Charles I’s secret agent

King Charles needed all the help he could get during the English Civil War in the 1640s. John Fox tells the story of one woman who came to the king's aid in many subtle ways

A portrait of King Charles I

This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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During the English Civil War a mysterious woman smuggled gold to King Charles I, masterminded royal escape attempts and ran secret correspondence networks across England and southern Scotland. She was a red-haired Scot named Jane Whorwood, and she was to become one of the Royalists’ most effective secret weapons in their struggle with Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians.

Why is Jane not better known? Others (such as courtiers whom she had organised and inspired) took the credit for her work, leaving her remembered mainly, if at all, for her ‘brief encounter’ with the king when he was paroled from prison on the Isle of Wight in 1648, just months before his execution. She died in 1684, unsung and in obscurity.

Jane or ‘Jeane’ was stepdaughter to the Scottish laird, James Maxwell, Black Rod, Garter Usher and Groom of the Bedchamber to Charles I. (Her father, William Ryder, an overseer of the Royal Mews at Charing, died in 1617 when she was five years old). Maxwell, also pawnbroker to the bankrupt king, taught her about money-raising and the snake pits at court. Jeane was to employ his lessons to good effect in later life.

In 1634, Jeane left home at Charing for an unhappy arranged marriage to the heir to Holton Park, near Oxford. Jeane Ryder became Jane Whorwood, lady of an English manor and mother of four children. Holton, however, was parochial, apparently unwelcoming, and Jane spent much time in London.

Jane’s life was to change dramatically soon after the first engagements of the Civil War, when Charles decamped his Westminster court to Oxford. In late 1642, the king turned the university town into his royal capital.

Courtiers and financiers quickly drew Jane, as Maxwell’s stepdaughter, into the war effort: the king needed money (cash, not credit) to pay his army, and she would play a pivotal role in procuring it. Oxford was cut off from the London merchants who had financed Charles in peacetime in the absence of Parliament (which the king himself had dissolved). At first, Jane’s stepfather worked with and profited from this private finance initiative, but in 1643 he retreated home to Scotland. This was Jane’s cue to step into the breach, taking on her stepfather’s contacts and the task of smuggling merchant gold from the capital to the king’s new court.

Virtually all financial records from the Oxford garrison were burned in 1646 when the city surrendered to Parliament and Sir Thomas Fairfax’s New Model Army. However, one complete ledger, published only in 1830, and one merchant family’s final plea for repayment from the Crown in 1680, reveal that Jane masterminded the transport of at least £85,000 of gold into Oxford, mainly from Sir Paul Pindar, a leading Royalist in the East India Company. The sum matched the army quartermaster’s bill for 18 months, and almost the total amount of plate smelted for the Oxford war mint. However, the sheer weight of the gold created problems.

Laundresses, with waggon loads of soap in barrels, collaborated; and college bursars, who smuggled plate and precious books out of the university town in barrels, advised. Jane, meanwhile, contributed the confidence and logistical know-how to carry the operation off. Her letters are fluent, courtly, but – to historians’ great regret – unfailingly discreet.

We can only catch a brief glimpse of Jane’s Oxford networks, but by 1647 the glimpses are sequential insights and her name is regularly mentioned. She set up links between Charles, her Hamilton brother-in-law in Scotland, and English county royalists. She bribed, lobbied and raised funds. She networked City financiers with moderate politicians confined in the Tower, and connected both with the king, who was, by now, himself incarcerated.

In 1646, just before Oxford surrendered, Charles fled to the sanctuary of the Scots army outside Newark. From there he spent 33 months in travelling captivity, “a golden ball cast between Parliament and the Army”… “a passenger in a Hackney chariot”. The Scots held him at Newcastle until Parliament paid their war costs; the English progressed him slowly south, to three months of majestic limbo at Hampton Court Palace. When soldiers threatened his life during the debates at Putney, near Hampton, the king fled to the Isle of Wight where the Parliamentarian governor was his chaplain’s nephew, and cousin to Cromwell. By January 1648, Charles was under close guard on the island, at Carisbrooke Castle.

Jane masterminded Charles’s first escape attempt in March that year. “So well have I organised the business, nothing but himself can let [fail] it,” she wrote. Yet fail he did. The king was unable to squeeze between window bar and frame and then, in May, the governor caught him removing the bar from a window of another apartment.

Jane had organised astrological advice, acid to weaken the bar and chartered a ship to smuggle the king with her to Holland. That ship lay five weeks in the Medway, off the coast near Queenborough – just as Kent rose in revolt against Parliament and mutiny broke out in the navy.

Strangely helpful

All the while, Parliament watched Jane closely. A senior blockade captain was ordered to board her ship, yet he was strangely helpful, and even advised her about passes. Shortly afterwards he was arrested as the most high-ranking mutineer. “Had the rest done their parts as carefully as Whorwood, the king would [now] have been at large,” wrote the Marquis of Hertford to Jane’s brother-in-law, Lord Lanark.

Despite the king’s escape attempts, and various uprisings, Parliament – eager to fend off an army coup – suddenly offered him negotiations. Within hours of Charles’s guards being stood down, Jane visited his quarters at Carisbrooke, at night. He had invited her to a brief encounter some weeks before, in sexually explicit terms.

As negotiations proceeded in the autumn of 1648, Jane monitored London and took astrological advice on the king’s behalf. In November 1648 Charles was arrested on the Isle of Wight and brought to London for trial. Jane had ridden overnight to London to confirm rumours of the planned arrest, and, in an express letter, urged the king to escape. Yet he was too exhausted.

The last of some 50 conspiratorial, affectionate and anxious letters exchanged between the king and Jane reached Charles in Windsor Castle in 1648, on what had been called Christmas Day (before the Puritan ban on the winter festival). He was executed at the end of January 1649.

Modern histories still tell how Jane embraced Charles on his procession across St James’s Park to his execution. The anecdote has no provenance, but may be a Victorian gilding of the lily, or a counter to a 1649 story of a pregnant maidservant from Carisbrooke visiting the king at St James’s.

Following the execution, Jane was convicted of bribing a Parliamentary revenue committee. She was briefly imprisoned and fined £600, before returning to her home at Holton (where, in a bizarre twist of fate, Oliver Cromwell’s daughter, Bridget, had married the New Model Army’s commissary-general, Henry Ireton, in June 1646). Here she was to face a violent husband and his mistress, judicial separation and dramatic public battles for her maintenance. She died aged 72, unrewarded by the Crown and in relative poverty.

Jane’s last surviving wartime letter for the king’s attention describes her November dash from the Isle of Wight to London in 1648: “The variety of accidents and dangers in my travails [travels] more become [belong to] a Romance than [a] Letter”. It describes her life too. A secret agent has few friends, leaves few records and vanishes when her cause fails.


Female agents in the Civil War

Wars break down traditional barriers, but create new ones. Widows and wives openly defended besieged homes; commanders’ wives like Ladies Waller and Fairfax (wives of Parliamentarian leaders, William and Thomas) and Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) shared their husbands’ campaigns.

Smuggling and spying, the 17th-century historian Edward Hyde noted, were “intrigues which could then be best managed and carried on by ladies”, but their work precluded records. Agents knew each other only “as if through a lattice and enveloped in a mist”.

Lady Stafford smuggled the English crown from St James’s back to Oxford in 1643 and lived off the tale for years. Royalist sympathiser Anne Murray (Halkett) smuggled the Duke of York, disguised as a pretty girl, to Holland.

Teams of saleswomen carried new books across country with messages sewn in covers or written in lemon juice between the lines. Laundresses attached to court or great houses conveyed soap barrels by the wagonload across demarcation lines, with pistols, ammunition, money, jewels and plate embedded in scented Castile soap.

Couriers hid enciphered letters folded minutely in a glove finger, a wainscot crack, under carpet – or passed them when taking a hand to kiss.

Male or female, the courier-spy needed courage. Discovery often meant prison, occasionally the gallows.

John Fox wrote the article Jane Whorwood, 1612–1684, (May, 2009) for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. www.oxforddnb.com

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BOOKS: The King’s Smuggler: Jane Whorwood, Secret Agent to Charles I by John Fox (History Press, February 2010)