Charles II was forced to hide in an oak tree at Boscobel on 6 September 1651, following his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Worcester three days earlier.
He was crowned in Scotland and had led a small army across the border to reclaim the English throne which had been lost two years earlier, when his father, Charles I, was beheaded by Parliament.
However, Oliver Cromwell’s army, with 31,000 men, soundly defeated Charles II in a decisive victory. About 3,000 men were killed, with another 10,000 taken prisoner after the battle or soon afterwards.
Charles was forced to flee from St Martin’s Gate on horseback with help from a few loyal, trusted companions when it became clear they had lost the battle.
He discovered there were loyal Englishmen ready to help, in spite of rewards of betrayal and dangers of concealing fugitives, including the five Penderel brothers who were yeoman farmers and Catholics. They were used to moving priests from one house to another and hiding them in priest holes to avoid capture and death by the authorities, as part of an underground movement.
Practising Catholicism was forbidden in England, despite Queen Henrietta Maria regularly attended Mass at the Royal Chapel before the English Civil War.
They reached Whiteladies, an old converted priory owned by the Gifford Family, about 40 miles from Worcester, during the early hours of the morning, around 3.00 am.
So Charles changed into a disguise, so he would be less noticeable, as he was easily distinguishable with his swarthy complexion and extremely tall at 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 metres)
The King disguised himself as a simple woodsman, as he borrowed William Penderel’s clothing, seeing he was the tallest of the five brothers, and given a haircut as his long dark locks were chopped short.
He wore a rough pair of green breeches, a coarse hemp shirt, a leather doublet, stockings and ill-fitting shoe. An old stained grey hat completed the look.
Richard Penderel quickly gave Charles a crash-course on how to walk and talk like a local. however, Charles had far more success with the Worcestershire accent than he did with learning the walk.
The house was no longer safe so Charles took refuge in the Spring Coppice, in a nearby wood. John Penderel set off to find a far more secure hiding place whilst Richard kept Charles company. However, Charles was hungry and thirsty, sore feet from wearing uncomfortable shoes, and to really make their day, there were troops on the nearby road looking for him!
However, Charles was saved by an unexpected heavy downpour which temporarily disrupted the troops’ search.
Later that night, when it was dark, William and John Penderel brought Charles into the parlour of a nearby house whilst he was given bread, cheese and beer whilst his wet stocking and his uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoes were put in front of the fire to dry out.
However, plans went awry after they set off for a house at Madeley, about nine miles away, only to be questioned by a rather suspicious miller. They fled and hid behind a hedge for about half an hour.
When they reached the house, they discovered that Charles was now a wanted man, and all Severn crossings were being watched, so they were forced to turn back to Boscobel House.
Boscobel House, which was only one mile from Whiteladies, was hidden in thick woodland, designed for privacy with a few priest holes to hide Catholic priests. The Gifford family built the house 30 years earlier and had leased it to the Penderel Family.
They arrived around 5.00 am where Charles discovered a fellow fugitive, Major William Carlis, or Careless, who was hiding out in the thick Boscobel Wood during the day. (Carlis later changed his name to Carlos to mark his association with the King as they hid in the same oak tree.)
However, Boscobel House was not deemed safe as Parliamentarians soldiers had already raided Whiteladies. It was only a matter of time before they arrived at Boscobel looking for Charles.
So, at dawn on 6 September, Charles and Carlis climbed into a large Pollard oak tree about 150 yards from the house, taking bread, cheese and beer, where they remained hidden all day.
The tree had not been lopped for about 3 or 4 years so it was now very busy and thick, which could easily hide two men from view. It had some space around it which provided a great view in all directions.
Charles spent part of the time asleep with his head resting on a cushion, provided by the Penderels, on Carlis’ lap.
However, the Roundhead soldiers had not given up their search so they returned searching the woods below.
Carlis was worried that Charles would suddenly move, whilst he slept, and fall out of the tree so he gently woke the king. He was terrified that the King would cry out and reveal their whereabouts.
Luckily Charles didn’t cry out as they watched the Roundhead soldiers below continuing their search by beating the surrounding bushes.
Charles would later tell Samuel Pepys in 1680, ‘We see the 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’.
After sunset, they climbed down before returning to the house where they had chicken for supper.
Charles spent the night sleeping in a cramped priest-hole under the floor of one of the rooms.
On 9 September, a proclamation was announced seeking capture of this ‘malicious and dangerous traitor’, with a reward of £1,000, which was a huge sum of money at that time.
Parliament also put up posters everywhere seeking ‘a tall black man, over two yards high’.
Boscobel was searched and the Roundhead troops confiscated the rest of the Penderels’ provisions.
The Penderel brothers took him to another safe house about five miles away, before more loyal supporters brought him to Bristol, and the south coast, where he found a boat to take him to France.
Charles had more narrow escapes along the way, despite his disguise.
Their plans became unstuck when a sea captain, who promised to provide a boat, was locked in his bedroom by his wife who thought he was up to no good.
It wasn’t until six weeks later until Charles could breathe a huge sigh of relief when he left England’s shores on Wednesday, 15 October.
Many pubs in Britain and Australia have been named the Royal Oak ever since and inspired the oak-apple day celebrations on 29 May.
After Charles II’s Restoration in 1660, the oak tree became an object of loyal pilgrimage with souvenir-hunters breaking off many boughs and other bits. A wall was built around the trunk to protect the tree but to no avail. By 1712, the tree was almost destroyed.
The oak tree at Boscobel is a descendant, which grew from the original tree’s acorns. It was badly damaged during a storm in 2000.
English Heritage maintains Boscobel House and the Royal Oak, which is open to the public.
Falkus, Christopher, The Life and Times of Charles II, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, London, 1972 (Reprinted 1984)
Fraser, Antonia, Charles II: His Life and Times (Abridged, illustrated format), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1993
Cavendish, Richard, Charles II Hides in the Boscobel Oak, History Today, September 2001
Stacey, Nicola, Charles II and the Royal Oak, Story of England, Stuarts 1603-1714, English Heritage
Please support Right Royal Roundup by subscribing for only A$10 per month or A$100 per year (with a $20 saving) by clicking on one of the buttons below.