When the Civil War was raging, many a defeated cavalier owed his preservation to the "priests' holes" and secret chambers of the old Roman Catholic houses all over the country. Did not Charles II. himself owe his life to the conveniences offered at Boscobel, Moseley, Trent, and Heale? We have elsewhere gone minutely into the young king's hair-breadth adventures; but the story is so closely connected with the present subject that we must record something of his sojourn at these four old houses, as from an historical point of view they are of exceptional interest, if one but considers how the order of things would have been changed had either of these hiding-places been discovered at the time "his Sacred Majesty" occupied them. It is vain to speculate upon the probabilities; still, there is no ignoring the fact that had Charles been captured he would have shared the fate of his father.
[Footnote 1: See The Flight of the King.]
After the defeat of Wigan, the gallant Earl of Derby sought refuge at the isolated, wood-surrounded hunting-lodge of Boscobel, and after remaining there concealed for two days, proceeded to Gatacre Park, now rebuilt, but then and for long after famous for its secret chambers. Here he remained hidden prior to the disastrous battle of Worcester.
Upon the close of that eventful third of September, 1651, the Earl, at the time that the King and his advisers knew not which way to turn for safety, recounted his recent experiences, and called attention to the loyalty of the brothers Penderel. It was speedily resolved, therefore, to hasten northwards towards Brewood Forest, upon the borders of Staffordshire and Salop. "As soon as I was disguised," says Charles, "I took with me a country fellow whose name was Richard Penderell.... He was a Roman Catholic, and I chose to trust them [the Penderells] because I knew they had hiding-holes for priests that I thought I might make use of in case of need." Before taking up his quarters in the house, however, the idea of escaping into Wales occured to Charles, so, when night set in, he quitted Boscobel Wood, where he had been hidden all the day, and started on foot with his rustic guide in a westerly direction with the object of getting over the river Severn, but various hardships and obstacles induced Penderel to suggest a halt at a house at Madeley, near the river, where they might rest during the day and continue the journey under cover of darkness on the following night; the house further had the attraction of "priests' holes." "We continued our way on to the village upon the Severn," resumes the King, "where the fellow told me there was an honest gentleman, one Mr. Woolfe, that lived in that town, where I might be with great safety, for he had hiding-holes for priests.... So I came into the house a back way, where I found Mr. Woolfe, an old gentleman, who told me he was very sorry to see me there, because there was two companies of the militia foot at that time in arms in the town, and kept a guard at the ferry, to examine everybody that came that way in expectation of catching some that might be making their escape that way; and that he durst not put me into any of the hiding-holes of his house, because they had been discovered, and consequently, if any search should be made, they would certainly repair to these holes, and that therefore I had no other way of security but to go into his barn and there lie behind his corn and hay."
The Madeley "priest's hole" which was considered unsafe is still extant. It is in one of the attics of "the Upper House," but the entrance is now very palpable. Those who are curious enough to climb up into this black hole will discover a rude wooden bench within it—a luxury compared with some hiding-places!
The river Severn being strictly guarded everywhere, Charles and his companions retraced their steps the next night towards Boscobel.
After a day spent up in the branches of the famous Royal Oak, the fugitive monarch made his resting-place the secret chamber behind the wainscoting of what is called "the Squire's Bedroom." There is another hiding-place, however, hard by in a garret which may have been the one selected. The latter lies beneath the floor of this garret, or "Popish chapel," as it was once termed. At the top of a flight of steps leading to it is a small trap-door, and when this is removed a step-ladder may be seen leading down into the recess. The other place behind the wainscot is situated in a chimney stack and is more roomy in its proportions. Here again is an inner hiding-place, entered through a trap-door in the floor, with a narrow staircase leading to an exit in the basement. So much for Boscobel.
[Footnote 1: The hiding-place in the garret measures about 5 feet 2 inches in depth by 3-1/2 or 4-1/2 feet in width.]
Moseley Hall is thus referred to by the King: "I... sent Penderell's brother to Mr. Pitchcroft's [Whitgreaves] to know whether my Lord Wilmot was there or no, and had word brought me by him at night that my lord was there, that there was a very secure hiding-hole in Mr. Pitchcroft's house, and that he desired me to come thither to him."
It was while at Moseley the King had a very narrow escape. A search-party arrived on the scene and demanded admittance. Charles's host himself gives the account of this adventure: "In the afternoon [the King] reposing himself on his bed in the parlour chamber and inclineing to sleep, as I was watching at the window, one of the neighbours I saw come running in, who told the maid soldiers were comeing to search, who thereupon presentlie came running to the staires head, and cried, 'Soldiers, soldiers are coming,' which his majestie hearing presentlie started out of his bedd and run to his privacie, where I secured him the best I could, and then leaving him, went forth into the street to meet the soldiers who were comeing to search, who as soon as they saw and knew who I was were readie to pull mee to pieces, and take me away with them, saying I was come from the Worcester fight; but after much dispute with them, and by the neighbours being informed of their false information that I was not there, being very ill a great while, they let mee goe; but till I saw them clearly all gone forth of the town I returned not; but as soon as they were, I returned to release him and did acquaint him with my stay, which hee thought long, and then hee began to bee very chearful again.
"In the interim, whilst I was disputing with the soldiers, one of them called Southall came in the ffould and asked a smith, as hee was shooing horses there, if he could tell where the King was, and he should have "a thousand pounds for his payns.... This Southall was a great priest-catcher.
The hiding-place is located beneath the floor of a cupboard, adjoining the quaint old panelled bedroom the King occupied while he was at Moseley. Even "the merry monarch" must have felt depressed in such a dismal hole as this, and we can picture his anxious expression, as he sat upon the rude seat of brick which occupies one end of it, awaiting the result of the sudden alarm. The cupboard orginally was screened with wainscoting, a panel of which could be opened and closed by a spring. Family tradition also says there was a outlet from the hiding-place in a brew-house chimney. Situated in a gable end of the building, near the old chapel, in a garret, there is another "priest's hole" large enough only to admit of a person lying down full length.
Before the old seat of the Whitgreaves was restored some fifteen or twenty years ago it was one of the most picturesque half-timber houses, not only in Staffordshire, but in England. It had remained practically untouched since the day above alluded to (September 9th, 1651).
Before reaching Trent, in Somersetshire, the much sought-for king had many hardships to undergo and many strange experiences. We must, however, confine our remarks to those of the old buildings which offered him an asylum that could boast a hiding-place.
Trent House was one of these. The very fact that it originally belonged to the recusant Gerard family is sufficient evidence. From the Gerards it passed by marriage to the Wyndhams, who were in residence in the year we speak of. That his Majesty spent much of his time in the actual hiding-place at Trent is very doubtful. Altogether he was safely housed here for over a fortnight, and during that time doubtless occasional alarms drove him, as at Moseley, into his sanctuary; but a secluded room was set apart for his use, where he had ample space to move about, and from which he could reach his hiding-place at a moment's notice. The black oak panelling and beams of this cosy apartment, with its deep window recesses, readily carries the mind back to the time when its royal inmate wiled away the weary hours by cooking his meals and amusing himself as best he could—indeed a hardship for one, such as he, so fond of outdoor exercise.
Close to the fireplace are two small, square secret panels, at one time used for the secretion of sacred books or vessels, valuables or compromising deeds, but pointed out to visitors as a kind of buttery hatch through which Charles II. received his food. The King by day, also according to local tradition, is said to have kept up communication with his friends in the house by means of a string suspended in the kitchen chimney. That apartment is immediately beneath, and has a fireplace of huge dimensions. An old Tudor doorway leading into this part of the house is said to have been screened from observation by a load of hay.
Now for the hiding-place. Between this and "my Lady Wyndham's chamber" (the aforesaid panelled room that was kept exclusively for Charles's use) was a small ante-room, long since demolished, its position being now occupied by a rudely constructed staircase, from the landing of which the hiding-place is now entered. The small secret apartment is approached through a triangular hole in the wall, something after the fashion of that at Ufton Court; but when one has squeezed through this aperture he will find plenty of room to stretch his limbs. The hole, which was close up against the rafters of the roof of the staircase landing, when viewed from the inside of the apartment, is situated at the base of a blocked-up stone Tudor doorway. Beneath the boards of the floor—as at Boscobel and Moseley—is an inner hiding-place, from which it was formerly possible to find an exit through the brew-house chimney.
It was from Trent House that Charles visited the Dorsetshire coast in the hopes of getting clear of England; but a complication of misadventures induced him to hasten back with all speed to the pretty little village of Trent, to seek once, more shelter beneath the roof of the Royalist Colonel Wyndham.
To resume the King's account:—
"As soon as we came to Frank Windham's I sent away presently to Colonel Robert Philips [Phelips], who lived then at Salisbury, to see what he could do for the getting me a ship; which he undertook very willingly, and had got one at Southampton, but by misfortune she was amongst others prest to transport their soldiers to Jersey, by which she failed us also.
"Upon this, I sent further into Sussex, where Robin Philips knew one Colonel Gunter, to see whether he could hire a ship anywhere upon that coast. And not thinking it convenient for me to stay much longer at Frank Windham's (where I had been in all about a fortnight, and was become known to very many), I went directly away to a widow gentlewoman's house, one Mrs. Hyde, some four or five miles from Salisbury, where I came into the house just as it was almost dark, with Robin Philips only, not intending at first to make myself known. But just as I alighted at the door, Mrs. Hyde knew me, though she had never seen me but once in her life, and that was with the king, my father, in the army, when we marched by Salisbury some years before, in the time of the war; but she, being a discreet woman, took no notice at that time of me, I passing only for a friend of Robin Philips', by whose advice I went thither.
"At supper there was with us Frederick Hyde, since a judge, and his sister-in-law, a widow, Robin Philips, myself, and Dr. Henshaw [Henchman], since Bishop of London, whom I had appointed to meet me there.
"So Robin Philips and I took our horses and went as far as Stonehenge; and there we staid looking upon the stones for some time, and returned back again to Hale [Heale] (the place where Mrs. Hyde lived) about the hour she appointed; where I went up into the hiding-hole, that was very convenient and safe, and staid there all alone (Robin Philips then going away to Salisbury) some four or five days."
Both exterior and interior of Heale House as it stands to-day point to a later date than 1651, though there are here and there vestiges of architecture anterior to the middle of the seventeenth century; the hiding-place, however, is not among these, and looks nothing beyond a very deep cupboard adjoining one of the bedrooms, with nothing peculiar to distinguish it from ordinary cupboards.
But for all its modern innovations there is something about Heale which suggests a house with a history. Whether it is its environment of winding river and ancient cedar-trees, its venerable stables and imposing entrance gate, or the fact that it is one of those distinguished houses that have saved the life of an English king, we will not undertake to fathom.