The Lon­don Road

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Charles Spencer

The sum­mer and au­tumn of 1651 was make-or-break time for the fu­ture Charles II. Th­ese were two sea­sons when his life was at stake, first in mil­i­tary service, and then when on the run with Par­lia­ment’s New Model Army in swift pur­suit, a £1,000 re­ward on his head.

Aged 21, Charles had al­ready en­dured five years of ex­cru­ci­at­ing ex­ile, be­ing forced from the English main­land to the Isles of Scilly, then on to Jersey, be­fore be­com­ing a guest of his young first cousin, Louis XIV of France. There he was kept un­der the con­trol of his mother, Queen Hen­ri­etta Maria, who fre­quently hu­mil­i­ated her old­est son. She in­sisted the pen­sion granted to Charles by the French be paid to her, so he was be­holden to her for his money. Mean­while Hen­ri­etta Maria’s fo­cus was on find­ing a bride for him whose wealth and con­nec­tions might lead to the Stu­arts be­ing re­stored to their Bri­tish thrones. The young Charles was a des­per­ately clumsy suitor, and he re­al­ized he was be­com­ing a fig­ure of ridicule at the so­phis­ti­cated French court.

Charles had been ea­ger to take part in the Sec­ond Civil War, of 1648, but a storm dis­persed his and the en­emy fleets as they squared up for ac­tion. Af­ter his fa­ther, Charles I, had been ex­e­cuted in Jan­uary 1649, Roy­al­ists in Ire­land and Scot­land pro­claimed the young Charles their king. He re­solved to re­cover his English crown, what­ever the cost: ig­nor­ing his con­ser­va­tive ad­vis­ers, Charles en­tered an awk­ward al­liance with Scot­tish Pres­by­te­ri­ans, who hu­mil­i­ated and be­lit­tled him. But their mil­i­tary use was ir­re­sistible to the ex­iled king. Sadly for him, the Scots proved no match for Cromwell’s in­vad­ing force, which won two stun­ning vic­to­ries, at Dun­bar in Septem­ber 1650, then at In­verkei­thing in July 1651.

It was now that Cromwell lured Charles into Eng­land. He left the way south open to the des­per­ate young king, who was pre­pared to risk all

rather than re­main in Scot­land with con­trol­ling and dis­ap­prov­ing Scot­tish church­men. He led 16,000 poorly equipped and de­mor­al­ized sol­diers into the land of his birth, ex­pect­ing English Roy­al­ist troops to join them. But Par­lia­ment had acted with thor­ough­ness and ruth­less­ness across the na­tion, im­pris­on­ing those most likely to fight for the Crown, and con­fin­ing the less dan­ger­ous to within five miles of their homes. The only English­man of note to raise troops for Charles was the Earl of Derby, who had shown him­self to be a lim­ited leader of men ear­lier in the Civil Wars. Derby’s force was over­whelmed be­fore it could join up with Charles.

Where would Charles head with his dis­heart­ened force, be­fore the in­evitable lunge at Lon­don? Maybe Ox­ford – the Roy­al­ist cap­i­tal of the First Civil War? The de­ci­sion was taken away from him, as Cromwell’s large army stopped him from head­ing into the cen­tre of Eng­land, while other Par­lia­men­tary units blocked his re­treat north, and slowed his progress south. By the time Charles’s men reached Worces­ter, sup­pos­edly to re­group and re­cu­per­ate, he re­al­ized that they were too ex­hausted to march any fur­ther. He or­dered them to dig in, be­fore the in­evitable visit from the en­emy.

We re­mem­ber Charles II today as ‘the Merry Monarch’- a lov­able wastrel, knee-deep in sen­sual plea­sures. But he proved him­self a brave leader on 3 Septem­ber 1651, the day of the bat­tle of Worces­ter. As the king’s troops were cut down by an army some 40,000 strong, Charles chal­lenged those re­main­ing by his side to con­tinue their re­sis­tance, shout­ing out that he would rather be shot than sur­ren­der. Cromwell would rate the Roy­al­ist re­sis­tance that day as ro­bust as any he had ever en­coun­tered, but even­tu­ally de­feat was com­plete, the main body of Scot­tish cav­alry pre­fer­ring to flee rather than fight.

Charles was obliged by his se­nior of­fi­cers to leave Worces­ter, be­fore he was cap­tured or killed. He was the fu­ture of the Roy­al­ist cause, and his first duty was to pre­serve him­self: this was a mes­sage his fa­ther had con­veyed to him in a let­ter, six years ear­lier. In obey­ing his fa­ther’s com­mand, Charles im­me­di­ately showed a star­tling pres­ence of mind. See­ing that the mem­bers

of his high com­mand were dizzy with de­feat, he de­ter­mined to shed him­self of as many of his van­quished men as soon as he could: they had been no good to him be­fore the bat­tle, so noth­ing could be ex­pected of them now.

While his of­fi­cers and courtiers spoke only of get­ting back to Scot­land, Charles felt sure that his only hope of sal­va­tion lay in get­ting to Lon­don. It was by far the largest city in Eng­land, with a pop­u­la­tion of 350,000 or so. (Nor­wich, the next most pop­u­lous, con­tained less than 20,000 cit­i­zens.) The fact that Lon­don had re­mained loyal to Par­lia­ment through­out the pre­vi­ous nine years of con­flict was ir­rel­e­vant, when bal­anced against the op­por­tu­nity its enor­mity of­fered, of los­ing him­self in its crowds, and find­ing a ship to steal abroad.

Only one of Charles’s ret­inue on that night of ut­ter de­feat heard his aim of tak­ing ‘the Lon­don road’ with ap­proval. He was Henry, Lord Wil­mot, an ac­com­plished Roy­al­ist gen­eral who had been wounded sev­eral times, both in bat­tle and in du­els. Wil­mot had as­sisted Charles in pro­gress­ing his af­fair, in French ex­ile, with the lus­cious Lucy Wal­ter – a re­la­tion­ship that had pro­duced James, Duke of Mon­mouth, the first of Charles’s dozen il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren. Charles now en­trusted his safety to this man of famed brav­ery and in­fa­mous hard liv­ing, who shared his aim of get­ting to the cap­i­tal.

The first stop on the flight from Worces­ter to Lon­don for Charles and his small ret­inue was White­ladies, a for­mer con­vent that now com­prised a ram­shackle home to var­i­ous ru­ral house­holds. It stood deep in Shrop­shire’s Bre­wood For­est. While Charles quickly swapped his fine clothes and flow­ing cav­a­lier locks for the clothes and hair­cut of a sim­ple wood­man, Wil­mot de­clined to fol­low suit. A haughty aris­to­crat, he re­fused to re­sort to a dis­guise, or to make his way on foot: he said he would nei­ther choose to look ridicu­lous, or walk when he could (as be­fit­ted his sta­tus) ride on horse­back.

At this point the rest of the Roy­al­ists said their good­byes to the king. They also in­sisted that Charles not tell them where he was headed: none of them

wanted to be in­fa­mous to his­tory as the man who gave away their master’s safety.

Se­cretly, Wil­mot and Charles agreed to meet in a quiet spot in Lon­don. This was at the Three Cranes inn in the Vin­try, an an­cient ward of the City of Lon­don on the north bank of the Thames. The Vin­try had con­nec­tions back to Dick Whit­ting­ton, the mayor of Lon­don at var­i­ous times in the late four­teenth and early fif­teenth cen­turies. Whit­ting­ton, fa­mous to us from fairy­tale and myth, was known at the time for his pub­lic works, in­clud­ing the build­ing of a pub­lic loo in the Vin­try that could serve 128 peo­ple at a time (64 of ei­ther gen­der, both sec­tions de­void of pri­vacy), which was flushed clean each high tide of the Thames.

The Vin­try also had well-es­tab­lished links to France and Spain, ei­ther of which would be de­sir­able des­ti­na­tions the fugi­tive royal and his side­kick. Mer­chants ar­rived there with French gar­lic and wine. Pil­grims set sail from there en route to the Gali­cian cap­i­tal, San­ti­ago di Com­postela. It seemed the per­fect place for Charles and Wil­mot to find trans­port abroad.

But Cromwell had re­al­ized that his men were sure of vic­tory at Worces­ter, days be­fore they be­gan their as­sault on the city. Some of the New Model Army’s most ef­fec­tive gen­er­als had been sent to close down all routes from the bat­tle­field, and they now held the net tight as they rounded up thou­sands of de­feated Roy­al­ists. In my new book, To Catch A King, I trace Charles’s flight over six weeks, and through ten coun­ties, once he grasps that the Lon­don Road was closed to him.

The de­tails of his ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful es­cape (af­ter many near misses, and as­ton­ish­ing scrapes) were only truly known in Bri­tain when the man him­self re­turned to Eng­land in tri­umph in 1660. The power of the Crown’s en­e­mies had im­ploded dur­ing the 20 months that fol­lowed Cromwell’s death – which had oc­curred on 3 Septem­ber, 1658; the sev­enth an­niver­sary of the Roy­al­ist de­feat at Worces­ter. Charles, for so many years an ex­ile

with­out hope, sud­denly found him­self in­vited to re­turn to Eng­land as king, so that or­der (and the Stu­art dy­nasty) could be re­stored.

That arch-Lon­doner Sa­muel Pepys, whose sym­pa­thies had al­ways lain more with Par­lia­ment than the King, was aboard the ship that brought Charles back home (the ves­sel’s name had quickly been changed from the Naseby to the Royal Charles). In his fa­mous di­ary Pepys recorded on 23 May 1660:

Upon the quar­ter­deck he [Charles II] fell into dis­course of his es­cape from Worces­ter, where it made me ready to weep to hear the sto­ries that he told of his dif­fi­cul­ties that he had passed through, of his trav­el­ling four days and three nights on foot, every step up to his knees in dirt, with noth­ing but a green coat and a pair of coun­try breeches on, and a pair of coun­try shoes that made him so sore all over his feet, that he could barely stir.

Pepys was hear­ing Charles’s favourite story. It en­cap­su­lated that unique pe­riod in the king’s youth when he had been on the run for his life, re­ly­ing on his wit, and when he had re­peat­edly demon­strated self-re­liance, tough­ness, and adapt­abil­ity. For mid-sev­en­teenth cen­tury English­men the thought of their king be­ing forced to don dis­guises as the hum­blest of peo­ple – a wood­man, a ser­vant, a scullery boy – was riv­et­ing. The fact that this cham­pion of the coun­try’s hoped for new dawn, had last scut­tled round west­ern and south­ern Eng­land as the most hunted out­law in the land, added yet more spice to an im­prob­a­ble but true tale. As Lon­don pre­pared to wel­come Charles with an out­pour­ing of joy­ous loy­alty un­matched in its his­tory, rep­e­ti­tions of the king’s tale of es­cape started to cir­cu­late.

Charles wanted very much to per­pet­u­ate the mem­ory of his flight. He cham­pi­oned the in­sti­tu­tion of a new or­der of chivalry, the or­der of the Oak Tree, to com­mem­o­rate the most lyri­cal part of the nar­ra­tive; when he and and the loyal Ma­jor Care­less hid in such a tree, while the en­emy scoured the land be­neath in their tire­less search for the de­mo­nized ‘Charles Stu­art’. While this project failed to take root, an­other one lasted 200 years.

The king’s birth­day, and the day of his tri­umphant re­turn to Lon­don, was 29 May. This date was now to be known as Oak Ap­ple Day (or Royal Oak Day), an an­nual pub­lic hol­i­day ‘to be for ever kept as a day of thanks­giv­ing for our re­demp­tion from tyranny and the King’s re­turn to his Gov­ern­ment’. It was to re­main such un­til abol­ished in 1859. Church ser­vices still take place in var­i­ous towns, mark­ing this an­niver­sary, the bust of Charles II out­side All Saints’ Church in Northamp­ton re­ceiv­ing a fresh gar­land on the ap­pro­pri­ate day.

But a more en­dur­ing re­minder of Charles’s great es­cape swings from more than 400 hostel­ries across the land, many in Lon­don: The Royal Oak is the sec­ond most pop­u­lar pub name in Eng­land. I sus­pect the Merry Monarch would love the fact that the proud­est time of his life is for­ever al­lied with places where peo­ple go to drink, to flirt, and to re­lax. He proved him­self very adept in all three spheres.

To Catch A King, by Charles Spencer, is pub­lished by Wil­liam Collins on 5 Oc­to­ber; price: £20.

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