The Fugitive King
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.
mmm 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.
mmm 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.
mmm 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
"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
mmm 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.
mmm 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.
mmm 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
'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
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.
mmm 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.
mmm 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
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
"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."
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.
mmm 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
"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.
mmm 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."
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!
mmm 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.
mmm 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 were still being paid to their
descendants three hundred and twenty seven years later!
Boscobel House is in the hands of English Heritag and is open
to the public.