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17 July 2012

The Royal Oak - by Gillian Bagwell

The Royal Oak

It’s likely you may have seen a pub or something else called the Royal Oak, and not given it much thought. But do you know that there really was a Royal Oak—one single tree— which spawned so many namesakes?

In 1651, the young King Charles II of England— the exiled son of Charles I, who had been executed in 1649—made a valiant attempt to take back his throne. His defeat by Oliver Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651 set off one of the most astonishing episodes in British history— Charles’s desperate odyssey to reach safety in France, which came to be known as the Royal Miracle because he narrowly escaped discovery and capture so many times.

One of Charles’s companions during his flight from Worcester on September 3 was the Earl of Derby, who had recently been sheltered at a house called Boscobel in Shropshire. He suggested that the king might hide there until he could find a way out of England. But also present was Charles Giffard, the owner of Boscobel. He said his house had been searched lately, and that it might be safer for the king to shelter at nearby Whiteladies, a former priory.

Charles and a few companions arrived at Whiteladies in the early morning hours of September 4. George Penderel, a woodsman who was a tenant there, and one of five surviving brothers of a staunchly Royalist family, sheltered the king—and his horse— in the house overnight. But Parliamentary cavalry patrols were searching for Charles, so at sunrise Richard Penderel, another of the brothers, took him into the woods surrounding Whiteladies, where he stayed all day, in the rain.

That evening, Charles and Richard Penderel walked nine miles to Madeley, hoping to cross the Severn River and get to Wales where Charles might find a boat that would take him to France or Spain. But the river was well guarded, and there was nothing for it but to return to Shropshire. 

Charles and Richard Penderel arrived at Boscobel House at about 3 a.m. on Saturday, September 6. As it happened, another Royalist who had escaped from the battle was also there—Colonel William Carliss, who Charles knew well. Once more it was thought too dangerous for the fugitives to stay inside the house during daylight hours. Boscobel was surrounded by woods, and as dawn was breaking, Carliss and the king, carrying some bread, cheese, and small beer, used William Penderel’s ladder to climb “up into a greate Oake that had been Lop’t some 3 or 4 Yeares before, and being growne out again very Bushy and Thick, could nott be seen through,” as Charles later told the diarist Samuel Pepys. From their perch, they could see “soldiers goeing up and downe in the thickest of the Wood, searching for persons escaped.” 

Charles had spent three days and nights with very little sleep, and now, with nothing to do but hide, he went to sleep on the broad branch of the oak, lying on a couple of pillows that had been handed up into the tree and resting his head on Carliss’s arm. After a while, Carliss’s arm grew so numb that he couldn’t hold onto Charles and keep him from falling out of the tree. He had to wake the king, but was worried that if he spoke, he might be heard by the searching soldiers. So he pinched the king, waking him silently.

Boscobel House

Charles and Carliss were not discovered, and when it was dark, they came down out of the tree—which came immediately to be known as the Royal Oak—and ravenously ate the chicken dinner that Mrs. Penderel had prepared. As it turned out, the 21-year-old king was on the run for six weeks, until he was able to sail for France from Shoreham near Brighton on October 15. During his perilous travels, he was sheltered and helped by dozens of people—mostly simple country folk and minor gentry—who could have earned the enormous reward of £1000 offered for his capture, but instead put their lives in jeopardy to help him.

When he was restored to the throne in 1660, the five Penderel brothers were among those he summoned to Whitehall to be honored and rewarded for their part in saving his life and the future of the monarchy. He gave Colonel Carliss permission to change his name to “Carlos,” i.e., Charles, and awarded him a coat of arms featuring an oak tree and three crowns. And he commissioned a series of paintings from Isaac Fuller depicting highlights of his escape—one of which showed him asleep in the Royal Oak with his head on Carliss’s lap.

Almost immediately people began cutting wood from the Royal Oak, to make souvenirs. Charles gathered acorns from it when he visited Shropshire in 1661, and planted them in St. James’s Park and Hyde Park. The tree eventually died, but a sapling that had grown from it was protected and cherished. Eventually it, too, succumbed, but one of its offshoots still stands, carefully fenced off, behind Boscobel House, now maintained by English Heritage.

On January 15, 1661, Pepys recorded in his diary that he “took barge and went to Blackwall and viewed the dock and the new Wet dock, which is newly made there, and a brave new merchantman which is to be launched shortly, and they say to be called the Royal Oak.” 

That ship was probably the first of many namesakes of the tree in which Charles had spent a day, but it was to be far from the last. There were eight ships of the Royal Navy named the Royal Oak, the last launched in 1914. There are numerous pubs and inns all over England called the Royal Oak, as well as some called Penderel’s Oak.

But the Royal Oak’s fame didn’t stop in England. There are many things called Royal Oak, in places where people likely don’t know the origin of the name. A quick Google search brings up a suburb of Detroit, Michigan; streets in Encino, California Wyoming, MI; Albuquerque, NM; Roswell, Georgia; and Vancouver, Canada; hotels in Adelaide and Sydney, Australia; pubs, bars, or restaurants in San Francisco and Napa in California, Brooklyn; Lewiston, Maine; Ottawa, Canada; a book shop in Virginia; a manufacturer of charcoal and grills in North Carolina; construction companies in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Canada, and Australia; a home developer in North Carolina and a realty company in San Rafael, California, and a flooring company in Australia.

Gillian Bagwell’s novel The King’s Mistress, the first fictional accounting of the story of Jane Lane, and ordinary English girl who helped Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester, will be released in the U.K. on July 19, 2012. (It was published in the U.S. in 2011 under the title The September Queen.)

Please visit Gillian’s website, to read more about her books and current projects. Her Blog Jane Lane and the Royal Miracle recounts her adventures researching the book and the daily episodes in Charles’s flight.

Helen: My thanks to Gillian for offering this superb article for my blog - I knew of King Charles hiding in the oak tree, but had no idea of the details!
As a point of interest, there are two pubs within my local area - one Royal Oak and one King's Oak (which is situated in Epping Forest)

American readers may not realise that English oaks are very different from American oaks. I was astonished to discover this when I visited the US - your oaks are somewhat tall and skinny, while ours are short and wide. And perversely, American acorns are short and wide, and British ones are long and skinny!

There is a slight connection between this post and my Sea Witch Voyages.... my pirate rogue is called Jesamiah Acorne, he wears a golden acorn earring. His father is called Charles... and his grandfather fought for Charles I - and was involved in Charles II's escape... all fiction of course, but in one of the future books of the series (probably Gallows Wake) you will discover how all these little things come together!

Gillian will be appearing again as a Guest on my Guest Blog during September when I have some special guests who will be attending the Historical Novel Society's London 2012 Conference
I'm looking forward to meeting you at the Conference Gillian - thank you again, most interesting!


  1. Thanks for having me, Helen! I love the Royal Oak connection with Jesamiah Acorne!

  2. LOL My Jesamiah does tend to get around a bit! :-)


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