Issue 65: April 1989
JOHN BROOKES examines a Cary Legend
After his defeat by the Commonwealth forces at Worcester in 1651, Charles II escaped to France with the help of an oak tree and many royalist families, returning to the throne in 1660 amid popular acclaim after the deasth of Oliver Cromwell.
The escape is well documented. Accounts written in 1660 and later record that during Charles’s six perilous weeks in hiding before finally getting a boat to France from Shoreham, he spent the night of 16th September 1651 at the old Manor House at Castle Cary. The Manor House no longer exists, but it used to stand between the site of the Norman castle and Park Pond.
The escape was masterminded by Lord Wilmot, and involved a number of last minute changes of plan, since the country was divided between royalist and parliamentary support, and frequent searches were being made to effect the king’s capture.
When plans for a sea passage to France from Bristol had to be abandoned, it was decided that Charles should be moved from Colonel Norton’s charge at Leigh Court near Bristol to Colonel Francis Wyndham’s at Trent (the village between Marston Magna and Sherborne).
The Wyndham’s were an old royalist family, and indeed we learn from Pepys’s diaries that Christabel Wyndham, Francis Wyndham’s sister-in-law, had been foster-mother and nurse to Charles in infancy and boyhood, and, according to gossip at the time, had seduced him in youth.
For the journey from Bristol to Trent Charles was disguised as a postillion accompanying Jane Lane, the daughter of another royalist colonel, Charles assuming the name William Jackson and both riding on the same horse.
The Lord of the Manor of Castle Cary in 1651 was the Marquis of Hertford, and the Manor House was the residence of his Steward, Edward Kirton, who was already well acquainted with Lord Wilmot. The term ‘Steward’ approximates to what we would now call ‘Estate Manager’, although accompanied by some what higher social prestige.
Trent being only a few miles from Castle Cary, the stay overnight in Castle Cary could have been an expedient brought about by the presence of Commonwealth troops, or else a pre-arrangement to enable Lord Wilmot to go on ahead and warn Colonel Wyndham to make necessary plans for concealing the king.
Local tradition, however, insists that Charles did not spend the night of 16th September at Castle Cary but in the adjoining village of Ansford, and this tradition is supported by a number of accounts derived from family histories that appeared in the original Castle Cary Visitor at the turn of this century.
Moreover, we may suppose that, with searches for Charles being made, it would have been foolhardly for Kirton to conceal the king at the Manor House, for Kirton had already been fined two years previously by the Parliamentary Commission for being active in the royalist cause.
Tradition has it that he arranged for Charles to be secreted at the Collins family mansion in Lower Ansford, and that later, on being warned that Commonwealth troops were approaching to make a search, Mr Collins concealed himself and Charles deep gully that used to run between Lower Ansford and the ‘Half Moon’ (then an inn and now a restaurant on the A371).
It is said that the troops found Mrs Collins reading the bible, and having satisfied themselves that Charles was not there left to search the Ansford Rectory (the advowson for the living of Ansford was in the gift of the Lord of the Manor, so the Rector, Edmund Bisse, would have had royalist sympathies).
But what the troops may not have known was that another house in Lower Ansford was owned by one of Kirton’s brothers, and it was here that Charles slept. This house, now called ‘The Old House’, is the one in Lower Ansford with the vulgar but interesting gargoyle on one of its gateposts, a gargoyle brought by later owners from Glastonbury.
Allen Fea, in his book Flight of the King, published in 1895, said ‘the house is now re-fronted and the interior has little of the old date left. The window of the room where Charles is supposed to have slept is on the right hand side as one faces the house’. Probably, then, it was Jane Lane who spent in the night at the Manor House in Castle Cary and not Charles.
The Ordnance survey map for Castle Cary & Ansford clearly shows the gulley between Lower Ansford and the ‘Half Moon’, small parts of which may still be seen although most of it has been built over by the modern housing estate.
The Elizabethan mansion then owned by the Collins family was destroyed by fire in 1892 and only one wall of it remains, directly opposite ‘Laylocks’ in Lower Ansford. Interestingly enough, it came into the possession of the Woodfordes in about 1721 (as also did the tenancy of the Ansford Rectory, now ‘The Old Parsonage’) when the Rev Samuel Woodforde, father of James Woodforde the diarist and grandfather of Samuel Woodforde the artist, married Jane Collins.
One other little mystery remains, which might be solved by the Bishop of Bath & Wells. In 1651 the Rector of Ansford was the Rev Upton Bisse, who died in 1660. The incumbent was the Rev Joseph Barker, who remained Rector of Ansford for the next 7 years. Yet soon after the restoration of the monarchy, when Charles was seeking to reward those who had helped him, State Papers record the following letter:
Right Reverend father in god, right trusty & well beloved, Wee greet you well, Wee having received ample testimonies of the pietie, learning & integritie of Joseph Barker, Mr of Arts & Rector of Almesford in your Diocese & of his many sufferings for our service during the late distractions, Have out of our Princely regard thereunto thought fit by these Presents to recommend him unto you as the fittest instrument to requite him, Desiringe you to conferre upon him the dignity of Sub-Deane in your Cathedral Church att Wells now voyd by the death of Doctor James Dugdale, your compliance with our pleasure wherein will not only be justified by the eminent worth and merit of the said Joseph Barker, but be by us also esteemed a very gratefull & acceptable service. And soe we bid you farewell. Given at our Court at Whitehall this eleaventh day of March in the thirteenth yeare of our Reigne.*
By his Mats. Comand, (Signed) Edw. Nicholas.
How might we explain that?
*ie 1661, Charles assuming his reign began from the date of his father’s execution.