Charles Stuart, King of Scotland and heir to the English throne, famously sheltered in an Oak tree after defeat at the battle of Worcester on 3rd September 1651. The name Royal Oak is said to be the third most popular name for a pub in the country, yet the story of how Charles survived to become Charles II is skipped over in most history books. That the king returned to be restored as the “Merry Monarch” is taken for granted. It should not be. He survived by a near miracle.
After the battle he fled north into a forest he had never been in encountering people who were unknown to him. The King gambled on the loyalty and skill of forest people who were virtually peasants to save him being pursued by Cromwell’s Roundhead troops who sealed off the forest and went through it with a fine toothcomb. The King escaped by a near miracle, and even a short telling of the tale reveals that the days spent in the forest is a tale of near misses. It is not true that “Who dares wins”, but certainly true that “Fortune favours the Brave”. This is the story of a week that saved the monarchy.
The Battle and After
As Scottish King Charles led a Scots Army into England planning to fight Cromwell’s New Model Army in the Midlands and pick up English recruits on the way south. This plan did not work, as he failed to overcome nationalist hostility to the Scots. A particularly serious defeat on 25th August by Royalist troops led by the Earl of Derby at the battle of Bolton le Moors near Wigan lost the Royalists 1000 men and the remnant that limped into Worcester was only a demoralizing 30 strong. However on the way through Shropshire the Earl and Colonel Roscarrock were taken by a local Royalist landowner, Richard Snead (the name now spelt Sneyd) to Boscobel, the first time that the hunting lodge in the Forest of Brewood occurs in this story. Derby was treated by the caretakers, William Penderill and his wife Joan. They moved on to Worcester unaware that this would become the most famous site in the events following the battle.
By the time Derby arrived, the Royalist army was outnumbered 2 to 1 and the result was disasterous defeat. By late afternoon Charles and his closest allies fled the battle heading north. He hoped to reverse his direction and head to London, but steadily headed in the wrong direction. As dusk fell and without food Charles realized he had to reduce the now useless cavalier detatchment. 29 years later he told Samuel Pepys “Though I could not get them to stand with me against the enemy, I could not get ridd of them now I had a minde to it” (Matthews 1966 p38). As dusk fell he chose 60 odd to head away from the beaten Scots to go across country avoiding the Roundheads pursuing them. The chosen few included Lord Derby, Lord Wilmot, the Earl of Lauderdale, and the Duke of Buckingham all being in desperate need of food and rest.
Debating his options, he heard that there was a community of Catholic supporters in the Forest of Brewood some five miles north of Wolverhampton, and that he had men in his party who knew how to get to the Catholic safe houses in the Forest. Specifically Lord Derby suggested that he should head for Boscobel, which the King had never heard of. He was in luck. One of the party, the Earl of Shrewsbury, hearing Derby’s advice, realized that one of the party belonged to the family who owned Boscobel – Charles Gifford was cousin to John Gifford who had built Boscobel with a priest hole for a Catholic priest. Gifford persuaded the King to allow his servant Francis Yates to lead them into the Forest of Brewood. In the end Yates decided to take the party to White Ladies, a half timbered house built next to a stone priory that had been dissolved at the Reformation once occupied by nuns. The Party arrived at 3am on the morning after the battle, September 4th.
White Ladies was another safe house used by Catholics but without a priest hole – it was so deep in the Forest it was regarded as a place a Catholic priest could live, and could conduct burials according to church ritual. Crucially, it was the place where the King discovered the Penderill family.
The gatekeeper was George Penderill, a servant at White Ladies. The exhausted party could now consider their options. The dominant issue was how Charles could escape being captured by parliamentary troops, there being a detachment of Roundheads three miles away at Codsall.
Local knowledge was clearly vital and Roscarrock sent for William Penderill to come from Boscobel as he trusted him. Another brother, Richard, known as “trusty Dick” arrived from Hobbal Grange, the tenant farm where he lived. It was decided the King had to be disguised as a peasant, and his party with their horses must leave. The Roundhead search parties were bound to notice a party of men on horses, so the King must seek to escape on foot, posing as a woodman. The best known figure in England must be turned into an anonymous working man.
The Penderill brothers and Lord Wilmot worked on his disguise. Wilmot used a knife to cut his hair, making a complete mess so Richard Penderill produced shears and gave Charles the plain haircut of the working man.
It was a symbolic moment in the King’s history. Wilmot would remain Charles’ most trusted advisor but the King realized that he had to rely on the skills and knowledge of the people who lived and worked in the forest. Common people were his only hope of becoming invisible to the Roundheads who would be searching the forest when the sun came up. Charles Gifford brought the tallest Penderill brother, to donate spare clothes as the King was over six feet tall. With Charles donning a working man’s hat and using soot to darken his skin, he could hope to blend in with the people of the Forest.As the dawn broke, Charles sent his Cavalier companions to join the fleeing Scots troops, who had reached Tong Castle nearby. He arranged with Lord Wilmot to meet in London as Charles was at this time hoping to get to the Capital even though it meant walking about one hundred and fifty miles. This plan would soon be changed.