January 1649 – Charles I was beheaded on the block in Whitehall and Britain became a republic. Two years later his son, the future Charles II, who had escaped to France returned with an army, determined to overthrow the new regicidal regime and regain the throne. The armies met at the battle of Worcester but the Royalist forces were crushed by the might of Cromwell’s armies and the prince was forced to flee for his life.
The next six weeks would form the most dramatic of Charles’s life. Relying on luck, grit and loyalty he succeeded in evading the Parliamentary troops by means of deception and disguise, despite his dark complexion and mane of thick black hair and, at over six feet tall towering over his contemporaries.
He suffered grievously through weeks when his cause seemed hopeless. He hid in an oak tree – an event so fabled that over 400 English pubs are named Royal Oak in commemoration. Less well-known events include his witnessing a village in wild celebrations at the mistaken news of his killing; the ordeal of a medical student wrongly imprisoned because of his similarity in looks; Charles disguising himself as a milkmaid and as one half of an eloping couple to escape capture. Charles never forgot those who helped him and, when restored to the throne as Charles II, told the tale of his adventures to Samuel Pepys who transcribed it all in coded shorthand.
Spencer brings to life this thrilling chapter in British history by using Pepys’s account and the wealth of new letters and diaries that have come to light in the past 50 years since this epic story was last told. With bloodied feet and facing certain death if caught, Charles relied upon a patchwork of hiding places that had evolved since the Reformation to hide Catholics from lethal persecution by royal Protestant forces. Now in the 1650s they saved the life of a king.