To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, William Collins, London, 2018, $27.99
The author of Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I follows up with the story of his son, Charles II, who, having returned from exile in France two years after his father’s execution in 1649, reached Worcester. There a force under future Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell met Charles’ army in one of the largest battles fought on British soil. Charles II barely survived to begin a journey, among the greatest escapes of all time, six dramatic weeks with only two possible outcomes—live to fight another day or death.
The initial priority for Charles was a disguise, though his height of 6 feet 2 inches in a time and place when few men exceeded 5 feet 6 inches was a continual problem. He chose not to head for Scotland, as most Royalists that did were captured and then transported in chains into forced labor in the New World. Heavily guarded river crossings barred his passage into sympathetic Wales, so south was the only alternative.
Forty-eight hours after the battle Charles hid for a day in the thick branches of an oak near Boscobel House, today managed by English Heritage. At one point a search party paused directly beneath the tree. (Today more than 400 public houses in England are named Royal Oak in commemoration of that particular hideaway.)
Royalist supporters provided Charles shelter, for the journey remained full of danger; there was a prize of £1,000 on Charles’ head, equivalent to about $50,000 today. Charles alternately masqueraded as a debtor fleeing creditors, a duelist evading the law, a sick servant in need of recuperation and the male half of an eloping couple.
Today the stuff of legend, Charles’ flight in its day was a deadly serious race against an enemy determined to spill fresh blood on the executioner’s block. After six weeks his courage and ingenuity triumphed when he reached the south coast of England and found the owner of a small ship willing to briefly divert to France and disembark two men fleeing the aftermath of a duel—or so they said. Nine years later Charles returned in triumph, his reception as tumultuous as any in British history.