Picture being hunted down by an army of men. If they catch you, they will take you to the Tower of London and likely chop your head off. To survive, you have to somehow escape the country. It would be a dreadful set of circumstances to be trapped in.
Yet, in 1651, this is precisely what 21-year-old King Charles II of England had to endure when his Royalist army was defeated at the Battle of Worcester.
Fleeing would prove almost impossible. Our man, aided by a few trusted lieutenants, threw himself into the task of surviving – the future of England's monarchy depended on it. He was willing to do anything to stay alive.
The King's time on the run lasted six weeks and saw him crossing a large section of the Midlands and Southern England. Starting in Worcester, he meandered his way through several counties, eventually boarding a boat bound for France in Shoreham, West Sussex. Once securely away, the King would remain absent from his country for almost a decade.
Today, 370 years on from that fantastic flight through England, hunted at every turn as the most wanted man in the country, the Monarch's Way retraces his steps and is accessible to everybody.
Here, as part of the Doorstep History series, BFBS explores the story and the route as we walk in the steps of a King.
The great thing about the Monarch's Way is that it is so large. Its breadth across Southern England means it is extraordinarily accessible. You can decide to walk a chunk of it, perhaps between two towns or cities, or just focus on an urban section, such as the route's journey through Bristol.
The map above outlines the entirety of the Monarch's Way. We can see that the King's journey started in Worcester, where he had just been defeated in battle, and ended far away on England's south coast, in Shoreham.
Charles II ascended the throne upon the death of his father, Charles I. His demise came about thanks to the Parliamentarians. They tried the King for treason and executed him outside his Palace of Whitehall in London on January 30, 1649. To this day, the original palace section from which he was brought out and beheaded remains. There is an irony that opposite that place, Horse Guards is protected by the Household Cavalry, the men and women who guard the executed King's descendant, HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Charles I's death and the consequent inheritance of the throne by his son, Charles II, meant that the new King had a target on his back. This danger meant a continuation of the war between Parliamentarians and Royalists, the English Civil War. When that came to a close, a fabulously exciting story of its own, the King needed to escape; he had lost, and his enemies wanted their man dead. Oliver Cromwell's position as Lord High Protector, which he would assume from 1653, would exist under threat with the defeated King alive.
The initial stage of the King's improbable journey began in Worcester on September 3, 1651. And it is here we first examine the Monarch's Way.
It was a Wednesday, and the King had just observed his army's defeat in battle. Charles' plan, aided by a group of officers, was to make for Wales and then find a way overseas to France. One of the men assisting the King, Charles Giffard, owned property along their intended route, so the group made their way to it.
Today, the route through Worcester takes in most of the city's essential sights, many of which were built before the King traversed over 350 years ago. So, when you walk alongside the river or the cathedral, you have the opportunity of considering the King's own vision as he travelled.
Worcester is accessible via the M5 motorway or by train from Birmingham or southern cities such as Oxford.
Wales-bound, Charles' evasion from capture saw him run into a dead-end along the route. His initial plans of making it out of Britain by Wales had to be deserted. So the King and his party headed further inland around the Midlands, taking a route in-between Wolverhampton and Birmingham as the on-the-run party roamed the countryside.
Alongside the uniformed men of Cromwell's army hunting him down, a hefty bounty had been put on the King's arrest – no less than £1000. This meant nobody, unconditionally, could be trusted. Charles was willing to do anything to survive, including things that you might never expect a King to do. As his escape unfolded, the man chosen by God to be Sovereign of England disguised himself as a peasant. He took to hiding in damp nooks and crannies anywhere he could find them. He made his fellow escapees concoct a story that placed him as their servant if they were stopped and questioned.
A more famous instance of this ditching of princely behaviour came when King Charles hid from a passing search party in the bark of an oak tree.
In 2016, there were 467 pubs in Great Britain named after this extraordinary incident – The Royal Oak.
The original tree is long gone, destroyed over 200 years ago because of damage from 17th-century tourists. One too many branches were pulled off as souvenirs. Today, a replacement assumes the spot at Boscobel Farm, Shropshire.
Another popular area along the Monarch's Way is the swooping right curve around the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon. The route is visible on the map below.
This section is especially well signposted and, from distinct points, provides stunning views over the country-scape and the town of Shakespeare's birth. In fact, the route passes the burial location of the great English writer, who would have already been dead for 35 years. Another excellent vantage point is from the Greenway, South of Stratford-upon-Avon town. The actual Monarch's Way follows the River Avon out of the town, past William Shakespeare's grave (which is inside the Holy Trinity Church and viewable in exchange of a small fee) and picks up the Greenway at the point in which the river and disused railway line cross. This section of the route is very close to the town's racecourse, so, if you time your visit appropriately, you can enjoy both the opportunity to walk in the steps of the fleeing King and see some royal sport.
Stratford-upon-Avon can be reached via the M40 or by train from Birmingham or Leamington Spa.
Ahead of arriving in the area, the King and his small company of collaborators passed through Bromsgrove. Due to an emergency, a short break was commenced thanks to a horse needing to be reshod. Later along the road, the party was intercepted by a party of unwitting Cromwellian soldiers.
The brother of the late Princess of Wales, Diana – Charles Spencer – is an authority on King Charles II. In 2018, his book, To Catch A King, detailed the dangerous adventure Charles II undertook while on the run after the Battle of Worcester.
In one chapter, Earl Spencer described how close Charles came to apprehend on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon. He revealed that the King even exchanged words with his enemies while disguised as a mere servant.
The party resumed its journey. At Wootton, just short of Stratford-upon-Avon, they could make out ahead of them a troop of Parliamentary cavalry, the men dismounted, the horses chewing grass. John Petre [a member of the King's escape party] panicked, revealing to the others that the enemy had roughed him up on more than one occasion, and that he would not suffer the same treatment again. With Petre refusing to ride on, Charles quietly pleaded with Jane Lane [another member of the King's group] to persuade all the party to continue on their way together, otherwise he was afraid that the enemy would become suspicious, and ride to see why some of their number had suddenly turned to avoid them. It was all in vain: the Petres separated from the group, and rode off in a different direction to Stratford-upon-Avon. Fortunately for the King, the cavalrymen proved more interested in making the most of their break than in investigating the splitting up of a small knot of travellers. Maybe it was because Charles's group had women in its number. Jane, Charles and Lascelles passed through the enemy unit, exchanging pleasantries, and were able to carry on without any further excitements. They safely reached the home of Jane's cousins John and Amy Tombes in Long Marston, where they were to spend the night. It had already been decided that they would not share Charles's identity with their hosts. He was introduced as the servant William Jackson, and was sent to lend a hand to the household staff.
On from Long Marston, which is due South of Stratford-upon-Avon, the King and his party moved further down through England, passing Cirencester towards Bristol where it was considered the King might escape by boat. Alas, this was not the case.
The royal party's approach to Bristol was from the East, as seen on the map below. At this point, Charles II was almost two weeks into his disguised attempts of escape and would be, unbeknown, on the run for a further month.
The section of the Monarch's Way through the centre of Bristol mostly follows the River Avon. It passes Brunel's SS Great Britain before heading out of the city to the South.
Briston sits on both the M4 and M5 and has excellent train links from London and Cardiff.
Somewhat of a headache lay in store for the King during the next three weeks, a stretch that saw him traverse around the southeast region of England, west of Waymouth, taking in places such as Charmouth and West Bay. Today, you can take advantage of many beautiful destinations near the Monarch's Way in the area, including the Jurassic Coast and Chesil Beach. Train links include London and Bournemouth or via A roads from the M27 motorway through the New Forest.
The group was, as before, looking for passage by sea abroad, but each close attempt of secret escape came to nothing. Eventually, the group decided their luck in the region was failing. They needed to head east.
For those interested in experiencing this section of the Monarch's Way, plenty of opportunities exist. The route passes through or near Yeovil, Winchester, Waterlooville, and eventually enters its final segment at Brighton.
In the closing days of the King's 1661 adventure, members of his party continued to carefully engage local boatsmen over the much-needed passage to France. Things were getting increasingly urgent, so much that by the time the King did succeed in getting away at Shoreham, Cromwell's men arrived in the town just two hours after.
The individuals approached over providing a passage to France were unaware of the precious cargo they would, either knowingly or not, be in charge of once at sea. The £1000 bounty over the King's head remained; anybody and everybody had to be viewed with mistrust. Perhaps this is why the King's men struggled so hard to find a suitable and willing boatsman so continuously throughout their weeks on the run. They had failed at Bristol, at Salisbury, and now, their eggs were all in one Brighton-shaped basket.
According to Earl Spencer's book, a man called Tattersall provided the means for the King's escape at this advanced stage. Still, he was steadfast in his requirement of payment by way of a bond. The man was described as not faltering in any shyness around such a demand.
Earl Spencer dealt with those final moments of the long six-week endeavour of vestige.
The King and Wilmot said farewell to their companions and went with Tattersall, Colonel Gunter and Robert Swan to Shoreham. It turned out that their 'ship' was actually a small coal barge – the King estimated that she was not above sixty tons. She had a crew of just four men (we know one was named Thomas Tuppon, and that a Richard Carver was her master), and a boy. She was lying with her hull in the mud, because the tide was out. Wilmot and Charles bid farewell to Colonel Gunter and to Swan, and scaled a ladder onto the ship, making for a small cabin which they stayed in while the tide began to rise. The King found a bunk there, and rested in it.
Nevertheless, Earl's Spencer's book described an exchange between the King and Tattersall, which implied the passenger's secret identity was, by the time of the boat's departure, known to the boatsman...
Suddenly Tattersall entered the cabin, kissed Charles's hand, and professed his complete loyalty, as well as his determination to get him safely to France. At seven there was enough water for the ship to pass out of Shoreham. She set off towards the Isle of Wight, as if on her approved route to Poole. Gunter waited on the shore with the horses in case anything went wrong. 'At eight o'clock I saw them on sail,' he would recall, 'and it was the afternoon before they were out of sight. The wind (O Providence!) held very good till next morning to ten o'clock.' His job was done, but he did learn of one last drama: 'I was not gone out of the town two hours, but soldiers came thither to search for a tall black man, 6 foot and 2 inches high.' But the King was gone.
The final map below details the Monarch's Way's through Brighton and along the seafront to Shoreham – the end section of his long, 579-mile journey to safety. Brighton sits at the end of the A23 or can be reached via train from London Victoria or London Bridge stations.
The King reached France, where, until 1660, he remained in exile.
His return, known as the Restoration of the Monarchy, marked the start of a period that included introducing the New Model Army. In 1660, Charles II formed the Household Cavalry, and in it were placed men who had aided the King in his escape, 9 years earlier. The Household Cavalry, therefore, remains the most senior regiment of the British Army.
To Catch A King, by Charles Spencer, was published by 4th Estate in 2017 and is available in all good bookshops / Kindle.
Thanks to Mike 'Walking Englishman' Brockhurst for the extensive use of his Monarch Way maps. More information available at www.walkingenglishman.com/ldp/monarchsway.html
Many of us have turned to walks in our neighbourhoods to keep ourselves fit and in shape during lockdown while keeping to the Government guidelines on daily exercise in our local area. We also know that many of us love the history of our local area that feeds into the fabric of the places where we live – not least the military history that helps keep alive the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Our Doorstep Histories series explores the hidden and not-so-hidden armed forces’ history in towns, villages and cities across the country.
In this series, we have started with a few Doorstep Histories of our own – but we want to hear from you too … what military history is on your doorstep, in your neck of the woods?
It may be a place you wander past on a daily basis, a place where you go to reflect for Remembrance, or it may be part of your favourite walk that includes sites of battles, monuments, statues, memorials, or remnants of operations or defences during the Second World War, or even sites that form today’s armed forces – walks near the dockyards, bases, training grounds that you can see on your local wanders.
Tell us your doorstep histories and we will try to include some of them in our series.
You can email us at [email protected] and let us know some of the military history on your doorstep that captures your imagination on a local walk.