Making of a monarch: how the young Charles II endured war, defeat and exile before the Restoration
At the age of 12, the prince was present at a battle; before he was 20 his father, King Charles I, had been executed and the monarchy abolished; and his attempt to take back his birth right ended in disaster and exile on the continent. Spencer Mizen explores the events before Charles II returned in glory in 1660
It’s the early hours of 15 October 1651, and most of the residents of the West Sussex town of Shoreham-by-Sea are asleep in their beds. But not all of them. Two men walk silently across a beach and board a boat. A couple of hours later, before the Sun has crept above the horizon, the vessel slips out to sea. And barely anyone has even noticed.
As turning points in English history go, the duo’s departure made for a fairly unremarkable scene. Yet a turning point it undoubtedly was. One of the men was, in fact, the future King Charles II. And he was fleeing for his life. A few months earlier, Charles had launched a bid to win back the kingdoms that Oliver Cromwell’s forces had seized from his father, Charles I, in the Civil Wars that raged across the British Isles.
That bid had ended in defeat and so the younger Charles was forced to beat a silent retreat back across the Channel – accompanied by his close friend, Lord Wilmot – before Cromwell’s forces caught up with him. And catch up with him they nearly did. Hours after Charles departed for the continent, his pursuers swept into Shoreham in search of their prey.
They would have good reason for rueing this nearest of misses, for Charles wouldn’t be down and out forever. Nine years later, he would return to English shores – this time not as a hapless fugitive but as the master of all surveyed.
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As his boat pulled away from Shoreham on that October morning, Charles could have been forgiven for wondering how he found himself in this perilous predicament. This was not how it was meant to be. When he was born at St James’s Palace in May 1630, his inheritance was the three crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the awesome power that came with being a divinely appointed ruler in the 17th century. On the day on which he was born, a brilliant star shone brightly in the daytime skies over London. Today, this is believed to have been a supernova; back in 1630, it was interpreted as a sign of great things to come.
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Charles II: a young boy at war
It was not to be. At 12 years old, Charles’s pampered childhood – spent chiefly at the courts of St James and Whitehall in London and Richmond Palace in Surrey – was shattered by war. Over the preceding years, tensions between Charles I and an array of opponents over religious policy, the power of parliament and the question of the king’s divine right to rule had reached boiling point.
In 1642, those tensions exploded into outright conflict – and the consequences for the king and his family would prove catastrophic. The younger Charles may have only been a boy, but he wasn’t sheltered from the conflict. He was present when his father raised the royal standard at the battle of Edgehill, the first pitched battle of the Civil Wars, and was made a commander of royalist forces in the West Country when he was just 14.
Things were going from bad to worse for Charles I. The war was now heading inexorably in parliament’s favour, and, in May 1646, the king placed himself in the hands of a Scottish army, who later handed him over to English parliamentarian forces
But soon the tide of the war was turning decisively in favour of the king’s parliamentarian enemies and, in March 1646, his eldest son was forced to flee the mainland. It wouldn’t, of course, be for the last time. The then Prince Charles initially made for the royalist strongholds of the Scilly Isles and Jersey before crossing the Channel to mainland Europe.
At first, he joined his mother – the French-born Henrietta Maria – near Paris, where he lived under the protection of the French king, Louis XIV. Later, however, he moved to the Hague (in the modern-day Netherlands), where his brother-in-law William II, Prince of Orange, seemed more likely to offer support to the royalist cause.
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All the while, back in England, things were going from bad to worse for Charles’s father. The war was now heading inexorably in parliament’s favour, and, in May 1646, the king placed himself in the hands of a Scottish army, who later handed him over to English parliamentarian forces. By the end of 1647, Charles I would find himself in captivity in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight.
But what would the parliamentarians do with their royal prisoner? The answer came in dramatic fashion in early 1649, when the leaders of the New Model Army and the more radical parliamentarians put the king on trial for high treason. After being convicted, he was beheaded in Whitehall. The execution of Charles I was a truly stunning event that sent shockwaves coursing through Europe’s courts.
The question that was now being asked was, what would the dead king’s son do next? The answer arrived in June 1650, when Charles sailed to Scotland with the aim of wresting back his father’s kingdoms. There, on 1 January 1651, he became the last monarch to be crowned north of the border, at a coronation ceremony at Scone Palace in Perthshire.
Unfortunately, Charles’s return to the mainland hadn’t gone unnoticed by Oliver Cromwell, now the most powerful man in the three kingdoms. The parliamentarian leader was determined to crush Charles’s campaign before it had begun and sent an army north to stamp out the royalist uprising. That army inflicted a bloody defeat on the Scots at Dunbar, killing 3,000 and taking a further 10,000 prisoner.
Battle of Worcester: bloodbath for the royalists
Yet Charles hadn’t given up all hope of regaining his father’s kingdoms quite yet. In fact, soon he had devised a new plan: to march an army into England, join up with his supporters there, and drive towards London. But Charles had failed to read the room. South of the border there simply wasn’t the appetite for more death and destruction, especially death and destruction meted out by a marauding Scottish army. When Charles marched south, the anticipated explosion of popular support didn’t materialise.
Even Charles I’s former royalist capital of Oxford refused to open its gates to the Scottish army. The invasion turned into a fiasco; one that reached a nightmarish crescendo when a parliamentarian army numbering 28,000 men caught up with Charles II’s army in Worcester. With the Scottish army less than half the size of its opponents, and absolutely exhausted, the result was a bloodbath.
What would have made Cromwell’s victory even more complete was if his forces had captured Charles. Yet somehow the fugitive king slipped through the net: first by hiding in an oak tree, then, assisted by a young woman named Jane Lane, whose brother was an officer in the royalist army, riding to Bristol. From there, the king travelled to the beach at Shoreham where he and his friend Lord Wilmot made their getaway to the European continent.
Following the defeat at Worcester, Charles’s hopes of ever regaining what he believed to be his rightful inheritance seemed to be well and truly expunged. And so he spent the next eight years enjoying the hospitality of various royal courts, filling his days partying, riding, sailing and womanising.
Bough for the king: when Charles II had to hide up a tree
In 1651, a young Charles narrowly escaped the clutches of the parliamentarian forces thanks to an unlikely hiding place
The search was on. A massive parliamentarian force had just crushed a Scottish army, led by Charles II, at Worcester. Now, to put the icing on the cake, all the victors had to do was capture the fugitive king himself. With his army emphatically beaten and supporters deserting him in droves, it would surely be the easiest of tasks.
Yet, as Charles’s pursuers would discover over the next few days, the king was resourceful, elusive and not entirely without sympathisers. Among those still willing to support the king were the Penderels. This family of Roman Catholic farmers spirited the exhausted monarch – now disguised as a woodman – to their home, Boscobel House, nearly 40 miles from Worcester.
Here, Charles was joined by a fellow royalist fugitive, William Careless. And it was Careless who came up with a quite remarkable plan: for the pair to evade their would-be captors by hiding in a nearby oak tree. And that’s exactly what they did, hurrying to the oak as dawn broke on 6 September 1651.
“While we were in the tree we see soldiers going up and down in the thickest of the wood searching for persons escaped, we seeing them now and then peeping out of the woods,” Charles II would later recall. The soldiers failed to find their quarry and Charles would, against all odds, escape to France.
End of the republic: return of the king
But soon his prospects were to take another turn – and, once again, the trigger was a dramatic change of events in England. On 3 September 1658, Cromwell died. With his passing, the cement that had held together the republican regime that had ruled in the absence of the monarchy, began to crumble. The army didn’t trust Oliver’s nominated successor, his son Richard, and so in May 1659 they forced him into retirement.
In a kingdom increasingly living under the yoke of high taxes and declining trade, what followed was a period marked by disputes between parliament and army. Enter George Monck. This Scotland-based parliamentarian general sensed that the public was becoming increasingly receptive to the idea of a restoration of the monarchy and so, in February 1660, Monck marched an army south into England with the aim of bringing that about.
Samuel Pepys had recently reported that Charles and his court were virtually living in rags, not a coat among them worth more than 40 shillings. Yet now he was on the cusp of regaining his father’s throne
In March, with a parliament that was now full of newly elected royalist supporters, Monck began to make private overtures to Charles. The events of spring 1660 marked an astonishing change of fortunes for the exiled king. The famed diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys had recently reported that Charles and his court were virtually living in rags, not a coat among them worth more than 40 shillings. Yet now he was on the cusp of regaining his father’s throne.
A critical development in that scenario being realised was the Declaration of Breda (named after the Dutch city in which the king was residing), in which Charles set out the terms for the restoration of the monarchy. In the declaration, he struck a strikingly conciliatory tone, offering a full pardon to all who appealed to him within 40 days, except those who had signed his father’s death warrant in 1649.
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He also offered “liberty to tender consciences” (unless religious differences threatened national peace), and payment of arrears of army pay. In a letter addressed to the speaker of the House of Commons, the king even extended an olive branch to MPs, appealing to them as “wise and dispassionate men and good patriots”.
The campaign behind the restoration had now gained an unstoppable momentum. Soon, people were flooding into Breda to wish him well, including Sir John Grenville, who came with a large sum of money from the new Convention Parliament and the City of London. When Charles saw this, Pepys reports, he became “so joyful, that he called the Princess Royal and Duke of York to look upon it as it lay in the Portmanteau before it was taken out”.
A few days later, having received deputations from parliamentary commissioners in the Hague, Charles set sail for England. By the time his fleet emerged over the horizon, thousands of people had lined Dover’s iconic white cliffs. They were there to welcome the ultimate survivor: their returning king.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Spencer is production editor of BBC History Magazine
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