Tuesday, 12 May 2009

THE GREAT ESCAPE Part 2: To Catch a King

Lord Wilmot had a problem. After the crushing defeat at the battle of Worcester (September 3 1651), he had safely brought the King to a sympathetic Catholic house (“Whiteladies”). However the fact remained that they were many, many miles away from the coast and with every road in England bristling with soldiery all on the look out for “a tall dark man some two yards high” (in an age when the average height of a man was about 5’ 10” – being over 6’ set him apart from his fellows) , their chances of getting the defeated King safely back to France seemed slim.

The King was stripped of his distinctive clothes and dressed in a green jerkin, grey cloth breeches, leather doublet and greasy soft hat – “a la mode the woodman”. His precious Order of St. George was given to one of his party and after surviving its own adventures (including being hidden in a refuse heap) it would eventually be reunited with its owner. His hair was cut and his face and hands were stained with walnut juice.

Charles first struck out for Wales but was forced to turn back when he found the access routes across the Severn heavily guarded. He turned back to Boscobel where he took refuge in a massive oak tree in company with a Major Carlis (also on the run from Worcester). The two remained secure in their tree (a descendant of which still exists today) while below them the soldiers scoured the wood. After a few days rest at Boscobel, he began his journey to freedom. He reunited with Wilmot at Moseley Old Hall, where he was forced to take refuge in a priest hole while the house was searched.

From Moseley he and Wilmot travelled to Bentley Hall, the home of a Colonel Lane. There one of the great heroines of history enters the tale – Jane Lane. As Jane had planned to travel to Abbot’s Leigh ( a few miles beyond Bristol) to visit her sister, who was about to give birth, it was agreed that Charles would travel with her, as her servant. His disguise moved up market and he became William Jackson, servant to Mistress Lane. A servant who had no idea how to ride a double horse or even how to doff his hat with proper subservience. Lord Wilmot, whose idea of a disguise, was to carry a falcon on his wrist, rode with them.

They reached Abbots Leigh on September 12, after encountering troops on the road and hearing from a blacksmith that “that rogue Charles Stuart had been captured, who deserved to hang…”. There he was forced to keep to his room on pretence of fever when he discovered one of the household had served in his regiment. With a hefty reward on his head, his former soldier posed more of a risk than a regiment of roundheads.

Unable to find a boat in Bristol and with the Welsh ports watched, the party decided to head south still with Jane Lane to provide the cover story. They passed through Somerset and were forced to bypass the most obvious point of escape, Dorset because of the heavy enemy presence. Their aim was to reach Lyme (later awarded the “Regis” in recognition of its loyalty). There a boat was arranged to depart from nearby Charmouth. Charles parted company with the courageous Jane Lane and in company of another fearless woman, Juliana Coningsby, the party went down to meet their boat. The boat never arrived (the skipper having been locked in his bedroom by his outraged wife!) and once more the King’s party were forced back on their own resources. They were now in a part of the country where Charles was well known and he risked detection at every turn.

His refuge (or his “Ark” as it was described by the lady of the house) was the home of Colonel Wyndham, Trent Manor. There the King spent two weeks while Wilmot scoured the coast looking for a boat. On 13 October, Charles set out again, heading for Sussex. A boat had been arranged under the cover story of transporting a pair of illegal duelists and for the price of 60 pieces of silver, a boat was arranged to leave from Shoreham harbor. On Wednesday 15 October at 4am, King Charles II finally sailed away from England to spend the next nine years in penniless exile in France.

Some interesting facts about the great escape:
• Some 60 people were “in” on the secret (and ‘so many of them women’!) but not one claimed the reward
• Despite being forced to sleep on hard pallets, being squashed into priest holes or forced to spend days in trees, the main source of discomfort for the King were his shoes. Shoes could not be found to fit his feet and so he suffered dreadful blisters and in his later years developed something of an obsession for well fitting shoes!
• The King learned more about the way his people lived than any other monarch. While he was at Boscobel he asked for mutton for his supper. Mutton was a meat reserved only for the most special of occasions and could not be readily provided.
• In his travels he encountered for the first time the hidden world of the English catholics and his talks with Father Huddleston would have a profound effect on him.
The "Royal Oak" became a cult, a "symbol of royalty and romance" (Fraser). After the Restoration the King's birthday, May 29th was designated "Oak Apple Day" and remained a public holiday until the 1850s.

To read more on the Great escape:
Antonia Fraser KING CHARLES II
and for the best fictional account:
Georgette Heyer THE ROYAL ESCAPE
(I had a lot of fun with this story in my own BY THE SWORD )


Anita Davison said...

Fascinating post, Alison, especially the 'Special Facts' part. I knew about the shoes, but not the mutton.

Alison Stuart said...

The mutton incident was interesting. When the Penderels politely asked the King what he wished to eat he asked for mutton. The last time the Penderels had eaten mutton was at a child's christening. The enterprising Carlis solved the problem by rustling a neighbours lamb which he and the King both ate. The King enquiring "merrily" which of the two was the better cook!

Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

Interesting post. I love this time period. So many interesting things happened that it stirs the imagination.

Alison Stuart said...

Thanks, Jennifer. That's exactly why I love it so much! It's great having people to share the passion :-)