Royal on the run

CLARE JACK­SON con­sid­ers a lively if un­even new ac­count of the manhunt for the fu­ture king Charles II

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Clare Jack­son is a his­to­rian of 17th-cen­tury Bri­tain and au­thor of books in­clud­ing Charles II: The Star King (Allen Lane, 2016)

To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Es­cape by Charles Spencer Wil­liam Collins, 336 pages, £20

In one of the 20th cen­tury’s most mem­o­rable fu­neral eu­lo­gies, Charles Spencer rued the irony that his late sis­ter, Diana, Princess of Wales – “a girl given the name of the an­cient god­dess of hunt­ing” – be­came “in the end, the most hunted per­son of the mod­ern age”. Two decades later, Spencer’s lat­est book re­con­structs the mas­sive manhunt mounted for an­other il­lus­tri­ous royal, Charles II. He spent 43 nights on the run, suc­cess­fully evad­ing cap­ture by his par­lia­men­tar­ian en­e­mies, after suf­fer­ing a crush­ing de­feat by Oliver Cromwell’s forces at the bat­tle of Worces­ter in Septem­ber 1651. Fa­mously spend­ing a day hid­ing in an oak tree in Bosco­bel Wood, the king’s dra­matic flight be­came cen­tral to Restora­tion public mem­ory: Charles’s birth­day (29 May) was later re-des­ig­nated ‘Oak Ap­ple Day’, and The Royal Oak re­mains one of Eng­land’s most pop­u­lar pub names.

Ac­ces­si­ble and pacey, Spencer’s retelling of Charles’s es­cape vividly de­picts the nu­mer­ous false starts, close shaves and covert com­mu­ni­ca­tions that be­dev­illed events. It also sheds in­ter­est­ing light on par­al­lel nar­ra­tives such as the fate of Scots sol­diers cap­tured at Worces­ter: 1,000 of them ev­i­dently be­came in­den­tured labour in­volved in drain­ing “the malaria-in­fested fens of East Anglia”, while sev­eral hun­dred oth­ers were sent to Mas­sachusetts to labour in new iron­works.

But whereas Charles II cer­tainly ben­e­fited from Bosco­bel’s thick fo­liage, read­ers of To Catch a King may have more dif­fi­culty see­ing the wood for the trees. In what is ul­ti­mately an un­even and un­pre­dictable ac­count, the book’s first 100 pages con­sist of ex­ten­sive scene-set­ting, nu­mer­ous char­ac­ter sketches and a huge list of drama­tis per­sonae. Later, how­ever, the book whisks through the crit­i­cal decade – from Charles’s land­ing in Normandy in Oc­to­ber 1651 to his re­turn as king to Eng­land in May 1660 – in a sin­gle 11-page chap­ter, with no men­tion of the frus­trat­ingly itin­er­ant and im­pov­er­ished na­ture of his years in ex­ile.

More dis­ap­point­ing is Spencer’s breezily un­crit­i­cal ap­proach to the con­tem­po­rary sources on which his nar­ra­tive is based, with spo­radic foot­notes and min­i­mal sense of the dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tions, lim­i­ta­tions and cir­cum­stances that in­evitably coloured ret­ro­spec­tive ac­counts of Charles’s es­cape. For ex­am­ple, Spencer claims of Sa­muel Pepys that it was hear­ing the king’s ad­ven­tures first-hand in May 1660 that “awoke, in this most fa­mous of English di­arists, the track­ing in­stincts of an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist” who “de­cided to check how much of the king’s rec­ol­lec­tions of the six weeks’ ad­ven­ture were true”. But Spencer of­fers no in­di­ca­tion of why it was only two decades later, in 1680, that Sa­muel Pepys found him­self un­ex­pect­edly asked by Charles to tran­scribe the king’s own ver­sion of events, as part of Charles’s at­tempts to defuse po­lit­i­cal ten­sions aris­ing from the Popish Plot.

Fi­nally, To Catch a King would have ben­e­fited from some ro­bust copy­edit­ing by its pub­lisher to im­prove its of­ten clunky prose and re­cur­rent sin­gle-sen­tence para­graphs, while the al­lo­ca­tion of sources within the bib­li­og­ra­phy’s var­i­ous sub-sec­tions is largely ran­dom and of­ten in­cor­rect.

Charles spent 43 nights on the run, suc­cess­fully evad­ing cap­ture

The oak tree at Bosco­bel House in which Charles II hid to es­cape de­tec­tion by Round­head troops. Pic­tured is Wil­liam Pen­derel (here writ­ten as Pen­drill), who aided the fugi­tive at Bosco­bel

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