Travel: The es­cape route of Charles II Sam Swire

Charles II, dis­guised and ex­hausted, was pur­sued by Par­lia­men­tary troops for six weeks, for 600 miles. As Sam Swire walks the Monarch’s Way, he crosses beau­ti­ful, re­mote English land­scapes

The Oldie - - NEWS -

The Stu­arts are back in the news. This win­ter, two block­buster shows de­voted to Charles I and Charles II are open­ing. One, at the Royal Academy, re­unites Charles I’s ex­tra­or­di­nary art col­lec­tion, sold off by Oliver Cromwell’s govern­ment af­ter the king was top­pled. The other, at the Queen’s Gallery, looks at the col­lec­tion of his son, Charles II.

Meanwhile, a new book by Charles Spencer looks at Charles II’S flight from Par­lia­men­tar­ian forces in 1651.

It was a gru­elling, six-week jour­ney through six hun­dred miles of ru­ral Eng­land, as Charles trav­elled the coun­try, in dis­guise, in a des­per­ate at­tempt to get to a port and a boat to the Con­ti­nent. In re­cent years, I’ve been fol­low­ing in his foot­steps.

Charles II’S es­cape be­gan on 3rd Septem­ber 1651. As Cromwell’s army pushed his forces back on two fronts, a 21-year-old Charles II re­alised his hopes of win­ning the Bat­tle of Worces­ter and re­claim­ing his throne were lost. He had brought an ill-equipped army down from Scot­land to seize vic­tory and bring a swift end to the In­ter­reg­num.

As this hope faded and the en­emy ad­vanced, some of Charles II’S most loyal fol­low­ers led a fi­nal charge down Worces­ter’s high street to give him time to es­cape. He did so by rid­ing north, with no firm plan, odds stacked against him.

Charles II spent the night jour­ney­ing through un­known coun­try, des­per­ately try­ing to shake off the very vis­i­ble horde of sol­diers who es­caped with him.

He later told Sa­muel Pepys, ‘Though I could not get them to stand by me against the en­emy, I could not get rid of them, now I had a mind to it.’

He man­aged to break away with a small group of men, and so be­gan a cru­cial, lit­tle known episode in English his­tory; that epic jour­ney. Charles achieved this aim thanks to his brave sup­port­ers and his sharp wits. It was for­tu­nate that the first fam­ily he was led to – the Pen­derels – were loyal to the Crown and proved re­source­ful in a mo­ment of cri­sis and real dan­ger.

As re­cu­sant Catholics, they were not sup­port­ive of the Pu­ri­tan par­lia­ment then rul­ing Eng­land. More im­por­tantly, they had ex­pe­ri­enced the re­stric­tions placed on their re­li­gion at the time. Catholics re­quired per­mis­sion to travel far; so they were no strangers to dis­guise and ar­ti­fice. More than once, Charles made crit­i­cal use of their pri­est holes.

Charles first tried to cross the Sev­ern into Wales, but found it too heav­ily guarded. Af­ter the fa­mous night in an oak tree – sub­se­quently nick­named the Royal Oak – in Bosco­bel, Shrop­shire, with Round­heads search­ing the wood below him, he was taken to a house in Stafford­shire be­long­ing to one of his sup­port­ers, a Colonel Lane.

From there, he trav­elled to Bris­tol, dis­guised as a ser­vant ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Colonel’s daugh­ter, Jane Lane, who had a pass to visit a friend nearby. Later on, he would tell colour­ful tales of lodg­ing in the ser­vants’ quar­ters of inns and the close shaves he ex­pe­ri­enced. Once, he was ques­tioned by a cook for not know­ing how to set up a roast­ing spit, to which he swiftly replied, ‘I am a poor ten­ant’s son. We sel­dom have roast meat.’

Fur­ther trav­el­ling took him into the West Coun­try, be­fore head­ing east, in a se­ries of at­tempts to find a suit­able boat and crew. Even­tu­ally, he sailed from Shore­ham for France, be­gin­ning more than eight fur­ther years of ex­ile.

Sources are not plen­ti­ful. Pepys recorded an ac­count that he heard di­rect from the king ten years later, and the episode is men­tioned in his di­aries.

Charles II him­self made much of his es­cape in the years fol­low­ing his

Restora­tion in 1660. He had, af­ter all, been the first English, or Bri­tish, monarch to spend time liv­ing among his own peo­ple. He recog­nised it as the char­ac­ter­build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it un­doubt­edly was.

But one can imag­ine that ten years in the telling may have al­tered some of the de­tail, and a cau­tious his­to­rian might ac­cept some em­bel­lish­ment to the story as a given. This ami­able king was prob­a­bly not afraid to em­broi­der the truth in pur­suit of a good tale.

A cer­tain amount can be pinned down as fact. For one, while we can­not know his ex­act route on each day, we do know where he spent ev­ery night of those per­ilous weeks. Armed with this in­for­ma­tion, an en­thu­si­ast, Trevor An­till, founded The Monarch’s Way in 1994. Us­ing ex­ist­ing rights of way, he traced Charles’s full jour­ney.

A small but grow­ing band of diehard fans have kept the route alive. It is now marked on all Ord­nance Survey maps, and An­till, who died in 2010, wrote a three-vol­ume guide­book, help­ful and eru­dite, avail­able to buy on­line. There is an as­so­ci­a­tion with free mem­ber­ship. The news­let­ter lists all new mem­bers, with over­seas ones high­lighted in red. Those who fin­ish the walk are known as ‘end to en­ders’, cur­rently num­ber­ing 75 peo­ple, and a great deal of hard work is done by vol­un­teers to keep the route clear and way­mark­ers vis­i­ble.

I am 120 miles into the jour­ney, af­ter a year of in­ter­mit­tent walks, and al­ways find my­self look­ing for­ward to the next seg­ment with ex­cite­ment. You don’t have to be a com­mit­ted stu­dent of the Stu­arts to en­joy the many things you see en route.

It’s sur­pris­ing how many relics of his jour­ney re­main, not least the Royal Oak at Bosco­bel (or at least its grand­child; saplings avail­able in the gift shop). Many of the houses in which he stayed, though al­tered, are open to the pub­lic.

But the real at­trac­tion is the route it­self, and the parts of Eng­land it takes you through. Un­like most na­tional walk­ing routes, there is no slav­ish de­vo­tion to beauty spots or nat­u­ral won­ders; only his­tor­i­cal fact.

Where Charles would have been trav­el­ling through largely re­mote coun­try­side, a pair of rev­o­lu­tions – agri­cul­tural and in­dus­trial – have of­ten im­printed a very dif­fer­ent stamp on the path he took. A day might start with a few miles through seem­ingly un­touched wood­land, zig-zag­ging through the ru­ral soul of Eng­land, and fin­ish with a stretch along a Vic­to­rian canal, pass­ing the back gar­dens of West Mid­land sub­urbs.

My next stretch will take me through the Nether­ton Tun­nel, a straight canal tun­nel nearly two miles long and opened in 1858, be­fore break­ing south-east to Strat­ford-upon-avon and thence a di­ag­o­nal route through the Cotswolds.

There­after, the route heads south through the Mendips and down to Brid­port in Dorset – scene of the king’s first at­tempt to get a boat to the French coast (the cap­tain en­gaged for the task was ig­nobly locked in his room at the ap­pointed hour by his ter­ri­fied wife).

The route then pushes east across the South Downs, end­ing in the port from which Charles and his com­pan­ion, Lord Wil­mot, es­caped on 15th Oc­to­ber 1651.

An added bonus has been re­liv­ing prep school geog­ra­phy lessons. At last I have rea­son to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ence on a map be­tween a church with a spire and one with a tower; and hunger and thirst on a warm day are re­warded by find­ing the sym­bol for a pub.

The as­so­ci­a­tion’s web­site is full of all the in­for­ma­tion re­quired for any­one want­ing to walk all or part of the route. There are some help­ful books, too: Richard Ol­lard’s The Es­cape of Charles II is a quick read and one of the first to pull all the var­i­ous threads to­gether.

The Monarch’s Way is never go­ing to be­come a na­tional walk favoured by those only want­ing to soak up the beauty of Eng­land. But any­one with his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est in the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment will not be dis­ap­pointed by this jour­ney. Ex­plain­ing it to some peo­ple can be trou­ble­some (‘When did he get to Skye?’), but there is so much of in­ter­est in the story it’s easy to en­thuse oth­ers about it.

Not ev­ery­one ap­proves. Af­ter a par­tic­u­larly long day as I hob­bled to my B&B for the night, I walked past a barge with a King Charles spaniel snooz­ing on the roof. As I passed, it lifted its head, curled its lip, and growled gen­tly un­til I was safely gone.

For de­tails of the Monarch’s Way, visit www. monarch s way .50

Charles Spencer’s ‘To Catch a King: Charles II’S Great Es­cape’ was pub­lished on 5th Oc­to­ber (Wil­liam Collins, £20)

‘Charles I: King and Col­lec­tor’, Royal Academy, 27th Jan­uary-15th April 2018

‘Charles II: Art and Power’, Queen’s Gallery, 8th De­cem­ber 201713th May 2018

Jane Lane and Charles II, her ‘ser­vant’

The Royal Oak at Bosco­bel, Shrop­shire. This tree is a de­scen­dant of the orig­i­nal

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