Charles II Hides in the Boscobel Oak

The young prince hid from Roundhead soldiers on September 6th, 1651.

Charles IIAt Worcester on Wednesday, September 3rd, the Roundheads under Oliver Cromwell routed Charles II and his Scots. The young king – he was twenty-one – slipped away on horseback with a few trusted companions. About dawn on the 4th they reached White Ladies, a house owned by the Giffard family, east of Tong in Shropshire, 40 miles from Worcester. They were let in by a servant named George Penderel. He and his four staunch brothers were to be key figures in the events of the next few days. As Roman Catholic recusants they had much experience in concealing people and pulling the wool over authority’s eyes. Three of them, including Richard Penderel, were sent for at once.

Charles decided to make for London, on foot and disguised as a simple woodman. He changed into a pair of rough breeches, coarse shirt and leather doublet, stockings and ill-fitting shoes, and was given a stained white hat and a billhook. The house servants cut his hair short and dirtied his face with soot. His companions rode away and he and Richard Penderel hid damply in a wood for the day. As the King remembered the adventure for the benefit of Samuel Pepys years afterwards, while the two were talking and feeling painfully hungry, Charles decided not to go to London, but to head for the Severn and Wales, hoping to reach Swansea or some other port where he could find a boat to France. Meanwhile he took lessons from Richard Penderel in how to talk like a local and walk with a local’s gait. He was a good mimic and the Worcestershire accent proved no problem, but the gait was.

Presently they set off for a house near Madeley, nine miles to the west, owned by a Catholic named Wolfe, but on the way were challenged by a suspicious miller. They ran away down the lane and hid behind a hedge for half an hour. When they reached Wolfe’s house in the early hours of the 5th, it was to discover that the hunt was up and the Severn crossings were all being watched. Charles spent the day hiding in the barn and that night they walked back eastwards again to Boscobel House, another Giffard family house, where the eldest of the Penderels, William, was in charge.

They arrived at Boscobel around 3am on the Saturday to find one of Charles’s officers from Worcester, Colonel Carlis, already hiding in the house. At daybreak Charles and Carlis climbed into a great oak tree in the wood 150 yards or so from the house, where they stayed all day. They took bread, cheese and beer with them and the thick, bushy tree gave them a view in all directions. Presently they saw Roundhead soldiers searching the wood, but fortunately the soldiers did not spot the fugitives. The exhausted Charles spent part of the time asleep with his head in Carlis’s lap.

When night fell the two men climbed down and returned to the house, where they had a supper of chicken. Charles spent the night cramped in a hidey-hole under the floor of one of the rooms. On the Sunday he was able to stretch his long legs in the attic and help the household by frying some slices of mutton in butter for a meal. Years later he remembered his skill with the frying pan with considerable pride. In the evening the Penderel brothers took him the five miles to another safe house, Moseley Hall. His feet were sore from so much walking in the badly fitting shoes and for part of the way he rode Humphrey Penderel’s lumbering carthorse. There’s a story of him complaining that the animal was the heaviest dull jade he had ever ridden and Humphrey replying it was no wonder the horse was plodding so slowly when it had the weight of three kingdoms on its back. From Moseley Hall Charles was helped to make his way to Bristol and eventually to the south coast, where at Shoreham on October 15th he found a brig which smuggled him away to France. During the escape he had been recognised repeatedly, but despite a high price on his head was never given away and the evidence is that he behaved with cheerfulness, courage and the most faultless courtesy throughout.

The famous episode of the Boscobel oak gave numerous Royal Oak pubs their name and inspired the oak-apple day celebrations. After Charles II’s restoration in 1660, the Penderels were handsomely rewarded and the tree became an object of loyal pilgrimage. Souvenir-hunters tore so many boughs and bits off it that by 1680 a wall had been built round the trunk in a vain attempt to protect it. Snuff-boxes and other items were made of the wood and by 1712 the tree had been almost destroyed. The one at Boscobel today is almost certainly a descendant, which grew from one of the original oak’s acorns. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged in a storm in October 2000. The house and the tree are cared for by English Heritage and are open to the public.