To Catch A King


Charles Spencer




Date Reviewed:

April 3, 2022

fter reading the historical novel The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley, I want to find a book that could inform me about the English Civil War. The Vanished Days touches on events in the fight between the Parliamentarians vs the Royalists in Scotland. Although the historical events provide the backdrop for the novel, I didn't get a full understanding of the two sides and what they were fighting over. So I looked for book that could fill some of the many holes in my knowledge of English history. To Catch a King is a work of non-fiction that describes the attempt of Charles II to regain the throne of England/Scotland/Ireland that had been lost when his father was executed by the regicides (Spencer's term for the Parliamentarians who demanded that King Charles I deserved execution.) For a few years, after the execution of Charles I, there was no monarchy, instead, government was entirely run by Parliament and Oliver Cromwell. Fighting had lasted for years between the forces of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, causing tremendous suffering throughout the kingdom. (To Catch a King calls this strife The First Civil War, which is confusing, because even someone such as myself who has a limited understanding of English history knows that there was internal warfare in England between Stephen and Matilda as each tried to rule after the death of King Henry I (as depicted in the Brother Cadfael series). Also, wasn't the War of the Roses fought between the House of York and House of Lancaster a civil war? Didn't King Richard III die in the battle of Bosworth fighting the forces of King Henry VII?)

In 1651, Charles II, at the age of 21, led an invading army from Scotland against armies of England and the Parliamentarians. It was an ill planned venture, the veteran forces of Cromwell outnumbered the invaders. Charles II got as far as the city of Worcester before battle was engaged. The Royalist forces collapsed against experienced troops of England, and soon the Scots were scattered. The King himself fled the battlefield, knowing that if he was captured, he would certainly suffer the same fate as his father - his head would be chopped off. This book documents the six weeks of Charles II escape attempt, during which time he was the most hunted man in the country. Charles II was known to stand over 6' tall; a towering figure when compared to the average 5'7" of his countrymen. He was a recognizable man, with a 1000 bounty on his head. This was a significant sum - the average citizen made just 25 in a year. 1000 was enough to purchase 200 head of cattle, it was a princely sum (literally!). And yet, despite huge reward and the large number of people who aid the king during his 6 week escape, Charles II is not betrayed. I found myself wondering if all of these devoted Royalists would be rewarded when Charles II ultimately was awarded the throne. The second to last chapter of the book details all the rewards Charles lavished upon the loyal Royalists who had risked so much to aid his escape (Unfortunately, not all of the award funds were actually delivered by Parliament.)

After the disaster on the battlefield at Worcester, Charles II rides north toward the safety of the Scottish border. He travels 40 miles in the first day. But the Parliamentarians anticipate this escape route, and have companies of soldiers guarding all the roads north. Charles and his guides try for the Welsh border, but that route too is blocked. The searchers are everywhere, Charles II is always in peril. At one point, he hides in a "priest hole" - a cleverly constructed hiding spot inside a building that was meant to hide Roman Catholic priests from Protestant officials. The clever carpenter, Nicholas Owen, who constructed many of these ingenious hidey-holes was eventually captured and tortured to death in the Tower of London, but he refused to divulge the location of all the hiding spaces that so frustrated the Protestant officials. Owen was declared a saint by the Catholic church in 1970.

Because the Protestant troops were searching the homes of all known Royalists, Charles II spent one day hiding in a pollarded oak tree - a pollarded tree has its upper branches pruned, which promotes dense foilage on the lower branches. Although soldiers passed near the tree where he was hidden, Charles II was undetected from the ground. Today there are more than 400 pubs and taverns named The Royal Oak to commemorate this famous hiding spot.

Also fleeing from the Worcestor battlefield is Lord Wilmot. Wilmot is dedicated to the King's cause, and show tremendous courage. Yet Wilmot is also incredibly vain - he will not resort to disguises, he continues to dress nicely, and spend time in establishments eating and drinking despite the great risk that entails. And yet Wilmot also manages to elude the grasp of the Protestants (who were derisively called "Roundheads").

Charles II and the loyal Royalists decide the best way to escape is to go south, and catch a ship to France. Charles is given boiled walnuts to rub onto his pale skin, thus darkening his skin, to make him look like he has spent time outdoors. He acts the part of a manservant, riding on the front of the horse while the noble woman rode side-saddle behind him. At one point, the horse throws a shoe, and has to be taken to a blacksmith. I thought that this was the most amazing part of the entire book: "The local blacksmith, by the name of Hamnet was summoned. While he was there, he tended to the other horses too. Looking at the hooves of Lord Wilmot's horse, Hamnet remarked out loud, with obvious interest, that the marking on the shoes showed that they came from in or around Worcester. There must have been an uneasy hush among the Royalists as they waited to see what the blacksmith concluded from that discovery." Charles II and his allies are far south from Worcester at this point of the narrative - yet a local blacksmith can detect that a horse has been near Worcester by looking at its hooves??? This is Sherlock Holmes caliber-insight! The blacksmith does tell his local priest, who then finds a some Parliamentary soldiers, but by then Charles II and his party have ridden away.

Ultimately, the people of England decide to restore the monarchy, and Charles II is invited back to England in triumph, to be given the throne in 1660 at the age of 30. I couldn't help but think of all the unnecessary bloodshed and suffering of the pointless Civil War, when the final outcome ultimately simply given to Charles II (after the death of Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarians.)

Spencer is an interesting historian; I see that he has written other books of English history that look intriguing. Perhaps I will read his work Blenheim, the Battle for Europe or The White Ship about the consequential death of Henry I's only heir when his ship is run aground and sinks in the English Channel