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To Catch a King: Charles II's Great Escape

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How did the most wanted man in the country outwit the greatest manhunt in British history?
In January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded in London outside his palace of Whitehall and Britain became a republic. When his eldest son, Charles, returned in 1651 to fight for his throne, he was crushed by the might of Cromwell’s armies at the battle of Worcester.

With 3,000 of his supporters lying dead and 10,000 taken prisoner, it seemed as if his dreams of power had been dashed. Surely it was a foregone conclusion that he would now be caught and follow his father to the block? At six foot two inches tall, the prince towered over his contemporaries and with dark skin inherited from his French-Italian mother, he stood out in a crowd. How would he fare on the run with Cromwell’s soldiers on his tail and a vast price on his head?

The next six weeks would form the most memorable and dramatic of Charles’ life. Pursued relentlessly, Charles ran using disguise, deception and relying on grit, fortitude and good luck. 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 erroneous news of his killing; the ordeal of a medical student wrongly imprisoned because of his similarity in looks; he disguised himself as a servant and as one half of an eloping couple. Once restored to the throne as Charles II, he told the tale of his escapades to Samuel Pepys, who transcribed it all.

In this gripping, action-packed, true adventure story, based on extensive archive material, Charles Spencer, bestselling author of Killers of the King, uses Pepys’s account and many others to retell this epic adventure.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published October 5, 2017

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Charles Spencer

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 93 reviews
Profile Image for Whispering Stories.
2,640 reviews2,559 followers
March 27, 2019
Book Reviewed by Julie on www.whisperingstories.com

‘To Catch a King’ the story of King Charles II by best-selling author, Charles Spencer. The book is beautifully presented with a selection of paintings reproduced and interspersed in the text. It is divided into four parts and the chapters are of fairly equal length; each beginning with an epigraph to give an indication of what to expect. The book is written in narrative style rather than as a dramatisation.

The content is fairly easy to read with the occasional short contemporary extract from a publication or diary entry written by one of the Charles II’s associates or indeed Charles himself. Inevitably when trying to piece together a timeline, memories will differ and so it is with this account. Many of those involved have conflicting recollections but these instances are dealt with in a balanced way by the author.

There is a reasonable amount of background information leading up to the beheading of Charles I before we get to the Battle of Worcester, which led to Charles II needing to make good his escape to France. For any readers unfamiliar with this period of English history, it will undoubtedly be useful, providing they don’t get bogged down with names.

Some characters shine through as particularly strong, not least Charles’ mother, Henrietta Maria of France, Jane Lane who was instrumental in helping Charles evade capture and career soldier and MP, Lord Wilmot. We are also given potted histories of some other people involved along the way; which I found helpful. As a volunteer at Petworth House in Sussex, the references to the Wyndham family and 10th Earl of Northumberland were particularly relevant.

The synopsis suggests this is ‘a gripping action-packed true adventure story’ and some readers may view it as such. Whilst the escape from England is undoubtedly the epitome of Charles’ story, I think it would be more accurate to portray this work as a biography of his entire adult life. I particularly enjoyed the scenes when Charles was in hiding and noted the loyalty he inspired in those of both noble and lowly birth. Disguising a man of over six feet tall, when the average male height was no more than five feet six inches, was no mean feat. Upon the restoration, Charles proved himself to be a worthy patron to those who had protected him at his time of greatest need.

This is a diligent and competent work, if a little stodgy in places and not totally captivating. It is clear that a huge amount of research went into its production but whether it brings anything new to an already fairly well-known part of the Stuart reign, is arguable. Nonetheless, Charles Spencer has given an interesting and fairly sympathetic account of life of this monarch and I award a commendable four stars.
Profile Image for Joanne Robertson.
1,352 reviews552 followers
October 21, 2017
Now I am a pretty fast reader but it has taken me quite a few days to read To Catch A King as I became very focused on all the intricate details of this intriguing tale. I was afraid of missing out on any important points in this fascinating non fictional account of a part of our history I have to admit to knowing very little about. And it’s not through a lack of interest either! Ask anyone who knows me what my favourite book of all time is and they will tell you that it’s Forever Amber, Amber being a fictional character who becomes one of the mistresses of Charles II so since the age of 16 I have had a huge interest in that period especially in the many personal relationships at the court of King Charles II. So I was thrilled to be able to add to my knowledge by reading about a much earlier period of the his life, one that has had very little written about it before, especially not in such an engrossing and easy to understand narrative.

Having moved to Scotland for my secondary education, I found that Scottish History lessons tended not to revolve around Cromwells part in the English Civil War, concentrating instead on how it affected the House of Stuart’s reign in Scotland when the execution of Charles I lead to the English Parliament declaring their monarchy at an end. The Scots then broke ties with England and declared Charles II their king. He ruled then until 1651 when Cromwell and his army drove him out and, after the Battle of Worcester, Charles was forced to flee for his life. Obviously in Scotland the history is much more concerned about the restoration of The House of Stuart in 1660 so I knew nothing of Charles and his escape or why there are so many pubs in England called The Royal Oak!

Thankfully the first quarter of To Catch A King will fill in any gaps in your knowledge if you’re as unaware as I was of certain timelines and I guarantee you will find it as absolutely fascinating as I did! Once Charles is on the run, you will have become totally invested in his attempts to stay concealed whilst he tries to make his way to the safety of the continent. There’s a plethora of detail to indulge in and plenty of individuals involved in helping the exiled King to remain alive when there was danger around every turn. In fact, one of the things that struck me the most whilst reading this was how many places in the UK played a part in this account and I’m convinced most people reading will find some reference to a town or city near them used within one of the contexts within this story.

I was pleased the author finished off his account with a look at what happened to the many supporters (or enemies!!) who performed their parts so well in those intense weeks of hiding and how he also included a potted history of the last few years of the Kings life as well as his final days. There felt to be a great affection for the man he wrote of, and for me that raised this historical showpiece to a level of enjoyment I hadn’t been expecting. I would read far more historical non fiction if told with this amount of meticulous research and combined with such an enchanting and entertaining writing style that it vividly brought this story to live for me. I felt as though I had lived through those weeks with Charles alongside him and I loved every single moment.

This would make a fabulous Christmas present for any history buffs in your family or anyone with an interest in biographies and at the time of writing this review Amazon have the hardback on sale for £7.99 which is an absolute bargain for this beautifully designed and illustrated book.
Profile Image for Gerry.
Author 43 books92 followers
February 27, 2022
Charles Spencer has done extensive research, using much contemporary material from such as Samuel Pepys, to tell the amazing story of Charles II's fight to regain his crown after the execution of his father.

Having fought in the Civil War, Prince Charles was exiled in the Channel Islands before, on 5 February 1649, six days after his father's death, he was proclaimed King of Scotland and as such he returned to England to claim his throne in 1651. Supported by loyal Scots, he advanced into England but following defeat at the Battle of Worcester he was a much wanted man. But, with the aid of a host of loyal friends, he made a dramatic and sensational escape from Cromwell's men and eventually joined his mother, Henrietta Maria, in France.

He later returned to Scotland and, with an army of Scots, he marched south into England expecting support from the English. But he failed to get it and he and his army arrived at Worcester, exhausted and footsore after their 300-mile march. After time for recuperation his men began building fortifications in anticipation of a visit from the enemy. By then Cromwell had joined forces with Major General John Lambert and Major General Thomas Harrison to form a combined force of 30,000 men.

Charles put himself at the head of his forces and one of his men recorded, 'His Majesty behaved very gallantly [but] the King perceived the enemy too numerous, and our men worsted, drew within the walls'. However, it was inevitable that the Royalists would be defeated and,needless to say, they were, thus causing Charles to flee. The Scottish crown had been lost in a few hours and the English one was further from his grasp than ever.

Cromwell's men were convinced that they would find him and searched high and low and followed up various distant supposed sightings. But thanks to loyal friends most notably Lord Wilmot, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Lauderdale and the Duke of Buckingham, he was able to remain in the Worcester vicinity, avoid capture and eventually hide out at Whiteladies a house deep in the Brewood Forest.

Thus began a hunt for him that covered many miles with Charles constantly moving around closer to Worcester than his enemies imagined with Boscobel House, Moseley Hall, Trent House Heale house and others all providing refuge for him. He hid in all sorts of places, a priest hole at one time and, perhaps most notably, in an Oak tree, each time with Cromwell's men within touching distance of him without knowing it.

He eventually made his way to Shoreham where Colonel Gunter arranged a passage to France for him on board a sailing ship named Surprise. Once in Paris he was reunited with his mother and, after Cromwell had died on 3 September 1658, ironically the seventh anniversary of the Battle of Worcester, and a vote not to return to Stuart rule in favour of a continuation of Commonwealth government (which was overturned two moths later) he returned to England in triumph in May 1660.

This brilliant account of all the action also tells of the escapes, or otherwise, of many of Charles' helpers and briefly looks at the remainder of his career as Charles II. It is a thrilling tale, (told rather in the fashion of a John Buchan adventure novel) and it is a book that it was a pity to finish. I only wish history had been as appealing when I was a schoolboy!
Profile Image for Orsolya.
608 reviews287 followers
August 14, 2021
Charles Stuart – King Charles II of England and Scotland – is often associated with excess of pleasure from mistresses and gambling to theatre visits and horse racing. Yet, there is a psychological root for this desperation for leisure which stems from the trauma of his father, King Charles I, being beheaded during England’s Civil War and Charles being forced into exile under Oliver Cromwell when still a young lad barely out of his teen years. Charles II experienced undeserved harsh struggles while attempting to escape England to the court of his mother, Henrietta Maria, while the Parliamentarian Cromwell cronies were hot on his trail; but he retaliated with resourcefulness, wit, resilience and humbled attitude. Charles Spencer focuses on this almost unbelievable time in Charles’s life in, “To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape”.

Even though Charles’s escape from England seems almost fantastical; Charles, himself, and Royalists who aided his journey left behind multiple accounts, primary sources and historical recaps in full details of the events for prosperity allowing any who wouldn’t believe the tale to be proven false. Spencer draws on these sources to present a macro-view of the period in Stuart England with impeccable specifications and research. Readers familiar with Spencer’s work will find no surprise in the formulaic foundation of “To Catch a King” as Spencer sets the foundation behind Charles’s escape on a political and military level with a focus on the unrest in England toward King Charles I and the Battle of Worchester which was the ultimate catalyst requiring Charles to flee.

These first one hundred pages of “To Catch a King” can be deemed as dry, lacking a smooth narrative, and with a slow-paced heartbeat as Spencer appears to either venture on tangents or too-closely highlight military tactics. It is important to showcase the reasoning behind Charles’s need to escape England; but Spencer’s execution is absent of the ‘pizzaz’ that invigorates readership and is therefore a poor segue. “To Catch a King” feels tedious and hardly about Charles II at this point.

Don’t give up because once past this weaker section; the light at the end of the tunnel appears and it is quite bright. Spencer’s lecture of Charles’s escape and the Cromwellian pursuit is strategically presented from start to finish covering every aspect including locations, figures involved, dates, clothing worn, food dined on, etc. Spencer leaves no stone unturned and “To Catch a King” is infused with excitement, entertainment and intrigue while maintaining its strong, academic credibility. “To Catch a King” is ‘alive’ at this junction that readers truly feel as though they are re-living history and Spencer is the trusted tour guide. The text jumps off the pages like a film or piece of art.

Although Spencer shies away (thankfully) from any political or historical bias; he does debunk some myths and offers readers the full-story like a prized investigative journalist. Consequentially, even those readers familiar with the subject learn an abundance of new information regarding the subject that is usually absent in other texts. In fact, “To Catch a King” is one of the few scholarly pieces focusing on this part of Charles II’s history making it exhaustive in its own virtue.

Spencer infuses “To Catch a King” with primary document sources and quotes straight from the mouths of Charles and his supporters; plus from propaganda pieces from the Cromwell side. This, again, presents a well-rounded look on the topic that is objective and covers all areas of the tale rather than focusing on one opinion. “To Catch a King” is quite equal in its storytelling and gives each angle a strong voice allowing the reader to make their own judgment.

On a negative note, “To Catch a King” is a microscope on the logistics and political aspect of Charles’s escape rather than provide any insight into his feelings, thoughts, or personal experience even though this information IS extant and DOES exist. Spencer missed out producing an even headier piece.

The final chapters of “To Catch a King” are equally gratifying discussing Charles’s successful escape, the reaction of England’s government and citizens, a detailed recap of the rewards given to those who aided his exile and Charles’s eventual death. Not only is this a solid summarization and closing of the text but readers are once again educated on detailed information that is typically not traversed making “To Catch a King” a memorable and satisfying read.

Spencer finalizes “To Catch a King” with a section of Notes (although, sadly not annotated) and a bibliography list.

“To Catch a King” kicks off with a slow start but fear not: it is worth your while to push through. Certainly, the piece suffers from occasional lacks of focus, tangents and a slow pace; but does a 180 turn when actually focusing on Charles II despite not offering Charles’s personal views. Even with these flaws, “To Catch a King” is a solid look at the subject matter and is recommended for those interested in Stuart England and/or King Charles II.
Profile Image for Linda Hill.
1,206 reviews31 followers
October 5, 2017
The future Charles II is on the run.

I rarely read non-fiction and was apprehensive about reading To Catch A King. I needn’t have been, because the vivacity of the writing frequently made me forget that this was a factual book and I became thoroughly absorbed in the narrative elements.

That said, To Catch A King is no sloppy fictionalised romp through the seventeenth century. Each element has been meticulously researched and the quality and extensiveness of the Notes and Bibliography are solid proof of just how much effort has gone in to making To Catch A King an authentic, believable and authoritative account of the events. It’s a period of history about which I thought I knew quite a bit, but I was thoroughly educated and loved the primary source materials included. Also worth mentioning are the excellent quality photographs of the portraits of Charles and those around him.

I was struck by the insight into life in general. I hadn’t previously considered the role of a blacksmith as the greatest source of local information, for example. I found the casual dispensing of life far more disturbing than I had previously considered. Somehow Charles Spencer has brought home to me just how fleeting and perfunctory life then was.

However, for me the greatest enjoyment of reading To Catch A King was the depth of understanding about the man I gained, regardless of his status in life. Charles Spencer explores every element from Charles II’s strategic planning to his need of a clean shirt so that by the time I read of his death at the end of the book I was actually quite moved by his passing.

To Catch A King is a book of elegantly written historical accuracy that brings alive a crucial period of British history. I found it both interesting and engaging.
Author interview here too: https://lindasbookbag.com/2017/10/05/...
Profile Image for Andrea Zuvich.
Author 6 books210 followers
October 5, 2017
With To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, out on the 5th October 2017, Charles Spencer has done it again. As the author of some fantastic books about seventeenth-century Britain, such as my personal favourite, Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier, Blenheim: The Battle for Europe, and his most recent work, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared Execute Charles I, Spencer knows how to bring history alive with his thrilling and strong narratives. This time, he has chosen Charles II’s amazing, hair-raising escape from certain death following the Battle of Worcester of 1651- the disastrous result of his attempt to regain his family’s throne following his father’s execution in 1649.

...Although this book is certainly informative and enjoyable on its own, I strongly advise potential readers who are unfamiliar with the English Civil Wars to read Spencer’s Killers of the King first before reading this book because things will make much more sense within that context. I would also suggest Blair Worden’s The English Civil Wars 1640–1660 (2010) as well.

This work is a thrilling adventure full of suspense and danger; the ending I found bittersweet. In my opinion, one of Spencer’s greatest talents lies in his ability to bring historical records together and weave them into a very human narrative that can’t help but touch one’s soul.

For the full review, please visit my website at: http://www.andreazuvich.com/book-revi...
Profile Image for Abbie.
248 reviews164 followers
December 7, 2017
While I was eager to read To Catch a King as I have always liked history, I was a little apprehensive about whether or not I would be able to get into it as my interests tend to lie in modern British and European history. My knowledge of the monarchy and Britain in the 17th Century is sketchy at best. However, I needn’t have worried as Charles Spencer has written a pacey historical novel in which the momentum never lets up and which is easy to follow.

In January 1649 Charles I was beheaded and Britain became a republic. Next in line to the throne, Charles II was safely ensconced in France, however, he returned to England in 1651 to fight for his throne. Defeated in battle, the next six weeks Charles spent on the run from Cromwell and the New Model Army and it is this hair-raising tale that Spencer tells us in To Catch a King.

While in the back of mind I knew about the brutality often displayed in early Britain, I was quite taken aback about the extent of it and it was really put into context for me in in this true account. I was also surprised about the level of propaganda used during this period, for some reason I considered propaganda and the use of media to be a more recent phenomenon, but Spencer highlights how it was used during this period.

The seventeenth century was certainly a tumultuous time in British History with civil war and harsh punishments for those who showed allegiance to the monarchy and those who practised Roman Catholicism. I was bowled over by the unswerving loyalty displayed to Charles II by those that helped him especially in the face of the punishments that would be meted out to them if they were caught. To Catch a King is easily up there with the thrillers I have read this year yet it has the added edge of being true. That Charles II and his entourage pulled of this feat during times in which the means to communicate were substantially more difficult than they are now is truly amazing and I can’t believe that I did not know more about this escapade. I was also unaware as to why there are so many pubs in Britain called The Royal Oak and the story behind this is brilliant.

To Catch a King took me longer to read than a book normally would and this was in part due to me keeping track of the substantial cast of characters but also because I wanted to savour it. Spencer has clearly taken considerable care in his research and it is a book that begs to be taken in gradually. Incredibly well written, Spencer has captured the time period perfectly and yet made To Catch a King accessible and readable. I really appreciated the final chapters of the book in which we learn, briefly, about Charles II’s time during the Restoration and what happened to those who helped him.

A great read for history lovers and those who like pacey thrillers. While I did not doubt Spencer’s ability to write, I have to confess to enjoying To Catch a King a lot more than I thought I would. A great slice of British history told in a compelling way.

A huge thank you to Charles Spencer and William Collins for the copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.
Profile Image for V.E. Lynne.
Author 4 books37 followers
April 12, 2018
Highly readable account of the escape to the Continent of the young Charles II in 1651 after the disastrous (for him) Battle of Worcester. Charles Spencer outlines the unlikely nature of the king's flight, the huge risks many ordinary people took to help him, the indispensable pieces of good luck that came his way, and the personal courage of the king himself. Spencer has an engaging, fluid writing style, a good command of the subject matter, and a natural affinity for the figure of the king and his aristocratic companions, not surprising given the author's own background. He does balance this however by highlighting the very humble circumstances that most of Charles's helpers came from, the all too real risk of execution and ruin for their families that they were hazarding, and the fact that Charles never forgot what they did for him. 'To Catch a King' is a gem of a book, four stars.
Profile Image for Christina.
Author 38 books265 followers
October 29, 2020
This is historical non-fiction at its best! Charles Spencer is a master at telling a story at the same time as imparting all the pertinent facts and that makes for a thrilling read. The tale of how the future King Charles II escaped his enemies after losing the battle of Worcester is so fantastic it could actually have made a great fictional story. On the run through ten of England’s counties for six weeks, Charles had to improvise and trust those who were firm royalists. His life was in constant danger with a price of £1,000 on his head. Lord Wilmot, his companion, was a flamboyant man who ran many risks during those weeks, but seemed to be born under a lucky star. Charles himself proved to be resourceful, quick-thinking and incredibly courageous. Reading this tale, one can’t but cheer him on and rejoice as he finally set sail for France and safety. And there is huge satisfaction in hearing about the rewards he gave those who helped him, as well as his revenge on those who had sought to end his life. This is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys history and especially from the Stuart era.
Profile Image for Louise Culmer.
825 reviews41 followers
October 10, 2017
A fairly interesting account of Charles II's remarkable escape after the battle of Worcester. Though it would be very difficult to make this thrilling true life story dull, this particular version is not nearly as engrossing as Richard Ollard's The Escape of Charles II, which I personally found much more gripping than this one, in fact I could hardly bear to put it down, whereas I didn't have any trouble putting this one down. Charles Spencer spends rather too long working up to the battle of Worcester - I didn't feel that we needed quite so much detail about what had happened to every member of Charles's family over the preceding decade. Nor did I really see the point of the detailed and gruesome description of Charles's death, which occurred thirty four years after his escape. It's not bad, but if anyone was to ask me, I'd say go for Richard Ollard's version rather than this one. Frankly, I think Richard Ollard is the better writer.
Profile Image for Kiki Z.
1,013 reviews51 followers
July 16, 2018
There are two major issues with this book: It takes too long to get to the actual escape (it starts at about 35%). A majority of this information is unnecessary to understand. There's background and then there's needless information. And second, the author throws so many names at us, some of which are again unnecessary to the narrative, that they are confusing in the end. Like most nonfiction authors, it's almost like the author wanted to show you how much research they did.
233 reviews2 followers
April 3, 2022
After reading the historical novel The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley, I want to find a book that could inform me about the English Civil War. The Vanished Days touches on events in the fight between the Parliamentarians vs the Royalists in Scotland. Although the historical events provide the backdrop for the novel, I didn't get a full understanding of the two sides and what they were fighting over. So I looked for book that could fill some of the many holes in my knowledge of English history. To Catch a King is a work of non-fiction that describes the attempt of Charles II to regain the throne of England/Scotland/Ireland that had been lost when his father was executed by the regicides (Spencer's term for the Parliamentarians who demanded that King Charles I deserved execution.) For a few years, after the execution of Charles I, there was no monarchy, instead, government was entirely run by Parliament and Oliver Cromwell. Fighting had lasted for years between the forces of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, causing tremendous suffering throughout the kingdom. (To Catch a King calls this strife The First Civil War, which is confusing, because even someone such as myself who has a limited understanding of English history knows that there was internal warfare in England between Stephen and Matilda (as depicted in the Brother Cadfael series) as each tried to rule after the death of King Henry I. Also, wasn't the War of the Roses fought between the House of York and House of Lancaster a civil war? Didn't King Richard III die in the battle of Bosworth fighting the forces of King Henry VII?)

In 1651, Charles II, at the age of 21, led an invading army from Scotland against armies of England and the Parliamentarians. It was an ill planned venture, the veteran forces of Cromwell outnumbered the invaders. Charles II got as far as the city of Worcester before battle was engaged. The Royalist forces collapsed against experienced troops of England, and soon the Scots were scattered. The King himself fled the battlefield, knowing that if he was captured, he would certainly suffer the same fate as his father - his head would be chopped off. This book documents the six weeks of Charles II escape attempt, during which time he was the most hunted man in the country. Charles II was known to stand over 6' tall; a towering figure when compared to the average 5'7" of his countrymen. He was a recognizable man, with a £1000 bounty on his head. This was a significant sum - the average citizen made just £25 in a year. £1000 was enough to purchase 200 head of cattle, it was a princely sum (literally!). And yet, despite huge reward and the large number of people who aid the king during his 6 week escape, Charles II is not betrayed. I found myself wondering if all of these devoted Royalists would be rewarded when Charles II ultimately was awarded the throne. The second to last chapter of the book details all the rewards Charles lavished upon the loyal Royalists who had risked so much to aid his escape (Unfortunately, not all of the award funds were actually delivered by Parliament.)

After the disaster on the battlefield at Worcester, Charles II rides north toward the safety of the Scottish border. He travels 40 miles in the first day. But the Parliamentarians anticipate this escape route, and have companies of soldiers guarding all the roads north. Charles and his guides try for the Welsh border, but that route too is blocked. The searchers are everywhere, Charles II is always in peril. At one point, he hides in a "priest hole" - a cleverly constructed hiding spot inside a building that was meant to hide Roman Catholic priests from Protestant officials. The clever carpenter, Nicholas Owen, who constructed many of these ingenious hidey-holes was eventually captured and tortured to death in the Tower of London, but he refused to divulge the location of all the hiding spaces that so frustrated the Protestant officials. Owen was declared a saint by the Catholic church in 1970.

Because the Protestant troops were searching the homes of all known Royalists, Charles II spent one day hiding in a pollarded oak tree - a pollarded tree has its upper branches pruned, which promotes dense foilage on the lower branches. Although soldiers passed near the tree where he was hidden, Charles II was undetected from the ground. Today there are more than 400 pubs and taverns named The Royal Oak to commemorate this famous hiding spot.

Also fleeing from the Worcestor battlefield is Lord Wilmot. Wilmot is dedicated to the King's cause, and show tremendous courage. Yet Wilmot is also incredibly vain - he will not resort to disguises, he continues to dress nicely, and spend time in establishments eating and drinking despite the great risk that entails. And yet Wilmot also manages to elude the grasp of the Protestants (who were derisively called "Roundheads").

Charles II and the loyal Royalists decide the best way to escape is to go south, and catch a ship to France. Charles is given boiled walnuts to rub onto his pale skin, thus darkening his skin, to make him look like he has spent time outdoors. He acts the part of a manservant, riding on the front of the horse while the noble woman rode side-saddle behind him. At one point, the horse throws a shoe, and has to be taken to a blacksmith. I thought that this was the most amazing part of the entire book: "The local blacksmith, by the name of Hamnet was summoned. While he was there, he tended to the other horses too. Looking at the hooves of Lord Wilmot's horse, Hamnet remarked out loud, with obvious interest, that the marking on the shoes showed that they came from in or around Worcester. There must have been an uneasy hush among the Royalists as they waited to see what the blacksmith concluded from that discovery." Charles II and his allies are far south from Worcester at this point of the narrative - yet a local blacksmith can detect that a horse has been near Worcester by looking at its hooves??? This is Sherlock Holmes caliber-insight! The blacksmith does tell his local priest, who then finds a some Parliamentary soldiers, but by then Charles II and his party have ridden away.

Ultimately, the people of England decide to restore the monarchy, and Charles II is invited back to England in triumph, to be given the throne in 1660 at the age of 30. I couldn't help but think of all the unnecessary bloodshed and suffering of the pointless Civil War, when the final outcome ultimately simply given to Charles II (after the death of Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarians.)

Spencer is an interesting historian; I see that he has written other books of English history that look intriguing. Perhaps I will read his work Blenheim, the Battle for Europe or The White Ship about the consequential death of Henry I's only heir when his ship is run aground and sinks in the English Channel
Profile Image for Chris.
21 reviews
November 22, 2022
A really enjoyable and very readable narrative history. One of the most enjoyable books I've read on this period recently.
January 24, 2022
I enjoyed this book, I found some things annoying (see below) but the book reads easily and the narrative, whilst at times a little less that exciting, is always fascinating. To be fair, and no spoilers here, we all know that he did actually escape in the end which does make the narrative that much harder to write when everyone already knows the end!

Charles’ escape after Worcester in 1651 is usually known as little more than hiding in an oak tree and then escaping to France. Spencer shows how much more complicated than that it was and how lucky at times the King was but also how adaptable he was when the occasion demanded - many would have been less flexible and been caught.

The part played in the escape but a small number of incredibly brave and loyal subjects is given full coverage and the individuals their full credit. And it is gratifying to see that Charles did honour his promises and reward those who assisted his escape - including at least two pensions that were to be paid ‘in perpetuity’. Incidentally these were still being paid to their descendants at least as late as 2019, which is somewhat heart-warming to know.

However, as I noted above, there are some very silly and careless errors in the text – annoyingly these are actually in the ‘asides’ and don’t even need to have been there although their presence will greatly mislead the unwary! Just two examples will show what I mean: Hugh Peter never commanded a Regiment, or indeed ever held a commission as an officer in the Army (p 193). The average height of a man in 1650, according to the University of Oxford study, was 5ft 8in NOT 5ft 6in (p 109), and yes this actually is important in the context for which this statement is made.

Spencer has an annoying habit of referring to “the redcoats” when he mentions the Parliamentary cavalry - the Parliamentary cavalry were never known, and are not known, as ‘redcoats’ for the simple fact that they weren’t issued with red coats! The infantry were but never the cavalry. And my other comment is the surprising and unquestioning belief in some of the statements made in the contemporary press (if the Royalists had really taken 2,000 casualties at the siege of Lyme, p 175, this would have been a casualty rate of perhaps 50%!). Such errors from an historian of Spencer’s ability I find highly surprising, he is well aware that contemporary accounts without exception greatly exaggerated the casualties that their enemy suffered whilst minimising their own.

Nevertheless this is an excellent book even if the silly errors, which a good editor should have spotted, prevent it being ‘five stars’. But definitely well worth the read.
Profile Image for Cathie.
207 reviews34 followers
August 18, 2018
I'm not sure what to think--parts of it were riveting while other sections fell flat. This may in part be that I'm simply not used to non-fiction books, or else it signals a lack of authorial talent. I'm really not sure. I need to read more on the subject. Once Charles reaches France, the telling is much abbreviated: The Parliamentarians seem to have just faded away quickly esp after the death of Cromwell. Charles' reign is also not covered in great detail. but that isn't the focus of the book. I loved reading about my 8th great aunt Jane Lane who figured prominently in the escape. (and was not, as far as we can surmise a mistress of the future King).
February 24, 2021
It’s a shame that such a great story is attached to such a loser, but so it is.

The hero of our story is Charles II, king of England from 1660-1685.
His father, King Charles, the 1st, managed to get his head chopped off after a bloody civil war that saw Oliver Cromwell and his new model army victorious over the monarchists. It was a brutal conflict in which hundreds of thousands of English, Scottish, and Irish lost their lives. Charles the 1st had enough foresight to launch his son into exile before the parliamentarians could offer the young teenager the same fate as his dad.

While in exile, Charles’ most noteworthy accomplishments were limited to bedroom conquests and various other exploits in debauchery. The bizarre tryst that launched Charles’s notable sexual career happened at the tender age of 13 when his wet nurse, who raised him from infancy, took it upon herself to give young Charles a full education in carnal knowledge.

The Earl of Rochester sums up the king’s endless promiscuity with the following poem:

Restless he rolls from whore to whore

A very monarch, scandalous and poor

When Charles wasn’t busy impregnating women or out drinking with his buddies he spent his spare time trying to get his kingdom back. Finally, he hatched a plan. The Scots would make him king and fight for him but only if he would become a Presbyterian. The reprobate wanna be king signed on the dotted line. Foolishly, instead of letting the English army come to him in Scotland, he defied his generals and launched an offensive straight into the heart of England. Over-stretched and under-supplied. Cromwell’s army completely routed Charles and the Scots at Worcester. Charles managed to escape capture and for the next six weeks, he was the target of the largest manhunt in English history.

Roman Catholic supporters of the monarchy hid him and put together a most daring effort to get him to the coast and over to the safety of France. Against all odds, the audacious plan worked. The king became a stable servant to a maid; he acted briefly as a chef’s helper and a woodsman. He cut his hair and exchanged his royal clothes for rags. He hid in a large leafy oak tree one day with enemies all around. Enemies who managed somehow not to look up!

Fortunately, his connections with the Catholics put an intricate life-saving network of “priest holes” at his disposal. In the 1600s in England, it was a capital offence to be a Catholic priest. Priests of the R.C. variety were devils spawn according to Anglicans. Naturally, those loyal to the R.C rendition of the faith didn’t see it quite the same way, so to protect their beloved priests, a master carpenter by the name of Nicholas Owen spent a couple of decades secretly building a series of elaborate hiding places all over England. His work halted when he was captured, condemned and then drawn and quartered for his clandestine work. His entrails were lifted out of his body to the delight of the crowd and the satisfaction of the Anglicans. Happily for Charles, Owen didn’t spill the locations of his hiding places even as his own guts spilled out. During his six weeks on the run, the fugitive king on more than one occasion got to hear first hand what his subjects thought of him! All accounts seem to indicate that the king rather enjoyed this high stakes subterfuge, perhaps even more than being king!?

He escaped, waited ten years while England’s first attempt at a republic slowly imploded. Eventually, he was invited back, and the monarchy was restored. Charles returned, killed all his enemies and rewarded all who helped him escape. Roman Catholicism was still a no-no, but Charles was happy to wink and look the other way for a lot of it. Charles didn’t really take to ruling once he got his crown. Debauchery was more his specialty. When he lay dying probably of syphilis or cirrhosis of the liver, he secretly snuck in a Catholic priest to give him last rites. The Catholics had helped him more than the Anglicans or Presbyterians ever did, so he would die a Catholic.

Truthfully the medical experts were the ones that finished him off. They were trying their best, of course, to help, but to say their methods were counterproductive would be an understatement!

1) Over 30 ounce’s of blood extracted to get the sickness out
2) Shoulders burned to stimulate the body.
3) Several oral and rectal enema’s filled with horrendous concoctions to purge the body.
4) Hair shaved off, and acidic blistering agents applied to his scalp.
5) Nose membrane burned
6) Poultices applied in various places made of hydrochloric acid and pigeon poo.
Mercifully after so much torture in the name of good medical practice, he died.
Profile Image for Jaffareadstoo.
2,587 reviews
October 4, 2017
In To Catch A King, the author has captured the excitement of the subterfuge which was needed, over a period of six weeks, to ensure the young King's safety. In using authenticated archive material the author brings together a fascinating look at the huge risks that Charles faced in a time when the whole of the country was in complete disarray. The book reads like a boys own adventure, full of daring-do and high excitement, however, what is never forgotten, is the inherent danger that Charles faced, after all, the country had executed his beloved father just two years previously. I was particularly pleased to see mention of an event that happened in my home town. In August 1651, the Battle of Wigan Lane, led by the Earl of Derby's men, was a disaster for the Royalists and marked a decided turning point in Charles's fortunes. Had this attack been a success the outcome for both king and country may well have been very different.

There's sometimes a danger in non-fiction history books that the substance becomes just a regurgitation of facts and figures but, not so with To Catch A King. It's a very readable account of Charles's escape, and with the substance of history never compromised, the book gives a thrilling account of how events unfolded. Beautifully illustrated, To Catch A King follows on from this author's previous book, The Killers of the King. As you would expect there are comprehensive notes and a detailed bibliography section with a wide-ranging index for ease of use, which is particularly helpful if, like me, you like to dip in and out of history books, at whim.

To Catch A King is a confident and meticulously researched account of a man who was in grave danger and yet, it's also about the love and loyalty of those supporters who jeopardised their own lives in order to ensure Charles's safety. It is heartening to learn, in one of the later sections of the book, that these acts of kindness, however large or small, were never forgotten by the King and that, once he was restored to his throne, his friends and followers were rewarded handsomely for their support.

I often read accounts of Charles's time as King, usually these focus on his love of excess, his philandering nature, and his inability to take things seriously. It is particularly heartening to read a comprehensive and inspiring non-fiction account of the early life of this most charismatic of English monarchs, of the events which shaped his personality, and of the strength of his character that was formed during his dark days of exile.

Profile Image for Ben Jeapes.
53 reviews1 follower
October 25, 2022
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.
Profile Image for Claudia.
1,210 reviews36 followers
November 12, 2022
Charles I of England is dead, beheaded by order of the Parliament which leaves his heir, Charles, as the new king of England. But he needs to remove the current government, the Commonwealth, in order the claim the throne. And it's not that easy. The Scots Covenanter Parliament are willing to acknowledge Charles as their King as long as he conforms and submits to a horrific set of controlling measures and degrading demands. But he bites his royal lip and submits in order to get an army to take England back. And with an army he invades the northern regions, heading for Wales where he encounters the New Model Army and suffers a bitter defeat.

The most interesting part then becomes his escape - in secret as there is a large reward for his capture - and how he manages to travels from the defeat in Worcester to finally finding a ship that will take him across the Channel to France and safety, evading the Parliamentary forces.

OF course, the book finishes with his restoration a number of years later. His numerous children - none by his wife - the Great Fire of London, his mistresses and excesses but he also rewarded those who helped him make his escape while taking revenge on those who signed his father's execution order.

This serves as a good companion piece to read after Spencer's Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I

Profile Image for Thomas.
501 reviews6 followers
June 9, 2020
Another excellent and enlightening read, a superb companion to the other book by Charles Spencer chronicling the revenge by Charles II over the murder of his father.

This book covers Charles II from his ill fated invasion of England via Scotland and his time spent on the run evading the Parliamentary forces over six weeks. Some amusing tales of the King sleeping in a tree (where Royal Oak pubs get their names) to dressing as a woodsman and trying not to stand out (common male heights being 5'6" to Charles' 6'2").

I dont think there can be spoilers given the book is about history but the book follows Charles and his return to the throne after the death of Cromwell and the lack of a succession following his tenure as Lord Protector. The nice bit is to see those who aided the King on his evasion get honours and rewards, what a thrill it must have been to be of assistance and in time see the efforts rewarded with the restoration of the monarchy.

The amusing reward was to a drunken man who chided Charles being a Roundhead get rewarded with a drinking cup.

As I said above a superb read and fantastic complement to the other book Killers of The King. I personally would read this one first given it covers the period before Charles II takes the throne and revenge on the regicides.
Profile Image for Monzenn Mallari.
286 reviews
August 18, 2022
The book certainly had a lot to say about the singular event. Maybe that was the problem: it had too much to say.

So there's no question about the amount of detail the book showed, and the expertise it portrayed about those particular years. Settings were described nicely, as if I were there. People who were involved in the main battle, then the hiding, then the escape, were followed closely. The amount of research done was obvious.

Unfortunately, I felt like there was too much unnecessary detail put on the escape itself. I did not need to know, for example, what the king ate, where he slept, or how he humored several people during the escape. Every time the focus was on almost everyone else (maybe save for the king's trusted friend), I was amused. I wanted to know more about the Parliament, Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant-Catholic divide, the politics around Europe at that time, even about Samuel Pepys, the source for much of the book's account. But when it went back to the main plot, I was deluged by too much unnecessary detail that I tuned out. The "rewards" portion took two chapters when I felt that a few paragraphs would have been enough.

Props for the ending for both being interesting and bringing back one of the pivotal characters in the escape. It is a nice bow to end what was a meandering, but still notable, account.
Profile Image for Good Queen Bess.
21 reviews
July 1, 2020
this book is insane. the history within it is insane. all of the characters involved are insane and the fact most of them made it out alive makes the story even more insane. this is most definitely a history book and is filled with your typical style of evidence supported storytelling that comes with a history book, but it honestly feels more like reading or listening to a docudrama about this weird little six week escape mission that charles ii had to take. which also leads me to my favourite part of the book - the insights and stories that humanise the boy king, like when he was yelled at by a cook for not being able to roast some meat on a spit. there were definitely parts that have your essential history tidbits: battles and politics that need to be explained in order to fully grasp the story at hand, but spencer writes with such a guiding hand and easy explanations that not only tell the the story in the present, but the history surrounding it - making for an information-packed romp through the countryside with a king and the men who want his head. if you're just getting into history this is a perfect read - not too long, not too difficult and really enjoyable read to the end of the month.
follow me on instagram! @gingbouffant
Profile Image for Annabelle.
999 reviews7 followers
March 23, 2022
Shortly after reading The White King, I figured I'd pounce on this book while I could still recollect the events that led to the beheading of Charles I. To Catch a King is the son's story, not so much about his life (the book does not bother to explain how his marriage takes place, and whether his wife was Protestant, or Catholic like his mother), but about his short-lived attempt to retake the throne and his ensuing fantastic escape from England. A jolly good read, it takes place almost two years after his father's execution and focuses on Charles II's six weeks on the run from regicides, hiding at random cottages, mansions with priest holes (made by one Nicholas Owen, whom I deemed a saint after reading of his courage and sacrifice, a sentiment confirmed by a footnote: he was canonized in 1970), and at some point having to hide and sleep inside the trunk of a large oak tree--precisely why England has over 400 pubs called The Royal Oak today. Charles II comes out as likeable, if occasionally dense to the poverty of his people. He is also tainted by his betrayal of his worthiest subject, James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose. The escape takes place immediately after Charles II's and the Scots' defeat at Worcester, as Charles II and his trusty cohorts--Lord Henry Wilmot and the Penderel brothers chief among these--wander around in what looks to be a two hundred square mile area, judging by the map. The odds are dismal, there is no concrete plan, and their meanderings are fraught with danger. But pragmatic thinking, enduring allegiances to the crown, some humor, and best of all, luck--always manage to save the day. Think Don Quixote meets Frodo and his ragtag team from The Lord of the Rings. As Charles Spencer* calls it early into his writing, "In the final analysis, this is a tale of grit, of loyalty, and of luck."

* I had no idea Lady Diana's brother was a writer. I only realized who he was after I looked at the dust jacket, and thought his face familiar.
Profile Image for AARON .
1 review
May 27, 2023
The inclusion of factual events in the timeline creates distinct narratives within the overarching story, as each journey to a new hiding spot becomes a unique tale in its own right. The pressure from parliament to hold Charles accountable is increasing steadily over time as the squeeze becomes tighter. According to the parliament, Charles is considered a traitor and a potential threat. The townspeople perceive him as a source of financial gain. His escape was successful, as everything that needed to go right did so. Even his setbacks turned out to be blessings. Charles was deeply affected by the loyalty and the impact of those who aided him in his escape, which was realized until he took his last breath. The book is highly recommended for individuals interested in history, irrespective of their prior knowledge about Charles' escape.

The book's title is deceptive, albeit in a positive manner. Spencer provides a multifaceted experience beyond the mere pursuit of regal authority. The author's account of the events that transpired prior to and subsequent to his escape provides readers with a precise historical outlook of the era.
Profile Image for Randhir.
324 reviews5 followers
June 4, 2019
Despite his laziness and sexual profligacy, history has always treated King Charles II kindly. The eldest son of King Charles I, he personally participated in the English Civil War, which led to a puritan reformation in England and the execution of Charles I. King Charles II had two narrow escapes and this book deals with his escape to France after the defeat of his Army at the Battle of Worcester. The Royalists were under severe threat but they still showed their loyalty to their King and at great risk to their lives, they collaborated in his escape. At times the situations were fraught with danger. Charles never lost his courage and neither did those who helped. The people had got thoroughly fed up of the Parliamentarians and after Cromwell died, Charles was popularly restored to the throne. He generously showed his gratitude to all those who helped him. The Author writes the book like a thriller and it's most enjoyable reading
Profile Image for Timothy.
315 reviews
February 8, 2020
I took a class in college in the early 90’s about Britain under the Stuart’s. A time period lasting from 1603 to 1714, interrupted by the English Civil War and Commonwealth from 1649 to 1660. British history was not my concentration of study which was why I found this period so interesting. When I saw this book on Charles ll, written by Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl of Spencer and the younger brother of Princess Diana, I wanted to read it and reacquaint myself with a part of the subject matter I studied in the 90’s. This is Book reads like the great adventure that it was. Charles II, whose father, Charles I, was beheaded by the Parliamentarian Government, leads a Royalist Army which is defeated at the Battle of Worcester, flees for his life from Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell. He is assisted in hiding from various people loyal to the crown. His fate, if captured would certainly be similar to his fathers. I am surprised this hasn’t been made into a movie.
Profile Image for Andrew Collins.
29 reviews
May 11, 2018
The book covers a crucial but largely unpopularised period of English history- the one exception being the Boscobel oak. The underlying research is awesome but the real brilliance of the book is the way in which the dry facts are woven into a living story; as it says on the cover ‘a history book with the pace of a novel’.
The individual characters emerge as the story unfolds. I became so engrossed in the historical factors that I could not help wondering how our history would have emerged had the escape not been successful and its success was never guaranteed until Charles Stuart had actually been landed in France.
Interestingly a number of the places visited by or sheltering the fleeing future King now seem to be unaware of their related fame or, at least, they do not appear to advertise it.
A strongly recommended read.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
322 reviews
March 15, 2019
The titbits make a historical novel sing and this had them aplenty, from "angel lust" to clever disguises. The dialogue and historical anecdotes have been carefully woven into the narrative to reflect the characters within it - and complex characters too. These aren't two-dimensional figures ripped from time, they're fleshed out individuals and some almost too flamboyant and prideful to seem real. Truth, however, is stranger than fiction (as we learn time and time again). 'To Catch a King' masterfully communicates the turbulent times for England after the Civil Wars - and for King Charles II - as the Parliamentarians roamed the country seeking their defeated enemy. From battles to revenge to religious hysteria, this is a biography crying out for a drama series.

And it was the perfect remedy to a chest infection.
Profile Image for Chris.
292 reviews12 followers
March 19, 2019
First of all, this wasn't the Charles I wanted to read about. The Charles I wanted to read about was Bonnie Prince Charlie so it is my fault that I had no interest in this book. I do have to say though; I love history, mainly British, but any significant history is interesting for me. Except this.

Although it was only 278 pages it took me an age to read (no doubt due to the non-interest) and I dreaded reading it to be honest. Don't get me wrong, it is highly informative for someobody who would be interested in Charles II and his escape but it just wasn't for me.

(Just to clarify; you may be wondering why I finished the book if I wasn't interested in it. I am doing the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge which really involves finishing a book of said category, so it was either finish this or start another.)
Profile Image for Oren Cohen.
1 review
August 8, 2020
I loved this book because I learned so much from it and because it didn't feel like reading a History text book.
I didn't know much at all about the British Civil War before reading this. Luckily, halfway through the book I passed through Wocester and so I went on a guided tour which added even more context to everything I was reading.
It's very detailed. with lots of names I couldn't keep up with. At the same time though, all the details that aren't names of people are interesting facts or funny stories that have been collected by Spencer.
I'm a slow reader and so the fact I read this back to front in about one week is a sign of how readable it really is. I am very keen to read Spencer's first book now (Killers of the King) and I would definitely know a whole lot more about historical events if they were all written similarly to this book.
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