Everyone of us has been in this situation. Usually, it is something from the school playground, but in times of war, especially when it is in your own country, it can be more serious, fatal, even. “Be like Dad, keep mum” was a World War II poster. Toadying up to the enemy might save you in the short term, but it might not save you from your “friends” later. In a land ravaged by almost a decade of war this is what some of my ancestors faced.
On 30 January 1649, King Charles of England was executed. From that point his son, also Charles, pursued his claim to the throne on the battlefields of England and Scotland, the monarchy having been abolished by Parliament on 17 March. The final defeat came at the battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, when Charles was forced to run for his life.
Most of the fleeing Royalists were quickly rounded up, but Charles was more fortunate. He headed for the Catholic stronghold of southern Staffordshire and eastern Shropshire, where he would be helped by local houses. In my junior school days the story of the king hiding in an oak tree while Parliamentarian troops marched beneath as they scoured the land was a staple of the curriculum.
What did this mean for my Upton and Onion ancestors who lived in the area? They must have known that Charles was on the run and, doubtless, some people would have at least claimed to have taken some part, however small, in the escape. The country would have been crawling with soldiers hunting down the fugitive Charles. There would be a knock at everyone’s door, the inhabitants questioned as to whether they knew anything. I imagine the soldiers would be none too friendly, knowing that at least some of the men had fought against them and might have killed or maimed one of their own, or, perhaps, burned down their farmstead. Houses, barns, cowsheds and other outbuildings would be searched without ceremony.
Naturally, the labourers employed by their Catholic lords and masters would keep anything they did know to themselves. Why risk angering them, when it could cost them their meagre livelihoods? It could mean destitution, starvation, even.
In escaping from Worcester Charles was accompanied by, among others, Charles Giffard and Lord Derby, both powerful Catholic landowners. Lord Derby had previously been helped by the Pendrel family, of Boscobel House, Shropshire, tenants of Charles Giffard. He suggested White Ladies Priory, nearby and also on Giffard’s estate, as a safer refuge. They arrived in the early hours of 4 September.
According to English Heritage, the priory dates from the late twelfth century and operated largely unaltered until the 1530s, when its days were ended by the Dissolution. It was still used for Catholic burials up to 1844. In 1651, then, it would be unoccupied?
On my copy of a rather beaten-up map, White Ladies, is in the lower left. Chillington Hall, seat of the Giffards, is lower right. My Onion and Upton kindred lived at various places on the map, including Langley Lawn (just west of Chillington), Tong, White Pump Farm on Watling Street (red line, east-west), Aqueduct, where the canal crosses (top right), places just east of the canal, and at Black Ladies, more or less in the centre. The places in the escape story would have been familiar to them. Giffard was the man from whom most of them rented their farmhands’ cottages and on whom their livelihoods depended.
The story goes that a man named Pendrel came from Hobbal Grange near Tong and he helped to disguise Charles as a farm labourer. In pouring rain Charles and Richard Pendrel moved out of White Ladies not long before a party of local militia turned up. The occupants said they had missed him by some considerable time and they seemed to buy it. Charles and Richard hid in a nearby wood, Spring Coppice, and it is thought the rain put off any search.
They waited until dark and went to Hobbal Grange for a meal before setting off for Wales, where they knew someone who they thought would help, but the River Severn was so heavily guarded that they were forced to return to the Giffard estate and Boscobel House. The following day Charles and another supporter spent the day high in an oak tree while the neighbourhood was searched.
The next day, 7 September, Charles was taken to Moseley Old Hall, the home of another Catholic. There he received dry clothes, and a meal and the family priest (a dangerous occupation!) attended to his injured feet. Charles stayed there for two days and when Parliamentary troops arrived he was hurriedly concealed in a priest hole. The Elizabethan Moseley Old Hall is currently a National Trust property. If you have a mind to visit you can enter by the same door as the fugitive Charles and see the four-poster bed in which he slept, as well as his letter of thanks to Jane Lane for her part in his escape. Various events are held, for example this coming weekend you can play games from the seventeenth century.
The next leg was to Bentley Hall, near Walsall, home of Colonel Lane and his sister Jane Lane, one of the celebrities of local history, from where Charles was taken, disguised as Jane’s servant to a friend’s house near Bristol, hoping to take ship. In my time working for Walsall Council I went to Bentley a number of times. The land on which Bentley Hall stood is now open space, but there is a cairn that commemorates Jane’s role in Charles’ epic escape.
Eventually, on 5 October, after 32 days on the run, beating the pursuers by just two hours, Charles sailed from Shoreham for France and the home of his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria. He became King Charles II when the monarchy was restored in 1660.