayed, before finally being able to raise an army to march into England.
London was his destination, his aim; to spark a popular uprising. He failed on both accounts. Once on English soil he was pronounced King, though the setting of Penrith was hardly an orthodox coronation. They were empty actions. In truth, he was in the hands of Cromwell for the entire campaign, harried by parliamentarian forces, refused entry to important cities, Charles was corralled into the City of Worcester. The rush of Royalist support was conspicuous in its absence. It didn’t help that to most English country folk the presbyterian Scots that made up his forces were about as popular as the dreaded Catholics. This Charles Stuart, was the King of Scots, not the English.
On Wednesday 3rd September 1651, Charles was defeated by Cromwell, or as one retrospective account from 1660 rather florally puts it:
…on that Black and White day September the 3d. 1651. in the Dusk of which Fatall Evening, when the ashamed Sun had blush’t in his setting, and plunged his Affrighted Head into the depth of Luckless Severn, and the Night ready to Stain and Spot her guilty Sables with loyal Blood, was attiring her self for the Tragedy; The king… compelled to Abandon the City of Worcester.
An Exact narrative, 1660
Night was upon him as Charles suddenly found himself fleeing Worcester, encumbered with his defeated, retreating cavalry and a host of conspicuous Lords and Gentleman. The King quickly realised that any attempt to flee to Scotland with this rag tag remnant of his army was doomed to failure and resolved privately to make for London. He managed to maneuver himself away from the main body of troops, but still found himself with sixty of his closest advisors. As he put it to Samuel Pepys in 1680:
it was then too late for us to gett to london on Horse-Back rideing directly for it; nor could we doe it, because there was yett many people of quallity with us that I could not gett ridd of.
With the countryside already swarming with Parliamentary troops and local militia intent on mopping up fleeing Scots, Royalists and the great prize of the King himself, they were in trouble. It was at this point that the King’s luck changed (relatively speaking) as Colonel Charles Gifford, sought out the King and suggested a suitable hiding place on lands owned by his relatives, the Boscobel estate, some 25 miles away. Aided by one of Gifford’s men who was local to the area, Francis Yates, the king made it to Whiteladies House by the early morning.
It was there, in the former priory turned country house, that Charles was delivered into the hands of the stout and stoical Penderel brothers, whose actions kept the King safe through the early days of hiding. The Penderel’s were husbandmen or Yeomen who worked the Gifford’s estates, and like their patrons they were Catholics. It is probably this point above all that saved Charles, the Catholic communities of Seventeenth Century England were adept at hiding; hiding places of worship, hiding priests and now hiding Kings.
At Whiteladies Charles was able to dismiss his entourage, he confided his plans to only one man, the preposterous but loyal Henry Wilmot (future the 1st Lord Rochester). Charles was then disguised in simple country clothes, his skin darkened and his hair cut. He was as Charles put it, ‘a la mode the Woodman’. In the next three days Charles spent a rainy day hidden in woodland, is chased by a miller, attempts to make it to Wales and is forced to sleep in a barn, returns to Boscobel House, the hunting lodge within the Boscobel estate, hides up an oak tree for a day (the famous Royal Oak), spends the night in a priest hole, and finally, is moved to another Catholic Gentleman’s house on the back of a busted mill horse. Some of these acts have elements of the finest of high farces and would seem so except for the fact that they represented stunning bravery, quick wittedness and devotion on behalf of these common men. Capture would probably have meant death for Charles, but it would undoubtably have meant a brutal death for those who had helped him, along with the ruin of their families.
From Boscobel the King continued on for another six weeks until he finally escaped England aboard the ‘Suprise’ a sea-coal ship, bound for France. I’ll touch on these tales in the other posts as they contain some great moments, but it’s Boscobel I want to focus on first.
Before delving into into the history in my next post I’ll talk about how the pursuit of history is aided by English Heritage and folding bicycles.