Boscobel House

Boscobel House

 

Boscobel House was created around 1632, when landowner John Giffard of White Ladies Priory converted a timber-framed farmhouse, built some time in the 16th century on the lands of White Ladies Priory, into a hunting lodge. The priory and its estate, including the farmhouse site, had been leased from the Crown by William Skeffington of Wolverhampton at the Dissolution of the Monasteries about a century earlier. It passed into the Giffard family because Skeffington left it to his widow, Joan, and she subsequently married Edward Giffard, son of Sir John Giffard (died 1556) of Chillington Hall. The reversion was sold to William Whorwood in 1540, which made him the effective owner, but one of the early lessees must have paid off Whorwood, because it was later passed on to Edward Giffard's heir, John. John Giffard decided to make the farmhouse more useful by building a substantial extension to the south, including a living room and bedrooms more fitted to use by a gentry family. Giffard 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. Boscobel is believed to come from the Italian phrase bosco bello meaning "in the midst of fair woods": in 1632, Boscobel House was surrounded by dense woodlands

 

The Giffard family were Recusants - Catholics who refused to participate in the worship of the established Church of England. For them, this brought fines, imprisonment and discrimination: for priests it could mean barbarous execution. The Giffards took care to surround themselves with reliable retainers: until the mid-19th century, after Catholic Emancipation, their servants and tenants were mainly Catholic. The house itself served as a secret place for the shelter of Catholic priests, with at least one priest-hole. This secret purpose of the house was to play a key part in the history of the country. By 1651, when Boscobel played host to Charles II, it was owned by John Giffard's heir, his daughter, Frances Cotton. Frances had married John Cotton, a Huntingdonshire squire, in 1633, but was a widow by this time. She was not resident at the time of the events that made Boscobel House one of the most evocative sites in the English royalist imagination. It was here that Charles II hid in a tree to escape discovery by Parliamentary soldiers during his escape after the Battle of Worcester.

 

Initially, Charles 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, another Catholic redoubt 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.

 

Frances Cotton, née Giffard, 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.

 

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.

 

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. The Royal Oak stands about 150 yards (137m) south-west of the house, in a farmer's field, but with an access path. Limited wheelchair access via the shop or side gate. Assistance required. No wheelchair access to house and exhibition. Virtual tour available in the shop. Guided tours are available. This tour is included in the admissions price and covers not only the history of this fully restored and refurbished lodge, but also the important part that the house and the tree subsequently named the 'Royal Oak'. Assistance dogs are welcome and there is a dog bowl next to the visitor centre.

 

Location : Brewood, Bishop's Wood, Shropshire, ST19 9AR

Transport: Cosford (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : Coastal Liner 17 (Wed only); Arriva Midlands services 88/88A to Bishopswood then 1 mile walk

Opening Times : Wednesday to Sunday + Bank Holidays 10:00 to 17:00

Tickets Tours: Adults £7.00;  Concessions £6.20;  Children £4.10

Tel: 01902 850244