History explorer: Charles II's great escape
Charles Spencer and Charlotte Hodgman explore Boscobel House in Shropshire, where Charles II fled for his life after defeat to the forces of parliament
As dawn broke over Boscobel House on 6 September 1651, two figures hurried through the rain, heading for the safety of a huge leafy oak tree about 150 yards away. They rapidly disappeared up the tree, hiding from sight behind the lush foliage of its thick branches. To anyone witnessing their movements, the pair would have made for a curious sight. But onlookers would have been more astonished still by the identity of one of the two men. He was Charles II, king of Scotland, heir to the throne of England, and the most wanted man in the realm.
Our own trip to Boscobel, 366 years to the day after Charles’s own stay, is drier but equally atmospheric. The oak tree that provided sanctuary for the Stuart heir as he hid from the parliamentary forces is long gone. But a roughly 250-year-old descendent – seeded from the original oak – has survived and it is this that visitors can see today, the closest we can come to the experiences of Charles II during his desperate flight.
Prince to peasant
“Charles II is usually remembered as a lazy, mistress-loving king with a penchant for horses and pleasure,” says Charles Spencer, whose recent book, To Catch A King, tells the story of Charles’s great escape. “But in his youth he was a man of great bravery and leadership, a man who, even as a child, saw military action during the Civil War.”
During that conflict, Charles’s father, Charles I, surrounded his son with seasoned soldiers and advisors. The king was desperate for the young prince to survive the Civil War, and so, as the tide began to turn against the Stuart cause, Charles was sent into exile – first to the Isles of Scilly and then on to Jersey, before finally joining his mother, Henrietta Maria, at the French court.
“Charles hated his life in exile,” says Spencer. “His mother treated him like a little boy rather than a king in waiting, and she was desperate to marry him off to the French princess Mademoiselle de Montpensier. But Charles was far from the master of seduction he would one day become, and there are wonderful accounts of his gaucheness at court. Needless to say, Henrietta Maria’s matchmaking came to nothing and the time Charles spent in exile only served to fuel his desire to return to England.”
The question of how to regain the English throne haunted Charles and he was convinced that the only way to achieve it was through an alliance. Charles I had gone to the executioner’s block in 1649, safe in the knowledge that he had remained true to his religious beliefs, refusing to sacrifice them for either the crown or his own head. But his son was willing to do almost anything to claim back the throne.
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The young Charles had initially hoped to kickstart his campaign to seize the crown by allying with the Irish but when this failed, he turned to the Scottish Presbyterians for help. It was a controversial move and one widely condemned by his father’s former advisors.
“It is hard to fully understand the religious intensity felt by Scottish Presbyterians in the 17th century,” says Spencer. “They were the adherents of a form of extreme Protestantism, and believed that kings, rather than being annointed by God, were actually sinners who should be governed by God’s law. In an age of divine right, where monarchs were widely seen as God’s representatives on Earth, it was a doctrine entirely at odds with Stuart beliefs. But Charles was a pragmatist and, while believing in his own sovereignty, accepted that he would have to sacrifice a degree of dignity and power in order to win the support of the Scots.”
When Charles arrived in Scotland in June 1650 he swallowed his pride and formally agreed to Presbyterian demands, including promising to establish Presbyterianism as the national religion.
But the Presbyterians were the least of his problems. In England, parliamentarian leader Oliver Cromwell had learned of Charles’s return and launched a pre-emptive strike on Scotland. The ensuing battle of Dunbar was a crushing defeat for the Scots, with around 3,000 killed and a further 10,000 taken prisoner. It was a bitter blow to the royalist cause, but Charles – who was subsequently crowned king of Scotland on 1 January 1651 – set about assembling a new army with which he could invade England and join up with his supporters.
“One of Charles’s gravest errors was his failure to interpret the mood in England,” says Spencer. “He was a returning Stuart king and this, in his opinion, should have been enough to make English royalists turn out for him in their droves. But when he did march into England, all people saw was an invading Scottish army; an army with a terrible reputation – whether deserved or not – for rape and pillage. The English had lived through a decade of civil war, resulting in the deaths of around 200,000 people. They had had enough. Charles was on his own.”
As Charles progressed through England he must have been shocked that none of his father’s former royalist strongholds welcomed him. Even Oxford, the royalist capital where Charles I had set up his headquarters, refused to open its gates. Only Worcester welcomed the new king and his army.
Charles and his exhausted men stayed in Worcester for five days – a delay that would cost them dearly. Cromwell and his 38,000-strong New Model Army took the royalists by surprise, butchering them in their thousands. Charles, whose Scottish army numbered around 16,000 in comparison, was forced to flee the battlefield as one of the largest armies ever to fight on English soil crushed the royalists for good.
As Charles fled Worcester he begged his fellow soldiers to return to the battlefield. But his men knew the cause was lost; their priority was now survival. The parliamentarians had placed a net of soldiers around Worcester to capture any Scots who had escaped the battlefield alive. Smuggling Charles past them and back into exile seemed a nigh on impossible challenge.
“The first few days on the run were incredibly tough,” says Spencer. “Charles – used to the finest footwear – was forced to disguise himself as a peasant, cramming his feet into rough shoes and cutting his long hair. His feet were ripped to shreds and he barely slept in his attempts to avoid capture. But he was tough and adaptable and very quickly learned that England’s underground Roman Catholic network would be his lifeline.”
Charles’s salvation came in the form of the Penderels, a family of Roman Catholic farmers living at Boscobel House, nearly 40 miles from Worcester. Having travelled through the night, Charles reached White Ladies Priory, which he had been told would serve as a good hiding place. The exhausted king was disguised as a woodman, his face darkened with soot. Fearing the arrival of parliamentarian soldiers, Richard Penderel, the eldest of five brothers, was summoned to escort the king to Boscobel House, a remote location about a mile away with a long history of hiding persecuted Catholics.
“By the time Charles arrived at Boscobel, the parliamentarian net was closing in on him,” says Spencer. “White Ladies had already been raided and not even Boscobel would be safe for long.
“Charles was incredibly lucky to fall in with the Penderel family, who saw it as their divine mission to save the king. Without their help and local knowledge, Charles would have been lost; there’s no doubt he would have been executed if caught. But keeping the 6ft 2in-tall king hidden from sight was going to be a difficult task.”
The royal oak
The timber-framed hunting lodge that forms part of Boscobel House was built in 1632 by Catholic recusant John Giffard, who converted an existing farmhouse on the site. Inside, a portrait of Charles II stares down from the parlour wall – a reminder that it was in this room that Charles’s bloody feet were tended and his wet clothes and shoes laid out to dry in front of the fire.
Charles was joined at Boscobel by another royalist fugitive: William Careless, who had fought at his side at Worcester. It was Careless who suggested hiding in Boscobel’s great oak tree for the day. “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,” Charles II would later recall. At dusk, the pair returned to the house and Charles spent an uncomfortable night in a priest hole in the attic floor.
Charles knew if he stayed in Shropshire he would be caught, not least because there was a £1,000 reward for his capture. He was smuggled out of the county by a young woman named Jane Lane, whose brother was an officer in the royalist army. With Charles disguised as Lane’s manservant, the pair travelled on horseback to Bristol in the hope of boarding a ship to France. When none could be found, they continued to Shoreham near Brighton, where the king finally slipped out of England on 15 October.
“The six weeks he spent on the run were the most exciting of Charles’s life,” says Spencer. “He boasted endlessly about his escapade, and an account of his flight was written by none other than diarist Samuel Pepys. But he never forgot those who helped him through those dark days, and the Penderels and others were rewarded handsomely when Charles returned to England as king in 1660. He was a man of great bravery, but it is his loyal followers who are the real heroes of this incredible story.”
Charles II: Five more places to explore
Scone Palace, Perthshire, Scotland
Where Charles was crowned king
After agreeing to Presbyterian demands, Charles was crowned king of Scotland at Scone Palace on 1 January 1651, following the tradition of Scottish kings. The ceremony took place on Moot Hill and was Scotland’s last coronation.
Where the royalist cause was lost
Worcester saw the final defeat for the royalists and much of the battlefield itself is still open agricultural land. The top of the cathedral tower gives the best view of the battlefield, while the Civil War visitor centre in the Commandery gives an interesting background to the period. visitworcestershire.org
White Ladies Priory, Cosford, Shropshire
Where Charles II hid from enemies
The ruins of the 12th-century White Ladies Priory are a 20-minute walk from Boscobel House. Charles arrived here early on 4 September 1651 after riding through the night following the battle of Worcester. The priory itself no longer exists but the ruins of its medieval church can still be visited.
Moseley Old Hall, Wolverhampton, West Midlands
Where the king used a priest hole
After he left Boscobel, Charles headed for Moseley Old Hall where he stayed for several days. The house still boasts the four-poster bed the king slept in. The famous priest hole where Charles hid when parliamentarian soldiers came to the house is also visible, and the exhibition room has a letter Charles II sent to Jane Lane thanking her for her assistance in helping him escape to France.
The Monarch’s Way, Nationwide
Where Charles made his escape
The c625-mile escape route taken by Charles II can still be followed – it runs from Worcester via Bristol and Yeovil to Shoreham. The path is marked with yellow markers.
Charles Spencer is the author of several books on the Civil War period. His most recent work is To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Escape (William Collins, 2017)
This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast