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The Romantic Idea of Boscobel

In the early seventeenth century the chase (stag-hunting on horseback) was a courtly activity, with associations of chivalry and privilege, and John Giffard’s remote hunting lodge, tall, gabled and elaborately framed was, from the first, a consciously romantic building. It cannot be an accident that the name recalls the medieval tradition by which castles and abbeys were given such names at Beaumont, Beaulieu, Belvoir and Beaumaris.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the story of the King’s escape from Worcester became widely known; several accounts of it, many of them fanciful, appearing within months of his return to London. The episode which most captured the public imagination was his concealment in the tree at Boscobel, partly because it was an attractive and heroic story, but also because of its symbolism. Oaks were already associated with the idea of royalty. Evelyn records in his Numismata a medal, struck in 1638 to commemorate the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales, showing an oak tree overshadowing its sapling as a symbol of the royal succession. By 1662 hundreds of people had flocked to Boscobel ‘chiefly to behold the Royal oake’, and snuff boxes and other toys made from its wood became popular relics.

Although the Protestant revolution of 1689 forced James II from the throne, the story of his brother’s escape and concealment at Boscobel continued to attract interest. The King’s own account of his escape, which he had related to the diarist Pepys in 1680, was first published in 1766 and was reprinted several times over the next 40 years. It was perhaps inevitable that with the resurgence of the romantic feeling at the end of the eighteenth century Boscobel would again acquire the status of shrine. In 1800 a doggerel poet was apostrophising the British Oak,

Asylum for a KING

While BOSCOBEL, her Balm, by Night,
Lenient, and loyal, dar’d to shed,
And momentary guard the Monarch’s Bed.

Nevertheless by the end of the eighteenth century the house had been rendered with plaster, making it weatherproof but concealing the frame and destroying much of its character.

The gardens shown in seventeenth-century illustrations had disappeared and there was only a ‘pretty little kitchen-garden planted with nut-hedges, current and gooseberry bushes’. Although the tenants had ‘always shown a proper attention to every curious stranger, and a kind hospitality within-doors when a politeness of behaviour entitled those strangers to such a distinction’, it is clear that the farm was a working farm, visitors were few, and the buildings and gardens were maintained for their practical utility with little regard for their sentimental value.

It was no doubt the romantic associations of the place that led Walter Evans to buy the White Ladies estate in 1812, for the alterations he made to the house for his step-daughter Frances were designed to recapture as much as possible of its historic character. Frances’s elder sister Elizabeth later wrote that her step-father ‘wished to restore the appearance of the place to what it was when Charles was there, and took the old prints of the place for a pattern’. The work was picturesque rather than scholarly. Render and brickwork were painted to resemble timber-framing, sash windows with traceried glazing replaced unfashionable but authentic casements and an eighteenth-century Gothic chimney-piece was bought and put into the dining room, its over-mantel decorated (at the suggestion of Mrs Evans) with scenes of the King’s escape. The garden was re-designed in imitation of a seventeenth-century parterre and the arbour referred to in old accounts was reconstructed. A commemorative pebble inscription was laid by the youngest sister, Ellen: ‘she was not much above twenty, and much enjoyed the work’. By 1824 Boscobel was being described as ‘nearly in its original state, but some parts have been much changed’. So strong was the sense of the divinity of kingship that the upper hiding place, reached by a trap door from the attic, was known without irony as the ‘sacred hole’.
Elizabeth Evans, to whom the property passed in 1873, spent a month at Boscobel every summer, but for most of the year the tenant farmer seems to have been able to show the old parts of the house to the public. Despite its title, the first guidebook to the house was George Dodd’s Narrative of the Adventure of Charles the Second, of which the second edition was published in 1859. Regular opening hours are first recorded in 1870, and in 1871 Steen and Blacket’s Original Illustrated Wolverhampton Guide advised visitors that Boscobel was ‘about two miles distant from the village of Albrighton….which may be reached by various trains during the day, per the Great Western Railway.’
The Popular appeal of the story of the King’s escape from Worcester had been confirmed by the success of two novels, Brambletye House by Horatio Smith and Woodstock by Sir Walter Scott, both of which appeared in 1826. Although set in 1651, the adventures they told were wholly imaginary, being as loosely based on historical events as Walter Evans’s restoration of the house was on genuine seventeenth-century building. A generation later, historical fiction, like architecture, had become much more archaeological in its approach. Another popular novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth, much influenced by Scott but determined to be more ‘correct’, wrote a further account of the escape, as fictional in detail as Scott’s but far more closely based on recorded events and set in identifiable surroundings. Boscobel or The Royal Oak first appeared in the New Monthly Magazine in 1872 and quickly went through two editions. Its effect on the house may be judged by taking a passage, which needless to say was entirely invented by Ainsworth, in which the King is told that one of the rooms is an oratory:

‘I see no altar,’ observed Charles. William Penderel opened a recess in the wall, so contrived that it had quite escaped the King’s attention, and disclosed a small altar with a cross above it. ‘Here we pay our devotions in private,’ he said. ‘And here I will pay mine,’ rejoined Charles.
Ainsworth set this scene in the small room which opens off the dining room, and in 1877 – only five years after Boscobel was published – a guidebook appeared which stated as an historical fact that this was, ‘formerly an oratory….a small altar, surmounted by a crucifix was hidden in a secret recess within the wall.’ Later guides repeated the same story, and by 1913 the room was known as the Oratory and had been fitted up with a reproduction altarpiece.

Similarly, in 1875 Miss Evans, being ‘persuaded…that the present tree is the one which sheltered Charles II’, removed the words ‘qua ex arbore quercum hunc, uti fertur, ortam…’ (this oak, descended, it is said, from the tree…) from the inscription put up by her sister. When the British Archaeological Association visited Boscobel, Ainsworth acted as a guide and read as his paper a passage from his novel ‘good humouredly urging…that as the historic interest of the place was of so romantic a character, there could he thought be no objection to the romantic colour which he had imparted to the relation of its story’.

The idea of Boscobel even crossed the Atlantic, The Poetic Outlines of Boscobel Towers being translated to the banks of the Hudson in an American novel of the 1880s. In this version the park kept its ‘ancestral trees’, and the name of Boscobel its genuine etymology – except that the language from which it derived was said to be Indian rather than Italian. Boscobel had entered the imagination even though the events that happened there in September 1651 had been forgotten. In the years before the First World War, Boscobel became ‘a sort of Mecca for Black Country trippers’, schoolchildren walked from Wolverhampton when they had a day’s holiday and guests staying at the nearby country houses were brought to see the place where the King had been concealed. Disraeli came when he was staying with the Earl of Bradford at Weston Park in 1873, Lord Salisbury in 1883 and the future Queen Mary in 1889.

The house was offered for sale in 1913, and the contents assembled by the Evans family were dispersed. It was eventually purchased by Lord Bradford, who partly refurnished it and reopened it to the public. The hunting lodge was placed in the guardianship of the Ministry of Works in 1954, and the rest of the farm buildings were acquired in 1967. Part of the house (probably an extension built by Walter Evans in the early nineteenth century) was demolished by the Ministry, which also opened up part of the timber frame of the sixteenth century range to display the original form of its construction. Boscobel has been in the care of English Heritage since 1984. It has now been refurnished as it was when it was first opened to the public in the nineteenth century, and a collection of farm implements is being displayed to give an impression of what the farmyard may have looked like at around the same time.

Please Note: All Civic Society articles relating to “Charles II, Boscobel and White Ladies” have been taken directly from the English Heritage handbook Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory.

Village News January 2012