Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Fugitive King

by Tim Carrington

Written by Edward Payne and originally published by myself under ‘Shropshire Promotions’.

As our school days recede, one of the few bits of history that sticks in the mind must be that of how King Charles II evaded the clutches of Cromwell and his troops by hiding up an oak tree. But where is this oak? And where did the events that led up to Charles taking this unusual means of concealment occur? Many people and counties make claims to having the actual tree that he hid in, but the truth is that most of the events took place in the County of Shropshire.

To set the scene for these events it is necessary to go back in time to the 17th century when the country was in a turmoil and still recovering from the effects of civil war. Charles I had been executed and Cromwell had declared the country a common-wealth.

The young Prince Charles sought refuge in France and then later in Holland. It was merely a matter of time, though, before he attempted to regain his father's throne, and shortly after his 20th birthday he set sail from Holland and landed in Scotland on the 23rd June. Together with his loyal Scottish troops he made his way south, reaching Worcester virtually unopposed where he was proclaimed 'King of Great Britain, France and Ireland'. Cromwell reached Worcester four days later and camped to the south-east of the city.

After preliminary skirmishing, a huge battle took place on the 3rd of September, 1651, and by the end of the day Charles had been soundly beaten. The dejection and confusion of this moment are best reflected in Charles' own account which he dictated to Samuel Pepys some thirty years later.

"After the battle was so absolutely lost as to be beyond hope of recovery, I began to think of the best way of saving myself, and the first thought that came into my head was that if I could possibly, I would get to London as soon as possible, if not sooner than the news of our defeat could get thither. And it being near dark I talked with some, especially my Lord Rochester who was then Wilmot, about their opinions of which would be the best way for me to escape, it being impossible as I thought to get back to Scotland. I found them mightily distracted and their opinions different of the possibility of getting into Scotland, but not agreeing with mine, for going to London, saving my Lord Wilmot, and the truth is I did not impart my design of going to London to any but my Lord Wilmot."

Even though Charles had decided to make for London, they were forced to flee northwards, and together with a guide, Charles Giffard, they made their way into what is now the Telford area, and this is where I decided to take up the trail and follow in the footsteps of His Royal Highness King Charles II.

Now, with me trying to retrace his path some 335 years later, things had obviously changed. Housing estates, developments, in fact a complete new town had sprouted up and consequently his exact route was hard to follow.

Charles and his group were heading for a house called Boscobel, as their guide was related to the owner. However, it was to a former Priory called White Ladies that Charles and his party were initially taken. It was explained in this way.

"Upon further consideration by His Majesty and council, and to the end of the company might not know whither His Majesty directly intended, Mr Giffard was required to conduct His Majesty to some house near Boscobel, the better to blind the design of going thither. Mr Giffard proposed White Ladies, lying about half a mile beyond Boscobel."

It was thought far too dangerous for a large number of people to know Charles' actual hiding place and so to White Ladies they went.

I made my way down a leafy, narrow and overgrown lane which was full of potholes, in turn full of water, and found the Priory of White Ladies, which is now in ruin.

In reality, the Priory was dissolved over a hundred years before Charles' arrival but the Priory buildings had been turned into houses. It had been an Augustinian Priory dedicated to St. Leonard. The name refers to the wearing of undyed habits which distinguished St. Leonards from a Benedictine nunnery in the area known as Black Ladies.

For a moment, as I stood by the gate looking across the lawns surrounding the ruins, I heard a light wind whispering through the trees behind me and I imagined I could hear horses hooves, the jingle of harness and the riders' anxious voices as the company approached the house.

Charles and his group were let into White Ladies by a servant called George Penderel. Penderel had four brothers and it was this family that would figure prominently in the events of the next few days. Here. Charles changed into 'a pair of ordinary grey cloth breeches, a leather doublet and green jerkin'. His hair was cut short and his face darkened with soot. The rest of the party then left, but, unknown to the others, Charles had sent Lord Wilmot on a secret mission and that was to see if a route to London was possible. One of the Penderel brothers, called Richard, soon arrived at White Ladies and together with the King they set out on foot and hid in a wood nearby known as Spring Coppice.

"In this wood I stayed all day without meat or drink and by great fortune it rained all the time which hindered them, as I believe, from coming into the wood to search for men that might be fled there."

Although Charles claims not to have had any food or water during the day it is now widely believed that he did. According to Thomas Blount, a chronicler of the period, Charles was brought a blanket and some food by the wife of Francis Yates, a relative of the Penderels. The blanket was used to keep the rain off the King. The pair then began to discuss possible routes of escape with Charles resigned to heading for London.

"As I was in the wood I talked to Richard Penderel about getting to London, and asking many questions, about what gentlemen he knew, I did not find he knew any man of quality in the way towards London. And the truth is, my mind changed as I lay in the wood, and I resolved of another way of making my escape, which was, to get over the Severn into Wales and so get either to Swansea or some other sea town that I knew had commerce with France. So that night, as soon as it was dark, Richard Penderel and I took our journey on foot towards the Severn, intending to pass over a ferry halfway between Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury."

With that, I also took my journey on foot with the goal of finding their next port of call, a small cottage called Hubbal Grange. I made my way past the village of Tong and began to trudge along a seemingly endless dirt track, eventually coming across a sign embedded deeply in a hedge, indicating Hubbal Grange. It was here that I had to leave the dirt track and fight my way through thick undergrowth, trying to evade the stinging tentacles of huge nettles with one hand and swat at the swarm of ravenous flies buzzing eagerly around my head with the other. What is left of Hubbal Grange at last came into view, just a few ruined walls. I felt saddened by the disrepair of the building but Charles and Penderel must have been cheered for here they rested and ate a little food, and Richard Penderel's mother improved the King's disguise.

They then set out again, with Charles assuming the name of William Jones. As they continued their nocturnal hike, they came to Evelith Mill, not far from Shifnal.

When I arrived at Evelith, roughly 300 years later, I encountered a fierce-looking golden Labrador charging straight at me, only stopping, thankfully, at the brook which separated us. The reception for Charles and Penderel was no better.

"Just as we came to the mill we could see the miller sitting at the mill door, he being in white clothes. It being a very dark night, he called out 'Who goes there?' Upon which Richard Penderel answered 'Neighbours going home', or some such words, whereupon the miller cried out, 'If you be neighbours stand, or else I will knock you down.' Upon which, we believing there was company in the house, Penderel bad me follow him close. So we fell to running, both of us, up a lane as long as we could run, it being very deep and very dirty, till at last I bad him leap over a hedge and lie still to hear if anyone followed us."

They were not followed, and I managed to pass Evelith Mill untouched, although the barking Labrador kept a watchful eye on my progress. But I did get a glimpse of the now idle mill hiding behind a mass of green. The trees in front of the mill are enormous, they simply towered above me like giant sentinels hiding an ancient secret of a miller who refused sanctuary to a Royal fugitive one dark, dark night so long ago I felt relieved to be well away from the mill, probably in much the same way that Charles and Penderel did after their encounter with the miller.

I continued in my desired direction, walking along the very same lanes that Charles had described earlier, although my pace was much more leisurely. I found my way into the old part of Madeley and to my next destination, Upper House. It dates from the 17th century and its appearance is typical of the period, with pointed gables and some of the original mullioned windows still in position. My fleeing predecessors arrived in the early hours of Friday, the 5th of September. The owner of the house was a Francis Woolfe. The King stayed in the background whilst Penderel went to ask Woolfe if he would receive 'a gentleman of quality' and hide him throughout the next day.

"Mr Woolfe, when the country fellow told him that it was one that had escaped from the battle of Worcester said that for his part it was so dangerous a thing to harbour anybody that was known, that he would not venture his neck for any man, unless it were the King himself. Upon which Richard Penderel very discreetly, and without any leave, told him that it was I.. Upon which Mr Woolfe replied that he should be very ready to venture all he had in the world to secure me."

There were a number of hiding places in the house but these were known to the Roundheads, so the King was only allowed to remain briefly, while he was given a meal of cold meat. He and Penderel were then taken to the barn that belonged to Upper House and were hidden behind the corn and hay. Here they stayed all day.

So far, the plan of getting to Wales was working well, and under the cover of night they would cross the river Severn and head towards the border. The pair must have been in extremely high spirits. But it was not to be. Later that day, Francis Yates' son arrived from Shrewsbury bearing bad news. All the river crossings were guarded by Cromwell's troops. The King was advised against making any attempts to cross the Severn.

"Upon this I took the resolution of going that night the very same way back again to Penderel's house where I knew I should hear some news of what had become of my Lord Wilmot, and resolved again upon going to London."

Before Charles and Penderel left for the return journey, the King's disguise was improved by Mrs Woolfe who is said to have used walnut juice to darken his skin so that he would look less like a nobleman. It was about eleven o'clock when they set out for Boscobel House. The King was concerned about having another encounter with the miller at Evelith so they made a slight detour and reached the river Worfe.

"And therefore asking Richard Penderel whether he could swim or no, and how deep the river was, he told me it was a scurvy river, not easy to be past in all places and that he could not swim. So I told him that the river being a little one, I would undertake to help him over. Upon which we went close to the river side, and I, entering the river first, to see whether I could myself go over, who knew how to swim, found it a little above my middle, and there upon taking Richard Penderel by the hand, I helped him over."

It certainly must have been an honour for a mere country man, without breeding, to have the future King of England help him across a river. When I arrived at the river Worfe there was no Royal hand to help me, not even a boat, and I did not really fancy the idea of wading through it. So I decided to take a somewhat drier route and bolted past the mill at Evelith hoping not to meet the ghost of the inhospitable miller, or worse, that ill-tempered golden Labrador!

It was about three o'clock on Saturday morning when the King arrived at Boscobel. At this point they proceeded with caution. The King concealed himself in a wood nearby while Penderel went on ahead to ensure the house was safe for Charles to enter. He found one of Charles' officers from Worcester hiding there, a Major William Careless. Careless was a local man known to the family and he and Penderel returned to the wood in which the King was hiding and brought him to the house.

I arrived about three o'clock in the afternoon, feeling excited because this was the highlight of my journey. It was here I would find out the truth about the Royal Oak. I could see the black and white of the house through the trees, but as I neared it I realised that the effect was artificial. Originally the timber was exposed, but, sadly, due to the 18th century fashion it was covered with stucco. Nevertheless, the building has a majestic air which seems to boast a history that many houses would be envious of.

"Careless told me that it would be very dangerous for me to either stay in that house or go into the wood, there being a great wood hand by Boscobel, and that he knew but one way how to pass the next day, and that was to get up into a great oak in a pretty plain place where we might see round about us, for the enemy would certainly search all the wood for people that had made their escape. Of which proposition I approving, we (that is to say Careless and I) went and carried with us some victuals for the whole day, viz, bread, cheese, small beer, and nothing else, and got up into a great oak that had been lopt some three or four years before, and being grown again, very bushy and thick, could not be seen through, and here we stayed all day."

Apparently it was an abysmal day, typical of an English summer, and the rain poured down unabated, pushing the King and Careless to the edge of their patience. They managed to stay up the tree for fourteen hours. On the Saturday evening Charles enjoyed a greater amount of comfort than he had since leaving Worcester, ravenously eating a dish of chickens and during the evening he was shaved and his hair trimmed. The oak tree now stands alone, a solitary monument to one of our more romantic pieces of history. But it is not the original oak, Not the oak that found fame by sheltering a King.

When the King was restored to the throne in 1660, the Penderels felt that it was safe to tell the world of the events that took place at Boscobel, and consequently a deluge of souvenir hunters descended on the poor tree and hacked it away piece by piece until there was nothing left. Possibly this could account for the many claims that people and counties have concerning the whereabouts of the Royal Oak. The present oak at Boscobel is believed to have been grown from an acorn of the original tree, planted in the exact same spot.

The king spent the Saturday night hiding in a priest-hole that can still be seen in the attic of the house.

Now, seeing that I was following in the footsteps of the King I just had to try it out for size. The priest-hole is just four feet square, but it seemed a great deal bigger than that to me, but then I'm only a small chap and the King was over six-feet tall. But I could still imagine the restless night, always on edge, that the King must have endured here. I certainly would not have liked it, for the open trap-door above me had been closed and nailed tight for nine long hours!

So this is where my trail ended. It had been an eventful few days for me just as it must have been for all those involved in helping the King avoid capture. But perhaps my story should not end just yet.

King Charles left Boscobel House on Sunday, 7th September, 1651, four days after the Battle of Worcester. With the King were the four Penderel brothers and Francis Yates. They crossed into Staffordshire and made for Moseley Old Hall, and it was here that Charles met up again with his loyal friend Lord Wilmot. It was an emotional meeting as the King had been concerned about Wilmot's safety. From Moseley they went to Bentley Hall and it was here that Charles took on the guise of a serving man and together with Jane Lane, the daughter of the owner of Bentley Hall, they weaved their way down the country to Brighton. On the 5th of October, forty-two days after the Battle of Worcester, Charles sailed away to France aboard a coal ship named Surprise.

One more thing. When Charles did regain the throne, he never forgot about the Shropshire folk who aided him in his time of need, as a result he began to pay them an annual sum of money. These annuities are still being paid to their descendants over three hundred and twenty seven years later.

Edward Payne


Edward wrote this for a local radio broadcast and then we worked together publishing it as a mini-guide on the history of Shropshire. We sent a copy to Prince Charles together with a letter reassuring that if such events happened again that there were still loyal subjects in Shropshire. We received a letter from his secretary saying that H.R.H. had enjoyed the booklet and was reassured that such loyalty still existed.

Tim Carrington

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