The escape of Charles II from the battle of Worcester in 1651 is history as a romantic tale. That the King spent a day in an oak tree is celebrated in hundreds of pub signs, testifying to the appeal of the story of a fugitive who had to hide in plain sight to avoid the biggest manhunt in English history. Yet there is more to the escape of Charles Stuart from parliamentary forces than a day in a tree. The King was on the run for six weeks after fleeing the only City gate remaining open to the Royalists, pursued relentlessly by the Roundheads who knew they were could take a great step towards the ultimate prize for which the Civil War had been fought – the elimination of the Royalist contenders to the throne.
Capturing and executing the heir to the throne would mean they had eliminated two of the three descendants of James I (and a generation back, Mary Queen of Scots). The royal succession would hang by the thread of the younger brother James, who was unimpressive as the final Stuart male contender. But while the capture of Charles would be a decisive step towards a republic, the parliamentarians had to capture him. Alas neither the parliamentary forces nor the Royalists had any idea where he was. The parliamentary forces at least knew he was alive, taking heart from random sightings of the fugitive moving through various locations north of Worcester, so placed a bounty of £1000 on his head. It was never claimed. The King had vanished.
How he achieved this remarkable feat has never been properly explained. There are many unsolved mysteries about the day to day progress of Charles Stuart away from Worcester into exile which can be found sprinkled in the better accounts of the escapade. All are Royalist in nature, proving that history is written by the victors, and all are reliant on a number of patchy accounts none of which were written till years later – nothing could be put on paper till Charles was restored to the throne in 1660 and the Cromwellian period was in the past. Even then some of the key players – including the illiterate Penderill family of the Brewood forest, and Colonel Careless who shared the tree at Boscobel left no recollections in their own words. No uncomplicated first hand record was ever made by eyewitnesses.. The only complete account, by Charles himself, was dictated to Samuel Pepys in 1680 and Pepys realised at the time he took down the King’s memories in shorthand the King’s memory was not reliable after 29 years.
The first days after the battle can only be resumed in detail from Boscobel, a book issued in 1660 from the memories of those with the King who are believed to have spoke to the author Thomas Blount. Blount is a writer highly regarded by Charles Spencer in his 2017 book To Catch a King (1) in which he praises Colonel Gunter’s account, plus the classic – if flawed – story the King told Pepys, (2) with highest praise give to Thomas Blount’s book Boscobel (3). Spencer also cited the accounts of Father Huddleston, Thomas Whitgreave and Colonel Philips as“priceless testimonies” (4)
Spencer is uncritical about Blount for whose account he is very appreciative. Blount claimed in his introduction to have written impeccably, and this is quoted by Spencer who regards the book as having “set a standard for his painstaking research in this field of recent royal history” (5). This is partly justified by Blount having published in 1660 using eyewitnesses and found more testimony ay the largely illiterate saviours of the King for a second edition in 1662. The first edition was not problematical, but the second certainly was.
The Earl does not note the comments made by Alan Fea, who over a century ago cited Royal objections to the second, expanded version. Boscobel gained a reputation as the best of the many accounts published when the King was restored in 1660, but Fea notes “In the’ Kingdom’s Intelligencer” for 1662 we find the following announcement: “By express command of his Majesty, we are to acquaint the reader that a little book named ‘Boscobel’ (being a relation of his Majesty’s happy and miraculous escape after the fight at Worcester), hath diverse errors and mistakes in it, and (is) therefore not to be admitted as a true and perfect narrative of his Sacred Majesty’s deliverance” (6).
What the King objected to has not been established: perhaps a comparison of the King’s version and that of Blount can clarify the issue. But there is a second mystery linked to what the King objected to, this being the identity of Thomas Blount. The assumption is that Blount was an investigator from outside the Forest of Brewood, which was on the Staffordshire – Shropshire border. However a second companion volume (7) contains the following curious statement according to Fea. He alleges the author writes:
“The first part of this miraculous history I long since published, having the means to be well informed in all circumstances relating to it; the scene (whereon those great actions were performed) being my native country, and many of the actors my particular friends”
The Thomas Blount normally thought to be the author of Boscobel was a Roman Catholic lawyer born in Worcestershire with roots in Herefordshire, a county whose history he was writing at the time of his death. Fea says the lawyer denied he had written the book the King was referring to, with its detailed description, and he speculates that as the writer appears to be from Staffordshire or Shropshire, he might be found in records of these counties.
The statement “many of these actors (were) my particular friends” cannot relate to the illiterate workers of the forest, so the author may be found among the gentry helpers of the King who were not found living in the Forest itself – this could be a profitable line of investigation. But what, in the second expanded version of Boscobel, had led to the King’s disapproval? Given that Blount’s Boscobel is the only one of the many (and various) accounts of the Escape after Worcester which can credibly describe the time spent in the Forest, assessing and explaining the unknown aspects of the authorship is a task well overdue. Richard Ollard’s 1966 book is a rare reference to the mystery (8)
The most recent book I am aware of on the topic, Martin E Beardsley’s aiming to “recreate his passage through England” does reconstruct the six week’s evasion of the biggest manhunt in English history recognizing that the sources of information are flawed, arguing “some of the sources for what we know of Charles’ oddessey contradict each other on certain points or dates” (9) and accepts that even Charles own account is somewhat misleading. Yet the wider issue of why Charles escaped is not the holes in the record. The big issue is why the Roundhead pursuit was massive – and totally unsuccessful.
(1) William Collins 2017
(2) Gunter sent his account to Pepys in 1685, Pepys took down the Kings Account in 1680,
(3) Blount’s book had a first edition in 1660. second expanded 1662
(4) the last three dealing with events after the King left Boscobel.
(5) quote is page xix Spencer is Lady Diana’s brother
(6) Alan Fea, The Flight of the King, Forgotten books classic reprints pages x-xi, Original publication 1897.
(70 Alan Fea, After Worcester Fight, John Lane, the Bodley Head page xv.
(8) Richard Ollard The Escape of Charles II, Hodder & Stoughton 1966 (Robinson 1986) p152
(9) Martin E Beardsley. Charles II his escape into Exile, Pen & Sword 2019 pvii