Jane Lane (c. 1626 – 9 September 1689) was the daughter of a Staffordshire gentleman, a lady who would have led an unremarkable life and been totally lost to history had she not been caught up in the enterprise to smuggle Charles II abroad after he lost the Battle of Worcester.
Jane was born around 1626, a middle-child in what was a family of probably nine siblings. She was remembered in the writings of the 17th century diarist John Evenlyn as “an acute wit”, “an excellent disputant” though she was “no beauty”. Her family were Catholics and Royalists – not a winning combination in the days of the Protectorate, or “Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland”, under the infamous Oliver Cromwell. The unpopular Stuart king Charles I had lost his head outside Whitehall on the 30th January 1649, but his eldest son – proclaiming himself Charles II – was still fighting for both the throne and to avenge his father. Charles’ cause seemed to come to a brutal end when Cromwell’s forces absolutely decimated his at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, after which Charles was forced to flee on foot.
Both the Royalists and Parliamentarians knew that if Charles were captured, he would be put to death, and the English Civil War wound truly come to an end, the Protectorate more securely established. Wanted posters were immediately distributed, offering a staggering £1,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the ‘king’. Unfortunately for him, Charles was extremely recognisable, dark complexioned and about 6’”2 tall at a time where the average Englishman was only 5’6”. Somehow, this imperious, extra-ordinary man must be conveyed to the coast, where he could try for a boat to take him to the French court and to safety. But how could this be done, with weary and starving Englishmen sure to turn their king in for that amount of money, and Cromwell’s troops randomly patrolling the countryside and watching all the beaches and docks?
Lord Henry Wilmot, one of Charles’ most trusted advisors, came to seek refuge at the Lane’s home, Bentley Hall, after fleeing from Worcester. Jane’s oldest brother, John, was a trusted officer in the Royalist army. Wilmot told them that the king had fled north from Worcester and would attempt to get through Wales and make passage from its coast. Wilmot had to find a way through the patrols himself in order to join his king on the continent.
As luck would have it, Jane had – prior to the battle – sought and gained permission to travel to Bristol to stay with her cousin and assist during the birth of her first child. At this time, Catholics (and Royal sympathisers) had to obtain these “passports” in order to travel more than five miles from their home. With Charles on the lam, they had become even more difficult to obtain. Wilmot and John Lane decided that the only thing for it was to disguise Wilmot as Jane’s servant and trust that they would not be stopped or denied as they made their way west to Bristol.
But Charles had never made it to Wales. He’d been dashing hither and thither, skirting around Worcester, moving from one sympathetic stronghold to another, with the Parliamentarian troops never far behind. At one point, he spent the day asleep high in the branches of an oak tree, whilst his enemies marched below. Constantly so close to capture and ruin, there was nothing for it but for the king to take on the role of Jane Lane’s servant and to ride with her to Bristol.
Charles reached Bentley Hall in the early hours of September 10th. He had been disguised as a woodsman, his long curly hair cut, his clothes and person caked in grime, however there was no disgusting his height and imposing bearing. This was going to require impressive acting from all parties. Charles was redressed in the guise of a tenant farmer’s son, given the name “William Jackson” and in the morning the party set off, Jane riding pillion behind “her servant”, as was proper.
At this early stage the party consisted of Jane’s sister and her husband, and another loyal Royalist relative, Henry Lascelles. Lord Wilmot rode openly, not in disguise, about half a mile ahead of the party, as a decoy and to be as close to his king as he could in case his help was needed. However, the beginning of the journey was uneventful, until one of the horses lost a shoe and Charles – playing the role of the servant, of course – had no choice but to personally take the horse to the nearest blacksmith. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys records Charles recalling the scene:
“As I was holding my horse’s foot, I asked the smith what news. He told me that there was no news that he knew of, since the good news of the beating the rogues of the Scots. I asked him whether there was none of the English taken that joined with the Scots. He answered he did not hear if that rogue, Charles Stuart, were taken; but some of the others, he said, were taken. I told him that if that rogue were taken, he deserved to be hanged more than all the rest, for bringing in the Scots. Upon which he said I spoke like an honest man; and so we parted.”
This wouldn’t be the only time that Charles had to think on his feet during his perilous journey. When the party reached Wootton Wawen they found it absolutely crawling with Parliamentarian cavalry. Not wanting to draw the attention that a large group would, Jane’s sister and her husband broke away and headed off alone. Charles, Jane and Henry Lascelles then rode coolly through the troops, who accepted their travel papers without comment.
The trio spent their first night on the road at the home of a relation of Jane’s. The true identity of “William Jackson” had to be protected at all costs, so even here Charles had to keep his head bowed. The cook of the house put him to work in the kitchen winding up the jack used to roast meat in the fireplace. Charles didn’t have a clue what he was doing, which immediately drew attention. Quickly, Charles explained away his strange clumsiness by saying, due to his family’s poverty, he so rarely ate meat that he did not know how to use a roasting jack.
The next day, thankfully, was uneventful and late on the 12th September they reached their de facto destination, the home of Jane’s cousin and friend Ellen Norton. Charles settled down to wait for news of a boat, still in his guise as Jane and Henry Lascelles’ servant. There must have been some level of attention Charles felt uncomfortable with, as he remembered how he deflected suspicion by asking a servant, who had been in his personal guard at the Battle of Worcester, to describe the King’s appearance and clothing at the battle. The man looked at Charles and said: “The King was at least three fingers taller than [you]”. In fact, Charles was recognised in the Norton household, by its butler who had seen Charles often as a child. Luckily this man was steadfast and loyal, and rather than turn Charles in he offered his continuing assistance.
However despite all their trials and tribulations it quickly became clear that there was no way Charles was setting sail from Bristol. There was nothing for it but to head south and try there. Charles still needed Jane, the most essential part of his disguise as William Jackson, but how could they leave the Norton’s home so suddenly without arousing suspicion? To make matters worse, Ellen Norton had just had a late-term miscarriage. It would look extremely odd if Jane were to leave. In the end, Jane had to forge a letter stating that her father was seriously ill and near death. Under these circumstances, she, ‘William Jackson’ and Henry Lascelles left to return to Bentley Hall, but instead turned south towards Dorset.
The small party arrived at the home of a Royalist officer in Trent on the 17th September. This far south the mood was decidedly more Republican. Somehow it had got about that the king had been killed during the Battle of Worcester, and so Charles, Jane and Henry were greeted with the bizarre spectacle of the Trent locals celebrating Charles’ death! Charles settled into hiding at Trent whilst Wilmot, reunited with his king, attempted to find passage to the continent from nearby Weymouth or Lyme Regis. Knowing they had to get Jane back to Bentley Hall sharpish before their absence on the road east was noticed, it was here that Jane and Henry Lascelles left their king and headed home.
Jane had only been home for a few weeks when she was warned the Parliamentarians had been told of her involvement in the king’s miraculous escape, and were coming for her. She would be executed for her crime. With no time to spare, Jane fled her home and raced towards Norfolk and the east coast. This time it was she in disguise, as a plain country wench. Although the Parliamentarian patrols were told of her appearance and to apprehend her, it seems that Jane had learnt well from Charles’ cool and nerveless playacting, and made it to Yarmouth and onto a boat bound for France without incident.
Jane’s exile on the continent was to last almost nine years. She arrived in Paris in December 1651 and was welcomed joyously by Charles and his little court of exiles. At this time Charles was financially destitute and it seemed unthinkable that he would ever regain his throne. He was extremely fond of and grateful to Jane and it rankled sore that he didn’t have the means to repay her, and that she was far from home as a result of the very actions which had preserved his life. The friendship he had with Jane was a strange, informal one, understandable considering the unusual dynamic that would have existed between them when he was playing her servant and the multiple perils and hardships the pair had endeavoured together.
Charles was rather hot-blooded, famous for his many and varied mistresses and bastards. He was undoubtedly very close to Jane (and in one letter, his sister Princess Mary teasingly referred to Jane as Charles’ “wife”) so it isn’t very hard to see why the ‘rumour mills’ held that Jane was the king’s lover. As romantic an idea as that is, unfortunately there’s no firm evidence that Jane was ever Charles’ mistress and considering how unsubtle Charles usually was when it came to his dalliances, it’s probably best to assume the virtuous, Catholic Jane was innocent of Charles’ attentions.
Charles could barely support himself, let alone Jane, yet to return to England would mean her certain death. In 1652 the conundrum was solved when Charles’ sister, Mary of Orange, took Jane into her household. Charles and Jane kept up a friendly and informal correspondence throughout the interregnum.
Oliver Cromwell died unexpectedly in 1558 and after two years of confusion and anarchy, Charles was formally invited to return to his kingdom. Jane followed her king home, her labours of long ago now finally bearing fruit. The restored Charles immediately set about repaying those who had assisted him. Jane was voted a pension of £1000 per annum, the same staggering amount that Cromwell had offered as a reward for Charles’ capture, and was given many gifts, including portraits of the King, a lock of his hair and, touchingly, a pocket watch that Charles had received from his father. Parliament also separately gave her a one-off payment of another £1,000 with instruction that she buy a jewel to commemorate her service to her country. Most impressively, her courage and loyalty earned for her family the right to add the three Lions of England to their coat of arms, forever more.
Jane and Charles remained affectionate correspondents until his death in 1685. In 1663, Jane married an associate of her brother, Clement Fisher, and became Lady Fisher and lived so comfortably for the rest of the life that upon her death she was in debt, despite her healthy royal pension. Jane died on the 9th of September 1689 – just one day shy of 38 years since Charles arrived incognito at Bentley Hall.