Charles II and the Legacy of the Oak

We had a full house for our June speaker, Alan Lewis, who entertained us with a fascinating talk about Charles II's escape from his defeat at the Battle of Worcester, via a certain oak tree, in 1650. Alan had been a guide and Boscobel House, so his local and detailed knowledge allowed us to enjoy a vivid picture of the circumstances faced by the king during his flight. Setting the scene, Alan explained that after the execution of Charles I in 1649 his son, now Charles II and exiled in France, sought to regain the Crown by forming an alliance with the Scots. Landing there and raising an army, he confronted Cromwell's men at the Battle of Dunbar on 3rd September 1651 - only to be defeated. However, making good his escape and gathering followers as he headed south, he met Cromwell again; and on 3rd September 1651 did battle at Worcester. This time, soundly defeated, he became a fugitive supported by his few remaining loyal followers. The smoothly ordered history we read in books often paints a romantic picture of historical events. Alan was to challenge our assumptions that Charles had a smoothly organised escape prepared for him; culminating in his departure by boat for France from Shoreham.

As his followers scratched their heads after the Battle of Worcester as to what to do with the king, Charles Giffard of Chillington Hall, suggested that he stay at the (relatively) safe Catholic house of Whiteladies Priory. There Charles had to spend an uncomfortable night outside whilst further plans were laid. Charles's idea was to walk through Shropshire to Wales; thence to the coast and away by sea to France. Two days later, after overnight stops at Shifnal and Madeley, he was told the bad news; the River Severn bridges were so heavily guarded that he must turn back. So, retracing his steps, he found himself, with the help of loyal Catholics (the Penderell family), at a secluded hunting lodge in the forest - Boscobel House. His enjoyment of the relative comforts of the house was, however, sporadic as Cromwell's troops scoured the area. By day he was forced to spent 14 hrs in the famous oak tree; accompanied by his loyal supporter, Colonel Carlis. This was probably marginally better than his other sanctuary, the cheese-loft in the roof of the house, which reeked of pungent cheese; but at least the smell put Cromwell's soldiers' dogs off the scent! Much discussion took place between his hosts and loyal followers as to what to do with him. History books tell us that from Boscobel he was moved to Bentley Hall near Walsall (now demolished); then to Moseley Hall which happily is still with us though much altered. As can be imagined his protectors were more or less making it up as they went along, athough the stakes for them were high - probably resulting in death if caught.

Six weeks later, after a convoluted journey southwards, Charles sailed from Shoreham to France, where he was to remain until the collapse of the Commonwealth in 1660. Charles landed in England on his birthday, 29th May, thereafter celebrated as Oak Apple Day. This forms the basis for our current Whitsun, then Spring, Bank Holiday. In fact the legacy of the oak lives on in England in many ways. Six hundred and fifty public houses carry the name Royal Oak; seven naval vessels have been thus named; railway engines carry the name; even a town in Michigan is called Royal Oak! Charles went on as monarch to establish the Royal Navy; the Royal Marines; the Royal Society and Chelsea Hospital - home to the Chelsea pensioners. He guided Christopher Wren's rebuilding of London after the Great Fire and founded the Greenwich Observatory. The Penderells didn't go unrewarded. Charles established an annual gratuity of up to 100 for the 5 brothers and their descendants receive it to this day.

Roger Hockney
June 2012