On the 31d September 1651 a future King of England saw his army defeated and was advised to flee from the enemy: who were his own subjects. The King was Charles 11, the battle was at Worcester and the enemy was the Parliamentary Army led by Cromwell. The imagination of Trevor Antill, our speaker at this meeting, was captured by the story of that desperate flight when he first heard it as a boy, especially as he was born not far from Bentley Hall, which had a part in it. An enthusiastic walker, Trevor kept coming into contact with places which also figured in the royal escape and eventually the idea of a long distance walk, following the route took shape and was put into action. The result, ten years later, was the Monarch's Way, a 610-mile footpath following as closely as possible the King's epic journey from Worcester, through the Midlands and on to Bridport, then across the South Downs to Shoreham, where a boat was found to take him to France. Trevor's talk, illustrated with slides, took us along the first 175 miles of this way-marked walk.
Today the Monarch's Way can be followed as a leisure activity but for Charles 11 it was a matter of life or death. The party seemed to have travelled a good deal on the main roads, which were rutted and potholed, and made slow going, there were no useful signposts and of reliable maps there were none.
On a personal level Charles was not an easy man to disguise, he was well over six feet tall and had a dark, almost swarthy, complexion, so much so that his supporters referred to him as "the Black Boy" when the use of his name would have been indiscreet.
With the Royal Army crumbling before Cromwell's cavalry, Charles took the advice of his generals and fled the scene. With a small escort he left the Commandery and went into Worcester through the Sidbury Gate. The Commandery still stands but the Sidbury Gate is long gone and its place taken by a bridge over the Worcester and Birmingham Canal; the Monarch's Way also starts at this bridge and uses the canal towpath which is not quite the original line but near enough to it. Leaving through St. Martins Gate the fugitives headed north, mingling with Scottish cavalry streaming from the City until, realising that this was a dangerous tactic, they "moved a little right", to quote an official account, and headed for Droitwich probably following what later became the line of the Droitwich canal, which after years of dereliction, is being restored and a slide showed some of the work being done.
Droitwich however, was by passed by Charles and they went through Salwarpe, a one time royal manor once part of the marriage settlement of Catherine of Aragon. Whether they called at Salwarpe Court is doubtful but there is, preserved in the parish church archives, a letter from Charles commanding the men of Salwarpe to bring picks, shovels and spades to strengthen the defences at Worcester-did he remember that as he rode through? Passing through Hampton Lovett they came, as does the Way, to Doverdale, where today's travellers, unlike the fugitives, can pause to admire Doverdale Hall, built by one of the salt barons, and visit the church, amongst whose records is a bill for cleaning it up after Cromwell's troops had used it for stabling. Charles and his escort had reached Chaddesley Corbett and night was failing when the trooper who was their guide admitted that he was lost
An urgent discussion took place and at the suggestion of one of the Gifford family, who was in the party, decided to head for Boscobel House via Stourbridge and from there head for the Severn and so into Wales. The Giffords were Roman Catholics, accustomed to subterfuge and part of the network of similar families one of whom lived nearby in Harvington Hall. A slide of the Hall as it is today, shows a peaceful building in mellowed red brick with no hint of the perilous days of Catholic persecution, when the priest holes hid Jesuit fathers and raids by the Authorities could happen at any time. Trevor speculated that the Hall may have been the scene of the discussion or perhaps the family were asked to help. The Monarch's Way of today uses field paths and lanes over this section which gives fine views across Worcestershire and the West Midlands and, with a local man as a guide, the royal party may have taken the same paths, but at night and with troopers all over the place, so scenic attractions were ignored and they pressed on to Stourbridge. How Charles 11 and his men found their way there is uncertain but Trevor used an A-Z guide when planning the Way, which goes through the steep sided Ham Dingle.
The Stourbridge of 1661 was a small place but never the less dangerous, so, to fool any possible informers, curious about a mounted party riding through at night, they spoke loudly to each other in French. There must have been sound reasons for this action but today it smacks of "a cunning plan" by Baldrick of the Black Adder series: but it worked. Shortly after this the King stopped for beer and cheese at an inn, tradition says was in Wordesley, then pressed on through Stourton. It may be that their route followed what later became the line of the Staffs & Worcs Canal, whose towpath is part of the Way and takes the traveller to the picturesque Bratch Locks, which look well worth a visit. The King's party, now guided by Richard Gifford, went through the hamlet of Wombourne; heading north all the while, and in the small hours arrived at White Ladies Farm where the King and his horse were taken into the house by Richard Penderel. Great care was needed as a troop of Roundhead soldiers was based at nearby Codsall and Richard Penderel and the King spent some of the following day hidden in Spring Coppice as the troopers searched the district.
As its name suggests White Ladies was once an Augustian nunnery, which became a farmhouse after the Dissolution and is now only a ruin. Nearby Hubbal Hall is in the same ruinous condition, but in 1651 it was the home of the Penderel family where the King and Richard Penderel broke their journey to Wales for a meal on the evening of the day following his arrival at White Ladies. They were heading for Wales where the pursuit might not be so hot and the two walked steadily through the night. They passed through Tong, as does the Way, but Trevor paused to tell us a little of the history of the place. Its church came under siege during the Civil War, after which Tong sank back to obscurity until Charles Dickens began his frequent visits to the village and, in The Old Curiosity Shop, used it as the setting for Little Nell's death. So many Victorian visitors asked the verger to show them the grave of Nell that he gave way to temptation and made a fake one to which (for a small fee) he guided them. This early tourist scam came to light, however, when, seeking to increase his rake off, the verger forged an entry in the church register; the grave is still there but now carries a plaque which tells the story of the errant, if enterprising, church official.
Penderel and the King plodded through the night, their only incident being at Eveleth Mill where Penderel let a gate slam and raised the household. The pair ran on as fast as they could as the miller came to investigate but he made no attempt to follow them and they slowed down again; later historians established that the miller was himself sheltering fugitives from Worcester, hence his lack of curiosity. Arriving at Madeley they enquired at the home of another Catholic, Francis Wolfe, who gave them the depressing news that the Severn was heavily guarded at all crossings and the banks were patrolled. Adding to that was the fact that they were on foot and that Richard Penderel couldn't swim there was no alternative but to a return to Boscabel. Despite the personal risk Francis Wolfe sheltered them in his barn all day. That barn still exists and is a listed building and, as a slide showed, has recently been sensitively converted into dwellings.
As night fell the two men set out on the return journey. They may well have passed the Hundred House at Norton but it seems unlikely that the King paid much attention to the surroundings: tired and footsore his spirits must have been at a low ebb when, in the small hours, Boscobel House was reached and he was hidden in the priests hole. Even that proved perilous: troopers arrived to search the house and the King had to be spirited away to spend the day in a nearby oak tree while they searched the grounds as well. Visitors today can see the offspring of the original "royal oak" to which, as we saw, recent high winds have caused severe damage; a third generation replacement is at hand, however, despite the acorns that Prince Charles planted having died. English Heritage, who now own Boscobel House, have an unusual export trade in the sate of "royal" acorns to Japan. When the coast was clear the King ended his hugely famous sojourn in the branches and returned to Boscobel House. Here he found that the Penderel brothers had been out and about amongst their co-religionists and that Humphrey had spoken to Father Huddleston at Moseley Old Hall. The priest told him that Mistress Jane Lane of Bentley Hall was travelling to a relative in Bristol and had an official pass to cover her journey: a golden opportunity.
That night the King, with the Penderel brothers, made a rendezvous at Pendeford Mill to meet his new guides, one of whom was Father Huddleston and made his way to Moseley Old Hall with its priest hole. During the day Charles saw from the window of the top room where he was hidden, a group of Scottish soldiers begging in the road and had to be restrained from going to help them; he was the crowned king of Scotland and must have felt some responsibility for their plight. The short journey to Bentley Hall was made that night. The Hall to which Charles made his way was re-built two or three times in the following centuries and finally collapsed in 1929 due to subsidence, exacerbated by the sinking of a shaft in the front garden by striking miners during the General Strike. The Monarch's Way goes to the site of the Hall, marked by a cairn, through a rather dreary industrialised area. The scene was much different when, on the morning after Charles arrival, Mistress Jane Lane, with her brother and his wife and a cousin, one of the Lascelles, set out for Abbots Leigh near Bristol, Jane riding pillion behind a groom, a tall, dark man with the short hair and plain clothes fitting to his station in life: Charles was now using subterfuge rather than stealth to make his escape.
The party would have had to climb the hills at Rowley but the Way makes use of the Netherton Tunnel, the last to be built in the country, and uses the towpaths as much as possible which take the walker past Cobb's Engine House. Cobb had a neat business pumping water out of the mines and into the canal and being paid by both parties. Gorsty Hill tunnel has no towpath, however, and the Way uses the road passing the large brick airshaft in a front garden, a most incongruous sight. This stretch brings to an end the section through the Black Country. The Way now passes the ruins of the Halesowen Abbey and crosses the line of the railway bridge, now dismantled, which carried a branch line across the steep Dowery Dell and which was nick named the Nibble and Clink fine. Tradition has it that the royal party stopped for refreshment at a nearby farm, which was later, re-named Good Rest Farm. Mistress Lane and her party would be keeping a look out for Parliamentary patrols but todays traveller can enjoy the sights and sounds of ancient Pepper Wood and ponder the Chartist Cottages at Dodford.
become market gardeners that, as landowners, would be eligible to vote, thus extending the franchise. The plan failed, only six houses were built of which only two remain almost in their original condition, the others having been extended and modernised, but the village has a distinctive character. At the time of Charles's escape, however, it was just one of the tiny hamlets through which they plodded on their way to Bromsgrove where the party stopped for a meal at The Old Black Cross. It was during this pause that Charles must have needed all his talent as an actor when, in keeping with his role as a groom, he sought out a blacksmith to replace a shoe that his horse had lost. The smith was not only a Parliamentarian but had fought at Worcester and Charles had to listen to the smith's opinion of "the man Charles Stuart" and his activities. It is an interesting to speculate if the smith ever realised in later years, that the subject of his vilification was so close and that the £1000 reward had been within his reach. The horse re-shod the party continued on its way to Stratford picking up the ridgeway at Astwood Bank.
Whether they passed through Alcester is debatable but the Way certainly includes it since, as we saw from the slides, it is well worth a visit. That they passed through Snitterfield is certain and it was there that they saw a Parliamentary patrol and took to the field paths to avoid them, only to meet them again in Stratford. With no means of avoiding them the party, trying to look as normal as possible, plodded past without being challenged and continued on their way to Long Marston and the home of a Royalist supporter who sheltered them for the night. This point in the escape of Charles 11 is the end of part one of the guide to the Monarch's Way and the end, also, of Trevor's talk.
Answering questions from members Trevor explained that establishing the exact route of the King's escape was difficult for several reasons. The full story could only be told years afterwards and memory fades; for obvious reasons, no one taking part in the episode kept a diary or wrote to friends about the part they played in the risky journey. The truth was also distorted by the spurious accounts, which Charles released, when in France, to confuse Parliamentary agents and protect his helpers. This, plus the post Restoration desire to show loyalty, accounts for the many claims that the King slept at, passed through, stopped to eat at, so many places that, had he really done so, he would still be on the road. When restored to the throne Charles remembered the principal participants and the enormous risks they ran and awarded the Lane and Penderel families pensions which are still paid to their descendants.
When Charles II made his escape and unknowingly 'pioneered' the Monarch's Way he must have had so much on his mind that the scenery probably attracted little of his attention but, as the slides demonstrated, today's followers in his footsteps pass through some splendid parts of the country with some points of interest that didn't exist in 1651.
© QLHS - Trevor Antill 2005
Ed's comment - The above is a write up by John Mawditt of Smethwick LHS following a talk by Trevor Antill. Trevor is appearing at our society in October and I thought the article would be a fascinating prelude to his visit. My thanks to John Mawditt and Mary Bodfish for allowing me to use the article.
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