Monday, January 13, 2020


By Michael Paul Hurd

Charles II’s Royalist army was defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army at Worcester on 3 September 1651. Following the defeat, Charles II became a fugitive for the next six weeks, before he successfully escaped to Normandy, France, on the morning of 15 October 1651. During his fugitive period, Charles II covered a circuitous 625-mile (1006 km) route from Worcester to Shoreham and were almost captured on several occasions. The route of Charles II’s escape is known as “The Monarch’s Way” and is signposted as a Public Footpath in its entirety. Charles II himself recounted the exact details of his escape to the Earl of Clarendon, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”), and his personal physician, Doctor George Bate. There were few discrepancies in the accounts recorded by each of the three men.

During his time as a fugitive, Charles II apparently gained a new appreciation for the life of the common man in England and how badly the populace had been affected by the English Civil Wars. Traveling in disguise most of the time and without a significant entourage, he relied on loyal subjects and Catholic noblemen for concealment. The subterfuge was elaborate: Charles was at times dressed as a common field hand, had his coiffure changed to match the locals, and even had what would have been the equivalent of a “dialect coach” to teach him how to speak and walk like a local laborer instead of an educated royal. At other times, he adopted an alias.

One of his most notable situations was his brief stay at Boscobel House in Shropshire, on 6 and 7 September 1651. There, Charles spent all day hiding – and even sleeping -- in a nearby oak tree while Parliamentary forces searched nearby. This tree later became known as the “Royal Oak” and a descendant of that tree still stands on Boscobel grounds. The King’s companion at the time, a Colonel Charles Careless, hid with Charles inside the oak tree and was responsible for alerting the King to imminent danger. Meanwhile, Boscobel House caretakers were detained and questioned by Parliamentary forces at the local militia headquarters but somehow managed to convince their interrogators that the King had never been on Boscobel House grounds, nor the White Ladies priory in particular.

So loyal were the Boscobel caretakers that they did not surrender Charles’s location to the Parliamentarian militia, even when reminded that there was a £1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the King and that the penalty for harboring the royal fugitive was “death without mercy.” However, the proximity of the militia to Charles’s location of concealment emphasized the importance of getting Charles out of England as quickly as possible.

Boscobel House - Image Attribution

Once again, Charles was on the move. His next exploits involved assuming the identity of a servant accompanying a woman who had a travel pass from the Parliamentarian military to visit a friend who was about to have a baby in Abbots Leigh, Somerset. Charles rode with the woman on a single horse, which threw a shoe during the journey. Because Charles had assumed the identity of a servant, it was his responsibility to take the horse to a local blacksmith; there, he engaged in a conversation with the blacksmith. In Charles’s own dictation of the escape to Samuel Pepys, he claimed to have told the blacksmith that “the rogue, Charles Stuart… deserved to be hanged more than all the rest…” Later, the King continued the ruse as a servant and was put to work in the kitchen, tending to a joint of meat roasting in the fireplace. He was inept at winding up the apparatus, and even claimed that he came from such poor beginnings that his family rarely ate meat, hence the inability to operate the roasting jack.

The exploits of the escape became even more elaborate over the next couple of weeks. His loyal accomplices tried to locate available ships to depart from Bristol; there were none available for at least the next month. Finding a hiding place in Trent while two Royalist officers tried to find a ship to sail from Lyme Regis or Weymouth, Charles himself witnessed a celebration by the local villagers who believed that he had been killed at Worcester. No one had recognized him. He later traveled with Juliana Coningsby, a niece of Lady Wyndham (who was the wife of accomplice Colonel Wyndham), pretending to be an eloping couple. They reached the market town of Bridport but found that the town was filled with Parliamentary troops. Charles boldly walked through the town to the best inn and arranged for rooms. He was almost recognized at the inn, but deflected and convinced the ostler that they had been servants together in the employ of a Mr. Potter in Exeter.

After the encounters in Bridport, the escape became much more complicated, but eventually Charles and his longtime traveling companion, Lord Wilmot, reached Brighthelmstone (now known as Brighton). There, the King was recognized by a former servant of the royal household under Charles I. This recognition was immediately problematic for the King; the captain of the vessel that was to transport him and Wilmot to France demanded an additional £200 as “danger money” before he would set sail. On the morning of 15 October 1651, Charles and Wilmot boarded the “Surprise”, sailing at the next high tide, around 7 a.m. A mere two hours later, Parliamentarian cavalry arrived in the village of Shoreham with orders to arrest the King.

Lord Wilmot

The previous narrative is an extreme oversimplification of Charles II’s escape to France. However, throughout the journey, Charles II repeatedly crossed paths with commoners and even assumed the identities of common servants; this is believed to have given him a thorough appreciation for their plight. When he returned to England nine years later at the request of Parliament following the death of Richard Cromwell, England was in political turmoil and the religiously divided House of Commons welcomed the Declaration of Breda in mid-1660. In this declaration, Charles II promised tolerance and liberty. He even promised not to exile past enemies nor confiscate their wealth.

Some historians have characterized Charles II as a popular King and a legendary celebrity in British history. Others have cited his ineptitude and poor judgment as contributing to a series of poorly prosecuted wars in the latter half of the 17th Century. Regardless of the bifurcated opinions, Charles II managed to guide Great Britain out of a period of extended political turmoil and towards the evolution into a constitutional monarchy under the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Acts of Settlement (1701).  These documents actually formed the basis for the United States Constitution, ratified approximately 100 years later.


Michael Paul Hurd retired from full-time employment in 2018 and began writing his first historical fiction novel in August of that year. His “Lineage Series” of novels projects the touchpoints of his family onto events in history on both sides of the Atlantic. Genealogical research indicated that he is a distant relative of Jane Giffard, wife of Sir John Giffard, MP (1466-1556) and their line, which at one time owned Boscobel House. Married to his wife, Sandy (daughter of a British emigrant to the United States), for nearly 40 years, he spent over a decade working in the United Kingdom, from 1983-1994. There he took an interest in British history, studying under Dr. Sid Brown of Leeds University. Fourteen novels are planned for Hurd’s “Lineage Series,” several of which will involve topics relevant to British history as they evolve out of the vignettes of the first book in the series. 

1 comment:

  1. I find this fascinating! I've read about parts of it before, but it's nice to have such a succinct summary. It occurs to me that I've been near some of these places but haven't yet visited them!


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