What might be called ‘the Royal Oak Incident’ took place when the future King Charles II hid in an oak tree after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. This was a real event, which might have had a very different outcome, and is a fascinating story. You can visit the spot where it happened, Boscobel House in Shropshire and read a bit about the tale, and the place, here.
Young Charles Stewart, just twenty-one years old, was on the run. His enemies, led by Oliver Cromwell, had executed his father, the King, in 1649. His country had suffered civil war since 1642; it was tired, and bitterly divided between those that supported his Royalist cause, or the cause of Parliament. Many were simply caught up in the struggle, forced to take sides. Returning from exile in France, Charles had landed in Scotland in an attempt to raise an army and claim the throne. He was crowned king of Scotland in January 1651 and on 31st July marched south with an army of 14,000 Scottish troops. He crossed the border into England on 6th August and headed through Lancashire and Cheshire, hoping to gather support along the way. But by the time he reached Worcester in the English Midlands on 23rd, his army cannot have numbered more than 16,000. Cromwell’s highly trained professional army of 28,000 attacked on 3rd September in two wings and the inevitable Royalist defeat turned into a rout. It is estimated that up to 3,000 of Charles’ men died in the battle, with as many as 10,000 taken prisoner at the time, or shortly after, compared with a few hundred Parliamentary casualties.
As darkness fell, Charles escaped north from Worcester with a few trusted companions, managing to evade Cromwell’s patrols. Boscobel, a woodland hunting lodge 40 miles from Worcester, was suggested as a convenient place to rest. It, and the larger nearby house of White Ladies, was owned by the Giffard family, who were recusants (Roman Catholics who refused to accept the Church of England). Recusants, it was pointed out to His Majesty, were accustomed to persecution and concealment.
They arrived at White Ladies as dawn was breaking. A servant, George Penderel, one of five brothers, greeted them. Learning that the surrounding countryside was crawling with troops, including the disordered remains of his own army, Charles decided to attempt escape to London in disguise. He later told the diarist, Samuel Pepys, that he donned “a country-fellowes habbit, with a pair of ordinary grey cloath britches, a leathern dublett and a greene jerkin…and I also cutt my haire very short.” His companions left to try to make their own escape while Charles, his face rubbed with soot from the fire, disappeared into a nearby wood with one of the Penderel brothers, Richard. Here, the two of them hid all day, in the rain, without anything to eat or drink. Thinking things through, Charles decided that the Parliamentary commanders would expect him to head for London and that it would be more prudent to travel to South Wales, where he might find a ship to take him to France. Richard Penderel set about schooling his royal companion in the local accent, to help avoid detection.
The two of them set off in darkness for the river Severn to their west. At around midnight, they had a narrow escape after being confronted by a wary miller. Reaching a house belonging to a Catholic Royalist, Mr Woolfe, they learned that all routes across the Severn were guarded, so they decided to retrace their steps. Along the way, Charles helped Richard, who could not swim, back across a river.
After walking two nights and with little sleep or nourishment, the pair arrived at the hunting lodge, Boscobel. Here they met another Royalist fugitive from Worcester, Major William Careless. Charles sat in the parlour, his clothes and soaked shoes drying by the fire, gratefully eating bread and cheese. At daybreak, he and Careless, taking bread, cheese and small beer with them, went out into the wood and climbed a large oak tree, concealing themselves amongst its thick, bushy, branches. During the day, Parliamentary patrols passed underneath searching for Charles and any other refugees from the battle; but they never looked up and saw the chief object of their quest. Charles was so exhausted, he slept part of the time, his head in Careless’ lap.
They returned to Boscobel House at nightfall to discover that the militia had searched White Ladies. That night, Charles spent in a cramped secret hiding place, possibly a priest’s hole, probably beneath the floor of the attic. The following day, a Sunday, he helped fry mutton for breakfast and spent time reading in an arbour, on a mount, in the garden.
That evening, Charles took his leave of Boscobel, and the loyal Penderels. Dressed as a servant escorting a neighbour, Mistress Jane Lane, and riding a horse to help disguise his tall figure, the future king of England made a circuitous route that took in Stratford, Bristol, Bridport, Stonehenge, Brighton and, eventually, Shoreham where, on 15th October, he found a ship that took him safely to France.
On 29th May 1660, his 30th birthday, Charles returned to London as King. The story of Boscobel and the oak tree, no doubt with a little encouragement from the King himself, became well known. 29th May became ‘Oak Apple Day’ and a public holiday until 1859. It is still celebrated in parts of Britain, going under a variety of names – including ‘Pinch Bum Day’ and ‘Nettle Day’, in reference to the punishments inflicted on those neglecting to wear a sprig of oak, or an oak apple.
Boscobel House today is under the care of English Heritage. The name ‘Boscobel’ comes from ‘bosco bello’, or ‘beautiful wood’, possibly a secluded site where Roman Catholics could feel relatively safe. The lodge was built around 1595 and extended by John Giffard c1624. So it would have been relatively new when its illustrious visitor dropped by. The estate passed through marriage to the Catholic Fitzherbert family, who sold it to a wealthy cotton manufacturer from Derbyshire, Walter Evans, in 1812. Evans restored the house in ‘romantic’ style, in homage to its unique brush with history. In fact, the bravery of the Penderels and others who probably risked their lives for Charles appealed to 19th century idealism. Charles himself displayed heroism and kingly qualities in many people’s minds too. Who knows what fate would have befallen him had he been captured; though another view is that Cromwell could hardly bump off the entire family and that, provided he wasn’t making a nuisance of himself, Charles was probably best just keeping out of the way.
‘On 7 September 1651, in this house Charles II obtained the protection of five brothers of the Penderel family, and by means of their help safely escaped.’
The tree, alas, could not cope with souvenir hunters removing bits of it – despite a wall being built round the poor thing in 1680. By the late 18th century, it had gone. A descendant, albeit a storm-damaged scraggy-looking specimen, sits there proudly behind its fence, defying anyone to risk life and limb by balancing on its skeletal boughs. Still, you can buy Royal Oak saplings, grown from genuine acorns and with a certificate of authenticity, from the shop. I was surprised, but delighted for all sorts of reasons, not to be killed in the rush.
Little remains of White Ladies. This began life as the 12th-century Augustinian convent of St Leonard, named for the white habits worn by the nuns. It was suppressed in 1536 and a house was later erected there. Judging by a contemporary painting, the house was a substantial place. Only the walls of the medieval priory church remain; somewhere beneath the grass and wild flowers that surround it will be the footings of the house, earlier buildings and the graves – including those of some of the Penderels. It is a rather sad, though lovely, place.
You’ll discover White Ladies off a woodland track leading from a minor road about a mile or so from Boscobel House. And walking to it from Boscobel across a couple of fields is undoubtedly the easiest way to get there. The nice man from English Heritage, sounding remarkably like Noddy Holder, gave me careful directions; in truth, it’s pretty hard to go wrong – but I suggest the approximate walking time of 20 minutes given in the guide is only achievable if you are Mo Farah. While on the subject of inaccurate narrative, I feel I must take issue with English Heritage’s description of ‘spectacular’ views over the fields during your walk; ‘very pleasant’, by all means; but ‘spectacular’ is not an adjective I would use to describe a field of broad beans and the remains of the woods beyond that were once ‘bello bosco’. In the desperately competitive heritage market, exaggerating an attraction must be a temptation – and heritage is so expensive to maintain – but let’s keep a sense of perspective, chaps.
Which brings us to the attraction itself. In addition to the house, the small garden (possibly in need of a little TLC), the tree and the optional (but recommended) hike to White Ladies, there is the farm side of things – because that’s what Boscobel was. We need not dwell too long on this. Suffice to say that within the old house there’s an interesting dairy display and, outside, various farm buildings, including old stables, and a smithy. And chickens.
There is not a huge amount to see in the house, but what there is, is interesting. Unfortunately, the oratory, the room frustratingly described in the guidebook as ‘perhaps the most puzzling room in the house’, was closed due to refurbishment work when I visited. But the parlour, where Charles rested and dried himself out, is still there – though the original brick fireplace has been replaced with a marble one. Spot the scenes depicting the story of Charles’ escape etched into it. Two priests’ holes have been discovered in the house and one of these is almost certainly the one used by Charles, at the top of the stairs leading to the attic. The arbour in the garden that Charles read in is still there too.
A large part of the house is post 18th century, and privately occupied. The black and timber frame pattern of the older structure has been painted onto the newer external brickwork; though a pretence, it gives the building a more complete appearance, perhaps.
So, finally, those 467 pubs – obviously named after the one and only Royal Oak of Boscobel. The Royal Oak is the third most popular pub name in the UK, according to the Daily Mail (in 2011) and the website Pubsgalore. At No 1 is the ‘Red Lion’ and the ‘Crown’ is at No 2. Pubsgalore reckon there are 467 Royal Oaks in the UK and the Mail’s source reckoned a more modest 434. Naturally, I have quoted the more sensational statistic. There have also been 8 Royal Navy ships named HMS Royal Oak, the last one being sunk by U-47 at Scapa Flow on 14th October 1939 with the loss of 833 lives.