Charles II and the Royal Oak
How the future king escaped from Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War in 1651, giving English history one of its greatest adventure stories, and several hundred pubs a name, in the process.
ESCAPE TO WHITE LADIES
At three o’clock in the morning of 4 September 1651, a party of 60 Royalist soldiers rode quietly up to the gates of an old converted priory, White Ladies, on the northern border of Shropshire.
It was dark, and they had passed unnoticed through 40 miles of countryside. Among them was a wanted man: the 21-year-old son of Charles I, and newly crowned King of Scotland.
A few hours earlier the Royalist army had been decisively defeated at the Battle of Worcester, where 5,000 of its troops had been killed or captured. The man who would be Charles II and some of his men had escaped, and now required urgent refuge.
DISGUISE AND RULE
At White Ladies, the king’s coat and breeches were removed and he was dressed in country clothes: green breeches, a leather doublet, a coarse hemp shirt and an old grey hat. Shears were produced and the long, dark royal locks cropped short.
The other troops left and Richard Penderel, the eldest of five brothers summoned to the house, led Charles out to a wood. Together they planned an escape – over the river Severn, into Wales and from there to France.
As soon as it was dark Charles and Richard set out on foot. They reached the outskirts of a town called Madeley, but found the Severn heavily guarded. Exhausted, hungry and soaked through from wading across a river, they were forced to turn back. This time they headed for Boscobel House, a mile from White Ladies.
A SECLUDED SPOT
Built by the Giffard family about 30 years earlier, and buried in thick woodland, Boscobel was even more remote than White Ladies. Indeed, it had been designed for privacy. Like many other houses belonging to Catholics persecuted during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it had hiding places for Catholic priests.
The king was brought into Boscobel’s parlour by William and Joan Penderel. Charles’s wet stockings and ill-fitting shoes were set by the fire to dry and he was given bread, cheese and ‘small beer’. But Parliamentarian soldiers had already raided White Ladies, and Charles and his friends knew that not even Boscobel was safe.
THE ROYAL OAK
Charles consulted with William Careless, another fugitive staying at the house. The king’s account, dictated 30 years later to Samuel Pepys, records their decision:
he told me that it would be very dangerous either to stay in the house or go into the wood (there being a great wood hard by Boscobel) and he knew but one way how to pass all the next day and that was to get up into a great oak in a pretty plain place where we could see round about us for they would certainly search all the wood for people that had made their escape. … [We] got up into a great oak that had been lopped some 3 or 4 years before and so was grown out very bushy and thick not to be seen through. And there we sat all the day.
At White Ladies the pursuing soldiers had been confident of having their man ‘within a day or two’, and as Charles and Careless sheltered in the oak, Cromwell’s troops drew close. The king recalled:
while we were in the tree we see soldiers going up and down in the thickest of the wood searching for persons escaped, we seeing them now and then peeping out of the woods.
The soldiers left and at dusk Charles and Careless returned to the house. They ate more heartily, and Charles was left to rest for the night in a priest-hole in the attic. The next day, the Penderel brothers escorted the king secretly away.
Charles endured a further six weeks on the run. Then on 15 October 1651, he embarked from Shoreham beach on a ship bound for the Isle of Wight. The captain turned her south, and landed the king at Fécamp, from where he travelled to Rouen, and thence to Paris and the French court. It was to be nine long years until, with Cromwell dead, he could return to reclaim the throne in 1660.
Charles’s courage and spirit at Boscobel, alongside the ingenuity and loyalty of those who hid him, make this one of our greatest adventure stories: an extraordinary and pivotal point in the history of England, celebrated to this day by over 500 pubs named the Royal Oak.
By Nicola Stacey