My father had just died of hospital-acquired Covid, my mother was in the depths of grief and clearly further developed in her dementia than I had realised. Towards the end of a working lifetime of being bullied and/or taken for granted, interspersed by failed attempts at self-employment, I felt I had run out of steam. I wondered if I could re-invent myself?
Losing my father and attempting to care for my mother had put me back in touch with childhood trauma in a most unwelcome way. I was 60, the age at which, when my career began, I could have expected to retire. The idea of working beyond 60 had never upset me. Yet suddenly I felt utterly spent, although not ready to say, ‘I’m retired’ if anyone asked, ‘What do you do?’
I didn’t have to wait long for my answer to the re-invention question. Planning an outing with some ex-school friends, one of them suggested going to Boscobel House in Shropshire. All I knew about the place was that King Charles 2nd had hidden in an oak tree there after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, to save himself from execution by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian troops. ‘Oh well,’ I thought, ‘it will be a day out, and good to see my friends again’. Little did I know what was waiting for me. Or, should I say, who?
As we entered the house, a guide was relating how Charles, aged 21, recognised by Royalists as Prince of Wales in England, Ireland and Wales, and King without power in Scotland, had arrived at Boscobel in the early hours of Saturday 6th September 1651. He was soaking wet, cold, hungry, exhausted and very footsore. ‘I expect Charles would have rather stayed by the fire all day instead of hiding in the oak tree,’ he said. Something inside me lit up. ‘What if I’d been here then? I could have taken care of him!’ I thought. That feeling grew stronger and stronger as we went around the house. At one point it was so powerful that I dissociated for a few minutes, swept up in my fantasy of looking after Charles.
For a fortnight afterwards, I barely slept. I read everything I could find about Charles’ rescue and eventual escape from England after six weeks as a fugitive. Source books fell off library shelves into my hands, and a friend to whom I mentioned my newfound passion gave me Georgette Heyer’s novel Royal Escape which he had just finished reading. Simultaneously, I started writing my creative narrative, blending historical events and characters with a fictional account by an imagined woman who cared for Charles.
The story poured out of me so naturally and so fast that it felt more like remembering than imagining. Sitting at my laptop one day, I saw the words ‘Healing is my sacred calling’ appear on the screen. ‘Who wrote that?’ I wondered, before quickly understanding that these words were the key to my story. Dame Sarah, my fictional alter-ego, was a herbalist. Charles needed medicinal interventions for his traumatised mind and body. This revelation also gave me a great plot twist. Sarah was adamant from the start that she was a holy woman.
The house to which Charles was first escorted from Worcester was a manor house called White Ladies, built among the ruins of a convent. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries monastic communities were suppressed, but some men and women still gave their lives to God. Sarah was one such, serving her community with her healing knowledge and practice. But herbalism also has roots in witchcraft, and during the Civil War, the ferment of Republicanism versus Royalism, and Puritanism versus Catholicism (Roman and Anglican) provided ideal conditions for anyone who practised healing to be suspected of witchcraft. Puritan rule had done away with bishops who had previously issued licenses to midwives and healers, so if the slightest thing went wrong these practitioners were prey to accusations of being witches. And women like Sarah, highly intelligent and of independent means, were threats to the patriarchy in such dangerous times.
What started as a private writing exercise soon burgeoned into a 15.000 word novelette, and it didn’t stop there! I wrote a preface setting the story in the social history of herbalism. Then friends began asking to read it. I’m normally extremely private about my writing, but I decided to share it. Six trusted friends who are writers and/or academics read it, and all said, ‘This needs to be published!’ My republican friends – whom I had expected to say it was a pity the monarchy was ever restored – told me instead that they had lived every moment of the story and they also picked up intuitively on the subliminal message I’d woven in about the relevance of Charles’ rescue to today’s emergencies of wars, inequities and the cost-of-living crisis forcing so many people onto the kindness of strangers.
So, one damp January afternoon I began an internet search for a publisher. As a first-time novelist, I knew there was no chance of being accepted by a traditional publishing house, so self-publishing was the only way forward. Nevertheless, I was astonished and elated when the first company I approached was very keen to take on my book and had a lead editor whose favourite genre is historical fiction. And, just in time for Oak Apple Day on 29th May, the anniversary of Charles’ birthday and coronation, my book is published and selling!
That visit to Boscobel House was a truly life changing experience. Not only did it give me a fabulous structure on which to write my first book of fiction; it taught me to really open up to a hugely powerful benevolent force. Many people might call it The Universe. I am an Anglo-Catholic Christian. I had an overwhelming sense of vocation to help and to care when I was a child, but have struggled with belief in adulthood. This recent experience has felt like a massive blessing and has rekindled my faith.
It has put me back in touch with happy times in my childhood when I felt spiritually at one with Nature. My love of gardening has a new focus in planting an apothecary garden. I’m applying to study a foundation course in Medicinal Herbalism, and guess what: the only college in the country which offers this course is just 16 miles from my home. Dame Sarah is a thinly veiled version of the person I would most like to be, and now I feel her guiding and shaping me to become more like her.
I even have a plan after studying to offer Living History events at which Dame Sarah teaches herbal identification and demonstrates medicinal plant remedies. But perhaps most of all, I have been taught to open myself to signs and wonders all around us which strengthen, support and sustain us if we observe and listen carefully. Emmylou Harris says that women can be just as reproductive, if not more so, after the menopause than before it, if we’re paying attention; and the Dalai Lama has said that spiritually empowered women will change the world for better. I have always believed in those ideas and am more ready than ever to embrace what is called sweet power and be part of a beneficial life force thrumming with nurture, love and compassion for the whole world.
Hilary Wellington (on social media as Ginny Rawson)
Nottinghamshire, May 2022
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