Jane Whorwood, née Ryder (1612 – September 1684) is one of the most enigmatic and mysterious women of the English Revolution. No portrait of her survives, although others in her family sat for painters, and a surviving image of her half-sister is said to be a similar likeness (see below). Yet in the last year of Charles I’ life she was probably closer to him than any of his other confidantes, and in the war years (1642-46) her network of spies and smugglers secured fabulous amounts of gold to power his cause.
Jane was born to a family of Scots gentry that had followed James I to London, after his ascension to the English throne in 1603. Her father, William Ryder, was overseer of the Royal Mews, and her mother Elizabeth - a Dutch émigré - was the Queen’s laundry woman (a role far more intimate and of higher status than might be assumed today). Jane’s early childhood was spent at a house in Charring Cross - close to her parents work - until her father’s untimely death in December 1617. Her mother continued to serve the Queen, until Anne of Denmark’s death in 1619, and managed to remarry. Her new husband - James Maxwell - also a Scot, was of a much higher status that William Ryder; a confidante to Prince Charles, and in 1622 appointed Black Rod. During Charles I eleven years of personal rule, he acted as pawnbroker and money lender to the cash-strapped King.
Jane’s own marriage took place in 1634 at the age of nineteen to Brome Whorwood of Holton. Brome, four years her junior, was a thoroughly despicable individual (of him more later) but the marriage did produce two children in the 1630s (a son and daughter) and the family lived quietly at Holton Hall near Oxford, with Brome’s interfering, overbearing, spiteful mother Ursula.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Brome - by then in an open relationship with a Holton serving girl - fled to the continent, leaving his wife and two children behind. Jane, by contrast, devoted herself to the Royalist cause, using her parents contacts to array a vast smuggling and spying network. Whilst her children would remain at Holton, Jane spent much of the First Civil War, travelling to raise support for the King.
Her operation was incredibly successful at funnelling funds from London’s merchants, through back channels to Charles. Gold was secreted in deliveries of soap to Oxford, hidden in the great barrels delivered every week. Despite the war, deference to the crown, and the need for both sides to trade goods, meant that commerce, whilst restricted, still flowed between the two rival capitals. Jane used this to her advantage, on one occasion managing to transport 1,705 lbs of gold to Oxford.
The coin was provided by Sir Paul Pindar (most prominently but there were others) a rich London merchant who bankrupted himself funding the King, pawning his own wealth and borrowing fabulous amounts on top. After the restoration, his family would petition Charles II for compensation for his debts, claiming: “Sir Paul Pindar sent several sums of money in gold to Oxford (by the hand of Madam Jean Whorewood, yet living) in 1644, for the transporting of the then Prince of Wales and the late Queen, his mother, to France.” Most of the ledgers detailing the gold smuggling accounts were destroyed to protect London’s merchants from Cromwellian retribution, but oblique references in other sources tell of its success. Charles II was, however, notoriously bad at settling his own debts, let alone his father’s, and neither the Pindar family or Jane profited from his restoration.
In 1645, Brome Whorwood returned from the continent, but the two were most certainly not reconciled. His relationship with a baker’s daughter many years his junior (Katherine Allen) who he set up as mistress in Holton Hall, and Jane’s continuing role raising money for the King meant that she was rarely home in Holton.
Despite the defeat of the Royalist cause in 1646, and the King’s capture and incarceration, Jane’s devotion to Charles Stuart remained undiminished. As the negotiations between Charles I and Parliament, and the Army continued, Jane plotted to rescue the King. She was allowed close and intimate contact with the King, but because of Charles’s renowned priggishness there was until 2007 little idea of the depth to that intimacy.
In 2007, Dr Sarah Poynting deciphered two of Charles I letters to Jane from 1648 that exposed the King’s more raunchy side. "I imagine that there is one way possible that you may get a swiving from me... you must excuse my plain expressions". The note not only gives a lie to Charles I oft-touted fidelity to his queen, but the use of the word ‘swiving,’ a common obscenity rather than a more polite euphemism, showed a side to Charles’ character never before revealed to historians. Perhaps the prim, proper, courtly King just liked a bit of dirty talk in bed!
Meanwhile, Jane’s efforts to rescue the King came to nothing. She managed to get metal files and aqua fortis (a corrosive compound) to the King in Carisbrooke Castle to break his barred windows, and she acquired a ship to carry him to the continent. She wrote at the time: my travels, the variety of accidents (and especially dangers) more become a Romance than a letter. Whilst on the ship she was spotted by the Roundhead spy Anthony Wood, who recorded a description of the enigmatic Jane: a tall, well-fashioned and well-languaged gentlewoman, with a round visage and with pock holes in her face. In 1672, he would add to that description: She was red haired, as her son Brome was, and was the most loyal to King Charles in his miseries of any woman in England.
Charles (true to dithering form) failed dismally to escape from Carisbroke Castle. The whole thing descended into a farce as the King at first got stuck in the window, and at a second attempt told so many people that he was betrayed. In the end he simply sat in his cell and did not botherescaping, while Jane waited in vain on the ship. He was subsequently tried and executed in January 1649 leaving the Royalist cause in tatters. Jane herself was arrested and imprisoned briefly in 1651, but fined and released in the early conciliatory atmosphere of the Commonwealth.
One can only imagine Jane's desperation, when all else had failed, that forced her to return to her husband, and mistress, in Holton. Brome, who had avoided any possible involvement in the conflict was not welcoming. He was verbally abusive, violent, and at one point even locked her away in a tower at the hall. Surviving testimony from the villagers of Holton shows the extent of his abuse: ‘He did beat her and abuse her, forsake her company, revile and misuse, calling her whore, jade, and other opprobrious names.’ The historian John Fox, in his biography of Jane, portrays a drunken inadequate Brome, jealous at Jane’s rank and connections, and his mistress Kate as a grasping social climber who ‘reviled and abused’ Jane with Brome’s support. Ursula Whorwood excused her spoiled son’s behaviour, laying the blame completely at her daughter-in-law's door: ‘had she been a better wife...’
Jane’s mother, now Countess Direton, was supportive and Jane abandoned Holton - first in 1653, but later returned - perhaps for her children. Her son’s death in 1657 sailing to the Isle of Wight left her fearing for her life from both Brome and Kate, and she finally left Holton Hall to live in the village. However, divorce law in the Seventeenth Century was not sympathetic to her situation. Despite their separation, a long running alimony case ensued. Brome, now an MP in the restored Parliament, refused point blank to provide her with any support or funds, leaving her destitute. Local villagers testified multiple times in court to Brome’s abusive behaviour, infidelity, and violence. It cannot be understated that such a step against a local landowner was extremely daring, and perhaps testimony not only to Brome’s character, but also to Jane’s that she could inspire such loyalty from the villagers. Jane and Brome remained, however, locked into the feud for the rest of their lives.
Brome died first in 1684, and Jane followed on a few months later at the age of 72. A tragic end for the King’s most loyal woman in England. Overlooked at the Restoration, whilst everybody else scrambled for favour, locked into an abusive marriage with little prospect of escape. Many people would have cracked, but Jane battled on to the end. In spite of her role as an antagonist in The Last Roundhead, I have always had more than a sneaking admiration for her. She certainly deserved better from both Charles I and Charles II, and a better man for a husband than the odious Brome Whorwood. I can't imagine Blandford Candy liking him very much when they meet!
The Blandford Candy Series is available on Amazon from Sharpe Books.
For further reading on Jane Whorwood I can heartily reccomend John Fox's The King's Smuggler: Jane Whorewood Secret Agent to Charles I.
All images are in the public domain.
- Diana Vicountess Cranborne by Peter Lely - Jane Whorwood's half-sister
- Roundheads and Cavaliers woodcut 1643.
- Engraving of Sir Paul Pindar by Thomas Trotter circa 1612.
- The Isle of Wait - Woodcut of Charles I imprisoned on the Isle of Wight (1648).