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