The Battle of Worcester and Charles II’s Escape to France
- September 3rd 1651 -
The English Civil War, fought over the way and the right to govern the country, amongst other things, had its start and end within two miles of each other – at Worcester. On September 23rd 1642 Prince Rupert, nephew to Charles I and in charge of the Royalist cavalry, put to flight the feeble Parliamentarian troops at Powick Bridge – two miles to the south of Worcester. Whilst undoubtedly a fine soldier he did not follow up this chance. Nor did he at Edgehill a month later, on 23rd October, when his famous cavalry routed the opposition and he had the chance to finish off the war in an afternoon. His cavalry pursued the enemy for miles rather than returning to the battle, and the chance was lost.
Fast forward nine years. The King, Charles I had been executed by Parliament, Cromwell was pretty much in charge and a new army had appeared in England – the New Model Army. This was not a rock band but a highly disciplined, trained, committed and organised group of soldiers about 20,000 strong, the like of which had never been seen before. It was an army based on ability not your position in society. Although nominally under the leadership of General Fairfax it was Oliver Cromwell who was the driving force. It had easily seen off the Royalist army at Naseby in June 1645.
After Charles I had surrendered in 1646 he was held captive on the Isle of Wight. He escaped in 1647 and flung himself on the mercy of the Scots. With a treaty called “The Engagement” he agreed to implement Presbyterianism in England within three years if the Scots helped him invade England. This they did. In 1650 Cromwell’s army defeated them at Dunbar and it seemed as if the Scots challenge was over for a good while at least.
Charles I eldest son, Charles, was in the Netherlands when his father was executed and set out for Scotland ready to resume hostilities. Scotland readily acknowledged Charles as the King. With Scotland only too happy to invade England Charles II, with David Leslie as his commander, set out with 16,000 soldiers. Unfortunately, the Parliamentarians numbered nearer 30,000 with over 20,000 in the crack force of the NMA.
Charles II marched through England but as they were seen as an invading force received little support. He believed that with Cromwell fighting in Scotland he could seize his chance and get back into England. Cromwell himself had been ill and had not yet moved into Scotland as he had wished. He still saw a possible threat there and it was not until June 1651 that he also headed north to capture the stronghold at Stirling. By doing this he left the road to England open – almost certainly leading Charles II into a trap. Cromwell ordered John Lambert’s cavalry to follow Charles, another army was to march from Newcastle to Warrington and follow and a third force to come from the midlands and follow too.
After capturing Perth Cromwell left General Monck to carry on the assault of Scotland whilst he drove his main army south. They converged at Worcester. An assault from the South and East pushed the Scots and Charles back to Worcester itself. Resistance forced Cromwell to rush reinforcements to the South leaving the East exposed. This resistance was put down and the remaining Scottish force was soon overpowered by the NMA resulting in over 2,000 deaths. Parliament lost just 200. The Scottish resistance was now over.
The same cannot be said for Charles II. The next month and a half, from September 3rd to 16th October, was a time when he dodged and hid from soldiers and others all looking to turn him in to face a fate, almost certainly similar to his father. A sum of £1000 was offered for his capture – an absolute fortune at the time showing how keen the authorities were to capture the man and put the episode to bed. What followed was an extraordinary tale of loyalty, luck, brazenness, frustration and determination.
Charles escaped Worcester by the north gate with Lords Wilmot and Derby. The former was to be his constant companion until he reached France. He felt it was too dangerous to head for Scotland and aimed instead for London where it was easier to ‘disappear’ before catching a boat to France. His first stop was at a pub in Ombersley, now known as the King’s Arms, before aiming for Stourbridge, Chaddesley Corbett, Hagley, Pedmore, Wolverley, Kinver and Wordsley before arriving at Charles Giffard’s estate at Boscobel early on September 4th.
He was disguised as a labourer and his flowing locks were cut. Charles was a very distinctive man – very tall for the time with a swarthy appearance. The only shoes they had did not fit and had to be cut open – an issue that was to cause a great deal of pain later on. It was decided that it was safer for him to carry on alone, other than with Lord Wilmot. The others in the party attempted to get back to Scotland but most of them were caught and executed, including Lord Derby.
The following day was pouring with rain and they sheltered in a small wood. Charles was taught to speak and walk like a peasant – skills that would save his life. A group of soldiers arrived at Giffard’s house just after they had left and Charles believed that they did not search the wood only because of the rain. It seemed there was no way he was going to get to London with so many looking for him. He was going to need help from the many Royalist / Catholic sympathisers dotted around the country. The authorities knew this too and were watching the likely suspects.
He now headed to Wales and the home of Francis Wolfe hoping that he could get across the Severn estuary and catch a boat to the continent from there. Wolfe’s home had many hiding places but it soon became apparent that crossing would not be an option as it was too heavily guarded. Thus he returned to Boscobel early on September 6th. His feet were in a bad way and they were tended and bound. Soon soldiers arrived and he was forced to spend the entire day in an oak tree in the estate while the grounds were searched. This has given rise to the name - Royal Oak.
From here the next path was to Moseley, north of Wolverhampton to the Old Hall there, house of Thomas Whitgreave. Here he was given new clothes and stayed for 2 days. Soldiers arrived and he was hidden in a priest’s hole behind a bedroom wall. The soldiers accused Whitgreave of fighting in the King’s army at Worcester – which he had not. He had fought, and been injured at Naseby, but he managed to convince the accusers that not only was he too infirm to have fought but also that he did not know where the King was. They departed without searching the house.
Leaving shortly afterwards he went to Bentley Hall near Walsall, arriving just after midnight on September 10th. From here he went to Bromsgrove, then to Stratford-On-Avon and finally Marston where he spent the night. The intention now was to get to Bristol and get a crossing there. On Thursday 11th he went via Chipping Camden to Cirencester where he spent the night in a pub called the Crown Inn. The following day he headed to Chipping Sodbury and Bristol, arriving at Abbot’s Leigh, just outside, and the home of George Norton. No-one told Norton who his guest was – but he was recognised by the butler.
With the end in sight they set about looking for a ship to take them across the channel but found out that there was no boat for another month. He could not stay safe for that long so departed for Trent, near Sherborne, on the Somerset/Dorset border. The aim now was to get to either Weymouth or Lyme Regis and a boat from there. On September 16th he arrived at Castle Cary and then Trent on September 17th. He spent 2 days hiding in the house of Colonel Thomas Wyndham. Finally, they found that a boat was to leave for St. Malo the following week with Stephen Limbrey. He was to board as a runaway couple, with the niece of Wyndham, from Charmouth but at the last minute Limbry pulled out, claiming that his wife locked him in the bedroom because it was too risky.
They now struck out for Bridport. To their horror it was filled with troops. Charles rode straight through them without being noticed and booked rooms in the town. However, Wilmot was recognised and they quickly fled back to Trent, having hidden in Lee Lane, Broadwindsor, where he stayed for a couple of weeks.
On 6th October they made for Heale House between Salisbury and Amesbury where Charles visited Stonehenge. They went from here to Hambledon and on to Brighthelmstone (now Brighton). They now found a French merchant and a boat owner, Captain Nicholas Tattersell who was sailing from Brighthelmstone. He was paid £80. The coal boat, called, ironically, ‘Surprise’ was to leave on October 15th. At Brighthelmstone they stayed at the George Inn and met Colonel George Gunter who had arranged the voyage. Tattersell recognised the King immediately and initially refused to convey him across the channel. An extra fee of £200 was agreed for danger money and, at night, on October 15th Wilmot and the King finally boarded the boat.
At 7am on October 16th they departed. Two hours later a regiment of cavalry arrived having heard that the King was in the area. They were too late. He had got away. Charles arrived near le Havre at a small port called Fecamp. A race called ‘The Royal Escape Race’ is still held from Brighton to Fecamp each year, a distance of 67 nautical miles to commemorate this voyage.
From here Charles moved to Rouen and then to Paris to meet up with his mother, Henrietta Maria, who had arrived in France in 1644, having just given birth and trying to raise funds in an increasingly desperate situation. It was to be a further nine years before he returned to England in 1660 in what is known as the Restoration. He was invited back as King by Parliament. Oliver Cromwell had died in 1658 to be replaced by his son, Richard. He was incompetent and not the force his father was. ‘Tumbeldown Dick’, as he was known, was ousted and in an ironic turn of generational fate a Charles replaced a Cromwell as a Cromwell had replaced a Charles.