FEATURE: Earl of Derby and the Boscobel Oak

Lord of Mann James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby  Yn Stanlagh Mooar in Manx

Lord of Mann James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby  Yn Stanlagh Mooar in Manx

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On Sunday, a small number of villages and institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge colleges and the Royal Hospital Chelsea, held celebrations to mark Oak Apple Day - until 1859 a day of national commemoration but now replaced by Spring Bank Holiday.

The day takes its name from a greyish plant gall, also known as a ‘shick shack’, which grows on the trees.

Descendant of the Royal Oak at Boscobel

Descendant of the Royal Oak at Boscobel

Some of the surviving traditions are believed to have ancient pagan origins - such as the custom in Castleton, Derbyshire, where a man rides through the streets covered in a garland of flowers, or St Neot, Cornwall, where there is a procession with an oak branch which is then hauled to the top of the church tower.

However, the date of May 29 - King Charles II’s birthday - and the custom of wearing sprigs of oak leaves refers to the monarch’s 1651 escape from capture by Cromwell’s troops by hiding up a tree.

The same event gave rise to the ‘Royal Oak’ naming of many pubs but less well known is the crucial part that Lord of Mann James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby – Yn Stanlagh Mooar in Manx – played in the king’s escape.

As well as being Lord of Mann, he was also a powerful magnate in North West England with royal family connections and it is said that King Charles I was jealous of him.

Charles II

Charles II

However, in the English Civil War Derby loyally served against Parliament and his French wife, Countess Charlotte, heroically withstood a long siege of their fortified Lancashire home of Lathom House.

After Charles I’s execution in 1649, the couple held the Isle of Man as one of the last remaining Royalist strongholds, providing a refuge for cavalier exiles and successfully repelled Parliamentarian naval attacks.

In 1650, the 20-year-old Charles II came to Scotland to claim his father’s throne, and when he marched into England with an army in 1651, the Lord of Mann arrived on the Lancashire coast on August 16 with a force of 300 Royalists.

They fought bravely but were defeated at the Battle of Wigan-lane on August 25, when Derby only escaped capture by darting in through the door of a house, where a woman bravely hid him from searchers and then helped to disguise him so he could escape south.

Boscobel House, the setting of the Royal Oak affair. The house is now owned by English Heritage and open to visitors, and is on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border between Wolverhampton and Telford (Oosoom)

Boscobel House, the setting of the Royal Oak affair. The house is now owned by English Heritage and open to visitors, and is on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border between Wolverhampton and Telford (Oosoom)

The Earl left behind a brass plate bearing the three legs of Man. It is now at Knowsley, Liverpool. As he reached Shropshire, the Earl was joined by another Royalist refugee, Colonel Roscarrock and in the market town of Newport they were given shelter by a Richard Snead.

It was he who guided them on Friday, August 29, to the lonely woodland refuge of Boscobel House - a property of the Catholic Giffard family with hiding places designed to shelter priests from officials.

The housekeeper William Penderell hid the Earl and Roscarrock until the following Sunday before taking them to another Catholic refuge. They caught up with the King on September 2 - just a day before the Battle of Worcester.

The Royalist force occupied the city and the King watched the action from the top of the cathedral tower, with the Earl of Derby acting as an aide-de-camp.

The River Severn helped to make the place a strong defensive position but Oliver Cromwell built a pontoon bridge and soon the fighting reached the streets. When the King saw his troops starting to throw down their arms, he rode up and down attempting to rally them, but soon had to accept that all was lost.

He and a band of 60 officers and nobles, including the Earl of Derby, managed to escape from the city via St Martin’s Gate. After further skirmishes with Parliamentarians, one of Lord Talbot’s servants, Walker by name, was able to guide them as far as Kinver Heath, near Kidderminster. It was then that the Lord of Mann spoke of the refuge he had found at Boscobel and Charles heeded his advice and a servant named Yates was quickly found to show them the way.

One obstacle was the town of Stourbridge - should they risk going through it or should they lost vital time by going all the way round? In the end the King and nobles posed as foreigners by speaking French to one another and got through safely. Charles was therefore initially taken to a former monastery called Whiteladies, a mile from Boscobel, where another of the Penderell brothers named George lived. When William Penderell and another of the brothers, Richard, were sent for, they were surprised to find the Earl of Derby waiting for them. He led them to the parlour, pointed to a tall young man standing there and said: ‘This is the King. Thou must have a care of him and preserve him as thou didst me.’

Over the next hour the King was transformed to look like a servant by smudging soot over his face, cutting his long locks with shears and dressing him in rough noggen shirt, old green suit and a leather doublet. The Penderells continued hiding him for some days, tried to get him across the flood-swollen River Severn towards Wales but failed due to the ferries being closely guarded and then helped him escape capture while Roundheads searched the grounds around Boscobel by hiding him, along with the Royalist Captain Careless, in the branches of a broad oak tree. Today a descendant of that tree still stands at Boscobel.

Meanwhile the Lord of Mann and the King’s nobles had continued north and were captured at Nantwich in Cheshire. The arresting officer, Captain Edge, promised them quarter, and most of them were sent to Windsor Castle as prisoners. However, Oliver Cromwell decided to make an example of the Earl of Derby and he was tried and condemned to death at Chester.

The place of execution was chosen as Bolton, because during the Civil War the Earl had been in command when renegade Royalist troops had broken through Parliamentarian defences and it had turned to a massacre. Unexpectedly, though, the townsfolk were sympathic to the Earl and his eldest son Charles, recently returned from exile in Holland, was able to spend his last days with him.

The day of Yn Stanlagh Mooar’s beheading was October 15, 1651. Two days later King Charles II reached the safety of France after travelling in disguise across much of southern England, guided by loyal subjects risking their lives. None of this, nor his return as King in 1660, would have been possible, however, without Yn Stanlagh Mooar and his Boscobel refuge.

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