When Richard Penderill took the King to Boscobel in the pre dawn of September 6th, he was far more than just a guide. The suffering Charles had experienced on the way to Madeley as the blistering of his feet grew worse undermined his spirits. Even before reaching Evelith Mill on the way to Madeley the King had thrown himself to the ground saying he could not go on. Richard had to skilfully encourage and cajole him to carry on which was a role that he was ideally placed to carry out in his time with the monarch. It was not for nothing that the King called him “Trusty Dick”.
But the set back at Madeley tested Richard’s powers of persuasion to the limit. Charles could see no way out of the trap he was in, with parliamentary troops sealing off the exits north south east and above all west of the forest, meaning Charles’ hopes to move across the River Severn to Wales were in ruins. Boscobel had been recommended as a Catholic safe house, but how long this could this be a place of refuge?. Roundhead Troops were steadily combing the Forest of Brewood with ruthless efficiency and had already visited Whiteladies.
Charles plan to walk to London was an act of desperation, he knew the staunchly Catholic population of the Forest was not to be found elsewhere. Chances of finding supporters outside the Forest were remote. Richard Penderill was unable to advise: the Catholics of the Forest rarely went outside their safe area, even priests staying close to home and safety. It was increasingly impossible for Charles to walk 150 miles or more. The state of his feet meant walking even a few miles in the Forest was agony. Charles had been well supported by the Foresters, but he was isolated and wanted to meet Willmot. He told Pepys that when he arrived at Boscobel, he asked about the aristocrat as he knew the Lord remained in the locality, but in an age before modern telecommunications there was no news. And if he could not devise a Plan B, which would need more than Foresters to put together, then staying at Boscobel was only a stop gap. The obstacles to escape were formidable.
Fearing parliamentary forces had occurpied Boscobel, Charles remained in the forest while Richard Penderill went to see his elder brother William Penderill and his wife Joan to see if the coast was clear. Charles could never for a moment relax vigilance against the presence of Roundhead troops. But having received the all clear, he arrived in the safe house to receive practical assistance.. Joan Penderill tended to him, finding him dry stockings, washing the dirt away and removing gravel that had damaged the skin of his feet, but having no alternative shoes could only put hot coals into the wet shoes he had been wearing to dry them.
There was no news about Willmot; the King later told Pepys “Penderell’s brother told me he had conducted him to a very honest gentleman’s house (honest = Catholic TF) one Mr Pitchcroft not far from Wolverhampton” (1) but his memory was confused. This would have been John not William,
and John was not at Boscobel that morning, but there was a piece of good news; Major William Careless was hiding in the house, a veteran from the Battle of Worcester. When he was presented to Charles, both men burst into tears. Careless, a local from the forest of Brewood who may have been a tenant farmer of the Giffards of Chillington, had been a strong supporter of the Royalist cause being a leading figure in the local community and a Roman Catholic. He became an officer in the Royal Army and as he knew the forest of Brewood intimately was made Governor of Tong Castle in 1644 a couple of miles from Whiteladies. While his name seems odd, at that time it meant not having a care. Not true in this case. He had already been a prisoner of war when the Royalists were outfought by the Roundheads in the First Civil War.
Charles knew his face as Careless had been one of the heavily outnumbered rearguard action which fought in the streets of Worcester at the end of the battle – he may have seen the last man killed in the battle before escaping at the final moments. The bravery of the rearguard fighters, a heavily outnumbered group far smaller than the Roundhead cavalry they faced, allowed the King to flee through St Martins Gate and survive. Careless then made his own escape and had entered the safe house of Boscobel to use a Priests Hole the night before Charles arrived. Careless had understood the strength of the parliamentary forces and the immediate options facing Charles, notably that Boscobel was not secure and the parliamentary troops were bound to return that very day. Nor was the forest a safe place for shelter, Charles had been very lucky in Spring Coppice, but relying on rain to keep Roundhead troopers away was no option at all. If the house and the forest were not hiding places, there had to be a third option. Careless came up with a proposal which was to become legendary.
He proposed that he and the King should spend the day in the branches of a tree.
The tree in question was an oak tree, as most trees were in the Forest of Brewood. This one was both close to the house and somewhat isolated from other trees, with a pathway for horseman going underneath its foliage. Countering these negative aspects and spotted by Careless was the way the tree had been pollarded, with the replacement branches having grown so thickly, the denseness of growth meant it was almost impossible to see into the foliage from below. However at the top of the tree it was possible to see for a great distance, allowing views of the movement of the parliamentary troops on horseback. Careless had climbed into the tree the previous day and having sampled the tree and the priest hole thought the tree provided clear advantages. Charles again showed his intelligence by accepting that the local man knew best and after a breakfast of ploughman’s fare – cheese bread and beer – agreed to go into the tree.
William Penderill supplied a wooden ladder to climb the tree, and carrying plain food and small (weak) beer for the day and two cushions to rest on, Charles and Careless climbed into the Oak. Settling down in the fork of the branches, Careless realized that Charles was exhausted – he had been on the move for days and had had very little sleep since leaving Worcester, so the Major used cushions to cradle the Kings head in his lap and Charles had the first deep sleep since losing the battle. Parliamentary troops were moving up the paths through the wood, and as Careless was starting to lose sensation in his thigh because of the weight of the King in his lap, but dared not speak in case the Roundheads heard his voice, pinched his sovereign till he woke and moved to allow Careless to recover.
Charles may have witnessed the most alarming incident of his time in the forest. A parliamentary trooper began to take an interest in the tree, only for Joan Penderill who was collecting sticks to divert his attention and save the day. This incident was a turning point, and after the Restoration Joan was awarded £100 by Royal Warrant to “Joan Penderill, the person who gathered sticks, and diverted the horsemen from the tree”. (2)
That evening the two fugitives climbed out of the tree and Charles retired to the arbour in the garden till darkness fell. Charles sat drinking wine that Richard Penderill had bought for him in Wolverhampton, William Pendrel shaved him and trimmed his hair, and the decision was taken that he would use a priest hole to sleep that night, Careless presumably using the other. Spencer (3) implies that this decision was taken on Sunday 7th but clearly this had to be Saturday 6th, the King’s first night at Boscobel. This night Charles was fed with chicken by Joan Penderill and a pallet was put into a hiding place for him to sleep on though which priest hole is not clearly stated. (4) It is said to have been the same priest hole that Lord Derby had used, and desperate though his situation was the fact he had fallen on his feet among supporters was now clear to him. His luck was turning. Certainly there were few places anywhere in the Midlands where both safe houses and supporters with unshakeable commitment to his cause could be found.
A Pendrill Brings News
Charles would need all the determination to defend him that the Forest People could provide, when he received news from the world outside on how the hunt for him was shaping up. Humphrey Penderill, the miller who lived at Whiteladies, went to Shifnal to pay taxes due to the Parliamentary forces.
While paying the tax collector, a Parliamentary Colonel came into the room to ask whether Whiteladies had been searched – it had – as news that Charles Stuart has been there had reached the Parliamentary High Command. The tax collector, a Captain Broadways pointed to Humphrey to say he might have inside knowledge – he lived there.
The Colonel interrogated the Miller, pointing out that the punishment for helping the king was death without mercy, but there was a £1000 reward for information leading to the exiled monarch. Humphrey remained unmoved, claiming Charles could not have been more than a passing figure at Whiteladies and the Cavalier party had long gone. However when he reported back at Boscobel that evening his news shocked Charles who had no idea so much money had been laid to his capture. This would buy a forester 200 head of cattle, riches for life, at a time a craftsman could only earn £25 per year. Had Charles known the full story he would have been even more unsettled. According to Spencer (5) the previous day someone who had been at Whiteladies when the Cavaliers arrived approach one of the brothers to ask if he knew where the king was as he had heard there was a prize of £1000 on his head. The brother warded off the enquiry by saying it was too late: they had not informed and so would be executed without mercy for helping the king to vanish into the woods
Charles went to sleep more aware of the risks he faced, but he had a priceless ability to live in the present and not fret over impending danger. There is no sign that the stresses he had experienced in the flight from Worcester ever disturbed his sleep, even when he was confined to the claustrophobic quarters of a priest hole at the top of Boscobel House. At least this night unlike the previous three nights he did not have to rush helter skelter across landscapes he could not even see, trying to find ways to escape his enemies.
The following morning he relaxed after his devotions, read in the arbour in the garden, and asked if he could have mutton for his dinner. He was completely unaware the poverty stricken Penderills had no access to sheep – William and Joan had last eaten meat at the christening of their eldest child several years before – and apart from the cost, if William went to buy a sheep questions would be asked about who was this to feed. William went to steal a sheep from a local tenant farmer, William Staunton, aided by Careless who killed it with his dagger. The sheep was dissected, the hind leg presented to the King, who fried it claiming that he was the master cook while Careless was an apprentice. This provided amusement but only temporary relief. He still had no plan to escape. Luckily for him, the other brother able to spend time on working for the King, John Penderill, had gone with Lord Wilmot when he left Whiteladies, and was investigating any plan which looked as though it could solve the problem of breaking through the parliamentary cordon. He had been making progress.
- Matthews op cit p48. (Spencer has William asking the question op cit p137. William would not have known where John had taken Willmott as he had not gone outside the immediate area.
- Charles II escapes to Tong p13
- Charles Spencer op cit has the report from Humphrey Penderill on Saturday 6th (p139) but suggests (p142) the decision to put the King in a priest hole was taken after he had eaten mutton, which was on the Sunday as Spencer clearly states. The King was at Boscobel on two nights, Saturday and Sunday and had to have been in the priest hole both nights.
- Spencer op cit p143. As the English Heritage Guide Book says “The King awoke early the next morning walked a little in the ‘Gallery’ which had ‘the advantage of a window which surveyed the road from Tong to Brewood’ but no source is given in the Guide book for the quote. The two priest holes at Boscobel one adjacent from the main bedroom, where a trapdoor led to a space five feet two inches deep, six inches long and three feet four inches wide – too small to be comfortable to a man six feet two inches tall – while Spencer says the second one was higher up at the top of a staircase called ‘the gallery’ which had “unlike the cramped, windowless sleeping place below, this had the benefit of space and light . Presumably this had to be a sleeping place as well or it could not be a hiding place. It is likely this is the sleeping place of the King.
- Spencer op cit p140-141