His­tory Ex­plorer: Charles II

Charles Spencer and Char­lotte Hodg­man ex­plore Bosco­bel House in Shrop­shire, where Charles II fled for his life after de­feat to the forces of par­lia­ment

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Charles Spencer (pic­tured) is the au­thor of sev­eral books on the Civil War pe­riod. His most re­cent work is To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Es­cape (Wil­liam Collins, 2017) Words: Char­lotte Hodg­man

As dawn broke over Bosco­bel House on 6 Septem­ber 1651, two fig­ures hur­ried through the rain, head­ing for the safety of a huge leafy oak tree about 150 yards away. They rapidly dis­ap­peared up the tree, hid­ing from sight be­hind the lush fo­liage of its thick branches. To any­one wit­ness­ing their move­ments, the pair would have made for a cu­ri­ous sight. But on­look­ers would have been more as­ton­ished still by the iden­tity of one of the two men. He was Charles II, king of Scot­land, heir to the throne of Eng­land, and the most wanted man in the realm.

Our own trip to Bosco­bel, 366 years to the day after Charles’s own stay, is drier but equally at­mo­spheric. The oak tree that pro­vided sanc­tu­ary for the Stu­art heir as he hid from the par­lia­men­tary forces is long gone. But a roughly 250-year-old de­scen­dent – seeded from the orig­i­nal oak – has sur­vived and it is this that visi­tors can see to­day, the clos­est we can come to the ex­pe­ri­ences of Charles II dur­ing his des­per­ate flight.

Prince to peas­ant

“Charles II is usu­ally re­mem­bered as a lazy, mis­tress-lov­ing king with a pen­chant for horses and plea­sure,” says Charles Spencer, whose re­cent book, To Catch A King, tells the story of Charles’s great es­cape. “But in his youth he was a man of great brav­ery and lead­er­ship, a man who, even as a child, saw mil­i­tary ac­tion dur­ing the Civil War.”

Dur­ing that con­flict, Charles’s fa­ther, Charles I, sur­rounded his son with seasoned sol­diers and ad­vi­sors. The king was des­per­ate for the young prince to sur­vive the Civil War, and so, as the tide be­gan to turn against the Stu­art cause, Charles was sent into ex­ile – first to the Isles of Scilly and then on to Jersey, be­fore fi­nally join­ing his mother, Hen­ri­etta Maria, at the French court.

“Charles hated his life in ex­ile,” says Spencer. “His mother treated him like a lit­tle boy rather than a king in wait­ing, and she was des­per­ate to marry him off to the French princess Made­moi­selle de Mont­pen­sier. But Charles was far from the mas­ter of se­duc­tion he would one day be­come, and there are won­der­ful ac­counts of his gauch­eness at court. Need­less to say, Hen­ri­etta Maria’s match­mak­ing came to noth­ing and the time Charles spent in ex­ile only served to fuel his de­sire to re­turn to Eng­land.” The ques­tion of how to re­gain the English throne haunted Charles and he was con­vinced that the only way to achieve it was through an al­liance. Charles I had gone to the ex­e­cu­tioner’s block in 1649, safe in the knowl­edge that he had re­mained true to his re­li­gious be­liefs, re­fus­ing to sacri­fice them for ei­ther the crown or his own head. But his son was will­ing to do al­most


any­thing to claim back the throne.

The young Charles had ini­tially hoped to kick­start his cam­paign to seize the crown by al­ly­ing with the Ir­ish but when this failed, he turned to the Scot­tish Pres­by­te­ri­ans for help. It was a con­tro­ver­sial move and one widely con­demned by his fa­ther’s for­mer ad­vi­sors.

“It is hard to fully un­der­stand the re­li­gious in­ten­sity felt by Scot­tish Pres­by­te­ri­ans in the 17th cen­tury,” says Spencer. “They were the ad­her­ents of a form of ex­treme Protes­tantism, and be­lieved that kings, rather than be­ing an­nointed by God, were ac­tu­ally sin­ners who should be gov­erned by God’s law. In an age of di­vine right, where mon­archs were widely seen as God’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives on Earth, it was a doc­trine en­tirely at odds with Stu­art be­liefs. But Charles was a prag­ma­tist and, while be­liev­ing in his own sovereignty, ac­cepted that he would have to sacri­fice a de­gree of dig­nity and power in or­der to win the sup­port of the Scots.”

Pre-emp­tive strike

When Charles ar­rived in Scot­land in June 1650 he swal­lowed his pride and for­mally agreed to Presbyterian de­mands, in­clud­ing promis­ing to es­tab­lish Pres­by­te­ri­an­ism as the na­tional reli­gion.

But the Pres­by­te­ri­ans were the least of his prob­lems. In Eng­land, par­lia­men­tar­ian leader Oliver Cromwell had learned of Charles’s re­turn and launched a pre-emp­tive strike on Scot­land. The en­su­ing bat­tle of Dun­bar was a crush­ing de­feat for the Scots, with around 3,000 killed and a fur­ther 10,000 taken pris­oner. It was a bit­ter blow to the roy­al­ist cause, but Charles – who was sub­se­quently crowned king of Scot­land on 1 Jan­uary 1651 – set about as­sem­bling a new army with which he could in­vade Eng­land and join up with his sup­port­ers.

“One of Charles’s gravest er­rors was his fail­ure to in­ter­pret the mood in Eng­land,” says Spencer. “He was a re­turn­ing Stu­art king and this, in his opin­ion, should have been enough to make English roy­al­ists turn out for him in their droves. But when he did march into Eng­land, all peo­ple saw was an in­vad­ing Scot­tish army; an army with a ter­ri­ble rep­u­ta­tion – whether de­served or not – for rape and pil­lage. The English had lived through a decade of civil war, re­sult­ing in the deaths of around 200,000 peo­ple. They had had enough. Charles was on his own.”

As Charles pro­gressed through Eng­land he must have been shocked that none of his fa­ther’s for­mer roy­al­ist strongholds wel­comed him. Even Ox­ford, the roy­al­ist cap­i­tal where Charles I had set up his head­quar­ters, re­fused to open its gates. Only Worces­ter wel­comed the new king and his army.

Charles and his ex­hausted men stayed in Worces­ter for five days – a de­lay that would cost them dearly. Cromwell and his 38,000-strong New Model Army took the roy­al­ists by sur­prise, butcher­ing them in their thou­sands. Charles, whose Scot­tish army num­bered around 16,000 in com­par­i­son, was forced to flee the bat­tle­field as one of the largest armies ever to fight on English soil crushed the roy­al­ists for good.

Stu­art man­hunt

As Charles fled Worces­ter he begged his fel­low sol­diers to re­turn to the bat­tle­field. But his men knew the cause was lost; their pri­or­ity was now sur­vival. The par­lia­men­tar­i­ans had placed a net of sol­diers around Worces­ter to cap­ture any Scots who had es­caped the bat­tle­field alive. Smug­gling Charles past them and back into ex­ile seemed a nigh on im­pos­si­ble chal­lenge.

“The first few days on the run were in­cred­i­bly tough,” says Spencer. “Charles – used to the finest footwear – was forced to dis­guise him­self as a peas­ant, cram­ming his feet into rough shoes and cut­ting his long hair. His feet were ripped to shreds and he barely slept in his at­tempts to avoid cap­ture. But he was tough and adapt­able and very quickly learned that Eng­land’s un­der­ground Ro­man Catholic net­work would be his life­line.”

Charles’s sal­va­tion came in the form of the Pen­derels, a fam­ily of Ro­man Catholic farm­ers liv­ing at Bosco­bel House, nearly 40 miles from Worces­ter. Hav­ing trav­elled through the night, Charles reached White Ladies Pri­ory, which he had been told would serve as a good hid­ing place. The ex­hausted king was dis­guised as a wood­man, his face dark­ened with soot. Fear­ing the ar­rival of par­lia­men­tar­ian sol­diers, Richard Pen­derel,

the el­dest of five broth­ers, was sum­moned to es­cort the king to Bosco­bel House, a re­mote lo­ca­tion about a mile away with a long his­tory of hid­ing per­se­cuted Catholics.

“By the time Charles ar­rived at Bosco­bel, the par­lia­men­tar­ian net was clos­ing in on him,” says Spencer. “White Ladies had al­ready been raided and not even Bosco­bel would be safe for long.

“Charles was in­cred­i­bly lucky to fall in with the Pen­derel fam­ily, who saw it as their di­vine mis­sion to save the king. Without their help and lo­cal knowl­edge, Charles would have been lost; there’s no doubt he would have been ex­e­cuted if caught. But keep­ing the 6ft 2in-tall king hid­den from sight was go­ing to be a dif­fi­cult task.”

The royal oak

The tim­ber-framed hunt­ing lodge that forms part of Bosco­bel House was built in 1632 by Catholic re­cu­sant John Gif­fard, who con­verted an ex­ist­ing farm­house on the site. In­side, a por­trait of Charles II stares down from the par­lour wall – a re­minder that it was in this room that Charles’s bloody feet were tended and his wet clothes and shoes laid out to dry in front of the fire.

Charles was joined at Bosco­bel by an­other roy­al­ist fugi­tive: Wil­liam Care­less, who had fought at his side at Worces­ter. It was Care­less who sug­gested hid­ing in Bosco­bel’s great oak tree for the day. “While we were in the tree we see sol­diers go­ing up and down in the thick­est of the wood search­ing for per­sons es­caped, we see­ing them now and then peep­ing out of the woods,” Charles II would later re­call. At dusk, the pair re­turned to the house and Charles spent an un­com­fort­able night in a pri­est hole in the at­tic floor.

Charles knew if he stayed in Shrop­shire he would be caught, not least be­cause there was a £1,000 re­ward for his cap­ture. He was smug­gled out of the county by a young woman named Jane Lane, whose brother was an of­fi­cer in the roy­al­ist army. With Charles dis­guised as Lane’s manser­vant, the pair trav­elled on horse­back to Bris­tol in the hope of board­ing a ship to France. When none could be found, they con­tin­ued to Shore­ham near Brighton, where the king fi­nally slipped out of Eng­land on 15 Oc­to­ber.

“The six weeks he spent on the run were the most ex­cit­ing of Charles’s life,” says Spencer. “He boasted end­lessly about his es­capade, and an ac­count of his flight was writ­ten by none other than di­arist Sa­muel Pepys. But he never for­got those who helped him through those dark days, and the Pen­derels and oth­ers were re­warded hand­somely when Charles re­turned to Eng­land as king in 1660. He was a man of great brav­ery, but it is his loyal fol­low­ers who are the real heroes of this in­cred­i­ble story.”

ON THE POD­CAST Charles Spencer dis­cusses Charles II’s great es­cape on our weekly pod­cast Ehis­to­ryex­tra. com/pod­casts

Charles Spencer and the Royal Oak – a c250-year-old de­scen­dent of the orig­i­nal tree A view look­ing up at the pri­est-hole where Charles II spent the night

The 17th- cen­tury por­trait of Charles II at Bosco­bel House

A c19th-cen­tury carv­ing on a chest, re­puted to be made from the wood of the orig­i­nal Royal Oak, com­mem­o­rates Charles’s stay at Bosco­bel

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