Charles II’s Great Escape

A lively account highlights the heroic exploits of his loyal companions and the ravages of war against Cromwell.

Charles II in about 1650, by Adriaen Hanneman (or his studio).

This action-packed book begins with the heir to the throne fighting alongside his father during the early years of a brutal civil war that tore the nation apart. It was perhaps his experiences with a doomed army that helped Charles adapt to the tumultuous times that lay ahead. It is the future king’s companions during his weeks on the road, however, who are the stars of this book.

Among the stand-out characters are Charles’ chief protector Lord Wilmot: a ‘dissolute’ member of Queen Henrietta Maria’s entourage who refused to disguise himself – a decision that put the king at risk of exposure – yet who was fiercely loyal and brave. Other supporters of note are the Penderel family, who risked their lives when the penalty for concealing the king was death. Charles Spencer draws upon contemporary records that make it plain that the king could not have evaded the parliamentarians without the help of numerous ordinary men and women. Not only did individuals act with immense courage, they also showed remarkable selflessness at a time when the bounty on the king’s head was £1,000 (a craftsman might earn around £25 a year).

The assault on Worcester and its murderous aftermath are especially well told. The disastrous loss of Upton Bridge to Cromwell’s men, for example, is described sparingly, making the effect of the Royalists’ misjudgements painfully clear. As the defeated army fled, it was Major General Thomas Harrison – a man renowned for his brutality – who was placed in charge of the operation to hunt down the survivors. The religious and political fervour of regicides such as Harrison led to widespread terror against the Catholic nobility. It was often in the priest holes of their country houses that Charles sought sanctuary as he moved around England, variously disguised as a woodcutter or manservant. Details such as Richard Penderel’s cropping of the king’s locks with shears, the use of boiled walnuts to darken Charles’ hands and the ruined state of his feet, all help the tale come vividly to life.

No study of the life of Charles would be complete without an account of his time concealed within the branches of the Boscobel oak tree with Major William Careless. Perhaps equally famous is the king’s fondness for his many mistresses. Most readers will have heard of Nell Gwynne; less familiar is Christabella Wyndham, Charles’ former wet-nurse, with whom he embarked on his first affair at the age of 14. He later transferred his affections to the ‘beautiful strumpet’ Lucy Walter, with whom he had an illegitimate son, James, later Duke of Monmouth.

Between tales of heroism and adventure, Spencer presents harrowing, first-hand accounts of the ruins of war, not least the plight of defeated Highlanders who were left to starve or worked to death.

The book concludes with Charles II’s triumphant return in 1660, then his eventual illness and death in 1685. Satisfyingly, Spencer tells us what happened to some of the key players in the king’s escape, not least the Catholic priest, Father John Huddleston, who helped the Penderels and gave Charles his final absolution.

In short, Spencer writes with an admirable clarity that makes the forming and breaking apart of alliances – especially with the Scots – refreshingly easy to follow. There is a useful map at the beginning of the book, which allows the reader to follow the king and his entourage’s movements. A minor quibble: it is a shame that the book’s layout is such that Worcester disappears down the gutter. Elsewhere, Sir Richard Fanshawe is mistakenly referred to as Anthony. That aside, this is an excellent and accessible account of an episode in British history that deserves to be better known.

To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape 
Charles Spencer
William Collins 336pp £20

Janet Ravenscroft is a research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.