The defeat of Charles II by Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651 set off one of the most astonishing episodes in British history, writes Gillian Bagwell, Charles’s desperate six-week flight to reach safety in France, which came to be known as the Royal Miracle because he narrowly eluded discovery and capture so many times.
Charles had been forced to flee England in 1646 during the Civil War and had lived in exile since then, bouncing between France, Holland, and Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of France. When his father, Charles I, was executed in 1649, he had no country to rule, as England was in the hands of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. But in 1650, Scotland offered an army to help him take back his throne, and he readily agreed, hoping that Royalists in England would rally to his cause.
The 21-year-old Charles marched across the border into England on August 8, 1651 at the head of a mostly Scottish army and was proclaimed king at Penrith and Rokeby. But Carlisle did not surrender to his call and he failed to gain as many English supporters as he had hoped. By the time he and his exhausted troops limped into Worcester on August 22, he had lost many men to desertion. Cromwell’s New Model Army, which was converging on Worcester, outnumbered the Royalist forces almost two to one and had an overwhelming superiority in artillery.
“A crown or a coffin”
Charles began the morning of September 3 atop Worcester Cathedral, surveying the landscape and the Parliamentary troops approaching from the south. He and his supporters knew that all their hopes rested on that day, and Charles thought that for him, the outcome would be “a crown or a coffin.”
Their bloody rout by the Roundheads ended the Royalist cause. Once Charles had been convinced that the best he could do was survive, he fled as his supporters made a last ferocious stand, and legendarily dashed out the back door of his lodgings as the enemy entered at the front, slipping out the last unguarded city gate.
From that disastrous night until he finally sailed for France from Shoreham near Brighton on October 15, he was on the run, sheltered and aided by dozens of people—mostly simple country folks and minor gentry—who not only could have earned the enormous reward of £1,000 offered for his capture, but risked their lives to help the fugitive king, who had been proclaimed a traitor.
One of Charles’s companions during his flight from Worcester on September 3 was the Earl of Derby, who had recently been sheltered at a house called Boscobel in Shropshire. He suggested that the king might hide there until he could find a way out of England.
The king as servant
Jane Lane, a young woman of about 25 years old, lived at Bentley Hall in Staffordshire, not far from Boscobel. She became involved in the king’s flight because she had a pass allowing her and a manservant to travel the hundred miles to visit a friend near Bristol—a major port where the king might board a ship. Her brother, Colonel John Lane, had served under Charles’s companion Lord Wilmot, who was with him and trying desperately to get him to safety.
In a story that sounds like something out of fiction, Charles disguised himself as Jane’s servant, and Jane rode pillion (sitting sidesaddle behind him while he rode astride) along roads traveled by cavalry patrols searching for Charles, through villages where the proclamation describing him and offering a reward for his capture was posted, and among hundreds of people who, if they recognized him, had every reason to turn him in and none—but loyalty to the outlawed monarchy—to help him.
It was an improbable scheme. Charles was six feet two inches tall and very dark complexioned, not at all common looking for an Englishman of that time. And yet time after time he rode right under the noses of Roundhead soldiers without being recognized. He narrowly eluded discovery and capture so many times that the whole event eventually became known as the Royal Miracle.
He was in grave danger of capture and death throughout his 600-mile journey (which can be recreated by following the Monarch’s Way footpath, click also on picture to enlarge), but the experience was strongly formative. After his restoration to the throne he told the story frequently for the rest of his life, and the hardships he endured gave him an understanding of the common people such as no other king had had.
Gillian’s second novel, The September Queen, the first fictional accounting of the story of Jane Lane and her perilous and romantic odyssey with Charles II, was published in the U.S. in 2011 and will be released in the U.K. on July 19, 2012 under the title The King’s Mistress.
To learn more about Gillian’s books visit gillianbagwell.com. Her blog Jane Lane and the Royal Miracle theroyalmiracle.blogspot.com recounts her adventures researching the book and the daily episodes in Charles’s escape.
See also summary of the Popish Plot which took place during Charles’ reign.