As the pomp and circumstance of the King’s Coronation marks the month, Daniel Morris looks at the region’s famous part in the story of our last monarch whose name was Charles.
Situated at Bishop’s Wood, Boscobel House is a picturesque hunting lodge and former farm site that is today run by English Heritage.
The quaint property is one of the jewels in the charity’s Shropshire crown, offering visitors a window into several centuries’ worth of the county’s past. Yet, it is known best for its role in the dramatic tale of Stuart ruler King Charles II, who wrote the site into the history books in the 17th century while hiding in fear for his life.
Following his 1651 defeat at Third English Civil War engagement, the Battle of Worcester, Charles and his supporters fled and sought refuge with Catholic and Royalist sympathisers in the Midlands, desperate to avoid the enemy English Commonwealth troops who were hunting them.
“They knew that this part of the region had a lot of well-to-do important Catholic families and so this is where they headed,” said English Heritage curator Cameron Moffett. “Charles and his party were trooping around this bit of the countryside, avoiding pursuit from the Commonwealth soldiers. They took refuge at nearby White Ladies Priory, and a day later headed over to Boscobel.”
It was on this day that an episode occurred that was destined to go into legend, and also birth one of the most popular public house monikers ever to grace our land.
“When they got to Boscobel there were enemy troops hanging around and Charles and one of his officers, William Careless, climbed up into an oak tree,” said Cameron. “The tree had grown to be very leafy, and as such was very easy for them to hide in. They hid there for an entire day and troops were literally going back and forth on the ground underneath this tree looking for them. They spent the day there and in the evening they came down and spent the night at Boscobel.”
The ‘Royal Oak’, as it has become known, became famous, with Charles himself eventually spreading the story of his fabled hiding place with great enthusiasm.
“The tree obviously has been a terrific focus for people interested in the story,” said Cameron. “Once Charles was – 20 years on – properly crowned King, he was encouraging people to tell exciting stories about this episode in his life. And this one spread so well that, almost immediately, people started going to see the ‘famous tree’.”
However, as Cameron relates, said visitors wanted a souvenir.
“People went and they took branches and they cut bark and unfortunately the original tree did not last very long,” she added. “Everybody just wanted a bit of it to take away. The passion of the public for the story sadly brought about its end – people loved it too much!”
A descendant of the original Royal Oak is, however, well-preserved at Boscobel, and is one of the many attractions modern visitors to the site are able to enjoy. Indeed, today Boscobel House offers a full and rounded day out made all the richer by English Heritage’s work at the site in recent times.
“We finished a reinterpretation project at Boscobel about two years ago,” said Cameron. “In this redisplay we have brought a new focus to the outside parts of the site – including a focus on its farming background, which wasn’t really touched on previously. In the past, things were very much focused exclusively on Charles and the tree, but now there’s a lot more at the site relating to its later history as a Victorian agricultural establishment. Of course we’re still very proud of the history with Charles, and we’ve rebuilt a hut that sits on a mound that’s a rebuilding of a place where Charles lurked and read while he was lying low.
“As before, visitors can see the dressed interior of the house and the spaces where we know that Charles was. You can see the priest hole where he hid overnight – particularly amazing because, at 6ft 3in, he was a very tall man for the time, and he must’ve been very uncomfortable there!
“We have also planted a lot of young oak trees with the intention that over decades, the field where the descendant of the original tree is will eventually start to look as it did when Charles was hiding there.”
Indeed, similar horticultural work is at the centre of a national English Heritage project in honour of the new King’s reign. To celebrate the coronation of His Majesty Charles III, the charity is setting out to create one hundred wild meadows across its sites.
At locations such as Stonehenge and the Jewel Tower in Westminster (as well as Shropshire sites including Boscobel, Wroxeter Roman City, Wenlock Priory and Morton Corbet Castle), English Heritage will, over the next decade, be endeavouring to restore flower-rich grasslands that have been lost, and enhance those that already exist.
Since the 1930s and the advent of post-war modern farming practices, the UK has reportedly lost 97 per cent of its meadows. Prior to this, much of England’s grassland would have been home to much more diverse flora than it is today. Whilst the English Heritage estate is relatively unusual in not having been subject to changing agricultural policy, as the charity tells it, the grassland surrounding its historic monuments has become ‘municipalised’ over the past century, diminishing the botanical diversity enjoyed by earlier generations.
Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s chief executive, said: “The King’s coronation is a significant moment in history and we wanted to mark it in a meaningful way, in a way that combines two of His Majesty’s passions – nature and heritage. We’re creating more natural spaces at the heart of our historic properties, ensuring that wildflowers and wildlife can flourish there once again, and helping our visitors to step back into history and experience something with which the sites’ historic occupants would have been familiar.”
Committed as ever to helping people to ‘step into England’s story’, English Heritage also hope this initiative will encourage them to become a part of it.
“In a decade’s time, our coronation pledge will be an inspiring legacy of established, restored and new meadows at 100 of our historic sites right across England,” Kate added. “We hope that it will encourage local communities to get involved and help transform their local heritage sites into flower-rich meadows.”
English Heritage is partnering with Plantlife – Europe’s largest charity dedicated to saving wild plants and fungi – on the project. Plantlife will support English Heritage by providing resources and expertise, skills development training and knowledge exchange opportunities as the initiative progresses.
Plantlife’s chief executive, Ian Dunn, said: “Plantlife is delighted to be working with English Heritage on meadow creation. This new and exciting partnership offers a lifeline to a hundred key grassland sites and their associated wildlife, and focuses on a chapter of English natural history lost and all but forgotten. Together, we look forward to a future where England’s best historic sites boast the highest quality grasslands.”
He may not be hiding in a tree, but already, and happily, the mark of the new King Charles on heritage sites like Boscobel seems assured.
For more information, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk