KING OF DIS­GUISE

To Catch A King Charles Spencer Wil­liam Collins £20 They sought him here, they sought him there, but Oliver’s Army was no match for the...

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - TECH - KATHRYN HUGHES

The year is 1651 and the fu­ture Charles II, still a boy of 21, is on the run. At the re­cent Bat­tle of Worces­ter his rag­gle-tag­gle Roy­al­ist fol­low­ers have been butchered by Oliver Cromwell and the welldrilled Par­lia­men­tar­ian army.

Now Eng­land’s sta­tus as a repub­lic is se­cure and Cromwell him­self is well on the way to be­com­ing Lord Pro­tec­tor. Charles Stu­art, to give him his le­gal name, needs to scarper to the Con­ti­nent if he is to have any hope of avoid­ing the fate of his fa­ther, King Charles I, ex­e­cuted just two years ear­lier.

In this pacey slice of nar­ra­tive his­tory, Charles Spencer tells the story of how Charles man­aged to out­fox Cromwell’s clever­est hench­men for a full six weeks. Wit­nesses were not sure if the would-be King of Eng­land had been killed in the bat­tle­field car­nage, and pre­cious hours were spent look­ing for his body.

By the time the Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans re­alised he had sneaked away, Charles had made good use of his head start. Still, with a £1,000 re­ward for his re­cov­ery and the prom­ise that any­one help­ing him would be ex­e­cuted, Cromwell’s men were con­fi­dent.

In these cir­cum­stances it wasn’t easy to keep Charles safe as he and his small band of loy­al­ists

scur­ried along coun­try roads try­ing to find a way to reach the coast. His jet-black ringlets were shorn and his swarthy skin was rubbed with mud so he could pass for a farm labourer. Luck­ily, he had a good ear for lo­cal ac­cents.

But there wasn’t any­thing to be done about the fact that Charles was 6ft 2in tall at a time when most English­men were 5ft 6in. Nor could he help the way he walked: even though his enor­mous feet were crammed into too-small shoes, he ex­uded a swag­ger of en­ti­tle­ment. His min­ders begged him to prac­tise look­ing hum­ble.

The most thrilling close shave came on Septem­ber 6 when Charles was forced to hide in the branches of a huge oak tree in Bosco­bel, Shrop­shire, while Par­lia­men­tar­ian sol­diers milled around un­der­neath. In later years the tree be­came a kind of shrine for fer­vently pa­tri­otic English men and women who would travel hun­dreds of miles to take a cut­ting. It’s also why Eng­land has so many pubs called The Royal Oak.

In later years, once he was safely re­stored to the throne, Charles con­fided many de­tails of his dra­matic es­cape from the Bat­tle of Worces­ter to the fa­mous di­arist Sa­muel Pepys. It is these de­tails, among many other sources, that Spencer draws upon to con­struct this spare but at­mo­spheric ac­count of six weeks that changed the course of English his­tory.

With Charles able to reach ex­ile in France in Oc­to­ber 1651, the English monar­chy was tech­ni­cally still in­tact and vi­able. The glo­ri­ous mo­ment came nine years later when, fol­low­ing the death of Cromwell, he was able to re­turn to Eng­land as Charles II and usher in 350 years of un­bro­ken Royal rule that con­tin­ues to this day.

King Charles II In Bosco­bel Wood, painted by Isaac Fuller in about 1660

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