To Catch A King

To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer

An exciting bit of history that I didn’t know much about. I’m pretty good on the English Civil War up to the execution of Charles I, and then the Commonwealth and the Restoration, but not the bit in between: after the death of Charles I when the uncrowned Charles II was trying to keep the fight going. Unsuccessfully. I knew it all culminated in the disastrous Battle of Worcester, when Charles had to flee, hiding up a tree and whisked from safe house to safe house over a six week period until eventually he could catch a boat to France.

That is the centrepiece of this book, but there’s a lot more I didn’t know about: all the comings and goings, alliances, misalliances and so on. And there’s moments of pure comedy, like the future Merry Monarch, he of the list of mistresses and illegitimate kids as long as your arm, signing up to the dour Scottish Covenant to get the Scots on his side. (He was their king too, after all.) His brother James, aged 15, was imprisoned by Parliament in St James’s Palace with his much younger siblings. He got into the habit of playing hide and seek with them every evening, thus establishing a regular slot each day when not even his guards expected him to be around – and thus he escaped. James would ultimately become one of our least successful and admirable monarchs, but here it’s impossible not to root for him. Also his infant sister, who was disguised as a ragamuffin boy by her nurse and then carried 100 miles to Dover. They made it, despite the little girl merrily telling everyone they met that she wasn’t really a boy, she was a princess.

The author Charles Spencer is better known as the brother of Princess Di and uncle of Wills and Harry. The Spencers are descended from one of Charles II’s mistresses, so when Wills becomes king, he will be the first descendant of Charles II to do so.