To Catch a King by Charles Spencer
In this “pacey slice of narrative history”, Charles Spencer tells the story of the six weeks in 1651 that Charles Stuart, the future Charles II, spent on the run from Oliver Cromwell’s “cleverest henchmen”, said Kathryn Hughes in The Mail on Sunday. Following the execution of his father, Charles I, in 1649, the 21-year-old prince allied with the Scots to launch a Royalist challenge to the New Republic. But at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, his “raggle-taggle” followers were “butchered” by Cromwell’s “well-drilled” New Model Army – leaving the young pretender no option but to “scarper to the Continent”.
So began a “six-week manhunt” that would see Charles “lurking in ditches, hedgerows, hay-barns and priest-holes”, said Jessie Childs in The Daily Telegraph. Famously, he spent a day in Boscobel Forest, hiding his “6ft 2in frame” in an oak tree with “Roundheads truffling beneath”. (It’s why there are so many pubs named The Royal Oak.) Later, as king, Charles II would prove notoriously “slippery”, displaying similar instincts to those he used as a fugitive, such as staining his skin with walnut leaf juice (to give himself the tanned look of a labourer) and adopting numerous disguises, including a woodcutter, kitchen hand and “one half of an eloping couple”. This “extraordinary episode” has been recounted many times, not least by Samuel Pepys, who heard it directly from Charles II, said Anna Keay in the Literary Review. But Spencer is the “perfect person” to pass it on to a new generation. His prose is readable, and he has “even-handed sympathy for both the buccaneering fugitive and the fierce republican regime that hunted him”. To Catch a King is a “cracking read”.