Why 467 pubs are called the Royal Oak

Boscobel House, Shropshire 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.

The Royal Oak at Boscobel 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.

Boscobel HouseThey 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.

Boscobel House - the parlour.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.

Portrait of Charles II in Boscobel House. Do you think he's wearing lipstick?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.

The attic at Boscobel HouseThat 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.

Stairway at Boscobel House. Nio significance - I just liked the light streaming through the window.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.

Bedroom at Boscobel House - the 2nd priest hole is on the right of the picture. It's next to the fireplace, under what would once have been a toilet.As part of the restoration project, Evans’ youngest daughter, Ellen, laid out the shape of a crown, with an inscription in Latin, in tiny cobbles in the garden.  The inscription translates as:

‘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.’

Ellen Evans' cobble inscription.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.

White Ladies Priory, ShropshireLittle 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.

White Ladies Priory, Shropshire. Looking through the north transept.White Ladies Priory, Shropshire. Doorway into the church from the cloister.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.

Boscobel House - part of the garden.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.

Charles Stewart was here. Arbour on a mount in the garden where the future king read before making his final escape.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.

Buy a genuine Royal Oak sapling. You thought I was joking, didn't you?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.

Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory entries for Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory.

39 thoughts on “Why 467 pubs are called the Royal Oak

  1. furrygnome

    I knew a bit about Charles hiding in the oak tree, but never made the connection to Royal Oak pibs! Of course I side with Charles, since he was a Stewart and a Scot.

  2. Pondside

    The name Royal Oak is found in a number of places here in Victoria – most likely due to early British settlers. The Island is covered in Oak trees, but they are Gary Oaks, rather spindly native oaks that will grow out of the rock.
    Thank you for your visit to my blog – I will be following yours. It is hard to find new posts that capture one’s interest. Yours does just that!

  3. CherryPie

    Son of Royal Oak is looking in need of some TLC. Last time I visited, it was held up by orange tape…

    I visited White Ladies Priory many years ago and felt quite uncomfortable there. Lots of discarded beer cans and the evidence of a late night fire.

    Your photos have encouraged me to revisit and hopefully see it in a different light 🙂

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      It was clean enough when I was there, CP – though surrounded by long grass, as you can see. Shameful you found it in such a state – there are burials there, apart from anything else.

  4. S J West

    Very interesting to learn the whole story of his escape. We went on a heritage trail in Bridport last week and learnt he had tried to stay in Bridport but someone recognised him despite being disguised as a servant. He managed to flee out of one end of Bridport just as the militia arrived at the other end of town! Sarah x

  5. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – another great post … I knew of the ‘story’ but not all this detail – which is great to read. When I can get up to that part of the world I’ll definitely visit … I wonder if all 434 or 467 pubs have an original oak tree in their gardens for shade-loving visitors …

    So many of his soldiers killed – yet he survived and perhaps we should be thankful he went on to become King, and acquiesced to popular ideals – thus changing this country … being a great lover of the arts and sciences.

    Fascinating read – thank you! Cheers Hilary

  6. Lisa G.

    This was very interesting – and you tell the story so well. Those saplings seem rather expensive! Did you get one? 🙂 How different things were then – imagine that they didn’t look up to see them in the tree!

    What a life for him, on the run, camouflaging his appearance, making breakfast! And he talked to Samuel Pepys, which struck me since I know very little English history and hadn’t thought the two were contemporaries.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Pepys and Charles II were very much contemporaries. Pepys was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty (or something) – responsible for naval reforms, anyway – though he is better known for his diary. I managed to resist the temptation to buy a sapling – but it did give me an idea… 🙂

  7. lowcarbdiabeticJan

    Interesting to read this Mike, many thanks.

    I have to say that over the past few years I have been in a couple of the 467 pubs named ‘The Royal Oak’.

    All the best Jan

  8. Kay G.

    What a wonderful post. Now, if Charles went from Brighton to Shoreham, does that mean that he went through what is now Eastbourne or close to it? Hey, that is the small little bit of England where I visit, so I would love to think he even passed through the part where I have walked!
    This is such an interesting post! He helped fry mutton and then spent time reading in the garden…I will now think of this anytime I hear about him!

  9. Tanja

    I have missed a pub with such a name, which is odd since there are so many it seems:) so the original tree is gone but they have kept the acorns?and sell them? so what does one do with an acorn?plant a tree and say that’s from a tree that hid a king?funny:)

  10. The History Anorak

    I’ve never been to Boscobel,though it’s on my bucket list. The mount and arbour look very impressive (garden history being my current fad) so it might move up the priorities now, thanks to your post.

  11. clarepooley33

    I agree with you about the overuse of ‘spectacular’ and also ‘stunning’ in heritage guide books. I loved this post and the photos are stun… er… very nice!

  12. mekslibrarian

    A few years ago, when “my” team and I still regularly went to the pub quiz (and often enough came first, second or third team, meaning we walked home with bottles of whiskey, vodka or sparkling wine), one of the questions was “Which is the most common pub name in the UK”. I knew (don’t ask where from/how, I really don’t know) it was “The Red Lion”, and won that point for my team.
    My niece works at the Royal Oak in Ripon, by the way. It is a nice pub with good food and friendly service.

    Out of the pictures on this post, my favourites are the ones of the “White Ladies”. It sounds like a fascinating place.

  13. Bill Nicholls

    Considering the rate at which our pubs ar closeing I wonder if there is that many Royal Oaks now. I hav ecome across a walk down south named in honour of King Charles Escape, sort of follows his route

  14. Sparky

    After only knowing the basics of this story, your narrative really fleshed out the event. I’m curious, too, if any of those Royal Oaks are allowed to cross the pond? It would be fun to plant one here in SE Georgia since Hubby and I have so many ties to the good folks of England. It might be too hot though. Our summers are hot as blue blazes.
    Hope your day is blessed. ~:)

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