Jane Whorwood, née Ryder (1612 – September 1684) was a Royalist agent during the English Civil War. She managed circulation of intelligence, as well as smuggling of funds to sustain the Royalist faction. Jane was an intimate confidante of King Charles I, having helped to co-ordinate his attempts to escape captivity in the late 1640s.
Jane was born in Westminster, in 1612. Her father was Scots courtier William Ryder, surveyor of the royal stables, and her mother Elizabeth de Bonfyn, a laundress to Anne of Denmark, queen consort of James I of England. Soon after accompanying King James I in his return visit to Scotland, in 1617, her father died of undetermined illness. Two years later, her mother remarried to a more influential courtier, James Maxwell, himself also originally from Scotland.
Jane's own marriage took place in 1634, at the age of nineteen, to Brome Whorwood, who was four years her junior. However, in 1642, at the outbreak of the Civil War, her husband fled England, leaving for continental Europe where he remained until 1645. Jane Whorwood and their children, Brome and Diana, resided in his family property, Holton House, located in the outskirts of Oxford city where the Royal court was established. But Jane was not to remain still. Instead, she travelled continuously as an active Royalist agent.
Support for the Royalist faction during the English Civil War
Composed of merchants and laundresses, the contact networks established by Jane's stepfather and mother facilitated her actions in favour of the Royalist cause. James Maxwell, her stepfather, had been a groom of the bedchamber successively to princes Henry and Charles, whose accession to the throne would occur in 1625. Maxwell assumed the office of Black Rod in 1622 and, upon the dissolution of Parliament in 1629, acted as pawnbroker and private financier to Charles I. This enabled him to work closely with merchants with whom Jane would co-operate in smuggling funds for the Royalists during the Civil War.
In one occasion, with the aid of a laundress, Jane arranged the smuggling of no less than 1,705 lbs (775 kg) of gold at once. The sum came from Royalist merchant Sir Paul Pindar, located in London, and was delivered into Oxford, concealed inside barrels of soap. In 1680, the Pindar family addressed a petition to Charles II describing these operations: “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."
Jane remained an active supporter of Charles I throughout most of the 1640s, being invested in gathering more funds, helping to create a network of Royalist contacts extending from London to Edinburgh, and covertly relaying intelligence amongst the king's supporters, as well as from and to the king himself. In addition, she was involved in co-ordinating Charles I's attempts to escape captivity, seeking for this purpose guidance from famed astrologer William Lilly, whose advice she requested in 1647 concerning the king's plans to flee Hampton Court where he was being held captive by Parliament. It was also Lilly who, in 1648, the year prior to Charles I's execution, provided her with the contact of a locksmith from whom to obtain files and aqua fortis to be used on the window bars of the king's chamber at Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight. Charles was, however, unsuccessful in his attempt, leaving Jane to wait several weeks aboard a ship she had helped to obtain with the aim of sailing him to Holland.
From this period, a key description of Jane Whorwood, of whom no portraits have been discovered, emerges. Following his observation of Jane while aboard the vessel on the coast of Wight, Parliament spy Anthony Wood noted in a report dating from 30 April 1648: "Mistress Whorwood is (…) a tall, well-fashioned and well-languaged gentlewoman, with a round visage and with pock holes in her face". Decades later, he would add to this characterisation: “…red haired, as her son Brome was (…) exceedingly loyal, understanding and of good judgement (…) the most loyal to King Charles in his miseries of any woman in England.”
Personal relation with Charles I of England
Ciphered letters sent between Charles and Jane indicate their relationship became physical during the summer of 1648, when Jane managed to gain access to his chamber in Carisbrooke Castle, the king having been granted parole from close guard so as to prepare negotiations with Parliament. They corresponded frequently, sometimes exchanging several notes per day, and in letters sent during the month of July, planned for sexual encounters. The king wrote to their accomplice William Hopkins in the same year: “You may freely trust Whorwood in anything that concerns my service, for I have had perfect trial of her friendship to me. I cannot be more confident of any.” He noted, between April and December 1648, 33 letters of his written to Jane and 18 sent from her to him. She signed her ciphered notes as N, 390, 409 and 715, and the remaining as JW or Hellen.
Life after war
Jane underwent a brief period of imprisonment herself in 1651, under the Commonwealth, along with a fine for having defrauded the Parliamentary Committee for the Advance of Money in her efforts to finance the Royalists. During that same year, Jane returned home to her increasingly violent husband, Brome. Then devoted to his mistress Katherine Allen, Brome subjected Jane to verbal abuse, serious injuries and a period of confinement in the tower of Holton House, which the three of them shared. In 1657, the year their son died while, incidentally, sailing to Isle of Wight, Jane left home permanently, fearing for her life.
A longstanding legal battle for alimony followed the couple's formal separation in 1659, lasting virtually until their deaths. Brome, who became MP for the House of Commons in 1661, one year after Charles II's Restoration to the throne, refused to comply with court and Crown orders to provide his wife with payments. Ultimately he only granted Jane a small portion of the monetary compensation she was legally entitled to, leaving her impoverished. Holton locals defended Jane in court on multiple occasions, testifying as to the abusive treatment and the extent of the violence she suffered while with her husband.
Brome died in April 1684, and Jane Whorwood in September the same year, aged 72. On the subject of her own efforts to support the Royalists, wholly unrecognised during the Restoration period and overlooked thereafter, Jane Whorwood wrote, in 1648: "My travels, the variety of accidents (and especially dangers) more become a Romance than a letter."
- 1.^ Fox, Chapter 5, para. 38
- 2.^ Fox, Chapter 5, para. 2
- 3.^ Fox, Chapter 8, para. 38
- 4.^ Fox, Chapter 1, para. 1
- 5.^ Fox, Chapter 1, para. 2
- 6.^ Fox, Chapter 9, para. 38
- 7.^ Poynting, pp. 128–40
- 8.^ Fox, Chapter 8, para. 2
- 9.^ Fox, Chapter 11, para. 11
- 10.^ Fox, Chapter 11, para. 41
• Firth, Charles Harding (1885). Whorwood, Jane. Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
• Fox, John (2010). The King’s Smuggler : Jane Whorwood, Secret Agent to Charles I [Kindle version]. Gloucestershire: The History Press.
• Poynting, Sarah (2006). Deciphering the King: Charles I's Letters to Jane Whorwood. The Seventeenth Century, 21 (1), 128–40.
• Profile on Jane Whorwood at HerStoria.com, by John Fox.
• Same author on Jane Whorwood: The King’s Smuggler at HistoryToday.com.
• News article on the intimate correspondence between Jane and Charles I, unearthed by Dr Sarah Poynting.
• King Charles I’s ciphers.