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 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