The escape

The Civil War

The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of civil wars between Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”) and Royalists (“Cavaliers”) principally over the manner of England’s governance and part of the wider Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The Battle of Worcester in 1652 was the last major engagement of the conflict and ended with Charles Stuart, son of Charles I and later Charles II, on the run.

The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals (1624);
Roundhead, John Pettie (c 1870)

Hostilities had begin in September 1642 when the First Civil War started with a skirmish just to the west of Worcester at Powick Bridge. The fight was inconclusive but Parliamentary troops under Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex moved into the city despite the area having predominantly Royalist sympathies. However, as King Charles marched his army south, Essex left Worcester in pursuit and at the Battle of Edgehill (1642) attempted to bar the King’s advance on London. Thereafter Worcester was taken over by the Royalists who held it until the final stages of the war including resisting an attack by William Waller in July 1643.

By early 1646 the Royalist cause was in terminal decline with its field armies destroyed and Parliamentary forces reducing the last outposts of resistance one by one. When Ludlow Castle fell on 27 May 1646, the forces were reallocated to capture Worcester. On 10 July 1646 Major-General Thomas Rainsborough took command of the siege and forced the surrender of the city on 22 July 1646.

The Second Civil War ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the confirmation of Oliver Cromwell as the main power in the land. 

Coronation of Charles at Scone

Charles landed in Scotland in June 1650 and, in January 1651, was proclaimed King in direct opposition to the English Parliament. The Third Civil War followed with an English army, under Oliver Cromwell, invading Scotland and defeating Royalist forces at the Battle of Dunbar (1650). Undeterred Charles invaded England heading south hoping to ignite a general uprising. When he was denied entry to Shrewsbury, he headed for Worcester which was known to harbour Royalist sympathies and was also close to Wales from where it was anticipated significant quantities of new recruits would be forthcoming.

The Battle of Worcester

Worcester was garrisoned by a 500 strong Parliamentary garrison under Colonel James who had been tasked with slighting the city’s defences to prevent a recurrence of the 1646 siege. He had duly done so and was thus unable to offer any resistance to the Royalist army who entered the city on 23 August 1651. The Royalists immediately started re-fortifying the city including building a substantial earthwork bastion, Fort Royal, to command the high ground overlooking Sidbury Gate. A blockhouse was also raised to control the approach to St Martin’s Gate.

Montage of the Battle of Worcester

Within five days of the Royalists securing Worcester, Parliamentary forces converged on the city. By 28 August 1651 the eastern approaches had been blockaded but an all out attack was delayed until Parliamentary troops were in a position to secure the western side – Cromwell did not want the Royalists simply retreating into Wales. By 3 September 1651 he was ready to begin his assault and the Battle of Worcester commenced. After a long day of fighting, the city was successfully stormed with the closing action in the battle taking place at Fort Royal and Sidbury Gate.

Charles himself had watched the initial stages of the battle from the tower of Worcester Cathedral and then returned to ground level as the battle moved into the town. As his forces became overrun by Cromwell’s Troops, he took refuge in his lodging house and escaped via the back door as the soldiers entered by the front. He then made his way out of the city on horseback via St Martin’s gate and met with some sixty of his officers. The future of the British Monarchy hung by a thread; capture meant execution for Charles, escape offered hope for a restoration. 

Journey North, the failed Wales plan 

Dates – 3 September 1651 to 9 September 1651; Chapters in Monarch’s Way book – 1 to 12; Key houses – Boscobel House, Moseley Old Hall.

The Royalist party conferred about a mile outside the city at Barbourne Bridge, deciding to ride North. The party paused again at at a place called Kinver Heath for a further conference. One of the party, Lord Derby, was a prominent Catholic nobleman who had been sheltered at Boscobel House in Shropshire in the Brewood Forrest area, itself a noted Catholic enclave with  Royalist sympathies and several safe houses. The owner of Boscobel, Charles Giffard, was also with the group and suggested another of his houses in the same area, White Ladies Priory, as being the safest option on account of its remote location.

Portrait miniature of Charles II aged 23 when resident in the French Court. David Des Granges

The party then diverted eastwards towards Stourbridge which, despite being occupied by Parliamentary troops, they were able to pass through without alarm. They stopped briefly at Wordsley before arriving at White Ladies in the early hours of 4 September. It was now decided that it would be safer for Charles to continue with minimal support and so all his followers, apart from Lord Wilmot and his servant (Robert Swan), were persuaded to leave him and ride for Scotland. The majority of them, including Lord Derby, were to be captured and executed.

The properties on the Boscobel estate were mostly looked after by the five brothers of the Pendrell family who were devoted Catholics and loyal to the Crown. When Charles arrived, he was met by George Pendrell who contacted his brother, Richard, who had a farm, Hobbal Grange, nearby. They disguised Charles as a farm labourer, “in leather doublet, a pair of green breeches and a jump-coat … of the same green, … an old grey greasy hat without a lining [and] a noggen shirt, of the coarsest linen,” and Richard cut Charles’s hair, leaving it short on top but long at the sides. However, the shoes provided for him were far too small and had to be slit all around to make them fit. The coarse leather was to irritate Charles’ soft feet and made them bleed, causing him discomfort.

At sunrise on 4 September and in pouring rain Charles was moved out of White Ladies into a nearby coppice on the estate, hiding there with Richard Pendrell. Shortly after Charles had left White Ladies, a company of local militia stopped  by and asked if Charles had been seen. The soldiers were told he had journeyed on some time before; convinced, they passed on and were seen by Charles as they rode past. Charles recalled: “In this wood I stayed all day without meat or drink and by great fortune it rained all the time which hindered them, as I believe, from coming into the wood to search for men that might be fled there”.

Having tried to teach Charles how to speak with a local accent and how to walk like a labourer, the Pendrells suggested transferring him to a wealthy acquaintance, Francis Wolfe, who lived near the River Severn, and whose house, Madeley Court, had several priest-holes. The plan was eventually to cross the River Severn into Wales where Royalists still had support and a passage to France could feasibly be arranged.  After dark, Richard Pendrell led Charles to Madeley on foot, stopping briefly at Hobbal Grange where they ate. Later in that journey, at Evelith Mill, they were challenged by a miller and ran away. In fact, the miller was a Royalist who was hiding some members of the defeated army at his mill. Charles and Richard arrived at Madeley Court very early on 5 September.

At Madeley Court, Wolfe told Charles and Richard that his house was  under suspicion from the Roundheads and therefore not safe and instead offered to conceal Charles in his barn while he and Richard scouted the Severn crossings. They found that the river was very closely guarded by troops so they changed their plan and decided to return Charles to Boscobel that night. On the return journey, they had to wade through a stream before stopping again at White Ladies where they learned Wilmot had moved to nearby Moseley Old Hall, the home of Thomas Whitgreave. Though greatly hampered by Charles’ sore feet, they arrived at Boscobel House, where William Pendrell was caretaker, in the early hours of 6 September.

Colonel William Careless (or Carlis), who had fought at Worcester, also arrived at Boscobel House early on that day and, at his suggestion, he and Charles spent all day hiding in a pollarded oak tree, while Parliamentary troops searched the surrounding woodland. The exhausted Charles slept for some of the time, supported by Careless,  who was “constrained…to pinch His Majesty to the end he might awaken him to prevent his present danger”. Charles’s concealment in the tree proved to be the most famous incident of the escape and has been memorialised by the many pubs called ‘The Royal Oak’.

The Royal Oak and Boscobel House

They returned to the house that evening where Charles spent the night in a priest-hole. Meanwhile, another Pendrell brother, Humphrey, had been interrogated by a Parliamentary colonel, who asked if Charles had been at White Ladies. When Humphrey denied this, the Colonel reminded him of the £1,000 reward for information leading to Charles’s capture and of the “penalty for concealing Charles, which was death without mercy”.

Very early on 7 September, Charles left Boscobel for Moseley Old Hall to rejoin Wilmot. Charles travelled on Humphrey Pendrell’s mill horse and was accompanied by all of the five  brothers and Francis Yates (brother-in-law to the Pendrells). Soon after leaving Boscobel the horse stumbled, and Humphrey Pendrell joked that it was “not to be wondered at, for it had the weight of three kingdoms upon its back”. The party stopped at Pendeford Mill where Charles dismounted, electing to finish the journey on foot so as to be less conspicuous. Three of the Pendrells took the horse back, while Richard, John and Yates continued with Charles to the Hall.

At Moseley Old Hall, Charles was given a meal and dry clothes, and the Whitgreave family priest, Father John Huddleston, bathed Charles’s sore feet and provided spiritual comfort. Deeply touched, Charles told Huddleston, “If it please God I come to my crown, both you and all your persuasion shall have as much liberty as any of my subjects”. Later that morning he saw some of his fleeing Scottish troops passing by. Charles spent the night of 7 September, all of the 8th and much of the 9th at Moseley Hall, being able to sleep in a bed for the first time since the night before the Battle of Worcester.

On the afternoon of 9 September Parliamentary troops arrived at the door of Moseley Old Hall, and Charles was hurriedly hidden in the a priest-hole, situated behind the wall of a bedroom. The troops accused Thomas Whitgreave of fighting for Charles at Worcester, which was not the case although he had fought as a Royalist before being wounded and captured at Naseby in 1645. Whitgreave convinced them he was too feeble to help any Royalist fugitives and the soldiers left without searching the house.

Meanwhile, Wilmot had prepared a plan for an escape via the port of Bristol using the help of a Royalist Officer, Colonel Lane of nearby Bentley Hall. So late on 9 September, Charles, Wilmot and Swan left Moseley Old Hall and travelled to Bentley.

Bentley to Trent – the failed Bristol plan

Dates – 10 September 1651 to 16 September 1651; Chapters in Monarch’s Way book – 13 to 34; Key House – Norton Court

Charles reached Bentley Hall, near Walsall, very early on Wednesday 10 September, his care effectively passing from the Catholic underground to the Royalist gentry who had more resources available to provide a measure of comfort. He was met by Colonel Lane had been an officer in the Royalist Army since 1642. Wilmot’s plan revolved around Lane’s sister, Jane, who had been granted a permit from the military for herself and a servant to travel to Abbots Leigh, Somerset, to visit Mrs. George Norton, a friend of hers who was expecting a baby. Abbots Leigh lay just across the Avon Gorge from Bristol and Wilmot’s plan was that Charles should take advantage of the Jane’s pass, travelling  as her servant, and then find a ship in Bristol to take him to France.

Upon arriving at Bentley Hall, Charles was given the clothes of a tenant farmer’s son and decided on using the alias ‘William Jackson’. Charles, with Jane Lane riding pillion, set out for Abbots Leigh that morning, initially accompanied by Withy Petre (Jane Lane’s sister), her husband John Petre, and Henry Lascelles, another Royalist officer. Wilmot refused to travel in disguise and rode half a mile ahead of the party and, if challenged, planned to say he was out hunting.

Charles II assisted
in his escape by
Jane Lane
(Edward Ward, 1861)

When they arrived at Bromsgrove they found that the horse ridden by Charles and Jane had lost a shoe and took the horse to a blacksmith. When Charles told this story in later years he recounted that “as I was holding my horse’s foot, I asked the smith what news. He told me that there was no news that he knew of, since the good news of the beating the rogues of the Scots. I asked him whether there was none of the English taken that joined with the Scots, He answered he did not hear if that rogue, Charles Stuart, were taken; but some of the others, he said, were taken. I told him that if that rogue were taken, he deserved to be hanged more than all the rest, for bringing in the Scots. Upon which he said I spoke like an honest man; and so we parted”.

Just outside Stratford, the party saw a troop of cavalry gathered to refresh their horses. Here John and Withy Petre went on by a different route while Charles, Jane Lane and Henry Lascelles rode directly through the troops without being stopped. The party then continued through Stratford-upon-Avon, and on to Long Marston where they spent the night of 10 September at the house of John Tomes, a relation of the Lanes. Here, accepting Charles’s disguise as a servant, the cook put him to work in the kitchen winding up the jack used to roast meat in the fireplace. Charles was very clumsy at this, and the cook angrily asked him, “What countryman are you that you know not how to wind up a jack?”. Charles explained his failings by saying that as the servant of poor people who rarely ate meat he did not know how to use a roasting jack.

On Thursday 11 September they continued via Chipping Campden to Cirencester, where they spent the night the Crown Inn. The next morning they travelled on via Chipping Sodbury and Bristol, to the Nortons’ home, Norton Court, arriving late on the afternoon of 12 September. While the Nortons were unaware of Charles’s identity during his three-day stay, the butler, Pope, who had formerly been a Royalist soldier and was familiar with Charles’ appearance, immediately recognised him. Charles confirmed his identity to Pope who repaid his trust by giving his support. The next day Pope tried to find a ship for Charles at Bristol, but found that none would be sailing to France for another month. While staying at Norton Court, Charles deflected suspicion by asking a servant, who had been in Charles’s personal guard at the Battle of Worcester, to describe Charles’s appearance and clothing at the battle. The man looked at Charles and said, “The King was at least three fingers taller than you”.

Since no ships were available, Pope suggested Charles went to stay with the Wyndhams, a Royalist family who lived 40 miles away in the village of Trent on the Somerset and Dorset border.  On 15 September, the day before the Royal party were due to leave, Mrs Norton’s gave birth to a stillborn child making it awkward for Jane Lane to leave abruptly. In order to overcome this difficulty, Pope forged a letter saying that Jane’s father was ill and she should return to Bentley.

On the morning of 16 September Charles, Jane, Wilmot, Swan and Lascelles set out, spending the night at Castle Cary, before reaching Trent the next day, 17 September.

Trent to Charmouth and back – the failed Dorset Coast plan

Dates – 17 September 1651 to 5 October 1651; Chapters in Monarch’s Way book – 35 to 45; Key House – Trent Manor

Charles stayed at Trent Manor, for the next five days while Jane Lane and Lascelles returned to Bentley Hall. Wyndham contacted a friend of his in Lyme Regis, Captain Ellesdon, one of whose tenants was Stephen Limbry a ship owner who was sailing for St. Malo from Charmouth, a port near Lyme Regis, the following week. It was arranged that Charles and Wilmot were to board the vessel on the pretext of travelling to France to recover money from a debtor.

On 22 September Charles rode with Wilmot, Swan and Juliana Coningsby, a niece of Lady Wyndham, to Charmouth, pretending that Wilmot and Juliana were an eloping couple and Charles their servant. They waited at the Queen’s Arms Inn in Charmouth for Limbry to arrive but he failed to appear. It seems that he was prevented by his wife from turning up, having who locked him in his bedroom, having become concerned for his safety. Others have suggested that he had not been paid by Ellesdon.

On the morning of 23 September, Charles and Juliana then travelled to nearby Bridport, hoping to revive the plan to leave from the Dorset coast. When they arrived, they discovered that the town was full of Parliamentary troops who about to sail to Jersey where Royalist sympathisers were gathering. The party rode through soldiers to the main inn and took a private room. The ostler at the Inn recognised Charles, saying “Sure, Sir, I know your face”, but Charles convinced him that he and the ostler had both been servants at the same time for a gentleman in Exeter.

King Charles Stone,
Lee Lane

Wilmot and Swan meanwhile had stayed on in Charmouth because Wilmot had discovered his horse had lost a shoe; the local ostler who Wilmot had consulted had served as a Parliamentary soldier and became suspicious when he found that one of Wilmot’s horse’s shoes had been forged in Worcestershire; however he wrongly supposed Juliana to be Charles in disguise. Learning that Juliana had departed for Bridport, the ostler informed an army officer who rode with troops in pursuit. Meanwhile, Wilmot, trying to find Charles in Bridport, had gone to the wrong inn, then sent Swan to find Charles and give word to meet up outside the town. When they met, having considered the number of troops in the locality, they decided to return to Trent. They headed north along a minor country road called Lee Lane and narrowly missed the party of troops who were riding in from Charmouth. A memorial stone commemorates the narrow escape.

After leaving Bridport, Charles and Wilmot lost their way, arriving at the village of Broadwindsor by early evening where they took rooms in the attic of the The George Inn. Later that night, the local constable arrived with 40 soldiers, en route to Jersey, who were also to be billeted at the inn. One of the women travelling with the soldiers was pregnant and went into labour; the locals feared that the child would be abandoned and the parish would be forced to pay for its upbringing and the ensuing fracas caused a diversion which allowed Charles to avoid detection. The soldiers left the inn at dawn on 24 September, allowing the Royal party to leave later that morning and return to Trent House where Charles hid for a further twelve days while his allies tried to arrange a passage to France.

Trent to Shoreham and escape to France

Dates –  6 October 1651 to 15 October 1651; Chapters in Monarch’s Way book – 46 to 64; Key House – Heale House

Wilmot based himself in Salisbury and enlisted support from Colonel Edward Phelips of Montacute House, John Coventry, son of the former Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and Doctor Henchman of Salisbury Cathedral in developing a plan. They decided to try to arrange passage from the Sussex coast, and on 6 October Charles, Juliana Coningsby and Henry Peters, Colonel Wyndham’s servant, left Trent for the home of Mrs Amphillis Hyde at Heale House, between Salisbury and Amesbury, to be closer to the planned point of departure.

The first day Charles was at Heale House he pretended to leave permanently and rode about the district, visiting Stonehenge, and then returned to the house known only to Mrs Hyde. On 7 October Wilmot visited Colonel Gunter, who found a French merchant, Francis Mancell, now residing in Chichester. Together they made arrangements with a Captain Nicholas Tattersell to carry Charles and Wilmot from Shoreham in a coal boat called The Surprise.

In the early hours of 13 October, Charles and Colonel Phelips rode from Heale House to Warnford Down, where they met Wilmot and Gunter. From there, the party set out for Hambledon, where Gunter’s sister lived and at whose house they stayed for the night. Next day, they rode to the fishing village of Brighthelmstone (now Brighton), 50 miles away, stopping at Houghton to eat before riding to the village of Bramber, which was filled with soldiers. Gunter decided their only course of action was to boldly ride through the village in order to avoid suspicion. As they were leaving the village, a party of around fifty soldiers rode rapidly past them giving cause for concern. At the village of Beeding, Gunter left the group to ride alone by a different route, meeting up again at the George Inn at Brighthelmstone on the evening of 14 October where they were to meet with Captain Tattersell.

HMY The Royal Escape,
formerly The Surprise

When Tattersell arrived, he soon recognised Charles and, realising the dangerous nature of the undertaking, was concerned for his own safety. His reaction drew the attention of the inn-keeper, who had once been a servant in the royal household and now recognised Charles; he fell on his knees before Charles, who then recognised the former servant. Charles reaction was to smile and move away, remarking to Gunter that “the fellow knows me and I him; I hope he is an honest fellow”. Meanwhile, Tattersell demanded an additional fee as danger-money but once this was agreed, he pledged himself to the Charles’s service. Charles then rested briefly before setting out for the boat soon after midnight.

At 2:00am on 15 October, Charles and Wilmot boarded The Surprise but had to wait five hours before sailing at high tide to the Isle of Wight. They then changed course and sailed on through the night towards the French coast. Charles, accompanied by Wilmot, landed on Fécamp beach on the morning of 16 October 1651 to begin his exile.

Two hours after The Surprise had departed from Shoreham, a troop of cavalry arrived in Shoreham to arrest Charles, having been given orders to search for “a tall, black [haired] man, six feet two inches in height”. They were too late again

Subsequent events

The day after landing, Charles went to Rouen and then to Paris to stay with his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria for nine years. The death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 was followed by two years of political confusion, which led to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

When he returned to England as King, Charles granted various annuities and gifts to the those who assisted in the escape. For example, Thomas Whitgreave, Jane Lane and the Pendrell brothers, were granted pensions in perpetuity. At some point the Whitgreave pension lapsed (it may never actually have been claimed) and so did Jane Lane’s, as she had no heirs. The Pendrells’ pensions however, are still being paid to their descendants.

The King dined out on stories of the escape for the rest of life, reflecting the strange possibility that his days on the run were the freest and the happiest he ever know. Also, in 1664, the King’s birthday of 29 May was designated Oak Apple Day by Act of Parliament and a special service was inserted in the Book of Common Prayer. For over 200 years the King’s birthday was celebrated by the wearing of a sprig of oak leaves in remembrance of the events.

The final twist in the story occurred when Charles lay terminally ill on the evening of 5 February 1685; he said he would like to die as a Catholic and asked for a priest to be brought to him. The only English priest available was Fr John Huddleston, who Charles had spent time with at Moseley Old Hall and was then living at Somerset House in London. Huddleston was brought to Charles by the King’s brother and heir, the Duke of York, who said, according to  legend, “Sire, this good man once saved your life. He now comes to save your soul.” Huddleston himself died in 1698, one of he last survivors of the many characters involved in the escape.

The King enthroned