Boscobel House

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Boscobel House
Boscobel House.jpg
Boscobel House
Grid reference: SJ837082
Location: 52°40’18"N, 2°14’30"W
Village: Boscobel
Country house
Owned by: English Heritage

Boscobel House is a grand country house in the parish of Boscobel in Shropshire. It has been, at various times; a farmhouse, a hunting lodge, and a holiday home; but it is most famous for its role in the escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Today it is a Grade II* listed building and managed by English Heritage.

Boscobel is on land which belonged to White Ladies Priory in the Middle Ages and at the dissolution of the priory by Henry VIII, the land first came to the Crown and was later sold to the Giffard family, who were responsible for building Boscobel House.

The house is just inside Shropshire, its estate running up to the Staffordshire border (and more prosaically, just north of the M54 motorway.



The land on which Boscobel House stands belonged to the White Ladies Priory during the Middle Ages. At the dissolution of the monasteries, the lands passed to the Crown, and was leased to William Skeffington of Wolverhampton, while the reversion was sold to William Whorwood in 1540,.[1] Skeffington's widow married Edward Giffard, and their heir, John Giffard, bought the freehold.

The origin of the house is a hunting lodge built on the estate around 1632 by John Giffard, converting a timber-framed farmhouse that had been built at some time in the 16th century. Giffard's work involved building a substantial extension to the south, including a living room and bedrooms more fitted to use by a gentry family. He called the new hunting lodge 'Boscobel House'. Thomas Blount (writing 1660), the main source for the events, portrays the naming as an after-dinner activity, and attributes it to Sir Basil Brook(e), a prominent recusant from Madeley, Shropshire, who was one of Giffard's guests at the housewarming party.[2] Boscobel is believed to come from the Italian phrase bosco bello meaning "in the midst of fair woods", as in 1632, Boscobel House was indeed surrounded by dense woodlands. Also, the many branches of the Giffard family all claim ancestry from the lords of Bolbec or Bolebec and Longueville in Upper Normandy.

Recusancy and the escape of King Charles II

The Royal Oak at Boscobel House
Alleged priest hole on the first floor
Priest hole on the second floor

The Giffard family were Recusants – Roman Catholics who refused to participate in the worship of the Protestant Church of England, and for it they bore fines, suspicion and social exclusion, while any priests found might face execution. The Giffards took care to surround themselves with reliable retainers: until the mid-19th century, after the Roman Catholic Relief Act, their servants and tenants were mainly Romanists.[3] The house itself served as a secret place for the shelter of priests, with at least one priest-hole.

When the Civil War broke out, the recusant Giffards were no friends to Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans, and the secrets of the house were to be put to good use. In 1651, King Charles II, having been crowned at Scone, marched south to reclaim the fallen crown, only to be defeated at the Battle of Worcester. Pursued by the Cromwell's army, the King was brought north by sympathisers. Initially he was led to White Ladies Priory by Charles Giffard, a cousin of the owner, and his servant Francis Yates, the only man subsequently executed for his part in the escape. There, the Penderel family, tenants and servants of the Giffard family began to play important roles in guiding and caring for him. From White Ladies, Richard Penderel led Charles in an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Severn near Madeley, Shropshire. They were forced to retrace their steps and Charles took refuge at Boscobel, where he was met by Colonel William Careless, whose brother rented land from the Giffards at Broom Hall, Brewood. Careless and the King spent all day hiding in a nearby oak tree (which became known as The Royal Oak), from where he could see the patrols searching for him.

Later Charles spent the night hiding in one of Boscobel’s Priest holes. He was moved from Boscobel to Moseley Old Hall near Wolverhampton, and ultimately escaped the region posing as the servant of Jane Lane of Bentley, whose family were also landowners at Broom Hall and at the Hyde in Brewood. The Lanes, although friends and business partners of the Giffards, were not Recusants but of Puritan sympathies and Jane's brother, Colonel John Lane, had taken Parliament's side in fighting around Wolverhampton during the Civil War.[4]

The oak tree in which the King hid became a poignant symbol of the Restoration when King Charles returned in triumph in 1660; this is when 'The Royal Oak' became a popular name for inns, often with a sign showing an oak tree with three crowns amongst its leaves, and each year the King's birthday was celebrated as "oakapple day", a celebration which continued into the Victorian age.

Subsequent history

At the time of the King's escape, Boscoble was owned by Frances Cotton, née Giffard. She died shortly after these events, and both White Ladies and Boscobel passed via her daughter, Jane Cotton, who had married Basil Fitzherbert in 1648, to the Fitzherbert family of Norbury Hall, Derbyshire. The Fitzherberts were major landowners and let Boscobel as a farm to a succession of tenants, including several members of the Penderel family.

Boscobel featured prominently in the Popish Plot: the informer Stephen Dugdale accused the guests who witnessed the Jesuit John Gavan taking his final vows there in 1678 of plotting treason, and several of them, including Gavan himself, were executed or imprisoned.

The estate and Boscobel were sold to Walter Evans, a Derbyshire industrialist, in 1812, although the Fitzherbert family retained the White Ladies Priory site. It was the Evans family who restored the house and gardens, often in fanciful ways, and nourished the legend of Charles II. A substantial farm building was appended to the northern side of the house in the 19th century, giving the present house three distinct wings. It was sold to Orlando Bridgeman, 5th Earl of Bradford in 1918, who placed both it and the tree in the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1954. It passed, by way of the Department of the Environment to English Heritage in 1984.[5]

Boscobel House today

The house

The three stages of building are readily apparent to the modern visitor. The 16th century farm is clearly central and is easily distinguished from the 19th century farm which adjoins it at right angles. The latter is brick-built but painted black and white to simulate timber framing. The main house, built by John Giffard around 1632, is mainly hidden behind the earlier and later structures on first approach. It is timber-framed, part brick, but covered in stucco, which was applied in the 18th century to cover up faults in the structure and materials. Its east and west ends are marked respectively by the bowed structure, probably originally housing the staircase, and the chimney stack.

The 19th century farm today houses an introductory display, covering the escape of Charles II and the history of Boscobel. The 16th century farm, known as the north range, houses an exhibition of dairy equipment, focussing on the butter and cheese making that were important here in the Victorian period. In 2011, the upper floor was opened to the public for the first time, allowing a much better appreciation of the construction and clearly showing the differing woodwork, indicating that the building was much altered even before John Giffard's additions.

The western end of the north range is now separated off to provide the entrance hall and stairs for the main house, a change apparently made by the Evans family in the 19th century. The ground floor of John Giffard's development is occupied largely by the Parlour, much-altered but containing a good deal of Jacobean panelling. The Victorian fireplace is surmounted by three black marble panels, each engraved to illustrate aspects of Charles' escape - two of them designed by a daughter of Walter Evans. Through the Parlour is the so-called 'Oratory', presented by the Evans family as a small prayer room, but probably where the 17th century stairs were housed. This contains a portrait of Jane Penderel, known as Dame Joan, the matriarch of the family to whom Charles owed so much, and a chest, dated 1642, which appears to be mainly 19th century work.

On the first floor of the main house is a bedroom known as the Squire's Room. Between a fireplace and the bed is a door into a closet, which has a trapdoor into a small "secret place", alleged to be a priest's hole. However, the space appears to be both too small and too obvious, as chimney areas were known to make good hiding places. This floor also contains another bedroom, known as the White Room. Originally, the entire first floor was probably a single large room: in the 17th century large bedrooms were used socially, while the Victorians developed the modern notion of the bedroom as a private space.

The second floor is a large attic, divided into two spaces today. In the first, at the very top of the stairs, is a trapdoor opening into a more convincing priest hole. This is where Charles II is thought to have spent an uncomfortable night, as it is only 4 feet in height while he was very tall for the time, around 6 ft 2inches. Beyond this attic space is the Bower Room, used as a bedroom in the 19th century.

The restored parterre garden, behind the house
16th century barn


North of the house lies a large farmyard, mostly surrounded by Victorian farm buildings, although there is a large 17th century barn. The yard provides picnic space, as well as housing a display of Victorian farm machinery and equipment.

To the south are the formal gardens. First is a parterre hedged with box, laid out in recent times but occupying approximately the area of a box garden shown in 17th century views of Boscobel. On its south-west corner is the Mount, a mound topped by a modern shelter, where Charles spent the day reading.[6]

Beyond the formal area is a kitchen garden with an orchard of fruit trees. Alongside runs a walk flanked on both sides by hazelnut trees.

The Royal Oak

The Royal Oak stands about 150 yards southwest of the house, in a farmer's field, but with an access path. It is now believed to be a direct descendant of the original tree used by Charles and Careless to hide from the Parliamentary soldiers, although it has sometimes been presented as the actual tree. The oak has been surrounded by iron railings for many decades, but an outer wooden fence was added to protect visitors from falling timber after major cracks appeared in Autumn 2010. It has suffered badly from tourist depredations in the past, but its main threat is bad weather.

A daughter tree, planted to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, stands in the garden of the house and is marked by a commemorative plaque. Saplings grown from the Royal Oak's acorns are sold by English Heritage in the shop.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Boscobel House)


  1. A History of the County of Shropshire Volume 2Victoria County History
  2. Blount, Thomas: Boscobel or the History of His Sacred Majesties Most Miraculous Preservation, London:Houlston and Wright, 1860 (originally 1660), p.7.
  3. A History of the County of StaffordVictoria County History
  4. Keith Farley: Charles I and the First Civil War at Wolverhampton Local History.
  5. O. J. Weaver (1987): Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory, London: English Heritage, p.20.
  6. O. J. Weaver (1987): Boscobel House and White Ladies Priory, London: English Heritage, p.21-26.