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Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory – Part One


Boscobel House is a modest timber-framed building in a quiet part of Shropshire; a building, one would think, little disturbed by the stir and tumult of national events, but for one brief period of its history it was caught up in the aftermath of the Civil War. In time of need and hardship it gave shelter to the future King Charles II, playing a crucial role in an event that has since become a famous and familiar part of our history.

Some of the story of Charles’s escape after the rout of his army at Worcester in September 1651 is well known. There are few, perhaps, who have not read, or heard, of the oak tree in whose branches Charles sheltered to escape capture, or of his perilous journey to Bristol disguised as a servant and riding with Mistress Lane.

Less well known are the events immediately after the battle when Charles fled from Worcester to White Ladies, attempted to cross into Wales, and then took refuge at Boscobel while other arrangements were made for his escape.

Here we tell the storey of these events up to the evening of Sunday, 7th September 1651, when Charles left Boscobel to travel to Moseley Old Hall six miles away, and later to Bristol.

Charles II, Boscobel and White Ladies

To set the scene for the events at Boscobel it is necessary to go back in time to 30th January 1649 when, after more than six years of civil war, King Charles I was beheaded in front of his palace of Whitehall. England was declared a commonwealth, a new government was set up and the country was without a king for eleven years.

Charles I, however, had a son, the young Prince Charles, who had fled from England during the Civil War, taking shelter first in France and later in Holland. It was merely a matter of time before he attempted to regain his father’s throne and in the summer of 1650, shortly after his twentieth birthday, he set sail from Holland and landed in Scotland on 23rd June. On 1st January 1651 he was crowned at Scone but it was a hollow ceremony, a gesture of defiance rather than a mark of victory. His Scottish forces had already been soundly defeated by Oliver Cromwell, Edinburgh was taken, and all that was left to Charles was the desperate expedient of riding south into England with what remained of his army, hoping that the country would rally to his side.

He reached Worcester on 22nd August 1651 virtually unopposed but, of greater significance, having gathered very few new supporters on his way. On 23rd August in Worcester he was proclaimed ‘King of Great Brittain, France and Ireland’, and on the same day summoned a general muster of all persons between the ages of sixteen and sixty to appear on 26th August in arms on Pitchcroft, a meadow just outside the city walls.

Cromwell reached Worcester four days later and camped to the south-east of the city. After a preliminary skirmish, the battle was joined in the afternoon of Wednesday 3rd September and by nightfall the Royalist forces had been beaten irretrievably. Charles, admitting defeat, left the city in the early evening and with a number of officers and a body of Scottish cavalry slipped away to the north.
The dejection and confusion of this moment are best reflected in Charles’s own account which was dictated to Samuel Pepys some thirty years later: Here is King Charles’s own account, which was dictated to Samuel Pepys some thirty years after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, and which best reflects the dejection and confusion of this moment:

“After that battle was so absolutely lost, as to be beyond hope of recovery, I began to think of the best way of saving myself; and the first thought that came into my head was, that, if I could possibly, I would get to London, as soon, if not sooner, than the news of our defeat could get thither; and it being near dark, I talked with some, especially with my Lord Rochester, who was then Wilmot, about their opinions, which would be the best way for me to escape, it being impossible as I thought, to get back into Scotland. I found them mightily distracted, and their opinions different of the possibility of getting into Scotland, but not one agreeing with mine, for going to London, saving my Lord Wilmot; and the truth is, I did not impart my design of going to London to any but my Lord Wilmot. But we had such a number of beaten men with us, of the horse, that I strove as soon as ever it was dark, to get from them; and though I could not get them to stand by me against the enemy, I could not get rid of them, now I had a mind to it.

So we, that is, my Lord Duke of Buckingham, Lauderdale, Derby, Wilmot, Tom Blague, Duke Darcy and several others of my servants, went along northwards towards Scotland; and a last we got about sixty that were gentlemen and officers, and slipt away out of the high road that goes to Lancashire, and kept on the righthand, letting all the beaten men go along the great road, and ourselves not knowing very well which way to go, for it was then too late for us to get to London, on horse-back, riding directly for it, nor could we do it, because there was yet many people of quality with us that I could not get rid of.

So we rode through a town (Stourbridge) short of Wolverhampton, betwixt that and Worcester, and went thro’, there lying a troop of the enemies there that night. We rode very quietly through the town, they having nobody to watch, nor they suspecting us no more than we did them, which I learned afterwards from a country fellow.”

We went that night to a place called White Ladys, hard by Tong Castle, by the advice of Mr Giffard”.

This passage conveys the anxiety and excitement of this desperate journey but for some details it needs supplementing from other sources, Charles, though resolved to make for London, was forced by circumstances to alter his plans and seek shelter locally; according to accounts written in 1660, this decision was made when the party reached Kinver Heath near Kidderminster, about 18 miles north of Worcester.

Daylight had gone, their guide was uncertain of the roads and the company was still too large to escape unnoticed. At some point Lord Derby had recommended Boscobel as a hiding place. He had himself sheltered there a few weeks previously and found it a quiet house in an obscure and densely wooded part of the country. At Kinver, therefore, it was resolved to make for Boscobel and one of the party, Charles Giffard, who was related to the owner of the house, was summoned to act as a guide, with his servant Francis Yates.

However, it was to White Ladies, not to Boscobel, that Charles and his party were taken. This is explained in this way:

“Upon further consideration by his Majesty and Council, and to the end the company might not know whither His Majesty directly intended, Mr Giffard was required to conduct His Majesty to some house neere Boscobel, the better to blind the design of going thither: Mr Giffard proposed White Ladies … lying about half a mile beyond Boscobel.”

It was thought too dangerous for a large number of people to know Charles’s actual hiding place. Events were to prove the wisdom of this decision.

After riding through the night and arriving at White Ladies about dawn on the morning of Thursday 4th September 1651, Charles and his companions were admitted by George Penderel, a servant of the house and one of five brothers who were to figure prominently in the events of the next few days. Frances Cotton, the owner of White Ladies, and of Boscobel too, was apparently not in residence and a boy, Bartholomew Martin, was sent to summon William Penderel, the eldest of the brothers, from Boscobel where he lived with his wife as caretaker and servant. A third brother, Richard Penderel, who lived at Hobbal Grange, a cottage about three-quarters of a mile west of White Ladies, was sent for; and John Penderel, one of the White Ladies’ household, ‘a kind of woodward there’, was roused and required to help.

Charles, according to his own account, was again advised to make for Scotland but his mind was set on reaching London and at White Ladies he determined to make his way there on foot disguised as a countryman. He changed into ‘a pair of ordinary grey cloth breeches, a leathern doublet and a green jerkin’ borrowed piecemeal from the Penderels and other servants in the house; his hair was cut short, his face darkened with soot and, after the rest of his party had ridden away, he left the house on foot with Richard Penderel, and hid in a wood nearby known as Spring Coppice.
Here he stayed throughout a wet September day accompanied by Richard Penderel. According to Charles they were without food or drink, but another account says they were provided with ‘a mess of milk and some butter and eggs’ by the wife of Francis Yates (not the Francis Yates who acted as a guide from Kinver to White Ladies), a neighbour and relative of the Penderels, and she also found a blanket for Charles to sit on.

During the day Charles took stock of his position: “As I was in the wood I talked with the fellow (Richard Penderel) about getting towards London, and asking him many questions, about what gentlemen he knew; I did not find he knew any man of quality in the way towards London. And the truth is, my mind changed as I lay in the wood, and I resolved of another way of making my escape; which was, to get over the Severn into Wales, and so to get either to Swansey, or some of the sea-towns that I knew had commerce with France, to the end I might get over that way, as being a way that I thought none would suspect my taking; besides that, I remembered several honest gentlemen that were of my acquaintance in Wales.

So that night as soon as it was dark Richard Penderel and I took our journey on foot towards the Severn, intending to pass over a ferry half way between Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury.”
As well as reflecting on his next move Charles practised his disguise, learning from Richard a country fellows speech and manner of walking, a ‘lobbing jobsons gate’ as one seventeenth century writer describes it.

Whether Charles and Richard on leaving the wood at nightfall stayed for a short time at Richard’s cottage, Hobbal Grange, is not entirely clear. Charles’s narrative says that he got some bread and cheese at one of the Penderels’ houses but did not go in. Other versions of this incident state that Charles went into Richard’s house, met ‘old Goodwife Penderel’, Richard’s mother, had a meal, improved his disguise and then set out for Wales with Richard, under the assumed name of Will Jones.
Their destination that night was a house at Madeley, 9 miles to the west and about 1.5 miles from the River Severn. It was owned by a Mr. Wolfe who, like the Penderels, was a Catholic and was known to Richard. It was a short journey but not without incident. Passing Evelith Mill, about 3 miles from Madeley, they were challenged by the miller and were forced to take to their heels down a dirty country lane and hide behind a hedge until safe from pursuit.

Arriving at Wolfe’s house in the early hours of Friday 5th September, Charles learnt that the Severn crossings were closely guarded. Moreover the hiding places in the house had been discovered and were unsafe. During the day, therefore, he was forced to hide in the barn at Madeley and, since he could not cross into Wales, he resolved to walk that night to Boscobel where he hoped to hear news of Lord Wilmot and perhaps make a fresh start towards London.

On the journey Charles and Richard waded across the stream near Evelith Mill and arrived at Boscobel about three o’clock in the morning. Prudently, Richard approached the house alone to make sure it was safe for Charles to enter and found hiding there one of Charles’s officers from Worcester, Major William Carless, a local man and known to the Penderels. Richard and Carless returned to the wood where Charles was sheltering and brought him into the house where he was given bread and cheese and ‘a Posset of thin milk and small beer’.

Charles did not stay long in the house but left with Carless and clambered into the branches of an oak tree where the two of them hid throughout the day. This was Saturday 6th September.
The episode of the Royal Oak, as in later years it came to be known, is a crucial one in the history of Boscobel and it is worth quoting Charles’s own description of this famous incident:
[Carless] told me, that it would be very dangerous for me either to stay in that house, or to go into the wood, there being a great wood hard by Boscobel; that he knew but one way how to pass the next day, and that was, to get up into a great oak in a pretty plain place, where we might see round about us; for the enemy would certainly search all the wood for people that had made their escape. Of which proposition I approving, we (that is to say Carless and I) went, and carried up with us some victuals for the whole day viz., bread, cheese, small bear [beer], and nothing else, and got up into a great oak, that had been lopt some three or four years before, and being grown out again, very bushy and thick, could not be seen through, and here we staid all the day.

Memorandum, That while we were in this tree we see soldiers going up and down, in the thicket of the wood, searching for persons escaped, we seeing them, now and then, peeping out of the wood.
Other writers have little to add to this except that several accounts mention that Charles, having had little or no rest the previous two nights, slept for part of the day perched in the tree with his head in Carless’s lap. Their position, however, whether asleep or awake must have been extremely uncomfortable and at nightfall on their return to the house Charles is said to have declared he would rely for his future safety on the secrecy of the house rather than endure again the discomforts of the tree.

Meanwhile during the day the Penderel brothers had kept watch and moved about the countryside in search of news. Humphrey Penderel, the fifth of the brothers, went to Shifnal to pay taxes and while in the town was closely questioned by Commonwealth officers searching for Charles; and John Penderel, who had left White Ladies on Thursday with Lord Wilmot, returned from Moseley Hall, 6 miles south east of Boscobel, where he had left Wilmot in the care of its owner, Thomas Whitegreave.

On the Saturday evening at Boscobel Charles enjoyed a greater measure of comfort than he had had since leaving Worcester. He sat down to a dish of chicken and during the evening he was shaved and his hair was trimmed ‘as short at the top as the scissors would do it, but leaving some about the ears, according to the Country mode.’ For his bed ‘a little Pallet was put in the secret place’ and at night the Penderel brothers kept watch to prevent a surprise.

These details are taken from Thomas Blount’s Boscobel, an account of Charles’s escape first published in 1660. Charles himself is silent about the events after leaving the shelter of the tree. Indeed he telescopes the next twenty-four hours and speaks of going to Whitgreave’s house at Moseley that night, that is on Saturday 6th September. But this is almost certainly wrong. All other writers, including Whitgreave himself, agreed that Charles stayed at Boscobel through Saturday night and during the following day, leaving Boscobel for Moseley only on the evening of Sunday 7th September.

On the Sunday morning, we are told, Charles rose early and ‘near the secret place where he lay, had the convenience of a Gallery to walk in where he was observed to spend some time in his Devotions and where he had the advantage of a window, which surveyed the road from Tong to Brewood.’

Later he came down and helped to fry mutton collops, Major Carless having gone out and from a neighbouring fold secretly procured a sheep which he brought back to the house and killed. Several years later in exile in France, Charles spoke of this episode and recalled his skill with the frying-pan at Boscobel with no little satisfaction.

The rest of the day he spent in or near the house and part of it in a ‘pretty Arbor in Boscobel garden, which grew upon a Mount and wherein there was a Stone Table and Seats about it.’

Some descriptions tend to give much too peaceful a picture of this Sunday at Boscobel. Refreshed by his rest and the more substantial food, with the memories of Worcester less overwhelming, and encouraged perhaps by his success so far in evading capture, Charles was probably more hopeful, but his position was still perilous and his future uncertain. On the Sunday morning John Penderel was sent to Moseley to seek the help of Lord Wilmot and coming upon Whitgreave, the owner of Moseley, and father Huddleston, a catholic priest who was residing with Whitgreave, John described Charles as ‘much dejected, having no hopes or prospect of redress’.

Lord Wilmot was not at Moseley but had moved the previous night to Colonel Lane’s house, Bentley Hall, 5 miles away, with the intention of travelling with the Colonel’s sister, Mistress Jane Lane, to Bristol. Whitgreave and Huddleston took John Penderel to Bentley and there it was arranged that Wilmot should return that night to Moseley to await Charles who would be brought from Boscobel by the Penderels.

On the Sunday evening, therefore, four days after his defeat at Worcester, Charles left Boscobel accompanied by the five Penderels and their brother-in-law Francis Yates to cover the few miles to Moseley. His feet were sore and chafed after his walk to and from Madeley, so for part of the journey he rode on Humphrey Penderel’s mill-horse. This has given rise to the delightful but perhaps apocryphal story of Charles complaining that it was ‘the Heaviest Dull Jade he ever rode on,’ to which Humphrey replied, ‘My liege! Can you blame the horse to go heavily, when he has the weight of three Kingdoms on his back?’

Charles and his escort arrived at Moseley in the early hours of Monday morning, 8th September, and here the story as it affects Boscobel, White Ladies and the Penderels ends. Charles stayed at Moseley for two days and after spending a few hours at Bentley, set off for Bristol early on Wednesday 10th September, dressed as a serving man and riding with Mistress Lane. From Bristol he made his way eventually through a series of adventures to Brighthelmeston, now the town of Brighton, and on the morning of 15 October 1651, he sailed secretly from a creek near Shoreham in the coal brig Surprise to seek shelter in France, remaining in exile until 1660.

Boscobel and White Ladies were searched shortly after Charles had departed and the Penderels closely questioned. Francis Yates, Charles’s guide from Kinver to White Ladies, was executed in Oxford for his part in the affair, but, perhaps rather surprisingly, no harm came to Charles’s other helpers. An inaccurate account of Charles’s escape appeared in print in November 1651, mentioning a hollow tree, a countryman’s disguise and the help of a lady, but the full story was not made public until the Restoration when the principal figures were received by Charles at his court in Whitehall and duly rewarded for their services. The Penderels received pensions which were granted to them and their descendants in perpetuity and which are paid to this day.

William, the eldest of the five brothers, continued to live at Boscobel until his death in 1700 and was followed there by his descendants who were living in the house during the eighteenth century. John and Humphrey both died before him, in the 1680s, and so did Richard, ‘Trusty Dick’, who came to live in London and was buried in February 1671 in the churchyard of St Giles-in-the-Fields, Holborn, where his monument may still be seen. The tomb, much repaired and restored, is in the churchyard south east of the church but the stone slab with its inscription which once formed the top of the tomb was moved in 1922 and placed in the south porch of the church.

As for Boscobel and the Royal Oak, their fame spread rapidly on Charles’s return in 1660, and if the house itself was little changed the tree soon suffered from the attentions of an enthusiastic public. Its story caught the imagination, as indeed it does today, and to commemorate its name a new order of chivalry was proposed, the Knights of the Royal Oak, whose members would be distinguished for their loyalty. This idea was not pursued for fear it would ‘keep awake animosities which it was the part of wisdom to lull to sleep’, but each year on 29th May, the birthday of Charles II, the Royal Oak is remembered on Oak Apple Day, while countless inn-signs throughout the country still remind one of this celebrated tree.

Village News Sept 2010 to May 2011