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.
Charles Spencer was educated at Eton College and obtained his degree in Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a reporter on NBC’s Today Show from 1986 until 1995, and is the author of four books, including Sunday Times bestseller Blenheim: Battle for Europe (shortlisted for History Book of the Year at the 2005 National Book Awards), Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier and Killers of the King.