Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Royal Oak

The young King Charles escaped from Worcester city by the north road just as Cromwell's soldiers were making their way into it on the other side. He would hardly have got away had not some brave followers made a desperate charge on the enemy, and so turned away their attention.

Cavalry encounter


By the advice of the Earl of Derby, another fugitive from the battle, Charles resolved to seek refuge at Boscobel, a house in Shropshire, belonging to a loyal lady, Mrs. Cotton by name. Riding all night he arrived at dawn at another of Mrs. Cotton's houses, called Whiteladies. His companions were Gifford, a cavalier, and Yates, a labouring man who acted as guide. At Whiteladies Charles put on the disguise which it was settled he should wear. He was to pass as a woodman. His clothes were shabby and coarse; he carried a bill-hook in his hand: his hair was cropped close to his head, and the skin of his face and hands dyed brown. A little party of Royalists had gathered at Whiteladies; they took leave of the king, as soon as he had completed his disguise, and rode away in another direction, Charles, with his guide Yates, going on to Boscobel. He had not been gone more than an hour when some troopers belonging to the enemy's army arrived, and after searching the house in vain, started in pursuit of the fugitives.

Yates had married a woman of the name of Penderell, and it was her brothers who now took charge of the King. The Penderells were natives of Tong, a village not far from Shifnal in Shropshire. There were six brothers, three of whom had fought for the King. One of these three was killed; the other two, John and George by name, were employed as woodmen at Boscobel. A fourth, William, was in charge of the house; a fifth, Humphrey, worked at the mill in the parish; the sixth, Richard, farmed a few fields. They were Roman Catholics, and had helped more than once to save priests of that faith when in danger of being arrested. It was not thought prudent that Charles should go to the house; Richard Penderell, accordingly, took him into the thickest part of the wood, and made him lie down on a blanket under one of the trees. Here Yates's wife brought him some food. The sight of the woman startled him. "Good woman," he said, "will you be faithful to a distressed cavalier?" She declared that she would sooner die than betray him. His next visitor was the mother of the Penderells. The old woman kissed his hand, and falling on her knees thanked God that He had chosen her sons to deliver their King from his enemies.

It had been at first arranged that Charles should make his way to London. A large city, where many are coming and going every day, and where few know anything about their neighbours, is always an excellent place in which to hide. But now another plan was proposed. Charles was to seek shelter among his friends in Wales, make his way to the coast, and so escape to France. He and Yates left Boscobel Wood at nine in the evening, and reached the house of a friend named Wolf, at Madeley, at midnight. Madeley is not far from the Severn; they hoped to cross that river, and then make the best of their way into Wales. Wolf was afraid to take them into his house, where he had no safe hiding-place; there were two companies of militia in the village; to get across the Severn was impossible, for all the fords and bridges were guarded. Nothing was left but to return to Boscobel. It was still thought dangerous to enter the house, and the next day was spent by Charles and Colonel Careless, a cavalier whom he found at Boscobel, among the branches of the famous oak. The tree had been lopped a few years before, and had thrown out a very thick foliage. Charles and his companion saw soldiers pass near it more than once in the day. Meanwhile, William Penderell and his wife Joan, while seeming to be at work—he a woodman, she busy in gathering sticks—kept watch. At night the fugitives came down from the tree and took shelter in the house. There was a secret chamber in it, and Charles thought that he should be as safe there as anywhere. His next move was to Moseley in Warwickshire (not far from Birmingham). It was a journey of more than twenty miles, and Charles, who was tired out with all that he had gone through during the last few days, was provided by Humphrey Penderell, the miller, with a horse. The five brothers and Yates accompanied the King, two walking before, two behind, and one on either side. Charles complained that the horse moved very heavily. "Sire," replied Humphrey, "you do not recollect that he carries the weight of three kingdoms on his back."

At Moseley a new plan was devised. A certain Miss Lane, daughter of Colonel Lane, of Bartley, near Walsall, had obtained a pass permitting her to visit a relative near Bristol. Charles was to disguise himself as her servant. If he reached Bristol there would be a good chance of finding a ship to carry him to France. While he was at Moseley the search was very hot, and a very careful watch had to be kept. Whiteladies and Boscobel had been again searched, and now a troop of horses arrived at Moseley, and arrested the King's host on the charge of having fought at Worcester. He was able, however, to prove by the testimony of his neighbours that he had never left Moseley, and was released. That night Charles rode to Bartley, where he was to take up his character as servant. His dress up to this time had been a leathern doublet, with coat and breeches of coarse green cloth, so worn in places that it seemed to be white, stockings much darned at the knee and without feet, heavy shoes, and a grey steeple-crowned hat, without band or lining. He now put on a neat suit of grey, such as a groom might naturally wear. A three days' journey took the party to their destination, Abbotshill, a few miles west of Bristol. Here Charles was recognized by the butler. The man was loyal, however, and took the precaution of keeping out of the way two of his fellow-servants who were known to have republican principles. But no way of escape appeared, for no ship could be hired at Bristol, and another move was necessary.

The next plan was to go to Trent, near Sherborne, where a Royalist of the name of Windham resided. A forged letter was delivered to Miss Lane, calling her back to Bartley, where her father was said to be at the point of death. She hurriedly departed, and the King made his way to Trent. A ship was hired at Lyme Regis to carry a nobleman and his servant to France—the nobleman was Lord Wilmot, while Charles was the servant. Charles, however, was to act the part of a young man eloping in a servant's disguise with a young lady, whose part was played by a Miss Juliana Coningsby. These two were to be received at an inn at Charmouth, a seaside village near Lyme. Again the scheme failed. The boat which was to fetch the passengers from Charmouth never appeared, the Lyme ship-master having repented of his agreement. Charles returned to Trent, and his friends tried to hire a ship at Southampton. This they succeeded in doing, but the vessel was seized to carry troops across to Jersey. A day or two afterwards the King had to leave Trent, where there were suspicions about his real character. His next refuge was in a house near Salisbury. Here he lay in hiding for five days. In the meanwhile a loyal gentleman, Colonel Gunter by name, succeeded in hiring a vessel from a loyal trader at New Shoreham. Charles made his way with all speed to Brighton, where he sat down to supper with Colonel Gunter, the trader, whose name was Mansel, and the captain of the vessel, whose name was Tattershall. The captain was observed to watch the King very closely during the meal. When it was over, he took the trader aside, and complained that he had been deceived. The stranger in grey was the King. "I knew him," he said, "when he commanded the fleet three years ago." The master of the house also was aware of the quality of his guest. As Charles stood with one hand resting on the back of the chair, the innkeeper kissed the hand, saying—"Doubtless if I live I shall be a lord, and my wife a lady!"

At four o'clock in the morning the next day, the party went down to the shore. Here Tattershall fell on his knees before the King, and vowed that whatever might happen, he would land him safely on the coast of France. They embarked. When the ship had weighed anchor, her head was put for Deal, to which place she was bound. A little scene had been arranged between Charles and the master. The King addressed the crew, saying that he and his friend Wilmot were merchants in distress, and flying from their creditors; would they join him in persuading the master to alter his course and land them on the coast of France? He would give them twenty shillings for their trouble. The men did as they were asked, and Tattershall, after making some objections, took the helm, and steered for the French coast. At day-break they came in sight of land, the shore being Fécamp, which was two miles distant. The tide was low, and not being able to make the harbour, they cast anchor. But a suspicious sail hove in sight. The master believed that it was a privateer from Ostend. This was not the case—it was really a French hoy—but it seemed safe to land the fugitives at once. The boat was lowered, and Charles and Lord Wilmot were rowed to shore. He had been traversing long distances for a long time,—not less than three hundred and fifty miles in forty-four days—he had been in the power of poor men, to whom the offered reward of a thousand pounds would have been wealth beyond all their hopes; he had been recognized by several people who had spared no pains to help him, but no one seems even to have thought of betraying him. I shall have to tell a very similar story, hereafter, of another Prince of the same royal house.